Does teacher certification stymie innovation?

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Mar 3, 2016

One of the dominant recommendations for improving the quality of the teaching profession is to make teacher licensure requirements more rigorous. Proponents of this strategy argue that if the licensure requirements for becoming a teacher were more like those for a lawyer (three years of post-bachelor’s study in law school followed by passing a rigorous one- or two-day bar exam) or doctor (four years of post-bachelor’s study in medical school, three to seven years of medical residency, and passing a rigorous two-day medical board exam), then such requirements would elevate the quality of the teaching force by ensuring that only the best and the brightest go into teaching.

The problem with efforts to improve the quality of the teaching profession by creating more rigorous licensure requirements is that licensure requirements can often become barriers for innovation. They enshrine in policy a set of approaches for developing the teacher workforce at the exclusion of other potentially valuable approaches. Below are three examples.

  • A few teacher preparation programs, such as the Relay Graduate School of Education and Western Governors University, have decided to award degrees to teacher candidates based on the demonstrated mastery of teaching competencies, rather than on the completion of required courses. But in doing so, these programs face the burden of converting their students’ competency-based transcripts into credit-hours in order to satisfy teacher licensure requirements.
  • When Larry Rosenstock was working to launch the first High Tech High charter school with a project-based curriculum, he determined that many of the teachers should be industry experts, such as PhD-level engineers and accomplished artists. But just before the school opened, a new state law requiring charter schools to hire only teachers with state-issued licenses threatened to block his plans because the industry experts he was looking to hire did not have teaching licenses.
  • Teacher residency programs have emerged as a promising alternative to traditional university-based teacher preparation programs. The philosophy underpinning their approach is that effective teacher preparation needs to be rooted in classroom-based practices. But often residents must simultaneously complete a university-based teacher preparation program because of the requirements of state licensure laws.

My point in listing these examples is not to argue that their teachers are superior to those trained in traditional settings, but rather to point out that experimentation with new approaches is encumbered when state teacher licensure requirements dictate the allowable forms of teacher preparation. Some might say in response that alternative teacher certification laws are already intended to allow for these types of innovations in teacher preparation. But in reality, most alternative certification routes generally allow only for alternative sequencing of teacher preparation requirements while requiring prospective teachers to still jump through all the same hoops. Looking to the future, as schools leverage blended learning to re-imagine teachers’ roles, there will likely be an even greater need for new experiments and approaches to teacher preparation

The case for elevating the teaching profession through more rigorous teacher licensure requirements would make sense if there were a proven best way for preparing new teachers and operating schools. But in a world in which we are still looking for better approaches to teacher preparation and better instructional models, we need to be careful that licensure requirements do not prematurely constrain experimentation and innovation.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.