States purport to use teacher relicensure to maintain educator quality and facilitate professional development. Yet according to a recent New America report by Melissa Tooley and Taylor White, they are falling short of that goal.

After examining standard license renewal policies in all fifty states and D.C., as well as conducting informal interviews with teacher certification personnel, the analysts grouped states into two groups. The first, comprising a dozen states, require educators to create professional growth plans (PGPs), wherein they identify personal growth goals and plans to achieve them, and then document their progress. Tooley and White believe these to be more teacher-focused and more likely to fulfill the purpose of teacher relicensure. The policies in the thirty-eight other states and D.C. do not mention PGPs. Yet regardless of the greater potential in the first group, they generally found systems in both to be lacking. And even when policies seemed sound in theory, they found them to be mostly ineffective in practice.

Take, for example, “continuing education,” the most common element of relicensure policies, which exists in forty-four states. Teachers fulfill this requirement through myriad avenues, such as higher education coursework and varying levels of professional development (PD). But they are rarely specific to teachers’ day-to-day work, like in Delaware where only half of required PD hours must be related to a teacher’s individual work. And most states measure professional development in hours accrued rather than skills obtained for improvement. Thus many educators can achieve relicensure merely by accumulating hours of potentially ineffective training unrelated to personal improvement.

Worse, states’ use of Tooley and White’s preferred policy—professional growth plans—is usually poor. In theory, PGPs are meant to facilitate tailored, relevant professional development and provide administrators with evidence of personal growth. In practice, however, they often fall short of that ideal. Ten of the twelve PGP-wielding states require teachers to align professional growth goals with evaluations, but very few of them have supports for either. And documentation of learning activities meant to bring out this improvement is rarely tied to specific proof of it. In Kansas, for example, teachers are not even required to establish these links; they are just rewarded extra points if they do.

To fix these widespread problems, Tooley and White recommend that states restructure their teacher relicensure policies to truly and demonstrably reflect individual learning and growth. Policies should ensure that teachers participate in PD and learning opportunities that provably lead to growth, and then they ought to require evidence of that improvement before relicensure is granted. One way to do this is to pair professional growth plans with implementation supports by, among other things, offering exemplars of strong development activities and training for administrators to help them guide and evaluate teachers’ progress.

To be sure, challenges will always exist. Relicensure can be an important tool to maintain teacher quality, but doing it right is time-consuming for everyone involved, as well as costly for cash-strapped school systems. It also requires leaders to forgo easier paths on which they are not responsible for terminations and instead do what is in students’ best interest. If more chose to do so, this report could help.

Source: Melissa Tooley and Taylor White, “Rethinking Relicensure: Promoting Professional Learning Through Teacher Licensure Renewal Policies,” New America (August 2018).

Sophie Sussman was a research intern with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (2018–19), during which time she had been pursuing a master's degree in education policy at the George Washington University. She also has a bachelor's degree in early childhood education (PreK–Grade 5) from the University of Georgia. Sophie's interests include curriculum, teacher quality and assessment as a basis of ensuring high quality education…

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