The Ohio Senate recently passed Senate Bill 3 (SB 3), legislation focused on “deregulation,” and sent it on to the House. The bill would allow high-performing districts to be exempt from certain state regulations. Judging from the testimony presented, the most controversial provisions dealt with teacher licensure.
SB 3 gives high-performing school districts two pieces of flexibility around teacher licensure. First, it allows qualifying districts to choose not to require its teachers be licensed in the grade levels they teach (though the bill maintains that a teacher must hold a license in the subject area they teach). Second, it allows these high-performing districts to hire teachers who don't hold an educator license but are instead qualified based on experience. Senate President Faber has argued that these provisions expose students to high-quality teachers they might not encounter otherwise—a retired math professor who wants to teach high school students, for instance. Opponents object to allowing unlicensed teachers into classrooms because important skills like behavior management and writing lesson plans aren’t necessarily intuitive, and their absence could outweigh the benefit of content knowledge and experience. This debate raises some important questions: Does teacher licensure matter? And is there evidence that supports one side of the debate over the other?
The answer to the second question depends largely on the answer to the first. There are studies that support teacher licensure and studies that devalue it. A 2003 summary of ninety-two research studies on teacher preparation perfectly illustrates the competing evidence. The summary finds that, in addition to strong content knowledge, knowledge of how to teach a particular subject is important. On the other hand, the summary also finds that while preparation in pedagogy contributes to effective teaching, it is unclear whether that preparation is best acquired through college coursework, field experiences, or on-the-job learning. A 2008 study of New York City teacher qualifications and their effect on student achievement found that improvements in teacher qualifications, especially in poor schools, seem to have resulted in improved student achievement. A different study demonstrates that private school students of fully certified teachers do not outperform students of private school teachers who are not certified.
Meanwhile, a brief out of Indiana University asserts that teachers who are fully certified through traditional teacher education programs have a more significant positive impact on student outcomes than teachers who are not. In contrast, a 2009 study found that Teach For America (TFA) corps members (most of whom are not trained via traditional teacher education programs) were significantly more effective than other new teachers in math, science, reading, and English language arts. The data further suggest that they are more comparable to experienced certified teachers than new teachers in terms of effectiveness. (You can find other studies on Teach For America here). Dan Goldhaber has found similar results from TFA teachers and concluded that there is only a weak link between teacher licensure requirements and student achievement.
Questions about the need and value of teacher licenses, however, are far more nuanced than a simple yes-or-no answer about whether states should require them. Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has written about this complexity. The crux of his argument is this: If licensure ensured mastery of essential knowledge and skills, then it would indeed be an effective gatekeeper for the profession. Unfortunately, licensure (at least in its current form) doesn’t actually ensure mastery. As a result, opening teaching to candidates who are outside the traditional license framework but have mastered essential knowledge and skills is a valid alternative. Hess is quick to acknowledge that not all candidates with "real world" experience are qualified to teach. Instead, he emphasizes the potential of these candidates and advocates judging them on a case-by-case basis rather than turning them away entirely. For example, Hess points out that “allowing someone to apply for a job is not a promise of employment; it simply permits an applicant to be hired if deemed superior to other candidates.” In other words, if policymakers leave hiring decisions up to local leaders, then those leaders should be able to select the candidate who best fulfills the needs of their district or school, regardless of whether this person has a license.
On the other hand, Sandra Stotsky argues for strengthening teacher education programs, coursework, and licensure tests. Stotsky’s new book, An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests, unpacks this argument by pointing out that a stronger licensing system would increase the quality of the teaching force—which, in turn, would raise student achievement. It’s worth noting that Stotsky is uniquely credible on the licensure front: During her time at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she supervised comprehensive revisions to the state’s teacher licensure standards (among other reforms). This experience provides the backdrop for her new book, in which she asserts that changes to the teacher licensing system were just as instrumental to the “Massachusetts education miracle” as high standards and assessments. In short, Stotsky indicates that state policymakers should be revamping the system by increasing the training teachers receive before entering the classroom—not opening the door to professionals who haven’t been formally trained at all.
It is important to remember that SB 3 allows only high-performing districts to hire teachers without traditional licenses. These are the institutions that have proven that they can help their students succeed; it stands to reason that they wouldn’t hire inept teachers that could jeopardize this status. Furthermore, any school or district that slips out of the high-performing category loses its exemption status and must revert back to Ohio’s traditional licensure requirements. Nevertheless, policymakers in the House (where the bill now resides) would be wise to closely examine the viewpoints of Stotsky and Hess as well as the ways Ohio's current teacher licensure policies could be improved.