Ohio has been a hotbed of education reform in recent years, but two policy areas remain mostly virgin territory: teacher preparation and licensure. I tackled the former previously; now let’s examine three significant problems with Ohio’s approach to the latter.
1. Lack of content tests for early childhood licenses
According to NCTQ’s 2014 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, Ohio is one of only four states in the nation that doesn’t require all elementary teachers to pass a content test prior to licensure (see here for the Ohio details). A list of required assessments shows that early childhood (PK–3) teachers are only required to pass the Assessment of Professional Knowledge: Early Childhood (which tests pedagogical knowledge) and Early Childhood Education assessments. The second of these tests is intended to assess a candidate’s content mastery, but closer inspection reveals that the only core content with its own, separate part of the test is language and literacy development. Math, social studies, and science content are smaller parts of “Domain III” which itself only accounts for 36 percent of the test. This 36 percent is divided among music, drama, creative movement, dance, visual arts, health, safety, and physical activity in addition to science, math, and social studies. No one is going to argue that language and literacy aren’t important enough to have their own section, but aren’t science, math, and social studies important enough to be separate too?
To put it bluntly, Ohio has no way of knowing if the teachers it places before its youngest students are actually proficient in many of the subjects they teach. Sure, content in the younger grades is less complex than it is at the secondary level, but does that really mean Ohioans don’t want teachers who have demonstrated content mastery? Ohio should require early childhood teacher candidates to take a rigorous test that assesses knowledge of all core academic content. This assessment doesn’t have to be four separate tests: It could be one test made up of four separately graded sections (like the ACT). In Indiana, for example, elementary and early childhood teacher candidates are required to take a content test in each of the four core areas—and earn a passing score on each subtest.
2. Secondary social studies and science licenses
In past years, Ohio teacher candidates have taken Praxis II exams to determine whether they are qualified to receive a teaching license. However, beginning in September 2013, the Ohio Assessments for Educators (OAE) began to replace most Praxis II exams. The new assessments are designed to serve the same purposes as the old: to measure professional, pedagogical, and subject-specific knowledge and skills.
A close look at the required assessments for each license and the content covered on those assessments reveals that a couple of secondary licenses fail to effectively assess teachers’ content mastery. In secondary classrooms, core classes have several different disciplines. For example, in science, students can take physical science, biology, chemistry, or physics courses. Likewise, in social studies, a student can take European history, American history, world history, American government, comparative government, or geography courses. These disciplines are vastly different, and they require vastly different sets of content knowledge in order to be taught effectively. Why, then, does Ohio permit integrated licenses that don't differentiate between disciplines? Tests for specific disciplines are offered, but candidates aren’t required to take a specific discipline test unless they’re applying for a specific discipline’s license.
In other words, if a candidate applies for an integrated science or integrated social studies license, then they take an integrated test—a test that covers a broad swath of content from multiple disciplines instead of one discipline in depth. Based on the OAE integrated social studies exam, a teacher who earns a passing grade has effectively mastered the content of historiography, world history, U.S. history, geography, culture, government, and economics well enough to teach it—after nothing more than a 150-question multiple-choice test. Undoubtedly there are some teachers who have mastered all of that content; but an integrated test won’t differentiate between those who have and those who haven’t.
To be fair, there are issues with discipline-specific licenses that must be considered prior to policy changes. For example, does requiring science and social studies teachers to be licensed in specific content areas limit a school’s ability to find or assign teachers? Should integrated licenses for math and English teachers also be eliminated, potentially opening up the possibility for dozens of unneeded specialty licenses? (Just imagine licenses for journalism, creative writing, yearbook, British literature, American literature, poetry, drama, and so on.) Assessing high school teachers’ content mastery is vitally important—but that assessment must not go overboard.
3. Special education licenses
The 2014 State Teacher Policy Yearbook also points to another area where Ohio must raise the bar: special education licensure. Right now, Ohio law permits one license to be valid for teaching special education children ranging from kindergarten through twelfth grade. There is no specialization for particular grades, meaning that teacher candidates aren’t formally licensed to address the vastly different needs of elementary, middle, and secondary students. Moreover, there is no specialization for particular subjects. In fact, special education teacher candidates aren't required to pass a content test of any kind, meaning there is no guarantee that the teachers who aid some of Ohio’s most struggling students have mastered the content themselves.
The best way to fix this is to eliminate the K–12 special education license and require different licenses for elementary and secondary special education teachers. Furthermore, both elementary and secondary special education teacher candidates (like early childhood candidates) should also be required to demonstrate their content knowledge in the discipline they plan to teach.
While licensure exams may seem trivial in the face of larger teacher preparation and accountability issues, the fact remains that they are vital gateways to ensuring that only the best candidates are permitted to stand in front of Buckeye children. If Ohio hopes to improve scores and the overall quality landscape, then rigorous teacher licensure policies are a good place to start.