Four responsible steps states can take NOW to fill classrooms

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Yet another state is moving at breakneck speed to combat its reported teacher shortages. Alabama's State Board of Education is poised to eliminate many of its licensing exams—ending its requirements that teacher candidates should have to demonstrate that they know their content—believing that this move will reduce teacher vacancies.

Alabama follows on the heels of a number of other states that have also dropped various licensing tests, including California, Delaware, Illinois, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington.

Why are so many states gravitating to this particular strategy? It may be because it's relatively easy for a state board to make happen and looks like a win-win, not only expanding the pool of available teachers, but also improving the number of candidates of color, given that institutions struggle to adequately prepare Black and Latino teacher candidates for licensing tests. In many corners, licensing tests are seen as a pariah, no longer an important, independent check protecting students from poorly qualified teachers, but throwing up roadblocks to teacher diversity. There is little discussion given to how they might be improved—and they surely can be—only that they must go.

It's worth noting that the states that have walked away from their licensing tests did so without first answering a basic question: had these tests, flawed or not, been serving the best interest of their students? Notably, Massachusetts had also played with the idea of eliminating its tests, not just postponing them for a few years, until unpacking clear evidence that students learn more when taught by teachers who do well on these tests, a finding that was equally true in classrooms taught by teachers of color.

Ask classroom teachers what they think about the relevance of these licensing tests to their own teaching effectiveness and there's a clear disconnect with these state actions. While they certainly don't think these tests measure everything that is important about what they do, a substantial majority (79%) find them relevant.

So what are some alternative strategies for filling vacant classrooms? I offer four here that states might not already be contemplating (which is why I did not include "grow your own") and that could be implemented in short order.

1. Most importantly, and before taking any action, states need to better understand their teacher labor market. Document the districts, schools, and subject areas where shortages actually exist. Having concrete evidence of shortages will help states to avoid choosing generic, wholesale solutions when a targeted, retail solution is needed.

2. Use existing state regulatory authority over teacher prep programs to drive up supply.

  • Instead of discarding all entrance requirements for all teachers, use existing emergency provisions. They're temporary as teachers eventually have to fulfill the requirements for full certification. They don't lower standards for the profession, which not only hurts teacher quality but also makes the profession a lot less attractive to talented college students. There doesn't appear to be any evidence that teachers are less likely to take a job if they enter with an emergency status rather than as a fully certified teacher—but that's also a question states could definitively answer if they collected better data!
  • As Louisiana has done, reward institutions that align to workforce needs. Don't renew teacher prep programs that prove to be consistently indifferent to workforce needs, routinely educating many times more elementary teachers than needed and doing little to direct aspiring teachers to areas in greater need.
  • While counterproductive at first blush, consider putting a cap on the number of state licenses available in individual certification areas (e.g., elementary grades), so institutions have some incentive for redirecting candidates to programs servicing high shortage areas. These caps wouldn't constrain institutions (as they could prepare teachers who are willing to move out of state), but it would send a clear signal that the state should not have to subsidize surplus production.

3. Take the blame off candidates for low pass rates on licensing exams. Instead, hold programs accountable for achieving a first-time pass rate in the 70-80% range (which is what other professions report on their professional exams). States might be surprised at how quickly pass rates rise when it is the program, not the candidate, in the hot seat.

  • As the nursing profession began doing some number of years ago and as a new law in New Jersey will require, make sure programs have to post their pass rates on their websites so students have full knowledge of their chances of earning a license.
  • Require institutions to pay any candidate's retest fee if they fail the first time. This strategy alone could reduce the disproportionately high number of test takers of color who decide to walk away after failing the test once.

4. Finally, and most obviously, make smarter use of compensation dollars. Among many approaches:

  • Pay teachers more who will work in shortage areas.
  • Work with bigger districts to eliminate the obstacles that would allow them to "lend out" their teachers to work in rural schools for a two-year stint.

In addition to these four, we cover another novel strategy in this month's issue of the Teacher Quality Bulletin looking at Tennessee's efforts to build out a traditional apprenticeship model for K-12 teachers. There are also some long-term solutions, mostly involving both interstate portability and pensions. For reasons that don't make much sense in the 21st century, states continue to make it very hard for teachers to move freely from one state to another, a problem NASDTEC is committed to improving. Pension systems prevent teachers from moving to another state and they also often incentivize teachers to retire earlier than they might have chosen to do.

Policies reflect our priorities. Given that the threat of teacher shortages too often leads to broad brush solutions that harm teacher quality, it's high time to implement specific and strategic policies to address the issue.