TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Gambling with children’s futures—and no one’s tracking whether we win or lose

See all posts

A glance at any news headlines makes clear that two concerns dominate the education field: students' learning loss and teacher shortages, both exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. In response, many states are proposing—or have already enacted—policies to open the gates to teaching and allow nearly anyone to earn a teaching license, regardless of knowledge or skill. Effective teachers are the most important in-school factor for improving student learning, so lowering the bar for entry into the classroom is essentially gambling with children's futures. To make matters worse, almost no one is tracking the impact these policy decisions have on student learning and how they perpetuate educational inequity for students of color and those living in poverty.

Why are policymakers making it easier for people to become teachers? These gambits are grounded in two assumptions: first, that schools need more teachers. Second, the idea that some of the guardrails for entry, like passing a licensure test on which teachers have to demonstrate knowledge of the content they will teach, are not related to teacher effectiveness. So, they say, dropping the licensure tests won't make a difference for student outcomes. In some states, a third assumption is at play: students need more teachers of color, and the argument goes, these guardrails disproportionately keep aspiring teachers of color out of the workforce.

NCTQ has written about this topic before, highlighting that research from the last three decades shows licensure tests are predictive of teachers' effectiveness in the classroom; and, importantly, that lowering the standards for entry perpetuates the myth that racial diversity and teacher quality are incompatible goals. Knowing the subjects teachers are teaching matters quite a lot—on this, the field strongly agrees.

While NCTQ has called for strengthening state policy and teacher prep programs to support all prospective teachers to succeed, states are instead still making choices to drop licensure requirements—with few provisions for measuring the impact.

Florida recently passed HB1, and part of this bill is that prospective teachers don't have to pass a test where they are required to demonstrate knowledge of the subjects they will teach, so long as they have a master's degree. And, based on our read of the bill, it only seems to matter that the institution an aspiring teacher attended offers a degree (even at the baccalaureate level) in the subject in which they will be certified; the candidate's masters degree doesn't have to actually be in that subject. If this is how the bill plays out, it has created a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.

In Minnesota, there are a few different efforts underway to drop requirements for teacher candidates (though neither has yet been signed into law): Bill HF1257 and SF619 both propose removing the requirement that to earn the state's full professional continuing license, applicants must earn a passing score on required licensure exams (including exams of content knowledge and reading instruction). Instead, the bills require only that a teacher completed a board-approved teacher prep program and required coursework.

Wisconsin is considering removing the requirement for the Foundations of Reading test (one of the strongest licensure tests of knowledge of scientifically based reading instruction in the country) and instead allowing applicants to show their knowledge of scientifically based reading instruction through a portfolio. It's unclear whether there has been any discussion at all about how to accurately and fairly design and assess these portfolios—or the logistics, such as cost.

While these policies focus on easing the way for teachers, it's important to keep in mind who will be most affected: students. Making matters worse, numerous studies find that the students who are most likely to have novice teachers—those teachers who, under this new legislation, enter the classroom without having proven that they know their subjects, or know how to teach reading—are students of color and students living in poverty.735 So the students who need the most support are being assigned disproportionately to teachers who are least prepared and least qualified to serve their needs, worsening educational inequities.

If states are going to make these changes, then at the very least, they should come with a plan to evaluate the outcomes. Nearly every evaluation of the predictiveness of licensure tests looks at teachers who almost all ultimately passed their exams. This wave of legislation presents an opportunity for a natural experiment, looking at the outcomes associated with teachers who did or did not take or pass their exams. There's a whole set of pragmatic and policy questions to pose:

  • These provisions largely intend to ease entry into the field. Do more teachers enter the profession when requirements for entry are lower?
  • Most importantly, which students are impacted most by these policies? Do the teachers who opt for portfolios rather than licensure tests end up in some schools and not others?
  • What is the impact on teacher demographics?
  • How effective are these teachers—across a range of measures (student learning gains, evaluation ratings, principal survey data, student survey data, etc)?
  • What do retention rates for these teachers look like, and how do they compare to teachers who had met earlier standards?

Some states are leading the way in assessing the consequences of changed or lowered standards for entry. Texas tracked the results of temporarily suspending licensure test requirements for some teachers and ultimately elected to put the requirements back in place. Just this week, Massachusetts researchers released a report that describes the influence of the emergency license—a policy invoked during the pandemic—on the composition of the state's teacher labor force, comparing the cohort of emergency-licensed teachers to those traditionally-licensed. The authors found that teachers who enter on emergency licenses are more racially diverse, and retention rates were similar across license-types; they have plans to track teacher effectiveness in coming months. The state is also assessing alternatives to the current licensure test.

These decisions about who should be allowed and trusted to teach should not be made lightly—and they should also not be made permanently without convincing evidence of their efficacy, especially if we seek to dismantle inequitable teacher quality and assignment patterns. If states are going to lower standards for entering teaching, then they must simultaneously evaluate the impact, especially on students who have already suffered great losses before, during, and after the pandemic. Rather than simply gambling with students' lives (because teachers matter immensely), we need to evaluate outcomes to determine who wins, who loses, and by how much.