How many of you have recently been in an airport? Several times in the past few weeks, my flights have been delayed. The airline staff apologizes and then blames the pilot labor shortage. Travelers shrug and try to be understanding, or perhaps even get angry. Yet no one says, "We need to get more pilots into planes quickly, so let's get rid of licensure requirements for pilots!" No policymakers are exploring options to lower the barrier for entry to become a pilot (or a nurse, another field with staffing challenges). After all, who wants someone who has not demonstrated their knowledge and skills to be trusted with landing the plane? Our lives depend on it.
Teaching is no different. The lives of our children hang in the balance.
Yet again and again in recent weeks, I have heard calls from policymakers to "lower the barriers" for teachers to enter the profession in response to real (or perceived) teacher shortages. Since 2020, we've seen at least 12 states lower requirements to become a fully-certified teacher. (For more on changes to state requirements for elementary content tests, see our recent analysis.) In its worst form, I hear calls for "warm bodies" in classrooms and eliminating licensure tests. The only professions that should be attending to "warm bodies" are morticians and funeral directors. In its best form, policymakers are trying to be responsive to the needs of the families and communities they serve, but this particular approach—lowering the bar for teaching—is one that provides a short-term solution with long-term, widespread harmful side effects.
Teaching is a complicated enterprise that requires deep content knowledge and pedagogical skill. Researchers have estimated teachers make between 1000-1500 decisions per day—or about four decisions per minute on average.507 To be successful, teachers must know the subject matter as well as the science of learning and their individual students. Anyone who has watched elementary math teaching knows how much math content knowledge a teacher needs to diagnose and understand students' misconceptions to effectively teach them math.
Teachers cannot fully support their students' learning if they do not know the content they are teaching.508
Similar to a commercial pilot license test, teacher licensure tests offer a reliable and valid way of confirming aspiring teachers have the content knowledge they need to be effective. Importantly, the majority of research studies exploring the connection between licensure tests and student outcomes found a positive relationship. Licensure tests also provide essential data on candidates, highlighting the areas in which they need support and the quality of preparation provided by teacher preparation programs (as well as the larger institutions within which they sit), and providing a way to identify successful programs and institutions from which we can learn. Certainly test publishers and states must rigorously scrutinize the tests for racial bias and aggressively address it where it exists. But doing away with licensing tests not only eliminates a key guardrail for the profession, it also negates our ability to see where aspiring teachers are most in need of support.
I have been particularly troubled at recent narratives that suggest we need to "lower the bar for entry" by eliminating or reducing licensure test requirements in an attempt to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the teacher workforce. Why are we bifurcating the goals of diversity and quality? How, exactly, will that serve students, who will bear the burden of being taught by teachers who do not know the content? How can we justify that approach as advancing racial equity? Lowering the bar for entry perpetuates the myth that racial diversity is equivalent to less skill. When this action is described as a tool to increase racial diversity, the tacit message is people of color are incapable of meeting standards. This message is untrue and unacceptable. Lowering standards in response to a very real need to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the teaching force ignores the hard work we need to do: analyze our existing institutions to see where we are falling short and where we are making strong progress in preparing, recruiting, supporting, and sustaining teachers of color.
This month, NCTQ released a new report, Digging Deeper: Which Types of Institutions Achieve Excellence and Equity for Aspiring Teachers of Color, in which we highlight teacher prep institutions that achieve racial equity in their licensure pass rates, pointing toward promising practices that others can adopt and proving high pass rates for aspiring teachers of color are entirely achievable. The licensure pass rates gap represents systemic racial inequities perpetuated in our PreK-12 education system and deepened in higher education when there are no systemic interventions and content gaps are left to individual prospective teachers alone to fill.
The snake oil solution—to drop licensure tests altogether—will harm students. Decades of research warns us the students who need the most who will (yet again) be assigned to teachers who are the least qualified, least experienced, and least effective.509
It is incumbent upon states and teacher preparation programs to focus efforts on supporting all prospective teachers, especially those whose PreK-12 education has denied them access to the full content knowledge they will need to be effective teachers, rather than eliminate the spotlight that helps us identify and rectify these systemic inequities. Instead, let's focus on this question of how, specifically, we can best support prospective teachers in their knowledge building. What works, and how do we know it works? How can we replicate these efforts to scale? Let's find creative solutions, like many states have in finding ways to cover licensure test fees, to lower barriers for aspiring teachers without lowering our expectations. What resources do states and teacher preparation programs (and their broader institutions) have available, and what do they need to address this challenge?
We must address these problems with systemic solutions at the state, teacher prep, and district levels. Students' lives depend on it.