When it comes to teacher quality, do states really matter?

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Of late, I've been holding my own internal debate. Is getting states to change their teacher policies worth all the time and effort that it takes x 50?

For nearly a decade, NCTQ has taken an aggressive stance on the need to fix states' teacher policies and we've had some great successes to boast about. Over that period, all but eight states have made significant improvements to their teacher policies. Yet, I'm still left with a nagging feeling that maybe these impressive changes aren't having the game changing impact on teacher quality we anticipated. There's all too much evidence of their derailment by school districts and teacher preparation programs. 

But I've now encountered new evidence of the harm that even seemingly innocuous state policies have on teacher quality. While state policies will never be the full answer, I've concluded, they must be an essential part of the equation. 

What's that evidence? Last month we released a study looking at an array of essential content and skills that preschool teachers need but aren't learning about in their teacher prep programs, skills like how to handle a disruptive four-year-old or how to build language skills and lay the foundation for learning to read. 

As we dug into why so much essential—and noncontroversial—content was missing from these programs, we hit on an interesting pattern. It turns out that the more grade levels any one prep program tried to cover in teacher training, the less likely a program was to deliver the content preschool teachers need.

This chart explains more. It shows the big variations in grade spans among states for the purpose of certifying teachers. States, after all, don't certify a teacher to only teach first grade but are more likely to certify a teacher to teach any elementary grade. 

In states like Mississippi and West Virginia, the state requires that preschool teachers have to train with only aspiring preschool and kindergarten teachers. Accordingly their coursework is more geared to that specialized content. In other states, however, it is acceptable for a single program to prepare teachers for anything from preschool to grade 6 (Texas) or even birth to grade 6 (Wisconsin), setting the same course requirements for everyone in the program. In Oregon, it is even possible for preschool teachers to train with teachers intending to teach 8th grade! 

It may be tempting to blame this problem all on the universities where the training occurs. After all state officials would be right in claiming that these teacher prep programs could choose to more narrowly train teachers no matter what state code dictates. They rarely do though. It is surely considerably less expensive for a university to manage a one-size-fits-all program over several more narrowly focused programs. 

This is not just a higher ed problem however. Teachers love the flexibility of broad certifications, as they can teach more grades without having to go back to get recertified. Principals and districts love it even more because the staffing flexibility makes scheduling a lot easier.

I'll never forget a conversation I had with some folks running what is largely regarded as one of the best STEM teacher prep programs in the country. They bristled at NCTQ's criticism over the preparation of candidates under the state's highly flawed general science certification. "We're only giving the principals in this state what they want," they asserted. "They only want science teachers who are certified to teach any science. They don't really care that they're not really all that well qualified." 

That brings me to my second point. The only entity that can claim disinterest here is the state and that's often the case. To the state falls the responsibility to do what is right by teachers, because neither higher ed nor schools are apt to work against their own self interests. All of which brings me back to my original concern: what happens even if the state does the right thing? In this case, if Texas, Wisconsin and Oregon (to name a few of the worst offenders) were to adopt more narrowly defined certifications for training preschool teachers, would the problem be fixed? No, but it's the first hurdle. The second hurdle is to get prep programs to change what they teach. A move by the state not only shifts the onus of responsibility to teacher prep programs but it sends an important signal that how we prepare teachers for our young children matters.