The state should ensure elementary teacher candidates possess sufficient subject-matter knowledge for the elementary classroom by requiring passage of a rigorous content test that provides individual subscores for each core academic subject. This goal has been revised since 2017.
Content Test Requirements: Wisconsin's new elementary license is referred to as the elementary and middle school license, and it authorizes teachers to provide instruction to students in grades K-9.
Under Wisconsin's new licensing structure, candidates for the state's Tier II license (which is the state's initial license) have the following options for demonstrating content knowledge:
Test Requirement www.ets.org/rpaxis Wisconsin Administrative Code PI 34.040; 31.021(1)(c); and 31.045
Require all elementary teacher candidates to pass a subject-matter test designed to ensure sufficient content knowledge of all subjects.
Wisconsin should require both a rigorous elementary content test as a condition of initial certification and separate, meaningful passing scores for each discrete subject-area on the test. Relevant higher-level coursework provides the foundation for requisite content knowledge, but to ensure that teacher candidates possess sufficient subject-matter knowledge for the elementary classroom, Wisconsin should require all teacher candidates to pass a rigorous test. Doing so will help to ensure that every student is taught by a teacher with adequate subject-matter knowledge.
Wisconsin recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis.
2A: Elementary Content Knowledge
Elementary teachers need liberal arts coursework that is relevant to the preschool through grade 6 classroom. College- and career-readiness standards, adopted by nearly all states, represent an effort to significantly raise expectations for the knowledge and skills American students will need for post-high school success and global competitiveness. However, many states' policies fail to ensure that elementary teacher candidates will have the subject-area knowledge to teach to these standards. Even when states specify liberal arts requirements for teacher candidates, the regulatory language can be quite broad, alluding only minimally to conceptual approaches such as "quantitative reasoning" or "historical understanding." Another common but inadequate approach that states take is to specify broad curricular areas like "humanities" or "physical sciences." A humanities course could be a general overview of world literature—an excellent course for a prospective elementary teacher—but it could also be "Introduction to Film Theory." Likewise, a physical science course could be an overview of relevant topics in physics, chemistry, and astronomy, or it could focus exclusively on astronomy and fail to give a teacher candidate an understanding of the basic concepts of physics. Too few states' requirements distinguish between the value gained from a survey course in American history, such as "From Colonial Times to the Civil War," and an American history course such as "Woody Guthrie and Folk Narrative in the Great Depression."
In addition to the common-sense notion that teachers ought to know the subjects they teach, research supports the benefits to be gained by teachers being broadly educated. Teachers who are more literate—who possess richer vocabularies—are more likely to be effective. Some states still require that elementary teacher candidates major in elementary education, with no expectation that they be broadly educated. Others have regulatory language that effectively requires the completion of education coursework instead of liberal arts coursework by mandating only teaching methods courses in subject areas without also requiring content-based coursework in the areas themselves.
Standards-based programs can work when verified by testing. Many states no longer prescribe specific courses or credit hours as a condition for teacher candidates to qualify for a license. Instead, they require teacher candidates to complete an approved program that meets state-specific standards or standards set forth by accrediting bodies and leave it at that. The advantage of this "standards-based" approach is that it grants greater flexibility to teacher preparation programs regarding program design.
However, a significant disadvantage is that the standards-based approach is far more difficult to monitor or enforce. While some programs respond well to the flexibility, others do not. Standards are important but essentially meaningless absent rigorous tests to ensure that teacher candidates have met them. Not all states that have chosen the standards-based approach have implemented such tests. In their absence, verifying that teacher preparation programs are teaching to the standards requires an exhaustive review process of matching every standard with something taught in a course. This approach is neither practical nor efficient. Tests of broad subject matter or tests that require only a passing composite do not offer a solution, given that it is possible to pass without necessarily demonstrating knowledge in each subject area. For instance, on many tests of teacher content knowledge, a passing score may be possible while answering every chemistry question incorrectly.
Mere alignment with student learning standards is not sufficient. Another growing trend in state policy is to require teacher preparation programs to align their instruction with the state's student learning standards, and this is likely to increase with the introduction of new college- and career-readiness standards. In many states, this alignment exercise is the only factor considered in deciding the content to be delivered to elementary teacher candidates. Alignment of teacher preparation with student learning standards is an important step but by no means the only one. For example, a program should prepare teachers in more than just the content that the state expects of its fourth graders. Also critical is moving past alignment and deciding the broader set of knowledge a teacher needs to be able to effectively teach fourth grade. The teacher's perspective must be both broader and deeper than what he or she will actually teach.
An academic concentration enhances content knowledge and ensures that prospective elementary teachers take higher-level academic coursework. Few states require prospective elementary teachers to major or minor in an academic subject area. Consequently, in most states these teachers can meet subject-matter requirements without taking any advanced-level coursework. At minimum, states should require a concentration in an academic area. In addition to deepening subject-matter knowledge in a particular area, building this concentration into elementary education programs ensures that prospective teachers complete academic coursework on par with peers earning bachelor's degrees in other areas.
A concentration also provides a fallback for education majors whose programs deem them unready for the classroom. In most education programs, virtually all coursework is completed before candidates begin student teaching. The stakes are high once student teaching begins: if a candidate cannot pass, he or she cannot meet requirements for a major or graduate. This may create a perverse incentive for programs to set low standards for student teaching and/or pass candidates whose clinical experience is unsatisfactory. If they were required to have at least an academic concentration, candidates who failed student teaching could still complete a degree with minimal additional coursework.