Here’s a low-cost strategy that could help address teacher shortages

Concerns about teacher shortages are a prominent feature of today’s educational landscape. While there aren’t shortages across the board, states are clearly hurting when it comes to hiring in some subject areas. The U.S. Department of Education compiled an annual report on teacher shortage areas and in 2017-18, 49 of 50 states reported statewide shortages in at least one subject area.

This raises the concern that hard-pressed schools may increase class sizes or place teachers in subject areas outside of their expertise, and that schools also cannot be as selective in hiring, adversely affecting teacher quality.

Most of the policy debate about ameliorating shortages centers on raising teacher salaries. While there is little doubt that this would help, there is also a lower-cost strategy states could pursue at the same time: make a teaching credential more portable.

All states require that prospective teachers obtain a teaching license, a credential designed to guarantee they have a minimum level of competence before assuming classroom responsibilities.

In most states a credential is earned upon graduating from an in-state accredited teacher education program and passing a series of basic skills and subject-matter exams.

The problem is that, while broadly speaking licensure requirements are similar across the country, each state adopts a somewhat different set of specific requirements.

A consequence of this patchwork of standards is that movement across states is discouraged, particularly once teachers become established in the profession.

In a healthy labor market, workers go where the jobs are. To the extent that workers in a profession are mobile and compensation is competitive, an excess supply of workers in one region can help address a shortage in another.

Moreover, when workers move to a new state, they do not face significant barriers to staying in their chosen professions.

Yet, in the case of the teaching profession, state-specific licensure requirements create a kink in the supply chain. Even seasoned teachers with a track-record of success will often be required to retake a basic skills test, pass a subject-matter examination, or complete additional coursework just to obtain the sort of initial license they held years earlier.

For instance, a special education teacher from California with 13 years of experience cannot simply take a job in Minnesota without, at least in one notable case, being asked to submit college transcripts and completing more student teaching before receiving a credential.

There are past and ongoing efforts to get rid of these inter-state licensure barriers. For instance, legislation was introduced to Congress in 2016 that would authorize the establishment of a program, in which states could voluntarily participate, that would allow teachers licensed in a participating state to be eligible for certification and to apply for jobs in another participating state without completing additional licensure requirements. To date, this legislation been referred to subcommittee, but has not otherwise moved forward. But why has this taken so long? This is not a new problem, just one that is more obvious in the face of teacher shortages.

So, it’s worth asking, “Why make it difficult for teachers to cross state borders?” Policymakers may argue that their state-specific requirements are better than those imposed by other states, but there’s little evidence supporting such claims.

Furthermore, while some may be concerned that the standards in states that have set a relatively high bar would regress under a single standard, keep in mind that licensure is designed to ensure a minimum level of proficiency, and states and school systems have other tools to support high-quality instruction that are far less blunt than licensure.

States likely did not intentionally design their licensure policies with the purpose of discouraging mobility. But the system we have today is one where 50 states are doing roughly the same thing in 50 different ways.

This is not designed in this way because children in one state require a fundamentally different type or quality of teacher than children in another state. It is a consequence of 50 jurisdictions acting independently to establish licensure standards.

Surely states could at least agree to make portability easier for top-tier teacher candidates. States could, for instance, grant a license to anyone who graduates from a teacher education program at a flagship university and demonstrates subject matter knowledge (e.g. with very high SAT or licensure test scores).

This would not only make teaching a more valuable credential for those meeting this high bar, but also help elevate the teaching profession by making it clear that we value academic success.


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