Teacher licensure system needs overhaul

Less emphasis on courses, more on class work

TEACHER LICENSURE IN the Commonwealth is a time-consuming, complex system, costing millions of dollars each year, and it is in need of reform.

Massachusetts offers 47 different kinds of teacher licenses, depending on subject area and grade level. Each of these licenses comes in four levels, mostly based on a teacher’s experience. There are up to five alternative pathways to earning certain licenses and many teachers need to hold more than one. Over 20,000 new licenses are issued each year by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), including about 6,000 “professional” licenses, which are required for career teachers.

Professional licenses must be renewed every five years and there is an average of 18,000 such renewals annually. The typical path to professional licensure is to acquire a master’s degree which costs, for example, close to $15,000 at a state university. To renew a professional license, which is required every five years, teachers must participate in at least 150 hours of professional development, much of which they pay for themselves.  DESE spends over $2 million per year to administer this licensure system, mostly funded by fees that educators pay for the service.

Unfortunately, teacher certification does not guarantee successful outcomes for students, the goal of our educational system. A big part of the problem is that licensing systems, including ours, rely too heavily on course-taking and seat-time. Improved teacher quality, however, is more likely the result of customized on-the-job training, coaching, and mentoring to give teachers the hands on support they deserve to grow professionally and be effective in the classroom.

Rather than continue to force teachers to accumulate training certificates, course credits, and graduate degrees, we should instead move toward a licensing system that minimizes barriers to entry for new teachers and bases professional status on a more direct assessment of effectiveness in the classroom. Such an approach would not only save time and money (both for new teachers and state bureaucracies), but it would also likely open doors of opportunity to a more diverse corps of teachers.

First-time teachers should still be required to hold a relevant bachelor’s degree, along with a passing score on the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure exams in the subjects they plan to teach. At the same time, schools that employ new teachers should be required to provide systematic supports, including regular observation, coaching, and mentorship, both to provide opportunities for professional growth and to ensure that students are being well served. This is not all that different from the current prerequisites for a “preliminary” license.

In order to receive or renew a professional license, teachers should be evaluated on their demonstrated classroom competencies and actual work products (lesson plans, for example), along with samples of student assignments and indicators of learning gains. Such evaluations should be conducted independently by organizations or personnel approved by the state, who are not employed by a teacher’s school or district, to ensure objectivity and fairness. Massachusetts is already using third-party competency-based assessment on a small scale to evaluate teacher skill in alignment with state-approved “standards of teaching,” so this approach is both possible and practical.

While there is great value in schools of education and professional development providers, streamlining the teacher certification should result in aspiring and active teachers earning credits and degrees because doing so improves their practice and opens up new career opportunities, not just because they are required for a license.

Meet the Author
As with any significant reform, the details matter – and working with our public school stakeholders is critical to this process. The current system needs to be simplified, both to save time and money, and to focus on what actually matters for student learning and teacher effectiveness.

James Peyser is the state secretary of education.