Where Would You Set the Bar on the Teaching Profession?
Or, why we may need a new metaphor...
In my latest piece at The 74, I looked at what happened when states granted waivers to teacher candidates who had not passed their licensure tests or completed their normal training programs.
During the depths of COVID, teacher candidates could not complete the normal student teaching experiences or go in-person to take licensure tests. So states made it temporarily easier to become a teacher and granted “emergency” licenses.
Were these “emergency” teachers worse? The evidence suggests maybe not. As I write in the piece:
Starting June 2020, Massachusetts began temporarily letting anyone with a bachelor’s degree teach. According to data compiled by a team of researchers at Boston University, [in the first year] roughly 5,800 individuals received one of these emergency licenses.
Like other first-year teachers, those granted emergency credentials were disproportionately assigned to work with children with disabilities, English learners and low-income students. And, in fact, they had more such children in their classrooms. Even so, their students saw about the same rate of growth in math and reading as children taught by regularly licensed educators. Because most did not teach tested grades and subjects, the researchers also looked at evaluation ratings. Both groups of teachers received similar marks from their supervisors.
A study by Ben Backes and Dan Goldhaber on emergency-licensed teachers in New Jersey found similar results.
Now, it’s possible that there was something different about the COVID emergency-licensed teachers than the ones who might pursue such a route if it became permanent. I find that plausible, but that says more about the candidates than anything about the training they might have received or the licensure tests they would have needed to pass.
After my piece came out, I’ve gotten pushback from folks who ask me if I would support “lowering the bar” for doctors, lawyers, or pilots. This is a compelling metaphor, at first glance, but once you unpack it it starts to unravel.
Lots of professions have “bars” to entry. Not all of them are good.
Over the last few decades, occupational licensing has become more prevalent in a variety of industries, from education and medicine to cosmetology and interior design. But licensing is not consistent over time or across states, suggesting there’s more art than science to setting barriers to entry. For example, it turns out that states in recent years have been “lowering the bar” to become makeup artists, shampooers, manicurists, and barbers.
At best, licensure requirements could be about ensuring a minimal baseline of safety and quality. But at their worst, they become tools to restrict supply and drive up wages for existing workers. As Matt Yglesias pointed out recently, dentists get paid more if they can prevent dental hygienists from doing more types of dental work. That may be good for dentists, but it drives up prices on all the rest of us, and it’s not really about the quality of dental services.
The pilot example is particularly illustrative. For starters, let me just acknowledge that of course I don’t want to get in a plane flown by an under-qualified pilot. That sounds risky!
But how do we define “under-qualified” pilot? After a 2009 plane crash, Congress increased the number of flight hours from 250 to 1,500 hours that a pilot had to complete before they could get a commercial license.
Nevermind that the cause of the crash had nothing to do with training time—both pilots were well above even the new, higher bar to entry. The new rule put the U.S. out of step with other developed countries—Europe and Canada continue to require the same number of hours as what the U.S. used to. And it’s now a lot harder to become a pilot here in the U.S. Someone who wants to become a commercial pilot might need to spend $250,000 out of their own pocket to rack up sufficient flight time. That has implications for diversity and who can make it through the pipeline and at what personal costs. Employers are now looking for alternative pathways to get pilots into the profession, and the industry is fighting over solutions to pilot shortages.
These issues have parallels to education. But rather than relying on metaphors or cross-sector comparisons, we should be looking at the hard evidence of whether teacher licensing is doing a good job of balancing teacher supply and quality.
Where should states set the bar on the teaching profession?
Put yourself in the shoes of a state policymaker trying to set the right bar for teacher candidates to enter the profession. In general, teacher licensure tests are somewhat predictive of teacher effectiveness in the classroom. If you’re a school leader choosing between two otherwise identical candidates, you’d be better off picking the candidate with the higher licensure score. But what does that mean for policy?
Let’s use a practical example. Consider the graph below from a 2006 paper by Dan Goldhaber. From compares raw Praxis II licensure test scores of teacher candidates, from left to right, the teacher’s effectiveness in math value-added, from top to bottom. The vertical lines in the middle of the graph show two different potential cut points, the one North Carolina used from 1997 to 2000 and Connecticut’s current (at the time) cutoff.
If you were in charge of setting North Carolina’s standard for entry into the teaching profession, should you could “raise the bar” to the level of Connecticut?
If you did so, you would almost certainly be limiting the supply of potential candidates. In this scenario, you’d lose all the candidates in quadrants II V, and VIII.
Is that trade-off worth it? Would the new bar lead to better teachers? Not necessarily. Candidates who made it past the new bar would not necessarily be good teachers (all the dots in quadrants VI and IX). And, you’d also be losing out on people who might have been reasonably effective in the classroom (the dots in quadrants II).
In other words, the question about where to set the bar on the teaching profession is often more about supply than it is about quality. You can see this in recent moves by Alabama, California, and Kentucky to lower the minimum passing score on state licensure tests.
Now, some readers may question the specific licensure tests. After all, the Praxis II is not exactly a hard test. What if we had a better test? Well, we haven’t yet come up with a test that avoids these problems, and these same categorization problems show up on the Praxis I, Praxis II, and the edTPA licensure tests.
When Ashley LiBetti and I wrote about this in 2016, we concluded that the current barriers to entry provided “no guarantees” that someone would actually be a good teacher. The research on the COVID emergency teachers points in the same direction. My suggestion for policymakers is to eliminate barriers to entry, put more of the screening responsibility on schools, where it rightly belongs, and only grant full licenses to teachers who have demonstrated a track record of performance in the classroom. Check out our full report for more on how this could work.
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