Teacher Quality and Teacher Licensure
Improving State Need Assessments of Secondary Science and Mathematics Teachers: Challenges, Possibilities, and Recommendations
Michael B. Allen
In several of the units that comprise this project, we note the ultimate inseparability of the issue of the qualifications of a state’s teacher workforce from the consideration of teacher supply and demand. The demand for secondary science and mathematics teachers, who are the focus of this project, must be met by hiring individuals adequately qualified to teach the classes offered.
As we also note elsewhere in this project, there is no universally accepted definition of an “adequately qualified” teacher. And there is an additional challenge in finding a set of readily usable data points that would permit the easy identification of teachers’ qualifications as adequate or inadequate in the kind of large-scale supply and demand analysis we are discussing here. For the sake of convenience and consistent with our supply and demand focus, we have suggested that states consider a class as being taught by an “adequately qualified” teacher only if the teacher (a) is fully licensed or certified (i.e., not teaching on the basis of a temporary or emergency credential or waiver), or has demonstrated solid knowledge of his or her field and is enrolled in a teacher preparation program and pursuing a license; (b) is not teaching “out-of-field” – i.e., has the subject knowledge required by licensure or endorsement in the field to be teaching the class; and (c) is taught by a permanent teacher and not a temporary substitute.
It is the specific purpose of this unit, Teacher Quality and Teacher Licensure, to elaborate on the issue of teacher qualifications and its relationship to teacher licensure and thus to provide guidance to policymakers, educators, and other state and district stakeholders in their efforts to assess the general quality of their pool of science and mathematics teachers as part of a statewide assessment of teacher need.
Staffing schools with well-qualified teachers is important in every subject, but for several reasons it is especially critical in science and mathematics:
- These are highly technical subjects that can be adequately taught only be individuals who have a solid grasp of their science and mathematics disciplines
- Partly because of a pervasive shortage of science and mathematics teachers and partly because of a lack of appreciation for the highly technical nature of the subjects, there is an all-too-common tendency to settle for marginally qualified teachers in these disciplines. This is especially true in the sciences, where solid training in one science field does not by itself qualify an individual to teach successfully in another science field
- The prominent call1 and political commitment2 to increase the science and mathematics skills of our nation’s students can only be met by recruiting, preparing, and hiring science and mathematics teachers with solid qualifications.
A key challenge in incorporating the consideration of teacher qualifications into an analysis of teacher supply and demand is developing a serviceable definition of what it means for science and mathematics teachers to be adequately qualified. The research literature on the knowledge, skills, and other characteristics of effective teachers is far from unequivocal3 and offers only limited guidance. Moreover, since the specific aim of Teacher Quality and Teacher Licensure is to help stakeholders incorporate a teacher quality dimension into a fairly coarse-grained assessment of the extent to which their state’s corps of science and mathematics teachers meets current and projected state demand, detailed information about the background and performance of individual teachers is of little use. What is needed instead is a more ready means of identifying whether science and mathematics teachers have the qualifications presumed necessary to be successful.
At least in theory, states already have in place a mechanism that signals the basic adequacy of their science and mathematics teachers, namely, their teacher licensure and certification system. A rigorous and reliable licensure system ought to provide assurance that all secondary science and mathematics teachers in a state have at least the minimum qualifications required to teach their disciplines competently at their licensed instructional level (K-8, middle, or high school). For beginning teachers, this can be little more than a verification of adequate knowledge and character and the promise of teaching success. Beyond this, a solid licensure system should distinguish between teachers who meet the minimum standards for licensure and teachers who have proven, and even outstanding, subject knowledge and teaching ability.
A licensure system should not only signal the quality of a state’s teachers, however, but also promote it. To that end, state licensure systems have at their disposal several key policy levers:
- Denying teaching credentials to candidates whose knowledge of their discipline is inadequate
- Withholding permanent licensure from teachers who fail to demonstrate both solid knowledge of their teaching subject and effectiveness in the classroom
- Requiring the continued development and assessment of teachers’ knowledge and skill for licensure renewal
- Conferring advanced certification on teachers who have a demonstrated history of highly successful teaching
- Licensure can fulfill its potential for promoting teacher quality through such policies, however, only through their rigorous application and enforcement and through the adoption of adequately high standards of teacher evaluation.
In reality, the licensure and certification system in most states falls well short of this ideal. Many states compromise their licensure standards – for science and mathematics teachers, frequently because of concerns about exacerbating an already existing shortage. And there are also inherent technical difficulties attending the development of assessments of teachers’ knowledge and skill and the determination of the appropriate knowledge and course requirements. Moreover, teacher licensure and certification systems are one element of a larger nexus of state quality control mechanisms, including, for example, high school graduation standards and teacher preparation program approval, and are compromised to the extent that these are also inadequate.
Given such challenges, as well as the limitations of the relevant empirical research, we do not recommend specific standards for state adoption in this unit or provide detailed policy prescriptions. Instead, we offer broad policy suggestions and procedural guidelines for ensuring that states are systematic and rigorous in determining the licensure and certification-related policies and standards they ultimately do adopt. Part that rigor should result from a serious consideration of the guidelines and discussion offered here and an analysis of their implications for the state’s efforts to ensure and assess the quality of its science and mathematics teachers. In addition, however, it is the admitted bias of this project that states should push for a science and mathematics teacher workforce that is as highly qualified as possible. And there is good evidence4 that all states have a good deal of work to do in order to achieve that ideal – some more than others – and especially to address the disparity in teacher qualifications between high-poverty and low-poverty schools.
Although national survey data do not necessarily reflect the reality in individual states and districts, the prevalence of marginal qualifications among science and mathematics teachers in our nation’s high schools is documented5 in Table 5-1 below. The table confirms the considerable work that still needs to be done to improve teachers’ backgrounds in those fields – especially in comparison with the qualifications of teachers in many other subjects. Moreover, the large disparity in the qualifications of teachers between high-poverty and low-poverty schools makes the onus to address the problem that much greater.
Table 5-1: Percentage of public high school-level classes of various subjects taught by a teacher without a major and without certification in that subject area, by selected subject areas: 2003-04
Consistent with the data in Table 5-1, the greatest emphasis in the discussion in this unit is on the adequacy of teachers’ content knowledge. This is not a sufficient condition of effective teaching, but the research literature strongly confirms6 that it is a necessary one. Also, although the effort to define the adequacy of content knowledge in science and mathematics is not without controversy, it is easier – at least for initial licensure – to assess the extent of a teacher’s content knowledge than the pedagogical skill and working knowledge that are also important7 to teaching success. Nevertheless, a solid licensure and certification system does offer the possibility, particularly through licensure renewal and advancement policies, of identifying those science and mathematics teachers who also have strong teaching skills and proven ability to advance their students’ comprehension.
Teacher Quality and Qualifications
An adequate analysis of a state’s or district’s need for science and mathematics teachers requires attention, not only to the extent to which the available supply of teachers meets the state’s or district’s demands, but also to the quality of the teachers who constitute the supply. The question that a state’s educators and policymakers should ask about teacher need is not simply whether or not there is a teacher available to teach every science and mathematics class that districts wish to offer. It is whether or not the teachers who will staff those classrooms have sufficient skill and knowledge to enable their students to achieve the level of science and mathematics competency that the state intends for them to have. At the most basic level, states may expect every student to have at least some sort of minimum proficiency in mathematics and the sciences, which may be defined by state K-12 content standards and by high school graduation requirements. Beyond that, however, as states look towards the need for increased technical expertise in the workforce and seek to be competitive with other states economically, they must raise their expectations for their students’ knowledge of science and mathematics and thus for the knowledge of the teachers who instruct them. The ultimate policy goal would be to ensure the high quality of all science and mathematics teachers in a state. It is the specific purpose of this unit, Teacher Quality and Teacher Licensure, to provide guidance to policymakers, educators, and other state and district stakeholders in their efforts to assess the general quality of their pool of science and mathematics teachers as part of a statewide assessment of teacher need.
Indicators of Teacher Quality
There is a general consensus8 that what makes for a high quality teacher is the possession of several core competencies, such as the following, although experts do not agree on a complete list that is both necessary and sufficient:
- Solid knowledge of their content field
- The ability to teach that content effectively to students who may have different abilities and different learning needs (subject-specific pedagogy, or “pedagogical content knowledge”)
- The ability to motivate students to learn
- Good classroom management skills.
For the concern here to introduce a teacher quality dimension into a statewide overview of teacher supply and demand, there are two challenges involved in identifying the strength of these core competencies among a state’s science and mathematics teachers:
- How to measure these competencies in a way that is valid and reliable
- How to signal those measures readily and clearly in the context of a broad assessment of teacher supply and demand.
Those individuals who have the responsibility to hire and evaluate teachers in individual schools and districts can look, not only at detailed academic transcripts and other records to determine the extent of teachers’ subject knowledge and academic ability, but also at assessments of classroom performance to gauge their teaching prowess. School principals can interview individual teacher candidates and contact references to determine whether or not candidates seem to fit into the culture of a particular school and how effective they are likely to be with the school’s particular population of students. To be sure, it is theoretically possible to store such specific and detailed information about individual teachers in a comprehensive teacher data system of the kind that several states9 already have in place. To be useful in a broad, statewide analysis, however, the information would have to have inter-rater reliability and be standardized and coded so as to serve as an easily interpreted indicator of teachers’ more nuanced qualifications. And these requirements seem simply beyond the ability of most states to meet even if they theoretically have the data capacity. Not only that, but privacy considerations generally limit broad access to information about individual teachers, and these restrictions also would have to be overcome.
Measuring these competencies is also difficult, and one response to this difficulty that also addresses the need to identify ready signals of teacher quality is to propose several proxy indicators that are taken to be correlated with effective teaching and, by implication, with the core competencies listed above. Among the most commonly suggested proxy indicators are teaching experience, academic ability, and licensure or certification.
A number of research studies10 indicate that inexperienced teachers tend to be less effective than more experienced teachers, but also that teachers’ effectiveness generally peaks once they have been teaching for 5-6 years. Clearly, experience is an imperfect proxy; there will always be novice teachers who are exceptionally effective and veteran teachers who are mediocre. To the extent that experience is a valid indicator of teacher quality, however, it implies that a high overall percentage of inexperienced science and mathematics teachers in a state’s workforce may signal a compromise in quality. Similarly, if the percentage of inexperienced science and mathematics teachers varies significantly between schools and districts in a state, that can be taken as an indication that the quality of teachers between districts may be unequal. While such inequality is not necessarily the result of a shortage problem statewide, it is an indication that some schools and districts may have difficulty hiring and keeping science and mathematics teachers and that at least a localized shortage may be a factor.
Similarly, there is some research11 indicating that teachers with relatively poor academic ability are less effective than teachers with stronger academic skills, but the research is mixed and it is difficult to find truly valid indicators of academic ability. One indicator that several recent studies12 have found to be inversely correlated with positive K-12 student outcomes is the frequency of teachers’ failure on state licensure examinations before finally passing. Thus, states that have this information13 on teachers’ records and can aggregate it by school or district for science and mathematics teachers may be able to add another dimension to the comparison of teacher quality between schools and districts throughout the state. Schools that have a relatively large percentage of teachers with licensure examination failures may suffer from an inability to hire and retain better qualified teachers, a potential symptom of at least a local shortage.
Although teaching experience and academic ability (if it can be successfully measured and signaled) may provide some indication of the quality of a state’s teacher workforce and of differences in teacher quality between districts, neither of these proxies provides any real indication of the specific teaching skills and qualifications that state and district officials need to identify in order to assess the adequacy of the teacher workforce – especially teachers’ depth of science and mathematics subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy.
Licensure as an Indicator
Teacher licensure and certification, on the other hand, are intended precisely to serve as an indication that a licensed or certified teacher has met at least the minimal requirements for content knowledge and teaching readiness that a state deems necessary. The “endorsements” or “credentials” that states confer upon teachers who have met the requirements are authorizations to teach specific subjects, and, indeed, teachers without the appropriate endorsement are assumed to lack the content background necessary to teach the subjects the endorsement allows. Thus, licensure and certification would seem to offer precisely the kind of ready signal of teachers’ core teaching competencies that is appropriate to a statewide assessment of teacher supply and demand.
The reality of licensure is somewhat messier than the promise, however. The ability of licensure truly to identify those teachers who have the necessary knowledge and skills to teach the subjects for which they have the appropriate credentials is compromised by the relaxation14 of licensure standards in some states and by complexities – such as validity issues with licensure examinations15 – that plague the licensure process. These and other problems have occasioned strong and often justified criticisms16 of the dominant current licensure practices.
Nevertheless, in spite of these limitations and criticisms we believe it should be a cause for concern if a significant number of science and mathematics teachers in a state or in individual districts are teaching classes for which they lack proper credentials – full licensure and an endorsement in all subjects they teach – or if there is a significant disparity in the number of questionably credentialed teachers between one school district and another. And we believe teacher licensure offers sufficient promise of providing the quality dimension for a state assessment of teacher supply and demand to justify the detailed discussion of licensure and its challenges that constitutes the remainder of this unit.
Teacher Quality and Licensure
A rigorous and reliable state licensure system should enable educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders to obtain a good overview of the extent to which the state’s teachers have adequate qualifications. It should provide reasonable assurance that all fully licensed teachers have the basic knowledge and skill necessary to be successful, and it should distinguish between teachers who meet the minimum standards for licensure and teachers who have proven, and even outstanding, subject knowledge and teaching ability. Beyond that, licensure should provide a clear and valid indication of the extent to which each teacher’s knowledge and background appropriately qualifies him to teach courses in specific disciplines and at specific grade levels and levels of difficulty.
Challenges Facing Licensure
To be sure, states currently employ licensure and certification to serve these objectives, but the effectiveness of licensure practices and policies is inevitably compromised by a number of factors. Some of these are within the control of the states themselves, and some are challenges inherent in the mechanisms that comprise current licensure systems.
Invariably, current state licensure and certification systems employ two main quality control components:
- Knowledge and course requirements for teachers (which may include a specified course of study) that must be appropriate to the educational needs of K-12 students in the various science and mathematics subjects and at the different grade and difficulty levels – educational needs that are generally defined by the appropriate state content standards
- Assessments of teachers’ knowledge and skill intended to ensure that teachers do indeed have the minimum competency required.
The fact that licensure and certification are not more precise and reliable tools is a function of several limitations related to these two key components:
- Compromises that states make in their licensure standards – often because of concerns17 about restricting teacher supply and diversity – so that licensure ceases to distinguish reliably between teachers who are at least basically capable18 and those who are not
- Difficulties inherent in the effort to establish standards and assessments of teacher knowledge and competence, including:
- Epistemological and methodological complexities19 involved in the design and scoring of teacher licensure examinations, which compromise their validity
- Practical challenges, such as figuring out how to stipulate coursework requirements for endorsement in a given subject area
- Determining these requirements is difficult because (a) curricula (and thus course content) differ between teacher preparation programs – even in the same state – and (b) successfully completing a certain number of required courses is not in itself a guarantee that that an individual has mastered the course content
- Significant state-to-state variability20 in the standards for teacher preparation and teacher competence
- The possibility, reflected in interstate comparisons21 of states’ student achievement standards, that there are significant differences in basic educational standards and expectations between states with the likely result that teachers in low-standard states are less competent than teachers in high-standard states in spite of having apparently equivalent qualifications on paper.
The Promise of Licensure
Such problems in states’ licensure and certification systems, together with the related consequence that a significant number of teachers who are licensed may have inferior backgrounds while far more capable individuals are discouraged from becoming teachers by flawed licensure rules and regulations, have led some experts22 to call for the abolition of licensure based on background requirements and assessments of knowledge and skill in favor of assessments based strictly on demonstrated classroom effectiveness. And although there are a number of studies23 on the correlation of licensure with teacher quality and effectiveness, the studies disagree markedly about the reliability of licensure as an indicator of teacher quality – in part because licensure practices and policies differ greatly among the individual states. There is evidence,24 however, that students whose teachers are certified in their specific field of instruction learn more than students taking the same subject from teachers who are certified in another field. And there have been a number of recent studies25 indicating that students whose teachers have certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards learn marginally more than students whose teachers lack that credential, thus providing at least limited reassurance that a valid, reliable, and fairly rigorous teacher certification system is indeed possible.
Thus, in spite of the challenges, it is our view that assessment- and background-based licensure has a potentially important role to play in helping to ensure the basic competency of a state’s teacher workforce. Moreover, for the development of valid and reliable estimates of a state’s current and future need for science and mathematics teachers, which is the motivating purpose of this project, a licensure system can provide state officials and others with a ready means of assessing whether their teacher workforce has the basic qualifications necessary to meet the educational needs of the state in science and mathematics. Licensure systems will serve that role effectively, however, and overcome many of the failings to which critics justifiably point only to the extent that states commit to making licensure as valid and rigorous as possible and maintaining its integrity.
The reluctance of some states to commit to a rigorous licensure system that may reduce26 (at least initially) the teacher pool or the percentage of minority teachers is understandable, and it is not our intention here to advocate that states should strengthen their licensure system at any cost. The cost of not having a strong and effective licensure system, however, is also large; it deprives states of a powerful tool for ensuring the quality of their teachers and thus increases the risk that students will be taught by teachers whose qualifications are inadequate. To expect a licensure system to be absolutely foolproof is to expect too much in view of the inherent difficulties that attend it. To expect a licensure system to be an effective tool for identifying the basic competency of a state’s teacher workforce, however, and especially the adequacy of teachers’ subject knowledge in their fields of instruction, is eminently reasonable if states are willing to be demanding in the system’s development and uncompromising in its application.
Ultimately, of course, the strength and integrity of a state’s teacher licensure and certification system are a function of the strength and integrity of a number of interrelated sets of standards: for grading students, for high school graduation, for entry into and graduation from post-secondary institutions – including graduation from teacher preparation programs. Although our focus here is specifically on standards for licensure, we urge states to do all they can to ensure that their standards are strong across the board. Otherwise, no matter how extensive or demanding the specific requirements for teacher licensure and certification may appear to be in the written rules and regulations, their ultimate effectiveness in promoting teacher competence will be compromised.
Guidelines for Strengthening Teacher Licensure
The following guidelines are intended to assist state officials and others in assessing the strengths and limitations of their teacher licensure policies and practices and in identifying opportunities to improve them. In particular, the guidelines seek to help stakeholders ensure that their state’s licensure policies and practices are adequate to determine (a) the extent to which the state’s science and mathematics teachers in general have the knowledge required to teach the various courses offered in their disciplines and (b) the comparative strength of the science and mathematics teacher corps in individual school districts.
For none of the guidelines offered here is there a definitive body of empirical evidence that provides unequivocal direction. At best, there is strong consensus among experts in favor of particular strategies, and in some cases less support than this. The intent of the recommendations here, however, is not so much to advocate the adoption of specific policies or practices as it is to help ensure that states are systematic and rigorous in determining the licensure and certification-related policies, practices, and standards they ultimately do adopt. This implies the need for state officials to weigh seriously the opinions of national experts and to assess the suitability of various practices and policies employed by other states. Each state also should engage its own local community of experts in arriving at the standards and policies that are deemed appropriate.
1. Adopt and maintain the maximum possible rigor in the general standards for teacher licensure and certification
- For licensure examinations, this means ensuring the assessments are as valid and reliable as possible and establishing and maintaining a passing score or “cut score” that is high enough to indicate appropriate intellectual and academic proficiency and adequate mastery of the subjects tested
A 2001 study27 from the National Research Council (NRC) on teacher licensure examinations found that current initial licensure examinations may indeed be valid assessments of a teacher’s subject knowledge. The study also found that a higher score on examinations of subject knowledge is likely to be correlated with greater grasp of the subject. This is a finding that reinforces the importance of setting adequately demanding cut scores, and it justifies concern28 about states that set lower passing scores than others. In addition, licensure examinations that are able to reflect accurately the extent of teachers’ basic reading and writing skills also may contribute29 valuable information.
The NRC study indicates, however, that current licensure examinations are inadequate to the task of assessing other important dimensions of teachers’ knowledge and skill and thus are not appropriate for use in accountability systems that seek to evaluate the quality of teacher preparation programs or teachers’ overall classroom effectiveness. At best, then, licensure examinations measure knowledge that is necessary but not sufficient to ensure that a teacher will be successful.
The NRC study also includes an illuminating discussion of (1) the difficulties involved in determining what cut score on an examination reflects adequate basic mastery of a subject and (2) the significance of the variability in cut scores between states. It is difficult to specify a minimum passing score on teacher licensure examinations that can provide strong assurance that those who pass have adequate skill or knowledge and those who fail do not. Indeed, whatever passing score is specified, there are sure to be some candidates with lower scores who would make fine teachers and some with higher scores who will not – although psychometrically valid and reliable examinations minimize these “false negatives” and “false positives.”
Given this limitation, the likelihood30 that raising the passing score on initial licensure examinations will restrict the supply of teachers and likely reduce the number of minority teachers in the new teacher pool (at least initially) may make states that much more reluctant to set high standards. States that go too far in the direction of being permissive in their standards for the sake of expanding their teacher supply, however, will pay the price by increasing the number of teachers whose grasp of their teaching subject is questionable.
Finally, there is also recent research31 strongly suggesting that teachers who require numerous attempts in order to pass initial licensure examinations may be less effective than teachers who were able to pass the examinations more quickly. This may imply that states should consider restricting the number of times an individual can retake initial licensure examinations as an additional safeguard to ensure that licensure signals basic teacher competency.
- Where alternative forms of assessment of teachers’ skill and knowledge are used, such as portfolios, this means ensuring that these also employ rigorous standards and are sufficiently valid and reliable to distinguish between teacher candidates who demonstrate basic competence in the areas assessed and those who do not. Unfortunately, there are few studies32 of the validity and reliability of these alternative forms of assessment.
2. Ensure that any undergraduate or post-baccalaureate course requirements for endorsement in a general field (e.g., physical science) or specific discipline (e.g., chemistry) are sufficient to provide a solid grasp of all specific science or mathematics subjects the endorsement entitles the holder to teach and are appropriate to the different licensure levels (elementary, middle, or secondary). Accomplishing this is likely to involve three specific policy commitments:
- Articulating minimum standards for teachers’ knowledge that are appropriate to the grade-level standards for students’ knowledge in specific science and mathematics subjects
- Adopting and enforcing credential requirements in science and mathematics fields that adequately reflect these standards
- Ensuring that all teachers – both beginning teachers and veteran teachers – meet these standards and requirements as soon as possible.
Rigorous requirements for appropriate subject knowledge at the different grade levels become especially important as the emphasis on the increased science and mathematics proficiency of America’s students pushes college preparatory courses down to middle school and implies that even elementary students need to have a stronger grounding in science and mathematics. Many current licensure policies, however, do not adequately respond to this trend. This can be a problem in both mathematics and science, but it is especially vexing in science, where individuals who teach multiple subjects at the college preparatory level (e.g., Physics, Biology, or Chemistry) often lack the expertise to be effective in one or more individual subjects even though state licensure policies may permit the licensee to teach all of them.
There are two interrelated challenges involved here. One more directly concerns specific endorsement policies, and the other concerns the inherent difficulty of defining adequate coursework preparation in a teaching subject:
Endorsement policies and practices vary significantly from state to state, and some policies pose particular challenges for the effort to ensure licensure rigor. For example, K-8 or Middle School licenses, which some states offer, generally have less stringent content knowledge requirements in science and mathematics than broad Secondary or 9-12 licenses. Although this practice has a good deal of justification and follows the recommendations of the disciplinary associations33 that set the content knowledge standards for teachers at the various grade levels in science and mathematics, it does increase the possibility that K-8 and Middle School teachers will be poorly prepared to teach Algebra 1, Biology or other college preparatory courses that some districts may have pushed down to the middle school level. Arkansas,34 for example, has attempted to address this problem by requiring that all middle school teachers who are not certified to teach high school mathematics must obtain a specific Algebra 1 endorsement if they wish to teach that subject. Similarly, California35 now requires all middle school teachers to have a special credential in order to teach science or mathematics courses at that level.
A general science endorsement, which in a number of states allows teachers to teach any science course, often does not require sufficient depth in all of the specific science disciplines (e.g., Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology) to enable teachers to be effective. In some states, teachers seeking a science endorsement are required to major in a specific science but are then allowed to teach courses in other sciences in which they may have minimal background. In other states, teachers may pursue a general or distributed sciences major that enables them to teach a variety of college preparatory science course even though their major has minimal course requirements for any individual science subject. California has attempted to address these problems through strict credentialing requirements, which specify rigorous course work or the equivalent demonstration of knowledge in individual core science subjects in order to teach them at the college preparatory level. Individuals wishing to teach integrated science or non-college preparatory science courses must meet a less stringent standard for appropriate course work or the equivalent demonstration of knowledge in the science subjects they wish to teach.
To be sure, a recommendation to strengthen subject preparation requirements for teachers of science and mathematics presents a special challenge for some districts. Rural districts, for example, often seek to hire teachers with a broad science background because the districts’ schools may offer too few science classes in any one subject to offer a teacher a full-time course load in the subject. Likewise, many urban districts have difficulty finding teachers with strong qualifications in science and mathematics to teach in their highest poverty schools. If states and districts dilute the requirements for strength of content knowledge in STEM fields, however, they risk compromising36 the quality of their K-12 science and mathematics education.
- Defining Adequate Coursework Preparation
No one knows how many college courses in a subject are necessary to ensure a new teacher’s grasp of his or her subject matter and therefore what the coursework preparation requirement should be for teacher licensure in science or mathematics. The limited empirical research37 on the subject generally indicates that taking more courses benefits high school instruction, in particular, but that there is also a threshold to this effect after which additional courses have no impact. Obviously, a stronger background is required to teach the more difficult subjects in a field, such as calculus or AP Biology, than to teach only introductory or middle school courses.
Several of the various disciplinary societies that set standards for teacher knowledge offer specific recommendations for the amount of coursework needed to teach the disciplines competently at the different educational levels. Consistent with the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), for example, the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) proposes38 minimum coursework requirements in mathematics for elementary, middle school, and high school teachers: 9 semester hours for elementary teachers, 21 semester hours for middle school teachers, and the equivalent of an undergraduate major for high school teachers. Similarly, based on the standards set by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and other groups, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) calls39 for secondary school physics teachers to have at least a minor in physics and, ideally, the equivalent of a major in the field.
These are only rough guidelines, and the difference between a major and a minor in a field is often significant. A major in a field provides strong assurance40 that a teacher has an adequate grasp of the subject, but it may in fact be more than is truly necessary. On the other hand, a subject minor might be sufficient, but requirements for a minor are institution-specific and highly variable so that a minor could provide an adequate preparation for secondary teaching at one institution but not at another. Clearly, states that want to ensure strong content knowledge on the part of their science and mathematics teachers could insist upon the equivalent of a subject major for endorsement in an individual STEM discipline. That presents a problem, however, for states that already have a scarcity of science and mathematics teachers and for districts that need science and mathematics generalists.
Gaining a grasp of a subject isn’t only a matter of taking a certain number of courses, however, but of how well one learns the material presented in those courses. Moreover, the undergraduate science or mathematics curriculum may be organized differently in different colleges and universities, thus making it difficult to specify on a statewide basis which courses or how many courses in the teaching field a candidate should take.
One implication of this is that standardized assessments of a teacher candidate’s knowledge of his or her teaching field can play an important role in providing additional evidence of the candidate’s subject mastery. Another implication is that the variability in the way the undergraduate science and mathematics curriculum may be organized in different colleges or universities within the same state highlights the important role of state program approval in ensuring the adequacy of the subject coursework requirements and the standards for determining students’ subject mastery that are set by the individual preparation programs. Such an approval process often tries to determine whether a program’s coursework requirements provide teacher candidates with the background necessary to meet the standards for teacher knowledge that are set by the respective disciplinary societies. In the case of the sciences, these standards generally seek consistency with the National Science Education Standards for K-12 students that were articulated in 1996 by the National Academies.
The absence41 of a strong research base somewhat weakens the force of disciplinary society recommendations concerning coursework and content mastery for effective teaching of specific science and mathematics courses. They can claim little more justification than the consensus among the subject experts and educators who endorse them. According to the 2008 Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (p. 36), such recommendations are particularly difficult in the case of elementary and middle school mathematics. And, according to the 2006 NRC report Taking Science to School, there is a similar difficulty in science education.
These problems should not be taken as a justification for low standards, however, nor for inaction on the part of state policymakers and education leaders. A consensus on teacher standards among noted scholars and accomplished teachers in a field cannot be ignored even if the empirical research base to support it is thin. Moreover, as James Hiebert42 points out, research will never be a sufficient basis for the formulation of standards, which always involves values issues (e.g., what knowledge of mathematics and science it is most important for K-12 students to master).
3. Ensure that staged (or tiered) licensure and licensure renewal are able to accomplish the following:
- Remove from the teaching profession those individuals who fail to demonstrate solid knowledge of their teaching subject and proven effectiveness in the classroom
- Encourage capable teachers to deepen their subject knowledge and teaching skill
Tiered and continuing licensure can be used to improve the overall quality of the state’s teacher workforce, but states can only take advantage of these opportunities if the requirements to move from one licensure stage to the next or to renew certification are sufficiently rigorous.
Almost all states make some distinction between initial licensure and a more advanced stage of licensure or certification that also may include tenure. Such a licensure system provides several opportunities. One opportunity is to evaluate initially licensed teachers’ actual performance in the classroom over several years’ time and, on the basis of this evaluation (and perhaps other criteria43) to deny a second-stage license to teachers whose skill, knowledge, or performance prove to be inadequate. It is extremely difficult to undertake a valid assessment of a candidate’s actual teaching skill as part of the initial licensure process because most licensure candidates simply have too little pre-service teaching experience to serve as an adequate basis of evaluation and also relatively little opportunity to acquire (and demonstrate) solid pedagogical knowledge in their specific discipline.
In addition, some states have an even more advanced level of certification for teachers who demonstrate exemplary teaching or who acquire advanced degrees. This often includes teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. To the extent these licensure distinctions truly reflect differences in teacher knowledge and skill, they are helpful in providing a more nuanced assessment of the strength of the teacher corps statewide and a comparative assessment of the relative strength of teachers between individual schools and districts. There is good evidence44 that National Board Certification validly identifies teachers who are marginally more effective than teachers who lack the credential. And research45 also confirms that master’s degrees in the teaching subject – specifically, in science and mathematics – can contribute to more effective teaching at the secondary level.
In addition to different licensure stages or tiers, another licensure mechanism that ideally can promote teacher quality is the requirement, already present in some form in all states,46 that teachers renew their license periodically by participating in various sorts of professional development. Such licensure renewal is especially important in the sciences because the knowledge base in the sciences is continually evolving, and teachers need to keep current in their chosen disciplines. In order to be truly effective, however, the requirement for continuing education for science and mathematics teachers should be complemented by a requirement that teachers demonstrate that their knowledge of their teaching field is up-to-date. This stricter requirement also would be likely to promote a demand for truly effective47 professional development. In addition to being current in their subject knowledge, science teachers as well as mathematics teachers ought to be familiar with important recent teaching innovations in their fields (such as new way of teaching key concepts) that have shown promise in the classroom. A demonstrated grasp of these also could be a requirement for license renewal.
1. See especially Rising Above the Gathering Storm (2007). Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Accessed at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11463.
2. For example, the federal America COMPETES Act of 2007.
3. See, for example, Rice, J.K. (2003). Teacher Quality: Understanding the Effectiveness of Teacher Attributes. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.
4. See, for example, Core Problems: Out of Field Teaching Persists in Key Academic Courses and High-Poverty Schools. (2008). Washington, DC: The Education Trust. Also see an earlier Education Trust report that notes the state-by-state disparities in teacher qualifications between high-poverty and low-poverty schools: Jerald, C. (2002). All Talk, No Action: Putting an End to Out-of-Field Teaching. Washington, DC: The Education Trust. Accessed at http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/AllTalk.pdf.
5. Specifically, see Morton, B.A., Peltola, P., Hurwitz, M.D., Orlofsky, G.F., & Strizek, G.A. (2008, August). Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects: Evidence from the 2003–04 Schools and Staffing Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics (Table 4, p. 25). Accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2008338.
6. See the discussion of Question 1 in Allen, M. (2005). Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say? Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Accessed at http://www.ecs.org/html/educationissues/teachingquality/tpreport/report/acknowledgements.asp
7. Ball, D.L., Thames, M.H., & Phelps, G. (2008). Content Knowledge for Teaching: What Makes It Special? Journal of Teacher Education, 59 (5), 389-407.
8. This is reflected in the discussion of the research in Questions 1 and 2 in Allen, M. (2005). Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say? Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Accessed at http://www.ecs.org/html/educationissues/teachingquality/tpreport/home/index.asp. Also see M. Cochran-Smith & K.M. Zeichner (Eds.). Studying Teacher Education. Washington, DC & Mahwah, NJ: American Educational Research Association and Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
9. See, for example, the data warehouses maintained by Florida and Virginia. Accessed at http://edwapp.doe.state.fl.us/ and http://research.schev.edu/
10. Evidence of a limited correlation between experience and teacher quality can be found in the following studies: Hanushek, E.A., Kain, J.F., O’Brien, D.M., & Rivkin, S. G. (2005, February). The Market for Teacher Quality. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. See also Clotfelter, C.T., Ladd, H. F., and Vigdor, J.L. (2007). How and Why Do Teacher Credentials Matter for Student Achievement? Washington, DC: Urban Institute. Accessed at http://www.caldercenter.org/PDF/1001058_Teacher_Credentials.pdf. Evidence of a correlation between teacher quality and academic ability can be found in Presley, J. B., White, B. R., & Gong, Y. (2005). Examining the Distribution and Impact of Teacher Quality in Illinois. Carbondale, IL: Illinois Education Research Center. See also Boyd, D., Lankford, R. H., Loeb, S., Rockoff, J., & Wyckoff, J. (2007). The Narrowing Gap in New York City Teacher Qualifications and Its Implications for Student Achievement in High-poverty Schools. Albany, NY: Teacher Policy Research.
11. See the discussion of the research on this issue in Zumwalt, K., & Craig, E. (2005). Teacher’s Characteristics: Research on the Indicators of Quality. In M. Cochran-Smith & K.M. Zeichner (Eds.), Studying Teacher Education (pp. 163-185). Washington, DC & Mahwah, NJ: American Educational Research Association and Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
12. Presley, J. B., White, B. R., & Gong, Y. (2005). Examining the Distribution and Impact of Teacher Quality in Illinois. Carbondale, IL: Illinois Education Research Center. See also Boyd, D., Lankford, R. H., Loeb, S., Rockoff, J., & Wyckoff, J. (2007). The Narrowing Gap in New York City Teacher Qualifications and its Implications for Student Achievement in High-poverty Schools. Albany, NY: Teacher Policy Research.
13. A few states have collected such licensure examination information as part of their Teacher Equity reports required for compliance with Title II Part A of No Child Left Behind. The state of Georgia, for example, presents it in summary form in its report (pp. 52-55), though not broken down by teaching discipline or individual district or school. Accessed at http://www.ed.gov/programs/teacherqual/hqtplans/index.html#ga.
14. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, the percentage of teachers teaching without a license or teaching courses for which they lack an appropriate credential has grown significantly smaller. That does not mean, however, that the quality of teachers has necessarily improved, as many states rushed to confer appropriate credentials on teachers who had lacked them by temporarily relaxing standards. This was facilitated, in particular, though the “High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation” (HOUSSE) provisions that each state was instructed to develop under the No Child Left Behind Act in order to ensure that teachers who lacked the technical qualifications to meet the new NCLB requirements to be considered “highly qualified” (a subject major or passage of a content examination in each of the subjects they were teaching) nevertheless could demonstrate their command of the subjects. Several studies provide strong evidence that some of the HOUSSE criteria were of questionable value in ensuring a solid grasp of the subject by teachers who met them. As an example, see Azordegan, J. (2004). Initial Findings and Major Questions about HOUSSE. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Accessed at http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/49/68/4968.htm
15. See Mitchell, K.J., Robinson, D.Z., Plake, B.S., & Knowles, K.T. (Eds.). (2001). Testing Teacher Candidates: The Role of Licensure Tests in Improving Teaching Quality. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Accessed at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10090&page=1.
16. See, for example, Gordon, R., Kane, T.J., & Staiger, D.O. (2006, April). Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Accessed at http://www.brookings.edu/views/papers/200604hamilton_1.pdf. See also Goldhaber, D. (2007, April). Everyone’s Doing It, but What Does Teacher Testing Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness? Working Paper. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute. Accessed at http://www.caldercenter.org/PDF/1001072_everyones_doing.PDF.
17. See, for example, Arenson, K.W. (1998, July 18). New Standards May Worsen Teacher Shortage. New York Times. For a discussion of the potential adverse impact that raising licensure standards might have on the percentage of minority teachers in the workforce, see Gitomer, D.H., Latham, A.S., & Ziomek, R. (1999). The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of Admissions and Licensure Testing. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Accessed at http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-03-35.pdf.
18. In emulation of the first rule of medicine, it has been suggested by some that initial teacher licensure need do no more than guarantee that duly licensed teachers will “do no harm” to the students in their classrooms. See, for example, Podgursky, M. (2004). Teacher Licensing in U.S. Public Schools: The Case for Simplicity and Flexibility. Peabody Journal of Education, 80 (3), 15-43. It is difficult to understand, however, how that can mean anything significant in the context of education other than teaching students what they are expected to learn; any other outcome is indeed harmful to their prospects for long-term educational success.
19. See Mitchell, K.J., Robinson, D.Z., Plake, B.S., & Knowles, K.T. (Eds.). (2001). Testing Teacher Candidates: The Role of Licensure Tests in Improving Teaching Quality. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Accessed at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10090&page=1.
20. See Darling-Hammond, L., & Ball, D.L. (1998). Teaching for High Standards. What Policymakers Need to Know and Be Able to Do. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, pp. 11-13. Accessed at http://www.cpre.org/images/stories/cpre_pdfs/jre04.pdf
21. See Mapping 2005 State Proficiency Standards onto the NAEP Scales. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/studies/2007482.pdf.
22. See, for example, Gordon, R., Kane, T.J., & Staiger, D.O. (2006, April). Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Accessed at http://www.brookings.edu/views/papers/200604hamilton_1.pdf. See also Goldhaber, D. (2007, April). Everyone’s Doing It, but What Does Teacher Testing Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness? Working Paper. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute. Accessed at http://www.caldercenter.org/PDF/1001072_everyones_doing.PDF.
23. See Zumwalt, K., & Craig, E. (2005). Teacher’s characteristics: Research on the indicators of quality. In M. Cochran-Smith & K.M. Zeichner (Eds.), Studying Teacher Education (pp. 169-170). Washington, DC & Mahwah, NJ: American Educational Research Association and Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
24. See, for example, Hawk, P. P., Coble, C.R., & Swanson, M. (1985). Certification: It Does Matter. Journal of Teacher Education, 36(3), 13-15.
25. For a summary of this research, see National Board Certification—What the Research Says. Accessed at http://www.nbpts.org/advancing-education-research
26. See Gitomer, D.H., Latham, A.S., & Ziomek, R. (1999). The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of Admissions and Licensure Testing. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Accessed at http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-03-35.pdf
27. Mitchell, K.J., Robinson, D.Z., Plake, B.S., & Knowles, K.T. (Eds.). (2001). Testing Teacher Candidates: The Role of Licensure Tests in Improving Teaching Quality. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. See p. 115. Accessed at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10090&page=115.
28. See Not Good Enough: A Content Analysis of Teacher Licensing Examinations. (1999, Spring). Washington, DC: The Education Trust. Accessed at http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/k16_spring99.pdf.
29. The research on the importance of teachers’ proficiency in reading and writing is surprisingly mixed. See, for example, Ferguson, R.F. (1991). Paying for Public Education: New Evidence on How and Why Money Matters. Harvard Journal on Legislation, 282, 465–498; and Aloe, A.M., & Becker, B.J. (2009). Teacher Verbal Ability and School Outcomes. Educational Researcher, 38 (8), 612-624.
30. See Gitomer, D.H., Latham, A.S., & Ziomek, R. (1999). The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of Admissions and Licensure Testing. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Accessed at http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-03-35.pdf
31. Presley, J. B., White, B. R., & Gong, Y. (2005). Examining the Distribution and Impact of Teacher Quality in Illinois. Carbondale, IL: Illinois Education Research Center. See also Boyd, D., Lankford, R. H., Loeb, S., Rockoff, J., & Wyckoff, J. (2007). The Narrowing Gap in New York City Teacher Qualifications and Its Implications for Student Achievement in High-poverty Schools. Albany, NY: Teacher Policy Research.
32. See Mitchell, K.J., Robinson, D.Z., Plake, B.S., & Knowles, K.T. (Eds.). (2001). Testing Teacher Candidates: The Role of Licensure Tests in Improving Teaching Quality. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. See p. 115. Accessed at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10090&page=136
33. See, for example, the standards of the Conference Board for the Mathematics Sciences. CBMS (2001). The Mathematical Education of Teachers. Accessed at http://www.cbmsweb.org/MET_Document/index.htm. See also the standards of the American Association of Physics Teachers. AAPT (2009). The Role, Education, Qualifications, and Professional Development of Secondary School Physics Teachers. Accessed at http://www.aapt.org/Resources/upload/Secondary-School-Physics-Teacher-Role_booklet.pdf
34. See Cavanaugh, S. (2008, October 21). 8th Grade Algebra Teachers in Arkansas to Need State Nod. Education Week. Accessed at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/10/22/09algebra.h28.html.
35. See California’s bulletin on Subject Matter Authorizations. Accessed at http://www.ctc.ca.gov/credentials/leaflets/cl852.pdf.
36. Two studies by The Education Trust find that this is precisely what has happened in a number of states, and with especially severe consequences for low-income and minority students. See Core Problems: Out of Field Teaching Persists in Key Academic Courses and High-Poverty Schools. (2008). Washington, DC: The Education Trust; Accessed at http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/SASSreportCoreProblems.pdf. See also Jerald, C. (2002). All Talk, No Action: Putting an End to Out-of-Field Teaching. Washington, DC: The Education Trust. Accessed at http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/AllTalk.pdf
37. See the discussion of Question 1 in Allen, M. (2005). Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say? Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Accessed at http://www.ecs.org/html/educationissues/teachingquality/tpreport/report/acknowledgements.asp
38. See CBMS. (2001). The Mathematical Education of Teachers, p.8. Accessed at http://www.cbmsweb.org/MET_Document/index.htm
39. See AAPT. (2009). The Role, Education, Qualifications, and Professional Development of Secondary School Physics Teachers, pp. 3 & 15. Accessed at http://www.aapt.org/Resources/upload/Secondary-School-Physics-Teacher-Role_booklet.pdf
40. Assuming a sufficiently high GPA in the discipline to signify reasonable mastery – probably a B or higher.
41. This situation is reflected, for example, in the Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. See, for example, p. 12. Accessed at http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/mathpanel/report/final-report.pdf. It is also noted in the 2006 NRC report Taking Science to School. See, for example, pp. 304-308. Accessed at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11625&page=R1
42. Hiebert, J. (1999). Relationship Between Research and the NCTM Standards. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 30 (1), 3-19.
43. In the tiered licensure systems of both New Mexico and Wisconsin, there are a set of standards or competencies in which teachers are expected to demonstrate increasing mastery in order to move from one licensure tier to the next.
44. See National Board Certification—What the Research Says. Accessed at http://www.nbpts.org/advancing-education-research
45. See Rice, J.K. (2003). Teacher Quality: Understanding the Effectiveness of Teacher Attributes. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, pp. 25-28.
46. See the Certification and Licensure State Policy Database maintained by the National Comprehensive Center for Teaching Quality. Every state that lists continuing licensure requirements in the database has professional development requirements for licensure renewal, and the few states whose continuing licensure requirements are not listed in the database can be found to have similar requirements listed on their state teacher certification website.
47. For a review of research on the impact of various professional development programs in science and mathematics, which affirms the importance of focusing on both disciplinary content and pedagogy, see Blank, R.K., de las Alas, N., & Smith, C. (2008). Does Teacher Professional Development Have Effects on Teaching and Learning: Analysis of Evaluation Findings from Programs for Mathematics and Science Teachers in 14 States. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.