Published Online: December 17, 2007
Published in Print: December 19, 2007, as Online Profiles a Factor in College Admissions

Tiered Licensing Systems Being Used by States to Help Teacher Quality

Michigan school leaders announced this fall that they were aiming for a wholesale redesign of a system that mostly gets minor adjustments from states: teacher licensing.

Schools chief Michael P. Flanagan has proposed going to a system with three, rather than the current two, tiers of licensing. Moreover, teachers would progress from level to level only by a performance assessment, not the more standard additional courses and workshops. The proposal is part of a sweeping attempt to jack up teacher quality in the Great Lakes State.

“We think we have to raise the bar on what teachers are expected to do and turn teaching into the profession it is,” said Sally Vaughn, the Michigan education department’s chief academic officer.

Michigan is not alone in its interest in three-level licensure. In the past few years, Delaware, New Mexico, and Wisconsin have made such a switch, though each with somewhat different aims.

As states explore how to get, keep, and improve the practice of teachers, one popular change has been to do away with lifetime licenses so that state officials can enforce requirements for professional development. A few states, though, are looking to foster bigger improvements through licensing.

New Mexico is a prominent example. In 2003, the legislature enacted changes that included tying minimum salary levels to three teacher classifications. A “provisional” teacher can advance to level 2 only after taking part in a mentoring program for beginners and putting in three to five years of successful classroom experience.

Stricter Requirements

Like New Mexico, many states have added mentoring requisites to their licensing systems as a way of ensuring that districts give new teachers help. A smaller number, following the lead of pioneering Connecticut, have set up ways beyond the standard classroom observations to gauge whether a teacher is ready to take on the responsibilities of a classroom.

In New Mexico, for example, in those first five years of teaching, teachers must each submit a “professional-development dossier” that demonstrates to their principals, mentoring teachers, and two independent reviewers that they have the teaching skills identified by the state. Contents may include lesson plans, reflections on teaching, and assessments showing student-learning gains. If a teacher cannot satisfy those requirements, he or she cannot remain.

To go from level 2 to 3 under New Mexico’s system, teachers must have another three years in the classroom and go through a similar portfolio process, though greater skill is expected. They must also have earned a master’s degree or advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

States With 3-Tier Licensing

• Delaware

• Illinois

• Indiana

• Iowa

• Kansas

• Maine

• Nebraska

• New Mexico

• Wisconsin

Level 3 teachers are expected to undertake greater responsibility for professional development in their schools. As in other three-tier systems, New Mexico’s top level is optional for teachers.

The system is similar to the one Michigan is mulling and to Wisconsin’s, launched 1½ years ago. But there is also a standout difference: New Mexico, where the state pays the lion’s share of school costs, attached a minimum-salary level to each classification. Provisional teachers must make at least $30,000, “professional” teachers at least $40,000, and “master” teachers, $50,000.

New Mexico officials say the new system has helped with problems of supply and quality.

“We’ve basically eradicated those classes with nobody there and unlicensed teachers,” said Eduardo Holguin, the chief legislative lobbyist for the National Education Association-New Mexico. Over the past six years, the proportion of teachers on licensing waivers has dropped from 10 percent to 1 percent, while the number of teachers overall has risen, according to a new report to the New Mexico legislature. In addition, the report says, the share of teachers staying through the first three years has improved, from about two-thirds to three-quarters.

Of the roughly 10 percent of teachers who have tried to change levels so far, passing rates on the dossiers for first-time aspirants are around 85 percent. The state is gathering data to look at the effect of the three-tier system on student performance.

Money Matters

A majority of other states do not have most of the responsibility for salaries, and licensing-system effects will have to be achieved, if at all, without money attached.

Iowa’s experience shows just how much funding counts. In 2001, the legislature passed a bill specifying a new licensing system that, with four levels, matched pay to four rungs of a so-called career ladder. Another change required new teachers to pass a classroom evaluation within two years to progress to a standard license. Neophytes also had to be enrolled locally in a state-approved mentoring program.

Moreover, the state required that holders of a standard license develop, with their evaluators, individualized professional goals and a plan to meet them. On that rested license renewal.

Before those changes, “licensing had not been tied in any way to evaluation of the job” the teacher was doing, said Judy A. Jeffrey, Iowa’s schools chief.

Those provisions are in effect, but a sharp economic downturn doomed other parts of the system. Under the original plan, for instance, teachers were to get an increase of $10,000 to move from level 2 to level 3. The plan is still on the books, but no work is being done to flesh out the upper two levels of licensure, Ms. Jeffrey said.

One way states have connected pay and licensing is to add a third tier just for teachers who have achieved advanced certification through the national board. In most states, teachers with the credential receive additional pay. In Delaware, Illinois, and Kansas, they go up a notch in licensing, too.

Wisconsin’s three-tier system, now in its second year, accepts national certification for its “master” level, or candidates can hold a master’s degree and go through a similar assessment graded by a state-trained team of educators.

“I think it’s the best thing we’ve done in a long time in regard to licensing,” said Jim Carlson, a negotiator for local NEA unions in the Sheboygan, Wis., area. “It offers a vision of a future for a young teacher, and they are more likely to stay in the business because of it.”

Since Wisconsin teachers move up through providing evidence of their skills, such as videotapes of teaching, licensing is related to classroom endeavors in ways that simply completing courses or workshops is not, he added. Plus, the licensing structure offers district and union officials alike the opportunity to reorient pay scales around such performance.

‘Ad Hoc’ Development

Teacher experts don’t dislike such licensing reforms, but they leave much undone, they say.

Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, pointed out that no existing licensing system assesses teachers with a primary focus on student learning. Nor is that likely to happen until systems are in place that are able to measure a teacher’s contribution to learning over a number of years, she said.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor, countered that evaluation methods are much improved over 15 years ago even without that component.

Still, she said, other countries are “very far ahead” of the United States in fostering and recognizing teacher development. “If you look across [our] whole nation,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said, “it is very ad hoc.”

Vol. 27, Issue 16, Pages 6-7

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