Education Commentary

Examining the Contradictions Of Licensure

By Gary Sykes — March 29, 1989 7 min read

Current efforts at the state level to improve the quality of teachers betray an incomplete understanding among policymakers and educators of the ways in which credentialing systems influence the caliber of the workforce.

The three functions of licensure systems--creating supply, constructing categories of competence, and inventing conceptions of quality--are difficult to reconcile. But to design effective reforms, policymakers must recognize and regularly appraise all elements of the credentialing process and the complex interaction among them.

The patterns of policy and practice are often contradictory:

Many states have instituted tests for entry to teacher education and for licensure. A number of states are measuring performance during the first year with in-class observations, and many are requiring supervised internships prior to permanent licensure.

A near majority of states have recently enacted alternate-route programs designed to attract nontraditional recruits into teaching. Such plans usually relax professional education requirements.

The majority of states issue substandard credentials allowing unqualified individuals to teach for varying amounts of time.

In many districts, teachers are routinely assigned to classes outside their area of competence, despite state laws that proscribe such practices.

As these examples indicate, policy appears simultaneously to tighten and loosen the connection between qualifications and assignments in teaching, and to raise and lower entry standards. It suggests both that regulatory controls, by raising standards, are the solution to concerns about teacher quality, and that they are also, by creating barriers to recruitment, the problem.

By one account, the issue boils down to economics: If teachers’ salaries are inadequate, then toughening licensure requirements is likely to be self-defeating, leading to shortages. This point is well understood by policymakers, who have coupled new entry requirements with salary increases in recent years.

By another account, the issue involves fundamental differences in conceptions of what it takes to teach.

But a systemic perspective is necessary to understand the logic behind these apparent contradictions. The three functions of licensure policy sometimes produce cross-purposes.

First, though the credentialing process is commonly thought to restrict supply by establishing minimum qualifications for entry, it in fact generates the supply of teachers.

State regulation of occupations creates monopolies of competence, but in no cases are these perfect monopolies. In all professional labor markets, supply is dependent on the fluctuation of wages and standards. The response to shortages typically includes a combination of wage increases with a relaxation or redefinition of standards. The balance between these two mechanisms varies from field to field, however, as do the particular means for defining, differentiating, or degrading the standards.

To increase supply in the health field, for example, new categories of personnel have arisen: licensed vocational nurses alongside registered nurses, physicians’ assistants alongside physicians. And a variety of “irregular” practitioners--osteopaths, chiropractors, midwives, faith healers--have survived elite medicine’s efforts to eliminate competition. In other fields, notably architecture, accounting, and engineering, licensure law restricts the title but not the practice; much routine work in these fields is carried out by practitioners who are not “certified” or “registered.”

But teaching is unlike other professions in a number of ways, including its sheer size. In most states, educational expenditures are the largest item in the budget, with teachers’ pay accounting for a major share of the total. Teachers’ salaries are not market-sensitive; they are subject to the politics of the budgetary process at state and local levels. As a result, lags in the labor market--which may take the form of either shortages or oversupplies--are the rule. And teaching has undergone little differentiation over the years. These circumstances tip the balance toward flexibility in standards as a means of generating supply.

Several mechanisms serve this purpose. To increase supply, states may lower passing scores on licensure tests, and they may grant a variety of substandard credentials that circumvent requirements for full licensure. They may also sanction alternate-route programs that reduce entry costs--such as tuition, coursework and other professional preparation, and forgone career opportunities--for nontraditional recruits. Similarly, local districts--often with the state’s tacit acceptance--may assign teachers to classes outside their area of licensure and increase class size to accommodate teacher shortages. From a public-policy perspective, an appraisal of any state’s credentialing system requires attention to this full range of practice.

Second, the licensure system constructs the categories of competence that determine the link between qualifications and assignments and shape official definitions of supply. On the one hand, broad credentialing categories allow local flexibility in assigning teachers to classes. A teacher with a credential in “science,” for example, may legitimately teach earth science, biology, physics, or chemistry.

Specialist credentials, on the other hand, more closely link qualifications and assignments, but they may work hardships on districts unable to recruit specialists.

Some specialization in teaching is undoubtedly desirable--but how much is open to question. Should a 6th-grade teacher have a separate credential from a 4th- or 8th-grade teacher? Should we require “treatment” by specialists for children with mild learning disabilities when the evidence suggests that this label is often misused as an excuse to pull difficult-to-teach children out of regular classrooms?

The gradual evolution toward specialized credentials is a mixed blessing. Mounting research indicates that expertise in teaching is specific to subject areas and student populations. For example, the emerging attention to subject-specific pedagogy, as contrasted with the earlier emphasis on generic skills, suggests a need for tighter connections between credential categories and teaching assignments.

Yet districts have legitimate needs for staffing flexibility. Particularly in responding to calls for school restructuring, state policy should promote, not hinder, experiments with new staffing arrangements. But requests for “flexibility” may also reflect the inability or unwillingness of a community to pay for a fully qualified teacher corps as defined by specialist credentials.

As its third function, state licensure policy provides one definition of the knowledge underlying practice. The prevailing tendency is to grant primacy to teachers’ knowledge of subjects, their mastery of a small set of generic competencies aimed at producing basic skills, and such informal, tacit knowledge as they acquire in practice teaching.

But judged against the best thinking from the overlapping communities of research on teaching and learning, and against professional conceptions of the teaching role, this implicit definition of teaching can only be described as impoverished. The lag between the frontiers of knowledge and mainstream practice is understandable, as is the emphasis on minimum standards for licensure--but even so, there is considerable room for improvement in the ways states conceive and assess professional knowledge in teaching.

At present, no state is in a position to make a comprehensive appraisal of its credentialing system. Because the information base is spotty to nonexistent, well-grounded judgments about the interaction among different elements within the system are impossible.

Developing grounds for ongoing evaluation will require four steps. First, public and professional interests must collaborate in designing a model statute that establishes a norm against which current conditions can be judged. Critical elements in such a statute would include waiver provisions and criteria that balance the value of specialist credentials against legitimate needs for staffing flexibility in particular locales. Districts should be able to secure waivers--but not simply to dodge the problem of attracting a qualified workforce.

Second, states must develop a set of indicators to track progress on the key elements of the credentialing system. Third, they must establish a set of procedural standards for regularly scrutinizing the system. And fourth, in implementing these standards, states must create a monitor-and-review capacity.

Interstate cooperation in pursuing these steps would be desirable for sharing costs and facilitating cross-state comparisons.

Meaningful reform requires looking beyond the psychometric and legal concerns that have dominated licensure policy in the past to the full range of policies and practices that influence the quality of teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as Examining the Contradictions Of Licensure

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