Education Opinion

States Must Create Teaching Standards Boards

By Arthur E. Wise — January 11, 1989 6 min read

The legislative season arrives soon. And in many states, policymakers will be considering bills to create professional standards boards for teachers.

Such legislation may appear merely to reassign the state’s responsibility for credentialing teachers from a bureau to a board. But the real issue before legislators is whether to set and enforce meaningful standards for entry to teaching--and thereby to protect children from incompetent instruction.

Teaching must adopt initial quality-control procedures modeled on those employed by the established professions. In fields such as accounting, architecture, engineering, law, and medicine, self-regulated licensing procedures help ensure that new professionals are qualified to practice independently--and as a result, the public has confidence in beginning practitioners.

Until teachers can prove themselves worthy of a similar trust, the movement to professionalize teaching will stall. And without professionalization, such reforms as deregulation, decentralization, school-based management, and shared decisionmaking will falter: The success of these strategies depends more heavily on the judgments of personnel than on the prescriptions of policy.

State licensing boards would complement the work of the new National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The national board has chosen to focus its attention on developing advanced standards for the recognition of outstanding experienced teachers. Teachers will participate on a voluntary basis; states and districts will be free to reward this recognition or require it for advancement.

But state boards would assume responsibility for the initial licensing of teachers. All candidates would be required by the states to submit to the boards’ procedures.

Currently, teachers in most states are not “licensed"; rather, they are “certified” as having completed an approved program of teacher education. The certification process--which involves counting courses and interpreting course labels--reveals neither the professional knowledge nor the teaching ability of a prospective teacher. And the simplistic tests of knowledge and ratings of teaching ability to which candidates are subjected in a growing number of states do not inspire public or professional confidence.

Even these standards are not uniformly enforced. As spot shortages have begun to develop in various states, increasing numbers of classrooms are staffed by instructors teaching under temporary, emergency, or alternate certificates granted to those who cannot meet the state’s standard certification requirements. Only in the doublespeak that has evolved around certification can these “teachers” be termed such.

Research by the rand Corporation has shown that unqualified teachers are generally not assigned to the children of the educated class--those who are most likely to recognize a teacher’s lack of qualifications. Rather, they are commonly placed in inner-city and rural areas, where many parents themselves lack sufficient education to evaluate a teacher’s qualifications. As a result of this practice, those children who most need teachers’ assistance are less likely to have teachers qualified to help them.

In the established professions, licensing boards define and enforce standards for entry to the field. Consisting, for the most part, of members of the profession, these groups identify critical knowledge and skills, devise procedures for evaluating beginning practitioners, and deny entry to those who cannot demonstrate readiness.

To ensure that judgments adhere to the canons of fairness, reliability, validity, and job relevance, each profession has evolved a series of assessments for licensing. In addition to graduation from accredited professional schools, such measures include: multiple-choice tests of knowledge; essay examinations posing hypothetical problems to which the candidate must apply knowledge; oral exams calling for spontaneous responses; performance tests requiring the candidate to react to standardized stimuli; and internships that “test” performance on the job. Limited though each of these methods by itself may be as a tool for appraisal, when taken as a whole they provide convincing evidence of a candidate’s fitness to practice.

Indeed, the new professional’s license represents the only assurance to clients that he is ready to practice.

Historically, members of the established professions have had to lead the fight to develop mechanisms protecting the public--and themselves--from the ministrations of unlicensed practitioners. Only they can readily distinguish between a knowledgeable professional and a charlatan, and only they have the incentive to do so.

It is not surprising, then, that teachers are leading the effort to create standards boards and new licensing procedures. They pushed for the establishment of the national board, and now they are working to create state boards.

Currently advancing in many states, this movement is generally being led by the teacher organization with the strongest presence in a given state--in most cases, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

And teachers in New York State--where the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers has assumed leadership--received an additional push last year from the task force on the teaching profession appointed by Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol. As one of its recommendations to professionalize teaching, this panel urged the creation of a professional standards board. (See Education Week, March 30, 1988.)

In the last year, variants of such boards have been enacted in Nevada, Michigan, Montana, and West Virginia; this group joins such states as Minnesota and Oregon, which have had such boards for a number of years.

The straightforward assignment of these boards seems simple, even unexceptionable: Who could object to the professional community’s developing and enforcing meaningful standards for entry to teaching--to maintaining quality control over teaching personnel?

In fact, however, large groups of educators and policymakers with a stake in the status quo oppose the change.

For example, bureaus of teacher education and certification within state education departments have developed and now manage the certification process. And bureaucrats and bureaucracies do not happily surrender turf.

Some organizations of administrators and school boards are also resisting the shift to standards boards. Apparently they prefer the current system, which allows them to hire unqualified teachers whenever an “emergency” exists--and in many states, an “emergency” exists when a local superintendent says that a qualified teacher cannot be found.

Under these circumstances, other options for increasing the supply of qualified teachers--such as raising wages--are often ignored. Yet labor shortages in teaching can be solved like labor shortages in other fields: When the market does not produce supply of a given quality at a given price, firms raise the price. Of course, if quality is of no concern, then eliminating standards also increases supply.

To be sure, a bill to create a professional standards board must be carefully drawn. It is the governor--perhaps with advice from the legislature--who must appoint the members: The board serves as an official government agency implementing state law.

Though the board must consist primarily of practicing teachers, other educators and the public should also be represented. And more important than the designation of the board’s character--"autonomous,” “quasi-autonomous,” or “advisory"--are the scope of its authority, the size and quality of its staff, the appropriateness of its budget in relation to its task, and the seriousness with which it is taken by those in authority.

While standards boards promote the development of professions, their most important purpose is to guard the consumer against incompetent performers. Schoolchildren in particular and the public in general deserve that protection: In the end, a bill to create professional licensing is a consumer-protection bill.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as States Must Create Teaching Standards Boards