Special Report

The Gatekeeping Challenge

By Ann Bradley — January 13, 2000 19 min read

When it comes to its teachers, Texas has decided to bite the bullet and own up to the painful truth. The harsh reality, Lone Star-style, is that the state is short more than 40,000 qualified teachers out of a workforce of 256,500.

That doesn’t mean there are tens of thousands of classrooms without instructors. It means children are being taught by instructors who don’t meet the state’s own definition of a qualified teacher--someone with a license to teach the subject and grade level to which he or she is assigned.

In adopting a rigorous description of a well-prepared teacher and publicizing its shortfall, Texas has set itself apart. For despite a lot of elevated rhetoric about the urgent need for good teachers, many states are still playing an elaborate word game designed to hide the fact that, under certain circumstances, they allow just about anyone with a college degree to teach.

The states exercise a crucial gatekeeping function in deciding who can have a teaching license. A license or certificate sets a floor for teaching, meaning that a person has the minimum knowledge and skills to enter the classroom.

But an Education Week survey for Quality Counts found loopholes in nearly every state that permit less than fully qualified people to teach. The survey examined state waivers for minimal requirements with which few would quibble: passing a basic-skills test; passing a subject-area test for high school teaching; and fulfilling subject-area coursework requirements for high school.

In some cases, the loopholes exist despite the insistence of education officials that their states had no such mechanisms. As a result, the nation’s millions of licensed educators teach alongside “incidental” teachers (New York state), “provisional commitment” teachers (Nebraska), and “temporary” teachers (Wyoming).

The permits, to be sure, allow districts to place adults in classrooms for which they have no qualified teachers. But while such emergency instructors may look--and even act--like teachers, they may not have adequate knowledge and skills.

In Texas, the estimated shortfall of 41,300 fully qualified teachers means that positions are filled by people with emergency licenses, those in programs to earn full credentials, retirees lured back into the classroom, and long-term substitutes.

In Texas, an English teacher can teach algebra for a year as long as she has six hours of college math, says Stephanie Korcheck of the certification board.

“By our rules and regulations, it’s OK for an English teacher to teach algebra for one year as long as they have six hours of college math,” says Stephanie Korcheck, the director of communications and government relations for the State Board for Educator Certification. Although the position is considered filled, she says, if the teacher doesn’t know much math, “that might be a shortage from a child’s point of view.”

‘Deliberately Obscure’

The Quality Counts survey found that:

  • Thirty-six of the 39 states that require basic-skills testing for teachers also waive that restriction in certain circumstances.
  • Twenty-nine states require beginning high school teachers to pass a test in the subject they plan to teach, and 39 require prospective high school teachers to complete a major, a minor, or an equivalent number of course credits in their subjects. Yet every state but New Jersey waives those mandates in some instances.

Even states with very high standards for teachers use backdoor routes to fill their classrooms. The extent to which districts and school take advantage of such options varies, however.

Connecticut, which has some of the most stringent requirements of any state, will issue a “durational shortage area permit” and “temporary authorization for a minor assignment” when districts cannot find appropriately licensed teachers. Only about 100 of the state’s 38,000 teachers are working under such permits.

California has set stiff requirements for earning a license--including a subject-matter major or passing an extensive battery of tests. But the state’s growing enrollment and its class-size-reduction program have created such an explosive demand that 29,000 people are teaching this year under emergency permits. The state also waived the passing requirement on its basic-skills test for over 1,000 beginning teachers last year.

Prospective teachers in California simply have no incentive to undergo a traditional credentialing program, says Patrick M. Shields, a researcher at SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research and consulting corporation in Menlo Park, Calif. “You can walk into a school and get a job today at $32,000,” he says, “or you can go to [college] and start a program and pay them $5,000 and not have any income.”

Determining the extent to which states actually grant waivers is difficult. Some states don’t keep close track of teachers’ qualifications because districts, rather than individuals, apply for relief from licensing regulations.

“The current system deliberately obscures the qualifications of teachers from view,” says Arthur E. Wise, the president of the national accrediting organization for education schools. In other professions, he says, calling someone without proper training an engineer or an architect would be considered fraud.

In education, Wise suggests, teachers who aren’t fully licensed could be called instructors or some other title that would make their status clear. That, he says, would force schools “to explain why some children are being taught by real teachers, and other children are being taught by another kind of person.”

Admittedly, states are in a tough spot. As they demand more of students, policymakers realize that good teaching is essential. But at the same time, states must keep an eye on the need to staff their classrooms.

Raising standards too high, many fear, will cut off the supply of teachers and screen out a high proportion of minority teachers.

''There is a huge debate among states over quantity versus quality,” says Virginia Roach, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. ''Although there is good evidence from Connecticut and other states that if you hold the line on high-quality teachers, you can attract higher-quality candidates,” she adds, “that takes a level of trust that’s easier to implement in times when you don’t have a shortage.”

Morass of Rules

The discussion is further complicated by the fact that licensure isn’t widely accepted as a hallmark of competence. Critics charge that low standards and bureaucratic requirements actually discourage the best and brightest from becoming teachers, rather than screening out those who can’t meet minimum standards.

Dale Ballou, an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, argues that teaching lacks the agreed-upon base of knowledge that characterizes other professions. Principals, he says, should be allowed to decide whom to hire, regardless of credentials.

“We think deregulating the labor market and increasing accountability for administrators is just a more effective approach” than revamping licensure requirements, Ballou says.

State licensing systems often are a morass of rules, regulations, and paperwork requirements that confuse, rather than clarify, issues of teacher quality. Typically, prospective teachers must complete some mix of coursework and pass one or more tests to earn a license. In many states, however, the passing scores established on those tests are set so low that virtually everyone passes.

Eight states--Idaho, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming--don’t test their teachers at all. And some states that do have tests don’t administer them until teachers have classroom experience.

In Florida, teachers can work two years before they are required to pass the state licensure test. Rhode Island waives the state licensing exam for teachers who have been working for two years but can’t pass the test.

Texas is one of many states--including Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin--that are trying to upgrade their licensing systems. Twenty-four states received a total of $33.4 million in federal grants last year to strengthen standards for entry into the classroom.

States are cracking down on education schools by requiring them to report on their students’ scores on licensing tests; adding new testing requirements, including efforts to measure prospective teachers’ actual performance in classrooms; and creating tiered licensing plans that provide novice teachers with help from mentors before they clear the final hurdle for a permanent certificate. Veteran teachers also face increased requirements for continuing professional development in many states.

Texas, which issues almost 90 different credentials to educators, has decided to start over from scratch. The State Board for Educator Certification, a 15-member panel with an activist bent, has approved a framework for licensing that would streamline the current system by the 2003-04 school year.

The Texas certification board is moving toward licenses that would cover a broader range of content knowledge--particularly at the middle and high school levels--than is typical now. Instead of receiving a license to teach chemistry, for example, a teacher would be certified to teach physical science. The new structure would require significant changes in teacher-preparation programs at colleges and universities.

The proposed system also would make some value judgments about what educators at each level should know. Reading, for example, would become the foundation for elementary licensure in Texas.

Only about half of the states, according to the Education Week survey, test elementary teachers’ knowledge about how to teach specific subject matter. California now administers the Reading Instruction Competency Assessment, or RICA, to address concerns about students’ poor reading scores.

Trouble in the Middle

When it comes to licensing middle school teachers, states are sending conflicting messages, at best. Twenty-six states allow middle school educators to teach with generic certificates spanning both the elementary and middle years, the Education Week survey found.

A 1998 study by the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta found that some of its 16 member states had as many as four overlapping licenses covering the middle years.

At least a third of middle school teachers in those states held elementary licenses, the study found, raising questions about whether they had adequate content knowledge to teach older students. Data from national and international assessments show that U.S. achievement levels begin to dip in the middle grades, a fact many attribute to weaknesses in teacher knowledge at that level.

Saundra Cooney, the director of the middle-grades- education initiative at the SREB, says many teachers interviewed for the study preferred the job flexibility offered by elementary licenses instead of the more rigorous coursetaking rules for middle school certificates.

“If you don’t get rid of the overlap,” Cooney says, “then you’re never going to have anybody that would select middle grades. If the requirements are more advanced for one certificate as compared to the other, many will opt for the one where the requirements are not as stringent.”

The SREB report urges states to require teachers of the middle grades to have at least an academic minor in the content areas they will teach. Some states have eliminated K-8 and 1-8 certificates. For example, in 1998 Connecticut began requiring incoming middle school teachers to have subject-specific secondary certificates and at least 24 course credits in their subjects.

In one state, according to the SREB report, two-thirds of 6th grade math courses were taught by teachers with elementary education majors who may have had six or fewer credit hours of math training. In 8th grade, 70 percent of English classes were taught by teachers licensed in either elementary education or home economics.

Out-of-field teaching is rooted in the way teachers and schools are managed and operated.”

Teacher licensure now is governed more by the grade level a teacher will teach than by subject knowledge. But Cooney notes that some policymakers are pondering the reverse: a licensing system focused on teachers’ content knowledge, with endorsements for teaching particular grades or ages of children.

Out-of-Field Teaching

No matter how much attention states pay to teachers’ credentials, it is in the schools where principals make assignments, and all too often faculty members are assigned to teach subjects for which they have little or no academic training.

Richard M. Ingersoll, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, has analyzed U.S. Department of Education data and found that large number of teachers are leading classes for which they lack even the equivalent of a college minor. About 28 percent of high school math teachers, for example, have neither a major nor a minor in math, and 18 percent of all science teachers are similarly ill-prepared.

“In any given year, out-of-field teaching takes place in well over half of all secondary schools in the U.S.,” Ingersoll found. In English, math, and history, well over 4 million secondary school students every year are taught by teachers without a major or minor in the field.

And it is often the students most in need of qualified teachers who are least likely to get them.

Beginning teacher and those in high-poverty schools and small schools are more likely to be assigned to teach out of field. Students in lower-track academic classes also are more likely to have out-of-field teachers. So are middle school students. For example, one-third of 7th grade science students nationwide were taught by out-of-field teachers in 1992-93, compared with one-tenth of 12th grade science students.

“Out-of-field teaching is rooted in the way teachers and schools are managed and operated,” Ingersoll says. “Except in an emergency, we wouldn’t have a heart doctor deliver our baby. We wouldn’t have a real estate lawyer try a rape case. We wouldn’t have a chemical engineer design a bridge. The assumption is that these professions require expertise and training and skill. The assumption underlying teaching is that it doesn’t really take all that much skill, and that a really good teacher can teach anything.”

But out-of-field teaching also is a product of the highly specific subject licenses some states grant, argues Korcheck of the Texas certification board.

Texas districts can issue “temporary classroom assignment permits” to allow secondary school teachers to teach up to four classes outside their licensure areas, if they have at least six semester hours of coursework in the subject.

The certification board has tried to crack down on the use of such permits by permitting districts to use them just for one year, but has no way to monitor compliance with that rule. To become certified in a subject, Texas teachers need only to take an exam, rather than go back to school for coursework.

The Testing Lightning Rod

If the structure of teaching licenses seems arcane, one common requirement is not--testing. Teacher testing, one of the most widely embraced school improvement initiatives of the past 15 years, has become a lightning rod for concerns about overall teacher quality.

But research shows that the public can’t rest assured that the tests set a high standard. In some states, the bar is set so low that the tests are virtually meaningless.

According to a study released last spring by the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that studies issues related to poor and minority students, many questions on subject-area tests required for secondary-level licensure assess only high-school level knowledge. The study found that tests requiring candidates to write essay or construct mathematical proofs were tougher.

But the Education Week survey found that few states use such performance items. While 29 states require a subject-area test for prospective high school teachers, only 15 require a test that includes such “performance” questions in English, 10 in mathematics; and five in physics.

Each state, working with the developer of its test, goes through an elaborate process to set the “cut scores,” or acceptable passing rates. But given states’ conflicting interest in ensuring a well-stocked pool of teachers, those cores are typically set low. Maryland and Virginia have made headlines recently by increasing their cut scores.

The most commonly used tests, administered in 36 states, are the PRAXIS series developed in the early 1990s by the Educational Testing Service. The PRAXIS I is a basic-skills test designed to screen candidates for entry into teacher-preparation programs. The PRAXIS II consists of subject-matter tests and tests of both general and subject-specific knowledge about teaching. The PRAXIS III, currently being pilot-tested by Ohio, measures beginning teachers’ on-the-job skills. The other provider of teacher tests, National Evaluation Systems of Amherst, Mass., works with individual states to design tests to their specifications. The nation’s most populous states--including California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Texas--have contracts with the company.

As part of its study, the SREB examined licensure and testing standards in its 16 member states in the South and Southeast. The picture was not reassuring. Of the eight states that required the PRAXIS II professional-knowledge test, only Florida set its passing score above the 25th percentile, the study found.

Several states, the SREB report notes with irony, consider a high proportion of student test scores in the lowest quartile as evidence of a failing or troubled school: “Yet these same states accept the bottom 25 percent as ‘good enough’ for teachers.”

Of the 18 states that use the Math Content Knowledge PRAXIS II exam, the Quality Counts analysis found, 11 have set their passing scores below the national median of people who took the exam. All but six states have set their passing scores below the median for people with undergraduate majors in math or science.

What makes things worse, critics assert, is that the tests themselves aren’t very challenging.

In states with low cutoff scores, the Education Trust found, candidates can pass the tests by answering as few as half the items correctly. The reviewers found none of the deep subject-matter knowledge they contend teachers must possess in order to understand students’’ thinking and bring them to high levels of achievement.

Kati Haycock, the nonprofit group’s director, says such tests reflect “old thinking about what it takes to be a teacher, instead of thinking hard about what it takes to teach effectively in a standards-based system. The rules have changed.”

While academic standards for students have changed, the legal realities that govern teacher licensing have not. And that is one reason, experts say, that teacher tests aren’t more demanding.

Legally, states can’t set the bar for entry into teaching too high. Licensure tests are meant to weed out prospective teachers who lack critical knowledge and skills, not to distinguish elite teachers from their ordinary peers.

“In licensing, you can never escape that you are dealing with real employment issues,” notes Mari Pearlman, the vice president of teaching and learning at the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS.

The nonprofit testing giant announced plans last fall to remake its PRAXIS series to incorporate the national academic standards that have been written over the past decade by various subject-matter organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Under contract to a consortium of 30 states that have been working to improve licensure, the ETS has devised a prototype called the Test for Teaching Knowledge. The four-hour test of pedagogy is meant to replace the Principles of Learning and Teaching test, which is often criticized as too generic. (Virginia officials decided for that reason to stop requiring the test.)

The Test for Teaching Knowledge, which is not yet available, is based on standards for beginning teachers set by the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.

While advocates for higher standards criticize teacher tests as too simplistic, others fear the tests will screen out large numbers of minority teachers.

A California test has been tied up in the courts since 1992 by advocates who charged that it discriminated against minority candidates. A federal appeals court upheld the California Basic Educational Skills Test last year.

In Alabama, a discrimination case succeeded in halting all teacher testing in 1985. The state education department and the plaintiffs agreed last year to consider giving the PRAXIS I, but ETS officials expressed reservations about getting involved.

A panel convened by the National Research Council to advise the U.S. Department of Education on issues related to teacher assessment will issue a report this year. As part of its research, the panel heard from students at Albany State University in Albany, Ga. The state requires students to pass the PRAXIS exams in order to graduate and be recommended for a teaching license.

“I have known people to get out of education because of the hurdles we are jumping,” Tesharra C. Starling, a senior preparing to teach middle school, told the panel. “It’s deterring a lot of good teachers who may not be good test-takers. It doesn’t mean they’re not good teachers if they can’t pass the tests.”

New Accountability Provisions

With the new accountability provisions in the Higher Education Act of 1998, which requires institutions that receive federal money to report how their teacher-candidates fared on licensure tests, the focus on teacher testing is likely to intensify.

In 1998, Texas became the first state to hold colleges and universities accountable for their education students’ scores on the state’ licensure tests. Five other states told Education Week they are following suit.

Texas requires that institutions report candidates’ scores by race, gender, and ethnic group--a policy decision that Haycock of the Education Trust praises. “It says that you’re not allowed to assume that a disproportionate number of minority students will fail,” she says. “You have to do something about that, and damned if they’re not.”

As of last fall, 10 of the state’s 87 accredited teacher-training programs were “under review,” meaning they were falling short of meeting the state standards.

Kenneth Craycraft, the dean of the college of education and applied sciences at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, says the focus on entire institutions helps education schools catch the attention of their colleague in the arts and sciences classes where prospective teachers learn most of their subjects. “No one want to be associated with a program that’s under review,” he says.

In addition to holding colleges and universities accountable, Texas has hired National Evaluation Systems to design assessments that will gauge beginning teachers’ performance in the classroom. The state expects to pilot-test the assessments in a year.

Connecticut has the most comprehensive performance assessment for beginning teachers, including portfolios of their classroom work. Seven states--Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana. North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas--told Education Week they are creating or field-testing performance assessments. Supporters hope the videotapes and portfolios of actual classroom work will provide another measure of teachers’ abilities and help education schools and mentor teachers sharpen their aid to new teachers.

But the assessments face an uncertain future as licensing instruments, since they are likely to be many times more expensive than traditional tests and are likely to face legal challenges.

Performance assessment “is still an underdeveloped art,” says Joan Baratz Snowden, the deputy director of the educational issues department of the American Federation of Teachers. “We are far from a place where we can rely on it in the next three years.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2000 edition of Education Week