Recruitment & Retention

Crackdowns on Emergency Licenses Begin as Teacher Shortages Loom

By Ann Bradley — April 07, 1999 11 min read
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By this coming fall, New York has decreed, the worst-performing schools in the state won’t be allowed to employ any new teachers with temporary licenses. And by September 2003, the practice will be outlawed altogether.

New York is among a handful of states attempting to crack down on the hiring of teachers without full qualifications. The long-standing practice--known by a variety of terms, including emergency licensure--is used to fill classrooms when teachers trained to teach a particular subject can’t be found, or when teacher-candidates haven’t passed a required test or finished their coursework.

Now, as districts face the need to hire more than 2 million new teachers over the next decade, critics of emergency licensure fear it will spark a resurgence to stock classrooms with minimally qualified “warm bodies.” The concern is more acute in urban and rural schools serving minority and poor children.

Yet, even as New York and Maryland are moving to ensure that students are taught by fully prepared teachers, other states have considered lowering the bar. In Arizona, the state Senate last month defeated a bill that would have allowed districts to hire unlicensed “associate teachers.”

The debate over the bill underscores the tensions that arise over teacher licensure. The issue bitterly divides into camps those who argue that licensure is a barrier unrelated to a person’s ability to teach and those who insist that it provides a quality-assurance mechanism.

About This Series

    Part 5

    April 7, 1999

  • • Crackdowns on Emergency Licenses Begin as Teacher Shortages Loom

Each side can point to state laws reflecting its view. Some states, such as Connecticut, have rigorous licensing requirements, while others permit a broad range of hiring. In Texas, for example, even people who fail the state test can continue to teach for one year.

Nationwide, more than one-fourth of newly hired teachers enter the profession without having fully met state licensing standards, according to the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. Twelve percent of new teachers are hired with no license at all, while another 15 percent hold temporary, provisional, or emergency licenses.

As part of its push for higher academic standards, the American Federation of Teachers has called for ending emergency licensure.

“Licensure is not to find the best teachers; it’s to assure that they do no harm,” said Joan Baratz-Snowden, the deputy director of the union’s educational issues department. “We want quality, and you can’t have emergency licensure at the same time.”

Carrots and Sticks

In Maryland, the number of teachers on “provisional certificates” has crept upward to 2,700 in a teaching force of 50,000. The vast majority teach in Baltimore or in Prince George’s County, which serve large numbers of poor and minority children.

Until the state school board imposed a time limit last June, Maryland teachers could remain on provisional certificates for an indefinite period. They were required to take six college credits of coursework a year, or show evidence that they had registered and taken--but not necessarily passed--the state’s teacher test.

Now, teachers have two years to pass the test, or up to four years to complete the required academic or professional coursework for a full license. They also won’t be permitted to move to another district and start the process anew.

“We’re looking at a very small percentage of the workforce, but we believe that every student should have a qualified teacher, a teacher who is caring and competent,” said Lawrence E. Leak, the assistant state superintendent in charge of teacher licensure.

Maryland is putting money behind the requirement; Baltimore and Prince George’s each will receive $2.5 million a year for the next four years to get their provisional teachers fully licensed. Other districts will share $500,000 a year for the same purpose.

If they don’t address the problem, districts could face penalties. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, is backing legislation that would withhold money to lower class sizes from districts that fail to reduce the proportion of provisional teachers to under 2 percent of their workforces.

‘Real Concern’

The effort in New York to eliminate “temporary licensure” is largely targeted at New York City, where 9,400 of the 75,000 public school teachers lack full credentials. Elsewhere in the state, some 1,185 teachers hold temporary licenses, according to the state board of regents.

The city, which educates more than one-third of the state’s public school students, also contains the bulk of the “schools under registration review.” Those SURR schools are the lowest-performing in the state. By the fall, those 94 schools will not be permitted to hire new teachers with temporary licenses.

Both policies, required by the state board, pose monumental challenges for the 1.1 million-student system.

“We’re trying very hard to hire only licensed teachers and teachers who meet certain criteria,” said Sonia Diaz Salcedo, the superintendent of New York City’s 9,000-student Community School District 1, which has four SURR schools. “It is very difficult to get someone with no experience to work in a school that may have been dysfunctional or suffered educational neglect or failure.”

The SURR schools already have far more unlicensed and inexperienced teachers than do schools that produce higher student achievement, said Carol Ascher, a researcher at New York University who studies them. Teacher turnover in SURR schools also is higher than average.

“I don’t understand how they’re going to staff those schools,” Ms. Ascher said, “unless they create incentives to bring the better-trained teachers from the schools serving more-affluent students into those high-poverty schools.”

Ms. Ascher predicted that the mandate to staff the low-performing schools with licensed teachers will “destabilize other schools” as administrators move teachers to comply with the requirement.

Gary Barton, the deputy executive director of the New York City schools’ division of human resources, called the state’s new rule “a real concern for us.” If the system can’t meet the new requirements, he said, it will be forced to ask for waivers.

In the past two years, New York City has hired 15,000 teachers; another 15,000 are eligible to retire. And since 1990-91, the system has licensed 11,000 teachers who entered the classroom without full credentials, Mr. Barton said.

A recent job fair held as part of the city’s effort to overhaul its recruitment practices produced enough interest that Cheryl Moye, the principal of Public School 97 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is optimistic. Her school, which is under state registration review, must restaff this summer as part of its reform plan and won’t be able to hire any more unlicensed teachers.

“I get a lot of resumes,” Ms. Moye said. “I think it’s just a matter of really reaching out and advertising positions.”

One of New York’s biggest recruitment problems--in addition to poor working conditions in many schools and a student population that reflects the challenges of a big urban system--is salaries. City teachers’ pay may trail that of teachers in surrounding counties by as much as 20 percent--a fact the United Federation of Teachers is highlighting in preparation for talks with the district on a new contract.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT affiliate, says the city is about to be “clobbered with a massive teacher shortage” because of the salary gap. If it’s not addressed, she recently told a gathering of business leaders, “the city will have to lower its hiring standards as it did every other time there has been a teacher shortage.”

Through pending legislation, the state board of regents is pursuing a set of incentives to help produce qualified teachers, including scholarships for students to teach in hard-to-staff schools and $10,000 bonuses for teachers who agree to teach in such schools for three years.

The AFT has suggested ways that its affiliates can help deal with the shortages that produce emergency licenses. Among them are negotiating incentives to persuade experienced teachers to become certified in a shortage field rather than retire; offering flexible or part-time teaching for retirees or teachers on child-care leave; asking teachers to take on additional classes for more pay; raising salaries; and putting qualified supervisors and administrators into the classroom.

Varied Oversight

Not every state has a good handle on exactly what qualifications its teachers possess or how they are deployed.

An unintended side effect of California’s popular class-size-reduction program, for example, was an explosion in the number of unlicensed teachers. The state now has 29,000 teachers with emergency credentials, up from 15,400 in 1995-96.

In Illinois, the state board of education is asking the legislature for the authority to conduct a comprehensive teacher-quality study.

Illinois districts are permitted, if they can’t find a licensed teacher, to issue a one-year “interim authorization” to someone short of full credentials. They can also use long-term substitutes, who typically complete much less coursework than fully licensed teachers.

The state’s regional superintendents are supposed to monitor those interim arrangements, said Marilyn McConachie, the vice chairwoman of the state board, but oversight varies.

“The bottom line is that there’s a need to get a teacher in every classroom,” she said. “We hear stories from the field that the use of long-term subs and these people with interim authorizations is very extensive.”

Other states have such minimal requirements for licensure that some policymakers argue it means little.

Bill Hanlon, a member of the Nevada state board, uses himself as an example in arguing that licensure doesn’t ensure competence. Mr. Hanlon, a mathematics and science specialist for the Clark County schools, graduated from college with a degree in math in 1972 and has been licensed in Nevada ever since to teach math, science, and driver education.

“I can readily tell you, God help the first tree I go by in driver’s ed,” Mr. Hanlon said, adding that he’s only taken one science course in the past 15 years.

Mr. Hanlon has pushed unsuccessfully in his state for a requirement that teachers remain “current and competent” in the fields they teach, and he has lobbied for a middle school credential that would beef up the content knowledge required for middle-grades teachers.

Until those changes are made, he said, getting upset about teachers who lack licenses misses the point.

Many conservatives agree. In Arizona, where officials just overhauled and strengthened teacher-licensing requirements, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan nevertheless supported the bill that would have allowed “associate teachers.”

The bill, introduced by a Republican lawmaker and defeated in the Senate, is expected to make a comeback. It would have permitted districts unable to find other qualified applicants to hire people with bachelor’s degrees and a major or minor in the field they would teach to work under one-year contracts.

The Arizona Education Association opposed the bill, arguing that it would permit districts to staff schools with merely the proverbial “warm bodies.”

“The opportunity for nepotism and cronyism is just ripe,” argued John Wright, the vice president of the National Education Association affiliate. “In times of shortage and need, other professions don’t lower their standards. They attract and recruit more people into the field.”

‘No Room for Creativity’

Patricia Likens, a spokeswoman for the Arizona education department, said Superintendent Keegan, a Republican, believed the bill would expand the pool of teachers.

The state’s new licensure requirements, Ms. Likens contended, “shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all, the only way to hire a teacher in the state. Then there’s no room for creativity.”

In Texas, the 1995 overhaul of the state education code permitted districts to hire unlicensed teachers using “local teaching permits.” Their degrees and work experience must match their teaching assignments.

Out of 250,000 teachers, the state has between 300 and 400 working with local permits. Most are physical education teachers hired for their ability to coach football.

Another Texas device--the “temporary-classroom-assignment permit,” or TCAP--permits districts to hire teachers to teach just one class a day, even if they have no college credits in the subject.

John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, an aft affiliate, and an outspoken proponent of exposing problems with teachers’ assignments and licenses, contends that districts plug teacher vacancies with six people on TCAP permits. That practice, he maintains, is a bigger problem than the state’s emergency licenses, which require teachers to take six credit hours of coursework a year.

“How can we have accountability,” Mr. Cole said, “when we’re allowing districts to hire people with this lack of credentials, and call them teachers?”

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1999 edition of Education Week as Crackdowns on Emergency Licenses Begin as Teacher Shortages Loom


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