Federal Opinion

Why Can’t Teachers Cross State Lines?

By Arthur E. Wise — September 13, 2016 5 min read

Most licensed professionals can move across state lines with little more than their licenses in hand. This is not the case for teachers, who discover that a license is often not worth the paper it’s written on. For them, a move across state lines frequently entails red tape to be negotiated, new tests to be passed, new courses to be taken, and a new license to be obtained. Why the difference? The answer is in plain sight, though apparently invisible to those who have caused the problem and have the power to fix it.

In most professions, national standards and the state recognition of licenses based on them result in relatively easy interstate reciprocity. There may be a few hoops to jump through, but nothing overly challenging. In teaching, the absence of national licensing standards and, therefore, the impossibility of state recognition of licenses based on them, leads, at best, to cumbersome interstate reciprocity. At worst, and all too often, it leads to frustration, resignation, and teacher shortages.

State legislatures, which ultimately have authority over professions that require a license, have, in effect, sanctioned state reciprocity but have never applied this policy to teaching. Legislatures have authorized such professionals as physical therapists, psychologists, architects, engineers, accountants, and doctors to cross state lines with minimal difficulty. Teachers, on the other hand, must effectively acquire a new license as if they have never taught before and no matter how long they may have held a license in another state.

Why Can't Teachers Cross State Lines? States must create authoritative teacher-licensing boards to treat teachers as the professionals they are, urges Arthur E. Wise. Image by Steve Braden.

Were legislatures to treat teaching like other professions, the problem of teacher-licensing reciprocity, along with many other barriers to teacher quality and supply, would likely be eliminated.

The solution begins when the legislature establishes a professional state-licensing board. This board has the authority to set and enforce standards for entry to and practice of the profession. States have established such authoritative boards for many professions, with the notable exception of teaching. Typically, legislatures do not override the standards and processes employed by their licensing boards. In general, interstate-licensing reciprocity is relatively easy since state boards tend to trust the licenses granted by their counterparts in other states, given that most rely on the same national standards, tests, and assessments.

To be sure, some states have created teacher-licensing boards, which they often label “advisory.” However, nearly all lack the authority of other professional boards. It is true that these licensing boards can establish standards, but they cannot enforce them. They can say what teachers must know and be able to do, but they cannot insist that teachers new to the profession or new to the state meet their expectations. Legislatures and other state bodies routinely compromise teacher-licensing standards to ensure an adequate supply of teachers. It is no wonder that states do not trust the teaching licenses of other states.

Were legislatures to treat teaching like other professions, the problem of teacher-licensing reciprocity ... would likely be eliminated."

A professional license signifies that the professional is ready to practice. Generally, candidates for a license must be graduates of accredited preparation programs and pass external examinations to demonstrate they have acquired or developed the knowledge, skills, dispositions, and ability to perform according to standards set by the profession. The standards are never compromised, thus assuring one and all that licensed professionals are ready to practice and interstate reciprocity is possible.

Rigorous teaching standards, the equal of standards in other professions, exist. Standards-based tests of candidates’ academic-content knowledge and teaching knowledge exist. EdTPA, an assessment of teaching performance, measures teaching readiness. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards measures accomplished teaching for advanced certification. (Twenty-seven states have recognized NBPTS certification as the basis for reciprocity, but this option is available only to the relatively small number of teachers who are national-board-certified.)

Many states use the quality-assurance measures associated with accreditation, teacher tests, and teacher assessments, but others do not. Many states apply these measures with rigor; others do not. Many states, even those with rigorous expectations, relax them in times of shortage and for other reasons.

Other professions, including medicine and architecture, have powerful national organizations that represent state-licensing boards or the profession. They play key roles in facilitating interstate reciprocity. The medical profession has the Federation of State Medical Boards and the National Board of Medical Examiners, which set rigorous standards for medical education, licensing, certification and administer assessments, and other processes that measure whether standards are met. Architecture has the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the association of state boards, which develops and administers licensing and certification examinations.

State-licensing boards choose to rely on the examinations and processes used by their respective national bodies. The result is that the license issued by the state is based on national professional standards and therefore similar to the licenses granted by all other states. States can and do exercise their prerogative to expect a bit more or a bit less, sometimes for substantive reasons and sometimes for political ones. Thus, licenses do vary from state to state but within narrow enough parameters that interstate reciprocity allows professionals to cross states lines with minimal red tape.

We must therefore establish a National Board for Teacher Licensing, modeled on such bodies in other professions, to develop beginning-teacher licensing standards and to work with state teacher-licensing boards. Alternatively, the NBPTS could expand its mission beyond advanced certification to include initial teacher licensing. It has the advantage of substantial experience in the assessment of teaching performance.

Teachers’ unions, which have long supported state boards, must educate legislatures on their importance. In turn, legislatures should trust teacher licensing as they trust other professional licensing, no more and no less. Clearly, this is a step that legislatures have balked at because of their antipathy toward teachers’ unions. The unions may need to mobilize the larger education stakeholder community of education schools, parents, the business community, and others who see the advantage in interstate reciprocity for teachers.

Until the void is filled, teachers will continue to have difficulty crossing state lines. As it stands, interstate reciprocity is a cruel hoax for teachers and a self-defeating policy for states that fail to trust teachers at least as much as they trust other professionals.


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