Special Report
Teacher Preparation

Is Teacher Recertification Broken?

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 06, 2017 6 min read
<p>Joe Heflin, left, a science teacher at Calumet High School in Calumet, Mich., and Chris Woods, right, a math teacher at the school, talk during Heflin's science class as Woods observes Heflin’s teaching methodologies.</p> <p>—Keith King for Education Week</p> <p>Beyond Red Tape: Making Teacher Recertification Meaningful</p>

Every five years, teachers across the United States engage in a ritual of sorts, submitting paperwork to prove they’ve sat through a specified number of hours of coursework and paying a fee to renew their licenses.

It’s hard to think of something that has more influence over teachers: Relicensing affects all 3.5 million public school teachers who currently hold a standard license. But, curiously, it is rarely ever the topic of much debate.

For one thing, nobody seems to know how much money is caught up in relicensing. Accountability for providers of the training is minimal. And from a teaching standpoint, it’s not at all clear that what teachers do to fulfill relicensure requirements is aligned to their needs or their schools’ priorities.

“I’ve been whining about this for 20 years,” said Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of Learning Forward, a group that advocates better on-the-job training for K-12 teachers. “It’s an amazing policy tool that almost nobody uses in an effective way.”

Almost all states now see the value of mentoring programs to help new teachers find their classroom footing, she noted.

So why, she asks, isn’t anyone paying attention to what they need a few years later—when the email arrives reminding teachers that it’s time to renew?

A Black Hole

From one point of view, it’s because few in K-12 have tried to get a handle on how the system shapes teacher professional development, for good or ill.

License renewal is hardly ever researched or studied. A search of 10 years of back issues of the American Educational Research Journal, Education Finance and Policy, Teachers College Record, the Journal of Teacher Education, Professional Development in Education, and the Journal of Adult and Continuing Education turned up just one article referencing teacher-certificate renewal, an Education Week review found.

News coverage of certificate renewal is nonexistent. Education Week is no exception: Its last story on relicensing dates to 2000.

And finally, the process is needlessly obscure. There are no public sources listing each state’s renewal requirements for teachers. Instead, the details are buried in individual states’ websites and legal code.

For those brave enough to go down the rabbit hole, states rarely specify answers to this key question: What is the point of these systems?, noted Melissa Tooley, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank that is releasing a report on the topic this spring.

“Information on state websites is about the process, not the purpose,” she said.

Even officials who say states are thinking more about licensing these days than ever before acknowledge that states have largely shirked the renewal piece.

“I do think it’s a missed opportunity for a policy lever for learning,” said Mary-Dean Barringer, who recently retired from the Council of Chief State School Officers, where she worked with states to improve teacher quality.

“Because we don’t know how to talk about this and there is no research, we just don’t talk about it,” she said. “And we miss an opportunity as state policymakers to really help licensure do what we want it to do, which is to continue to develop talent.”

And so even teachers deeply committed to bettering their craft are skeptical about relicensing.

Patricia Marshall is a National Board-certified teacher in Petersburg, Ill. and a voracious consumer of professional development. But she admits to wondering whether her state’s relicensing rules are more an excuse for charging fees than anything else.

“My cynical side says it’s basically a way for the state to bring in money, and I think there’s a certain amount of truth to that,” said Marshall.

And though he describes both great and lousy professional-development experiences, Chris Woods, a math teacher in the Calumet, Mich., district, sums up the recertification system thus: “It’s like paying taxes.”

‘Paying Taxes’

All but California, Missouri, and New Jersey mandate relicensing, typically via university coursework or other approved activities, according to the New America Foundation analysts. Most states require teachers to re-up every five years.

States’ specific requirements differ; some require college credit or semester hours, some continuing education units, and others clock hours or professional-development points.

The consequences of letting a license lapse means incurring fees or penalties. But few teachers interviewed by Education Week reported being seriously inconvenienced. Instead, the overall picture they painted was one of indifference.

Good training, they said, tends to happen despite—rather than because of—certificate-renewal requirements.

Mansoor Kapasi, a high school math teacher in Austin, Texas, said that he was able to accumulate that state’s required 150 hours without really trying. Mandatory district trainings and a weeklong summer course added up.

“It’s been such an easy process overall that I hardly remember what it took,” he said.

Although such anecdotes don’t say much for the system’s coherence, teachers react strongly at the suggestion that the requirements should be scratched.

Wisconsin recently reverted back to lifetime licenses, having abandoned them decades ago. It claimed the elimination of professional-development requirements would help save teachers money. But teachers aren’t buying it.

“It really makes us feel like our state is truly dismantling our teaching system,” said Catherine Anderson, a retired Wisconsin science teacher. “It’s just another way for people to say we’re not necessarily professional.”

Teachers’ unions, in the meantime, maintain a complicated relationship with relicensing. The National Education Association officially supports the elimination of such requirements. Yet in many states, its state affiliates are among the biggest providers of the credits.

Many local unions feel responsible for ensuring that members can access high-quality training—even as they agree that recertification is worth a second look, said Richelle Patterson, a senior policy analyst in the NEA’s teacher-quality department.

“We need to examine the worthiness of the systems and whether they are matching what we are asking teachers to do in the classroom today,” she said.

New Directions?

It’s not lost on teachers, meanwhile, that the rules’ emphasis on seat time conflicts with research indicating that short workshops do little to boost teaching skill, while more-effective formats tend to be classroom-based and hands-on.

Chris Woods takes notes on an electronic tablet as he observes in the classroom of another teacher at Calumet High.

“You can learn a lot just from watching another teacher,” said Woods, the Michigan teacher. “I’ve just gone to sit in another math teacher’s class during my prep hours. But to quantify all that—well, that’s hard to do, and quantifying is what I think this is all about.”

Overhauling the system poses big challenges, cautioned Angela Minnici, the senior director of state strategy at WestEd, which works with states to improve teaching and learning. That’s partly because rethinking it would also mean working through implications like teacher pay: Most teachers can earn salary bumps after collecting enough credits.

Slowly, though, some states are trying new approaches. Beginning this year, Georgia is basing all renewal decisions on plans tied to individual teachers’ learning goals. Tennessee, along with a handful of other states, is offering a way to count “microcredentials”—awarded to teachers who demonstrate mastery of individual competencies—toward license renewal.

Nevertheless, observers cannot help but draw attention to the contrast between, for example, the legal profession—where standards for earning and maintaining a license are high, transparent, and internally consistent—and teaching, where they are not.

“There is so much variation and lack of transparency,” said Jennifer King Rice, the dean of the University of Maryland at College Park’s school of education. “And you couple that with all of the other policy disincentives to become a teacher, and I worry that we’re making it harder to choose this as a profession.”

Assistant Editors Liana Loewus and Madeline Will contributed reporting to this article. Librarians Holly Peele and Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research.

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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