As states brace for the potential for starting the school year with thousands of unfilled teacher vacancies, several are easing certification requirements. But Arizona and Florida have gone one step further by lifting the requirement that teachers hold bachelor’s degrees in certain instances.
In Arizona, people can now start training to become a teacher without a bachelor’s degree, as long as they are enrolled in college and are supervised by a licensed teacher. However, if these candidates have an emergency teacher certificate—which is issued when a school can’t fill a vacancy otherwise—they can teach without supervision.
And in Florida, military veterans without a bachelor’s degree can now receive a five-year teaching certificate, as long as they have completed at least 60 college credits with a 2.5 grade point average and can pass a state exam to demonstrate mastery of subject-area knowledge. Both of these policies went into effect this summer.
Policymakers and some administrators contend these changes will make it easier to staff schools in times of shortages. Seventy-two percent of principals and district leaders said they don’t have enough applicants to fill the teaching positions they have open this fall, according to a new, nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey.
But these decisions have also sparked outcry, with some teachers and union leaders warning that they devalue the profession. In an interview last month, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Arizona’s new law was “dangerous” and an example of “the disrespect for knowledge in this country.”
“They do not care about children’s knowledge if they are watering down credentialing so that you do not have people who know their content, know how to teach,” she said. “That has always been signified by a college diploma, and they would never do it in the professions or the occupations they thought were important. It shows you why they don’t think teaching is important.”
Proponents say the change can help diversify the profession
Even so, proponents of the Arizona policy change say that expanding access into the profession is a good thing.
Tonya Strozier, the principal of the Holladay Fine Arts Magnet Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz., said she thinks the policy change is an opportunity to diversify the teacher pipeline and better meet the needs of students of color.
While Strozier’s school is nearly fully staffed and won’t hire any teachers without a bachelor’s degree this fall, she said she would be open to hiring those candidates if needed. She’s confident that the training and support she provides to all new teachers would prepare them for the classroom.
“When I get a teacher, I generally make a significant investment in training them—they don’t come ready,” she said. “There’s always a significant gap between theory and practice.”
Strozier said she doesn’t think the state will be “inundated” with teachers who choose this pathway into the profession—"it’s an unnecessary fear,” she said. She also said that in her experience, teachers who are prepared outside of traditional programs are often “much more pliable” and are “open and willing” to trying new things to meet the needs of her school’s diverse student population.
“If we want something different, we’ve got to do something different,” Strozier said.
But Jacqueline Rodriguez, the vice president of research, policy, and advocacy at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, told K-12 Dive that she thought Arizona’s policy was degrading the profession.
“We have now allowed K-12 students to be placed in harm’s way with an unprepared person at the helm of the classroom by putting them in a position where they’re not only set up for failure, but it is very unlikely that they are retained in that same position, because they were not set up with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions to be successful,” she said.
Rodriguez also told K-12 Dive that she worries other states will adopt similar rules. Already, policymakers across the country have relaxed their teacher-certification rules, such as expanding the qualifying score on state licensing tests or dropping licensure tests altogether.
Critics have warned that less-experienced teachers are more likely to end up in schools that serve more students of color and children from low-income families.
Should military experience qualify someone to teach?
While other states offer financial incentives to military veterans to enter the classroom, Florida is the only state that has waived certification requirements for them, according to the Gainesville Sun.
“Florida is the most military friendly state in the nation,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis in a statement. “Providing military families with the resources they need to receive a high-quality education and find good jobs is the best way that we as a state can show our appreciation for the sacrifices that they make.”
Districts have long looked to veterans as strong candidates for a second career in the classroom, citing their leadership skills and adaptability.
Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, said many veterans already become teachers through established routes into the classroom. But lowering the standard of entry for this group is not the answer to teacher shortages, he said.
“I think it’s very, very important that we maintain standards that ensure we have a well-trained, highly qualified teacher in every classroom,” he said, adding that teachers should have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and specialized training.
“There’s this mindset that if you were a student, that means you could be a teacher,” Spar continued. “There’s a lot more to being a teacher than being a student, or being a CEO, or being a former military personnel. You need to understand the concept and the pedagogy of teaching, and you need to be able to, in a really powerful way, build relationships with students.”
Florida is reporting more than 8,000 teacher vacancies for the coming school year, Spar said. To make a real difference filling them, state policymakers should raise teacher pay, look for ways to treat teachers as professionals, and stop the “vilification of teachers by the governor and other extremists,” he said.
As news of the policy change spread, some people mistakenly thought that military spouses could also start to teach without a bachelor’s degree—a misconception fueled by a viral social media post. The post discussed the wife of a veteran who was purportedly able to start teaching 3rd grade without any training and who didn’t know what phonetic spelling, reading fluency, and mathematical operations meant.
That account has been debunked. Military spouses can get their $75 certification application fee waived, but they still must meet all the usual requirements to becoming a teacher, including having a bachelor’s degree.