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Cutting a New Path on License Renewal for Teachers

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The effective date on my Kentucky teaching certificate is Dec. 15, 1984. I had completed the secondary-English-course requirements, student-taught for most of one semester, taken a standardized exam, and been issued a teaching certificate. I completed the required master’s degree in 1985. In the years since, I’ve held a variety of jobs in and out of teaching. Some required a teaching certificate; some did not.

Three years ago, I left my job as the director of the Educator Preparation Division at the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board to return to teaching. I hadn’t been a classroom teacher in more than 15 years. At the standards board, I had been involved in substantial regulatory changes affecting teacher preparation and I wanted to see how they played out in real classrooms. One key word on my teaching certificate made that return possible: lifetime.

Times have changed. Kentucky now has rigorous requirements for admission to teacher education programs, student-teaching experiences, and a first-year internship. The state stopped issuing lifetime certificates shortly after I got mine. Nevertheless, my 1984 teaching certificate will never expire. In any consideration of renewal requirements, surely my lifetime certificate is at or near the floor.

One of my midcareer detours was to law school. I didn’t plan to practice law, but when one of my professors asked why I was planning to sit for the bar exam, I was taken aback. I’d spent my entire adult life taking the next class, writing the next paper, studying for the next test: It had never occurred to me not to take the bar exam and get a license to practice law. My professor pointed out that I could save myself the time and money, and—most important for someone who did not intend to practice—avoid yearly dues and continuing education requirements by not taking the bar exam and maintaining a license. It was sound advice, and I followed it.

I’m sure there are professions with more demanding licensure and license-renewal requirements than law, but if my 1984 lifetime teaching certificate is near the floor, earning and maintaining a license to practice law is the closest to the ceiling that I have even almost experienced.

The gap between those two points is striking.

Broad Reach

Strong initial certification requirements are important and in my view the best way to strengthen the teaching force. But in a given year, only a fraction of the teaching force is affected by recent changes to initial certification requirements. Renewal requirements, on the other hand, affect everyone holding a valid certificate, and they do so at regular intervals throughout a teacher’s career. Even with grandfather clauses, renewal requirements can lead to broader, longer-lasting change. But I do not believe our profession or our students are consistently benefiting from an optimal certificate-renewal system.

One common refrain among policymakers seeking to simplify certification and curb shortages is to make licenses more portable. Should the profession go in that direction, however, it is possible that the importance of meaningful certification and certificate renewal will be even greater: If a certificate issued by Jurisdiction A is automatically recognized by Jurisdiction B and vice versa, whichever jurisdiction has the lower requirements will establish the floor for both jurisdictions. Poorly conceived agreements could make the lowest common denominator the standard.

If I hadn’t already learned that lesson in my years as a teacher, my work in regulation and accreditation has ingrained in me that taking the long view of change is important. Unintended consequences are still consequences.

Proposing a deep examination of something as complicated and important as teacher certification is rife with challenges, but I believe our profession is missing an opportunity to ensure that certificate renewal is more than just a hurdle, a checklist, or a nuisance with a price tag. And I suspect that if our profession does not take the lead on this issue, change will happen anyway.

New Experiments

This is the point where most readers expect some kind of proposal, a prototype, a framework. So, what does the ideal renewal framework for teaching certificates look like? Frankly, I don’t know. I often approach big questions like this with my version of crowdsourcing, also known as throwing out a question on Facebook and Twitter, but my usual strategies produced very little feedback on this topic. I got plenty of interest in and support for improved renewal systems, but little in the way of specific suggestions.

I am always against change for the sake of change, but I support legitimate searches for solutions to existing problems, using creative approaches and strategies. More than 30 years ago, Kentucky initiated a first-year internship program for all teachers, which I believe serves as an example of just such an experiment.

The Kentucky Teacher Internship Program, or KTIP, was innovative. It was proposed to address existing problems. The state and independent researchers have studied KTIP’s impact, learned from it, and refined it over time. The program was an experiment with results that helped inform professional practice across the country.

Perhaps the search for excellent certificate-renewal policies begins with gleaning results of what amount to ongoing experiments like KTIP. I am familiar with several renewal models, but I am not in a position to assess their effectiveness, their cost, their scalability, their objectivity, their merit, or their defensibility for broad implementation. All of those features call for standards, and no single set of accepted standards exists in this field.

I believe that somewhere between the certified-for-life floor and the too-much-time-and-money-to-even-bother ceiling is an approach that respects teachers’ professionalism while supporting continued growth and effectiveness. There is bound to be an approach that ensures teachers are current on relevant research and professional practices while deepening and enriching content expertise.

Could an ideal renewal system acknowledge the need for recency of experience and reward professional growth? Is there a way to do all of that while avoiding barriers and nuisance requirements that don’t support those goals? I have not found such a system, but I have no doubt teachers can create one.

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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