Transforming State Teacher Licensure Systems to Support Ongoing Learning and Growth

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    This post was written in collaboration with Melissa Tooley, director of educator quality at New America.

    As with the professions of medicine, law and many others, most states require educators to show proof of engaging in continuing education to retain their license. More than half of states also encourage teachers to go above their minimum professional development requirements by offering an advanced license that provides additional status, compensation and/or responsibility. As such, states can use teacher licensure renewal and advancement systems to encourage meaningful ongoing professional learning and growth — but in most cases, states don’t.

    A recent New America analysis found that state teacher licensure renewal requirements are typically check-the-box in nature, fulfilled by submitting proof of attendance at courses or stand-alone workshops for a requisite number of continuing education hours. According to this research, “the policies undergirding most states’ licensure renewal systems actually conflict with what is known about best practices in adult learning,” which include personalized, hands-on opportunities to practice and receive feedback from colleagues.

    Not surprisingly, then, studies have shown that much of the professional development teachers currently receive is ineffective at improving teacher performance or student learning. These findings prove disappointing to state leaders who intend to use licensure renewal requirements to promote meaningful professional learning and discouraging to teachers who are investing time and money in activities that fail to assist them in their daily work. But most of all, they can have a negative impact on students, who need teachers who are continually honing their skills to incorporate evidence-based practices in their respective grades and subjects.

    Some of these issues are replicated in states that offer multiple tiers of teaching licenses. In many cases, teachers obtain advanced licensure status without having to demonstrate that they have gained new, relevant skills or knowledge, and further, without having to demonstrate success in the classroom. Of the 30 states that currently offer advanced licenses, only 17 require teachers demonstrate some evidence of effectiveness — through successful classroom experience, National Board certification, a performance assessment, portfolio and/or supervisor recommendation — to obtain an advanced license, according to the Education Commission of the States’ 50-State Comparison on Teacher Leadership and Licensure Advancement.

    Some state leaders across the country are working to reimagine their licensure renewal and advancement systems to promote teacher learning and growth. For example:

    • To renew a standard teaching license in Georgia, effective teachers must engage in professional learning that results in attainment of a defined, personalized learning goal, while lower-performing teachers must develop more comprehensive professional learning plans. These professional learning goals and plans must be directly associated with teachers’ prior annual evaluations and are encouraged to be linked to teachers’ field of certification, school or district improvement plans and state or federal requirements — an effort to promote coherence between individual needs and local and broader goals for improvement. Georgia’s model also requires that professional learning be “primarily job-embedded and done in the context of the school learning community.”
    • To obtain an advanced license in Ohio, teachers must present evidence of ongoing learning and classroom success. In addition to obtaining a master’s degree or higher and completing at least nine years under a standard teaching license, teachers applying for the state’s third-tier license must successfully complete the state’s Master Teacher portfolio. Teachers who earn a Teacher Leader endorsement, in addition to successfully completing the portfolio, or who obtain National Board Certification are eligible for a fourth-tier license.

    While these state systems have only recently been created and are still a work in progress, these types of approaches reflect important efforts to help shift licensure renewal and advancement policies from compliance to impact.

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    Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States | saragon@ecs.org

    As a policy analyst, Stephanie focuses most of her efforts on state policies that impact teachers. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Stephanie was a student at the University of Denver’s Institute for Public Policy Studies and worked at the university’s law school in a project manager and faculty support role. Stephanie earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Colorado, Boulder and a master’s degree in public policy/education policy from the University of Denver.

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