States must cut red tape to attract more qualified teachers

Rigid standards are shutting out aspiring teachers. States must evaluate potential teachers without traditional certification in ways that don't push needed talent away.

My wife has a master’s degree in education from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has lived in four countries, speaks a good deal of Arabic and some Italian, and has been either teaching or conducting education research for the better part of a decade. She taught at a private school in Seattle so esteemed that Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos (the founder of sent their children there.

Yet according to box-checkers at Maine’s Department of Education, she is not yet qualified to teach 10-year-olds in the state’s public schools. Because she studied history and art as an undergraduate and has not undergone public school certification in another state, the state of Maine denied her application for initial certification to teach, insisting that she must first complete an undergraduate English course at her own expense. This is only for initial, temporary certification, after which she must take no fewer than five additional college courses, five standardized tests, and complete a year of supervised “student” teaching.

Just about anyone considering teacher quality in the United States laments that classroom instruction needs substantial improvement, and low teacher pay is often cited as the reason the profession doesn’t attract and retain talented candidates. This is no doubt part of the problem; in Maine, a starting public school salary pays like a full time job at a Waffle House.

Another major problem, though, is that states often make it unconscionably difficult for qualified teachers to work. The result is that would-be teachers often do something else or they work for private schools, where teachers don’t need the same bureaucratic stamp of approval. For that same reason, private schools often attract highly qualified, educated individuals who may not have the traditional teaching certification.

Four days after arriving in Maine, my wife was offered a job at a prestigious private school that is less shackled by the state’s bureaucratic vise grip. She accepted.

Maine should be sending cookie bouquets to talented teachers. The state’s 4th-graders have the lowest reading scores of any state in New England except Rhode Island, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Wholly related: My wife’s master’s degree is specifically in childhood literacy).

But Maine officials can take heart that other states chase good teachers away, too.

Bureaucratic restrictions frustrate talented teachers even after they’ve gotten their foot in the door. A friend of mine eventually quit his job teaching biology at a public high school in North Carolina and as a cross country and track coach, in part because the state wouldn’t pay him the standard increase in salary for having a master’s degree. He was teaching biology courses, and was told that his master’s degree in physiology didn’t count as a graduate degree in his area of educational certification.

Not only did he have a master’s degree in the sciences from a major research university, but he had previously coached a high school cross country team to four state championships in California, where he was an "All-American" runner in college.

States should certainly have high standards regarding who can teach their children, but high standards need not be synonymous with needless restrictions. States can have a system for evaluating aspiring teachers who don’t have traditional certification, without being punitive and pushing talent away. That can and should involve case-by-case considerations.

While alternate certification programs exist, aimed at getting talented individuals into the classroom, those programs often require candidates to jump through another set of bureaucratic hoops and demanding commitments. These programs also have limited regional scope and may demand would-be teachers spend significant money up front simply to start the ball rolling.

Maine’s Bangor Daily News ran a July editorial arguing that when it comes to demanding high-quality teachers, America's states could learn from Finland’s approach to improving its schools, where “every teacher got a master’s degree, not in education but a content area” and “[o]nly one in 10 applicants was hired to be a teacher.” But Finland’s demands worked in large part because of systemic and cultural factors that don’t exist in the US. The country’s tough standards got high quality teachers into the classroom, rather than keeping them out.

Rigid standards are fine as long as state officials have broad authority to use common sense and wave requirements for exceptionally trained applicants. Red tape will always exist, but it doesn’t have to bind and gag talented professionals eager to serve as teachers.

Justin D. Martin, Ph.D., is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin

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