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Recognize How Hard it is to Teach: Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Teacher Licensure

By Karen Lowenstein, Ph.D.
Director of Policy, PEBC

Some policymakers would have us all believe that anyone with specific content knowledge can be a teacher—but, anyone who has taken a college math class with a professor lecturing on derivatives and tangents knows this is certainly not the case. Most of us who have been to college can tell stories about a professor who loved the subject, and probably had deep content knowledge, but who could not teach.

Do these policymakers honestly think that anyone with a degree can show up and teach our K-12 students when we know from our own lived experiences that understanding content is not enough to teach?

In the current climate of more severe teacher shortages—particularly in specific geographic areas, high-need schools and certain content areas—the parallel belief that teacher licensure is a barrier also runs rampant in some policy circles. If one believes that content knowledge is all that’s needed to teach, this might make sense. Earning a license represents the pedagogical knowledge and skills that subject-matter experts need to acquire in order to teach.

Licensure means that content experts have actually studied and are able to put into practice multiple scientific, psychological and pedagogical fields—e.g., child development, brain-based learning, typical student misconceptions, engagement techniques for working with a class of 20-40 diverse students, ways to assess student learning, etc. Teaching requires a lot more than just having content knowledge—and licensure represents the acquisition of additional skills needed to be an effective teacher.

If the eradication of licensure is really a critique of low-quality or long-winded teacher preparation, rather than ignore the knowledge and skill bases that teachers need, let’s put our collective attention and efforts on improving teacher preparation. Eradicating licensure only lowers the bar because it equates only one part of the teaching knowledge base, content knowledge, with actual good teaching. If eradication of licensure is really a critique of preparation as a set of incoherent clinical experiences, let’s focus on proven models of teacher preparation that afford candidates the right opportunities to obtain the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the classroom.

Residencies are one such model that allow candidates a full year of practice with a mentor teacher, allowing novices to continually work on the teaching skills that lead to student mastery of content. The Public Education & Business Coalition’s Teacher Residency is one program that has resulted in teachers who not only stay in the profession beyond typical retention rates, but who are also seen by principals as high-quality when compared to candidates prepared in other models. Graduates from the PEBC’s residency demonstrate a 95 percent retention rate after five years of teaching service—and principals state that first year residents in PEBC’s program teach more like second or third year teachers.

If we truly want our students to learn, we must prepare candidates with the entire knowledge base of teaching, as represented by a teaching license. To believe that having just mathematical knowledge will make the difference hearkens back to our own lived experiences which we know do not work. Rather than ignore the true and full knowledge base that teaching requires, we must invest in preparation pathways that provide teacher candidates with all they need to teach our students well.


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