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How to Fix Unnecessary Licensure Rules

In an understandable attempt to maintain standards, those responsible for licensing teachers and lawyers to practice in their respective fields are concerned that changing the requirements for entry will do a disservice to the public. But in their zeal they have gone too far by erecting barriers that are indefensible in light of common sense ("How Many Degrees Do You Need to Teach Middle School?" Bloomberg View, May 12 and "It's time for California to accept the Uniform Bar Exam," Los Angeles Times, May 11). 

I begin with teaching.  Each state sets its own requirements to teach in a public school.  Traditional state certification is defended as a way of providing minimal evidence that those entering a public-school classroom are qualified.  There is some truth to that view. Certainly that is so when we look at the requirements for becoming a teacher in Finland.  But rigid rules often discourage those with proven talent from teaching in public schools. That's why states are belatedly looking at alternative certification ("The 'Certified Teacher Myth," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13, 2008). 

This has led to several possibilities.  The one most closely related to law is a national licensure procedure.  It would involve candidates providing videos of themselves teaching and a multi-page take-home test.  Combining the two would be in lieu of educational courses. There is also a good argument to be made for license reciprocity for veteran teachers ("Minn. Lawsuit Raises Questions About Teacher-Licensure Portability," Education Week, May 13).

I received my California teaching credential by following the traditional path.  At the time, the state required a bachelor's degree and a fifth year devoted to three education courses and two semesters of student teaching. A master's degree was not a prerequisite (although I had earned one in journalism from UCLA).  I felt that the requirements were reasonable.  But I wondered about those who possessed unusual ability in both subject matter and in relating to young people. Why should they be barred from teaching in a public school in California? They are permitted by law to teach in private and religious schools in the state.

Which leads me to what is happening in law. Historically, each state set its own rules for licensure, relying almost exclusively on its own exam. Acknowledging how inefficient the system was, the National Conference of Bar Examiners in 2011 created the Uniform Bar Exam.  Scores were recognized in states that had signed on.  With New York now the largest state to do so, it's expected that California, where less than half of test-takers passed the bar exam last July, will follow suit.

Critics will argue that the Uniform Bar Exam dilutes standards. But even though laws vary widely from state to state, most judges and law school deans seem willing to accept passage of the Uniform Bar Exam as evidence of competence.  If that's the case, why can't the same argument apply to licensing of teachers?  I'm not minimizing the challenges facing teachers with students from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. But I submit that the principles of effective instruction transcend geography in much the same way that the principles of jurisprudence do.

With so many veteran teachers set to retire in the next few years, the need for license reciprocity or the equivalent of the Uniform Bar Exam is desperately needed.  This is especially so in math and science, where the perennial shortage is already acute and where teacher mobility is increasing. There are many people who could become valuable assets if they were allowed to bring their years of experience to the classroom. Let's give them a chance.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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