The Herald Bulletin

August 12, 2009

Viewpoint: Licensing rules for teachers must emphasize content and flexibility

By Dr. Tony Bennett

State superintendent of public instruction

We expect a lot from teachers in Indiana, and they expect a lot from themselves. Research shows that teachers are the primary influence on students’ academic achievement. Yet, our licensing requirements for teachers don’t help them meet those high expectations. We require them to jump through hoops that often cost thousands of dollars and do little to make them better teachers, but we don’t expect new teachers to master the subjects they’ll teach.

In its 2007 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave Indiana a ‘D’ for its policies to identify teacher effectiveness and retain the best new teachers. Given the essential role teachers play in students’ achievement, this is an area requiring swift action.

Recently, the Department of Education proposed changing educator licensing rules to attract successful professionals to careers in education and to ensure future teachers have deep content knowledge of their subjects.

To guarantee all new teachers will be experts in the subjects they teach, we’ve recommended requiring teaching candidates to dedicate more of their undergraduate credit hours to content knowledge by majoring in a core subject, such as mathematics or chemistry. We’re not the first to recommend this change; Purdue University already requires a content major for all its education graduates who will be teaching specific subject areas.

Under the proposed rules, teaching candidates also would be required to pass tests for their subject-area and instructional knowledge to prove they know both what to teach and how to teach before standing in front of a classroom.

While it is imperative to raise the bar on incoming teachers’ depth of content knowledge, our proposed rules also plan for the future. With 54 percent of all Indiana teachers age 50 or older, Indiana will face a critical teacher shortage in the coming years. Teachers in subjects like science and math will be in the highest demand. Of all the new teaching certifications in 2008-09, only 7 percent were issued to future math teachers and only 6 percent were issued to future science teachers. Within five years, 25 percent of mathematics and science teachers will be eligible to retire. Within 10 years, those projections increase to 36 percent.

We must encourage talented professionals to consider applying their expertise in the classroom. Under our proposal, qualified individuals can become licensed to teach through a rigorous training program. Current paths available to professionals seeking teaching licenses require semesters of class work at considerable expense. At a time when quality teachers are in such demand, it only makes sense that we find a way to get content experts into our classrooms — after they receive training and pass exams demonstrating they are capable of teaching that content. 

As I traveled this state, teachers and administrators made it clear to me they need greater flexibility and authority to make bold, creative choices to improve student achievement.

If flexibility is good for superintendents and principals, the same should hold true for school boards facing extreme challenges. On a case-by-case basis and with state approval, we’ve recommended allowing highly-qualified candidates outside the traditional education pipeline to become principals and superintendents if a school corporation decides it needs a different type of leader to best meet students’ needs.

Some of our nation’s most successful school leaders have not followed the traditional path to school administration. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who until his appointment by President Barack Obama was head of Chicago’s public school system, is not “qualified” by Indiana’s current standards to serve as a superintendent or principal.

Many of the adults in the education establishment are uncomfortable with some of our proposed changes. I sincerely understand their discomfort, but I’m more discomforted by the status quo.

To improve student achievement, we have to stop wasting teachers’ time and money on things that don’t make them better teachers, and instead let them focus on mastering the subjects they teach and the skills they need to teach them.