The problem with bad public policy is that it often sounds like good public policy. These ideas have enough of a rational basis for us to buy into them. Upon closer inspection, however, we realize that they aren’t what we had hoped for.
This lesson hit home with me as I was reading about the new certification requirements for public school teachers. Missouri has long had certification requirements. For instance, traditionally certified teachers must earn an education degree, and they have long been required to pass a content exam. Over the past few years, however, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has revised many of the requirements, making it more difficult to become a teacher. Prospective teachers must take a personality inventory (which I’ve written about before), they must pass a more difficult content exam, and now they must also pass a performance assessment.
To many, these sound like good ideas because they are sprinkled with a bit of the truth. We want our public school teachers to be excellent. If we put these screens in place, we’ll get better teachers—or so the thinking goes. The problem is that while teacher licensure screens are an unproven way to improve teacher quality, they are a sure-fire way to shrink the teaching pool.
Take licensure exams, for instance. As I have shown in the journals Educational Policy and the Journal of School Choice: International Research and Reform, licensure exams are very loosely related to teacher effectiveness. Yes, people who do well on tests tend to be better teachers, on average, but there is considerable variation. In other words, some people who do well on a content exam are terrible teachers; while some who do poorly on a licensure exam are great teachers. Screens like this let in some bad teachers and keep out some good teachers.
In a recent working paper, “Can we simply raise the bar on teacher quality?” I show how simply making licensure exams harder will have a negligible impact on the overall quality of teachers in the field. Yet, as a result, we would reduce the number of teachers; further exacerbating teacher shortages. These shortages would do the most harm to disadvantaged schools attempting to compete for the limited supply of teachers.
Missouri’s newest test, the Missouri Pre-Service Teachers Assessment, seeks to move beyond testing only content knowledge. Here is a description of the test from the Southeast Missourian:
The first three parts of the exam are written, and the last has a video component, except in areas where shooting footage is difficult.
In the first part of the exam, student teachers are assessed on how well they know their students and the context of the school in which they’re teaching.
The second part tests them on how they plan to check whether their students have learned the information they taught.
In the third part…student teachers are judged on how they plan to teach their lessons, and the fourth part allows them to demonstrate how effective their approaches have been…
Once again we have put in place a policy that sounds like a good idea. In the end, however, it too will not likely have a positive impact on public education in Missouri. The problem is that we simply cannot capture great teaching in one of these assessments. Think back to the best teacher you ever had. Would these exams make him or her stand out from his or her peers? Probably not.
Licensure screens for teachers sound like good public policy, but they aren't. If we really cared about teacher quality, we’d be better off to open pathways into the profession, support teacher professional development, and get rid of bad teachers.