Teacher Standards Overview
At the school level, teachers are the most important influence on student achievement (Hattie, 2009; States et al., 2012; Wengslinsky, 2002). However, not all teachers produce the same results and teachers often vary significantly in effectiveness (OECD, 2005). Some variation is to be expected; it is not realistic for everyone who wants to teach to be an effective teacher, or for every teacher to maintain a consistent level of effectiveness sin the long-term (OECD, 2005).
Teacher standards, the criteria that teachers must meet to enter the classroom, can function as a way to ensure that teachers meet a base level of quality that translates into high-quality teaching and student achievement. There are two points where standards serve as gateways:
- Teacher preparation programs set standards for entry, and
- States set standards for teachers to meet to become licensed and credentialed.
The most important aspect of having standards is whether or not they are associated with stronger teacher performance, and student outcomes. Indeed, if having teacher standards to not contribute to higher student outcomes then the value of the standards should be re-evaluated.
The purpose of this overview is to provide information about the research around teacher standards in teacher preparation programs and teacher licensure. Important questions about teacher standards include:
- Are the standards that teachers must meet to enter teacher preparation programs associated with student outcomes?
- Are the standards that teachers must meet to enter the profession and become licensed associated with student outcomes?
- Are the standards for alternatively certified teachers significantly different than those for traditionally certified teachers? And, if so, are these associated with student outcomes?
History of Teacher Standards
The 1983 Nation at Risk report and subsequent reports suggested that teachers and schools were important for the country’s economic success. These initiated discussion about accountability of teachers for student achievement. It also prompted policy makers to set teacher standards (Lincove et al., 2014). Since then, focus at the federal level has shifted from accountability to equity and effectiveness (Remer, 2017).
In 2001, the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) required statewide standards and assessments, as well as annual reporting. The law also introduced the idea of “highly qualified” teachers, or those who earned a bachelor’s degree, full state certification or licensure, and demonstrated subject matter competency. NCLB required that all core academic subjects be taught by “highly qualified” teachers, though the final definition of who was “highly qualified” and how that was determined was left up to states (Remer, 2017).
A 2007 Center on Education Policy survey found that a majority of state and district leaders reported that the requirements to be “highly qualified” had minimal, if any, impact on student achievement (Birman et al., 2007).
In 2016, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) eliminated the federal mandate for teachers to be “highly qualified,” leaving qualifications to states. In the wake of ESSA, states moved forward with evaluation systems that included multiple levels of performance classification, frequent teacher evaluation, and other measures.This recent conversation reflects a shift in the conversation from inputs (e.g., teacher candidate credentials) to outputs (teacher effectiveness; Remer, 2017).
Questions about Teacher Standards
Teacher standards still exist to provide a baseline of aptitude that teachers should have upon entering the classroom. The core questions around teacher standards is how having standards in place impacts teacher and student outcomes.
Do teacher standards align with teacher effectiveness? What should we measure?
When teacher candidates apply to a teacher preparation program, they typically must meet a minimum academic standard (e.g., ACT or SAT scores, GPA, essay). Focusing on academic measures may be beneficial. According to a National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) report, there is a strong correlation between a teacher’s academic aptitude and student achievement. Further, teachers who were good students are more likely to advance student learning. However, there is no one academic measure that predicts how well a teacher candidate will do, leaving a variety of measures for teacher preparation programs to choose from (NCTQ, 2021).
To enter teaching, candidates are often required to pass state licensure tests. A RAND study that used longitudinal data in Los Angeles, CA, examined whether teacher licensure test scores and other attributes affected elementary school achievement. At the time, California required teachers to take a general knowledge test, a subject knowledge test, and a reading pedagogy test for elementary teacher certification. Teachers in LAUSD had an average of 10 years of experience teaching, however, the sample was skewed with more teachers in their first three years of teaching (20% were in their first three years of teaching). The study used a value-added approach to examine student achievement and adjust for student and teacher effects. There were large differences in teacher quality across the district, but teacher scores were unrelated to teacher success in the classroom. Whether or not teachers had advanced degrees also did not impact student achievement. There was a weak link between teacher experience and student achievement that was most likely linked to the skew in the sample of teachers at the start of their career (Buddin & Zamaro, 2008).
In another analysis, Clotfelter et al. (2007) used a data set from North Carolina across a 10-year period, to explore the relationship between teacher characteristics and credentials and student achievement. They concluded that teacher experience, test scores, and regular licensure all have positive effect on student achievement. There were larger effects on math than on reading. This may be because of the view that, relative to families, teachers have a greater role to play in math than in reading. It was also noted that student characteristics have a greater impact on math than on reading.
Teacher standards can also come into play when districts are hiring. A study of teacher selection in Washington, DC analyzed the district’s application process that considered a written assignment about the candidate’s understanding of content and instruction, a 30-minute structured interview, and a teaching “audition,” in addition to undergraduate GPA and other academic indicators (Jacob, 2016). The researchers found that these additional measures strongly predicted how a teacher would perform in the classroom (using the district’s teacher evaluation system). Candidates in the top quartile of applicant quality scored 0.6 standard deviations higher than applicants in the bottom quartile; the difference between a 1st and 3rd year teacher. This suggests that it’s not only the standards that usher teachers into the field, but also how districts use the resources at their disposal to screen and hire candidates.
Standards to Enter Teacher Preparation Programs
Teacher preparation programs have the responsibility of ensuring that candidates that are selected for programs have the criteria and aptitude to become quality teachers. To that end, quality, meaningful admission standards are an important part of teacher preparation programs (Miller-Levy et al., 2014). The requirements for entry are set by individual institutions (Poiner, 2016). Often these requirements are not very rigorous (Poiner, 2016). National organization, such as NCTQ, have also identified low standards for entry into teacher preparation programs as a problem (Greenberg et al., 2015).
In general, in countries other than the U.S., teacher preparation programs recruit and admit the most academically capable young adults into teaching. Barber and Mourshed (2007) studied high-performing educational systems and found that other countries select teacher candidates from the top third of students. In contrast, NCTQ’s Teacher Prep Review found that most U. S. teacher preparation programs are not ensuring that candidates are coming from the top half of the college-going population. This is important because, a comparison across 23 countries found that teachers’ cognitive skills were “an important determinant of international differences in student performance.” (Hanushek et al., 2014).
Focusing on who teacher preparation programs are recruiting is important. At the entry level, standards are multi-faceted. Other research suggests that multiple measures, including academic achievement, predict teacher’s performance on evaluation (in this case in Washington, DC) (Jacob, 2016). Selectivity may be of primary importance; there is limited evidence that more selective programs may produce more selective teachers, there is no research that connects candidate selection process to teacher and student outcomes (Coggshall et al., 2012). Research indicates that higher standards for teacher entry into university programs as measured by SAT scores and average GPA prior to admission, and a university’s general competitiveness, is correlated with increased student achievement (Boyd et al., 2008; Steele et al., 2015; Lincove et al., 2015; Henry et al., 2012).
Furthermore, research suggests a small but significant correlation between measures of a teacher candidate’s aptitude before entering a program and their eventual effectiveness in the classroom (Henry et al., 2012; Levine, 2006; Rice, 2003). A study in North Carolina assessed the effects of teacher candidate aptitude on several outcomes. Students who had received merit scholarships and graduated from NC public schools of higher education produced higher student achievement in students (across elementary, middle, and secondary) compared to those graduates who had not received scholarships (Henry et al., 2012).
According to NCTQ, raising the bar for admission to teacher preparation programs would help ensure a stronger teaching workforce by eliminating access to potentially weaker teachers (Greenberg et al., 2015).
There are limitations to the information that is used for entry into teacher preparation programs. Miller-Levy et al. (2014) analyzed data from 19 university-based teacher preparation programs in Texas and found that the majority of data was quantitative, focusing on content knowledge. Miller-Levy et al. (2014) had concerns about the predictive validity of this type of information. A teacher candidate’s GPA may not predict how responsive their teaching strategies are, and academic skills cannot predict how a teacher will facilitate student learning (Miller-Levy et al., 2014). Furthermore, completing a teacher preparation program did not determine a teacher’s passion for teaching (Miller-Levy et al., 2014).
There are also skills that are important for teaching that are difficult to measure. Teacher behaviors, like problem solving, critical thinking, reasoning, and adherence to social ethics are important but difficult to capture (Miller-Levy et al., 2014). Furthermore, capturing a candidate’s attitude towards teaching is difficult to do, though this may be an important factor (Miller-Levy et al., 2014).
Standards for Teacher Licensure
Once teachers have completed a university or alternative program, licensure (or certification) remains a minimum standard of entry into the profession (Coggshall et al., 2012; Crowe, 2010). All states require that graduates meet minimum standards for teacher certification, including passing state tests, holding a degree in the subject area, and completing coursework. Currently, the average first-attempt pass rate for states with strong test systems is 45% (Putnam & Walsh, 2021).
Research on the effects of certification on teacher quality and effectiveness is inconclusive (Allen, 2003; National Research Council, 2010: Wilson & Youngs, 2005). There have been only modest positive relationships between teacher licensure exam scores and student achievement (Clotfelter et al., 2007; Goldhaber, 2007) In addition, Goldhaber (2007) found multiple examples of teachers who did not pass licensure exams but were effective in the classroom. This suggests that the predictive validity of licensure exams is unknown (Wayne & Youngs, 2003; Wilson & Youngs, 2005).
In recent years, performance assessments, like the edTPA (educative Teacher Performance Assessment) have been implemented across the U.S.
Chung and Zou (2021) conducted a study using a quasi-experimental design analyzing the edTPA adoption timelines of state and multiple data sources of students and new teachers in the U.S. They found that the edTPA license requirement reduced the number of graduates from teacher preparation programs by 14%, an effect that was stronger for non-white teachers at less-selective universities. They also found that edTPA had adverse effects on student learning.
More research needs to be done on how performance on edTPA predicts teachers’ future performance in the classroom.
One problem related to teacher licensure tests is that pass scores are low; most states set cut scores at or below national median scores and pass rates in 2008-2009 were 95% for traditional programs and 97% for alternative route program completers (US DOE, 2011). This measure has limitations because tests were designed to set minimum standards of knowledge, not teaching quality (Wilson & Youngs, 2005).
State level approval processes to recommend teachers for state licensure vary widely, are rarely evidence-based, and are monitored infrequently (National Research Council, 2010; Wilson & Youngs, 2005). Standards and processes for approval and accreditation can be inefficient and have requirements that are not supported by evidence (Allen, 2003; Crowe, 2010; National Research Council, 2010) Finally, relying on testing may be a poor proxy for teacher overall quality (Walsh, 2002; Crowe, 2010).
Are the standards for alternatively certified teachers significantly different than those for traditionally certified teachers? And, if so, are these associated with student outcomes?
In 2018, NCES estimated that, of 3.8 million public school teachers in 2015-2016, 18% (676,000) had entered teaching through an alternative route to certification (e.g., Teach for America). Many alternative certification programs are designed for people who have never had teacher education courses (NCES, 2018).
Alternative certification routes may have higher standards for entry than traditional teaching programs. For example, Teach for America (TFA) has higher entry standards than traditional education colleges (Poiner, 2016). Specifically, the majority of TFA applicants must complete multiple interviews, a sample lesson, and other exercises. TFA teachers are just as effective at promoting student achievement as other teachers. A Mathematica study found that TFA teachers in their first two years of teaching were equally as effective in reading and math compared with more veteran teachers (average years of teaching: 13.6 years) in comparable schools (Clark et al., 2015). One exception was teachers in the early grades (Pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade); TFA teachers raised student reading abilities an additional 1.3 months compared to traditionally trained teachers (Clark et al., 2015).
See et al. (2020) found that alternative certification programs, like TFA, recruited more teachers and those with higher academic qualifications. Specifically, the New York City Maths Immersions programs attracted more candidates to teaching in a critical area of need (Boyd et al., 2012).
In terms of candidate aptitude, TFA recruits teachers with the highest test scores (SAT or ACT; Koop & Farr, 2011). TFA teachers generally produce student achievement equal to or higher than teachers who did not participate in TFA (Clarke et al., 2015; Decker et al., 2004; Henry et al., 2012; Kane et al. 2008). However, it is unclear whether those effects are due to the more rigorous selection or the training that TFA teachers receive after their selection.
Other studies have also found no difference between alternatively and traditionally trained teachers. A study of K-5 teachers found no difference between alternatively and traditionally certified teachers on important criteria (Constantine et al. 2009). Another study on TNTP teachers matched with traditionally trained teachers in their first 2 years of teaching and found no difference in teacher performance or student achievement (Bos & Gerdeman, 2017).
Darling-Hammond et al. (2005) analyzed 6 years of data (1995-2002) from teachers reading and math tests in grades 4 and 5 in Texas and found that teachers who were certified produced significantly stronger student achievement gains than uncertified teachers, including alternatively certified teachers who had not yet completed a certification program. This may indicate that teacher certification is more important than the route teachers take to obtain their certification.
There are questions about whether alternatively certified teachers, many of whom leave the profession after a two-year commitment, are not more effective because they do not have the benefit of additional years in the classroom (Darling-Hammond, 2011; Ravitch, 2013).
On the whole, alternative certification programs can maintain standards of entry for teacher candidates with the same outcomes within the first two years of teaching compared to traditionally trained teachers.
Cost of Teacher Standards
The cost of teacher standards depends on many factors, but the cost on districts and schools is limited as standards are set at the federal and state level and much of the resources are expended by universities and teacher candidates themselves (e.g., testing requirements, setting policies).
Recommendations for Teacher Standards
Recommendations for Teacher Preparation Programs
Admission into teacher preparation programs should align with the qualities that we know are fundamental for effective teaching (Miller-Levy et al., 2014). NCTQ recommends setting higher standards on the front end (rather than at teacher licensure) as a better way to ensure high quality candidates (Greenberg et al., 2015). These rigorous standards could include higher GPA and test (ACT or SAT) requirements.
Teacher preparation programs must develop valid and reliable ways to screen teacher candidates for skills that are important for teaching, but not captured by academic measures, for example, problem solving skills, critical thinking, adherence to social ethics, and reasoning skills (Miller-Levy et al., 2014).
Setting a higher bar for entry into teacher preparation programs has the potential to:
- Ensure a higher level of work within the program (Poiner, 2016).
- Improve the return-on-investment by allowing teacher candidates who are better suited for other careers to pursue other avenues before spending money on a teaching major (Greenberg et al., 2015).
- Recruit fewer candidates overall, which may put education in competition with other fields of study that pay more and have more opportunities for advancement (Poiner, 2016).
- Ensure a stronger workforce by eliminating access to teaching for teacher candidates who are potentially weaker (Greenberg et al., 2015).
Changes in the standards for entry into teacher preparation programs would necessitate thinking about how to incentivize people to go into teaching, for example, providing tuition forgiveness, scholarships, and tax credits (Poiner, 2016).
Recommendations for States and Districts
How districts screen and hire candidates is important. The following are recommendations for states and districts:
- Consider multiple indicators, including GPA, performance tests (edTPA) and licensure, as well as writing samples, structured interviews, and teaching auditions when hiring teachers (Jacob, 2016).
- Do not use edTPA to predict teacher success.
Recommendations for Alternative Certification Programs
Alternative certification programs should maintain their relatively high requirements for entry into their programs. With the current standards for entry, alternative teacher certification programs can maintain student outcomes, while providing an important hiring pipeline for many districts.
Teacher standards are set to ensure that teachers who come into classrooms are prepared to effectively deliver instruction. However, the current level of standards may not be focusing on the measures that best predict a teacher’s success or may not be high enough to ensure that teachers who enter the classroom are best suited to produce student outcomes. Focusing on a range of measures that capture the qualities of highly effective teachers can help align standards with the goal of improving the pool of teachers.
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