clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Voices: SB 191 — Licensed to teach?

The University of Colorado Denver’s Dean of the School of Public Affairs, Paul Teske, offers thoughts on what credentialing in other professions might teach us about how to license teachers. (These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.)

Now that the vote on Amendment 66 is done, teacher licensure is perhaps the most important education issue on the current policy agenda, with a likely bill in the spring legislative session. And, with Senator Michael Johnston taking the lead, there is little doubt that this will continue to be a high profile issue. I’m glad many stakeholders are involved in the LEAD discussions that have been covered by Ed News.

The New Teacher Project (TNTP) report for CDE in August 2012 developed the case for improving licensure via a larger applicant pool but also a more selective process to get and retain the most qualified teachers, based upon student achievement outcomes, not inputs. These are probably good goals, but unfortunately not the way licensure typically works in most other licensed professions.

I want to offer some unsolicited opinions and ideas that I think should be part of the picture, by looking at evidence from other professions. It is odd that the teacher licensure discussion is considered in isolation and rarely linked to a much larger literature on occupational and professional licensure, performed by state agencies — in Colorado’s case, the Department of Regulatory Affairs. Yet, the TNTP report doesn’t cite a single study outside of the education sphere.

Many other occupations besides teaching are licensed by the states; in fact, nearly one-third of American workers are in a field that requires licensure, a figure that greatly exceeds the approximately 11 percent who are in unions. Professional licensure is a bigger deal than most people realize, and it is even more common in fields that, like teaching, require a college degree. Some 800 professions require licensure in at least one American state, and some 1,100 occupations have some form of associated government regulation (Council of State Governments). Recent data show that 85 percent of those in licensed professions are required to take an entry exam of some kind, and 70 percent require continuing professional education. Still, there is a lot of variation across the 50 states in specific occupational regulatory policies, as is true for teacher regulations.

The simple rationale for these regulations is basic consumer protection, by assuring a minimum standard of training and presumed quality for these professionals. Often, a particular amount or type of training is specified by regulation, and it sometimes includes additional continuing education, to keep up one’s professional knowledge over time. There may also be sanctions for licensed professionals who do not practice appropriately.

As an alternative view, occupational licensure at the state level is often characterized by economists as an example of “captured regulation” where the regulated profession, and related gatekeepers, really control the regulatory decisions and use them to their advantage. From this perspective, regulation explicitly creates artificial entry barriers, often by requiring considerable education and training that is not actually necessary, for someone to enter the field of cutting hair, giving massages, or (perhaps) practicing medicine. Such barriers, in turn, seek to raise the incomes of those already in the profession, by keeping others out, and limiting supply, at least at the margin.

In my 2004 book “Regulation in the States” (Brookings Institution Press), I reviewed the empirical literature and performed some new studies of occupational regulation. The literature suggests that professional regulation is more complicated than either extreme view. Some of it seems to serve the public interest by assuring minimal quality standards, while some of the regulations create entry barriers and raise incumbent incomes. Politically powerful groups do seek to have legislatures pass and maintain regulation that makes it more difficult for others to enter their field. Sometimes the implementation of day-to-day regulation is performed by commissions that are made up mostly of members of that profession. Kleiner and Krueger (in their 2013 Journal of Labor Economics article titled “Analyzing the extent and influence of occupational licensing on the labor market”) find that, on average, licensure raises wages by 18 percent, compared to wages in states where licensure is not required.

My own theoretical thinking on this topic is guided by a particularly challenging chapter in Milton Friedman’s 1962 classic book, Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman attacks occupational regulation and takes an extreme free-market position — that medical doctors should not be licensed, and that anyone should be able to hang out a shingle saying “medical services available here.” In Friedman’s view, the market will sort out who is a good medical practitioner and who is not. (I don’t agree with Friedman on this case, but I give him full credit for taking on the most challenging case — regulated massage therapists or movie projectionists would have been easier. The average salary of an MD in the US and the successful lobbying of the AMA on things like the scope of practice by nurse practitioners nevertheless suggest some elements of captured regulation in medicine).

Friedman also lays out a useful framework for thinking about licensure. In this framework, there are three levels of government intervention in the marketplace worth thinking about.

At the most basic level (“registration”), a practitioner would have to register with the government that they are engaged in the profession. So, in a hypothetical world of non-licensed MDs, practitioners would have to register that they are serving patients. This would allow the government to contact them and figure out things like how many patients have the flu or have been treated for communicable diseases. But, no one is ruled out of practicing, as this is lightest possible form of regulation. It could also be used to ensure that the professional does not have a criminal background.

At the next level is voluntary “certification.” By completing a third-party training program, as with a CPA or a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), a professional can seek to show that they are better trained than a run-of-the-mill accountant or financial planner, and presumably charge a higher fee for their more expert services to clients who need it. This provides differentiation that might be valuable information to consumers, but doesn’t limit anyone from practicing in the field.

Licensure is the most intrusive degree of professional regulation — as in the real world, where no doctor can practice medicine without a license. Of course, within the category of licensure, there are many ways to actually implement it, and that seems to be the focus of the LEAD group.

This framework generates some interesting questions related to teacher licensure. Is there concern that the current system limits entry into teaching, especially by those with a background that doesn’t include a university school of education training or training by alternative license providers? Are there a lot of people in that category? Does the current system limit entry and raise teacher incomes? Are high teacher salaries a big problem?

“Yes” answers to these questions may be part of the reasons for pursuing this issue, but at the same time, American education and teacher training programs in particular are often criticized as having standards that are too low for teachers (say, in contrast to Finland, where Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World” book and other reports suggest barriers to entry are really high and pay is high). Are entry barriers keeping out lots of candidates and raising teacher pay above market rates? Can it be true that our current system both allows future teachers with poor skills and backgrounds in and keeps many qualified people out? Perhaps that is possible via licensure, and is even happening, but it seems like a bit of a contradiction that should be thought through.

Other Ed News articles have captured comments that schools and districts might need more flexibility in hiring teachers. Perhaps, a la Friedman, they should be allowed to hire “non-licensed teachers”? It may be a matter of semantics, but if experiments are to be tried, another way to think about this might be: teachers must be “registered” to show they are not criminals and that they are practicing; a district could choose to hire any registered teacher, but then takes some responsibility for the outcomes; some teachers could seek “certification” perhaps by any institution (government approval of such institutions would be counter to Friedman’s approach, but could also be another variation); and then real licensure might be limited to a group trained by government approved institutions who pass a test as well.

For most regulated professions, the consumer of the service is an individual, so a minimum threshold of quality and training is very important, as these buyers may not be sophisticated in their knowledge. For teachers, the intermediate consumer is the school or district (this is often true of MDs as well, who often work for hospital, group practices, insurance companies, etc), while the family or students are the “real” ultimate consumer. But families are rarely in the position of actually “choosing” a teacher — they might get to choose a school, and usually get whatever teacher is assigned to them at that grade level. That places the burden on the state, districts, and schools to make sure that good teaching takes place, whether it is by registered, certified, or licensed teachers.

Regarding licensure, it is also useful to think about the regulations in related categories: input, process and output regulation. Inputs relate to the requirements to enter the profession, the process is about what is required to maintain the license, and outputs are the results – are licensed professionals truly better at what they do?

For teachers and process, the proposal on the table seems to be to link continuing licensure to teacher evaluations from 191, with the chance to lose the license with a few years of inadequate performance.

Looking to other regulated arenas might be instructive here too, and the evidence is that relatively few other professionals actually lose their licenses, as long as they pursue adequate continuing education. Some argue this is because the review committees are often stacked with people from the same profession who are unlikely to suspend their colleagues. Far fewer than one percent of MDs lose their license, for example, even though the malpractice suit rate is higher, and the occasional horror story of a near-blind surgeon usually involves someone practicing with a valid license.

In the end, I’m not sure the evidence from other regulated professions supports one “side” or the other in the teacher licensure discussions. I do think that looking at other areas of occupational regulation raises some good questions and perspectives about entry barriers, wage effects, competition, training programs and the ease or difficulty of getting into and through them, evidence that others are seeking to join the profession and are regulated out, who the consumers are, and whether or not licensure actually ensures good teaching.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

Help Chalkbeat raise $80k by Dec 31

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom filling a vital community need. We could not do this without you, and we need your support to keep going in 2022.

Connect with your community

Find upcoming Colorado events

Sign up for the newsletter Chalkbeat Colorado

Sign up for our newsletter.