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Is It Time to Re-Think Teaching License Renewals?

Most states are failing to address a fundamental driver of teacher discontent: A teaching re-licensure system that doesn't encourage career growth.
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Teachers all over the country just spent another summer taking (and paying for) courses to meet their states' requirements for maintaining their teaching licenses. However, many of the activities teachers engaged in were, at best, not challenging and, at worst, irrelevant to the content and students they teach. Right now, most states seem to have no issue with that—but a few offer hope that the tide could be turning.

State requirements for renewing a teaching license typically entail completing a certain amount of professional development (PD). One online course that teachers can enroll in to obtain the necessary PD credits is Dominican University of California's "Our National Treasures." Teachers gain graduate credits by spending several days strolling along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and completing a few simple tasks: taking photos at each of the seven national memorials and monuments, listing something they learned at each location, and writing a reflection about how they could use this information to enhance their classroom teaching.

A teacher who completed the course explained: "I loved it. I got to visit all the monuments, bring my kids along, and learn a bunch of details about American history." He added, however: "I'm an English teacher, and it had nothing to do with what or how I teach. It was just the most convenient way to get the credits I needed [to fulfill the requirements to renew my license.]"

This teacher's experience may seem outrageous, but it's not unusual. In fact, the "Our National Treasures" course requirements are actually more rigorous than the average teacher professional development activity for teacher licensure renewal. In many cases, states' renewal processes are solely focused on documenting time spent out of the classroom: Teachers need only submit a piece of paper certifying the duration of the workshop or conference they attended.

Making matters worse is the amount of money spent on this compliance-oriented process—much of it from teachers' own wallets, although some from public coffers. Instead of creating incentives for PD providers to create (and teachers to enroll in) offerings that are cheap and easy, states should be promoting meaningful professional growth—the sort of growth that helps students learn and keeps more teachers in the profession.

A recent report by New America analyzes teacher licensure renewal policies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to assess where and how states are trying to do just that. New America's analysis found that 12 states have adopted an approach that, at least on its face, has the potential to tie relicensure-focused PD more closely to the needs of individual teachers and the schools they work in. "Professional growth plans," or PGPs, require teachers to create professional learning goals and plans to reach those goals over the course of the licensure period.

Unfortunately, most states aren't fully leveraging PGPs' potential, and are still using time-based metrics to assess whether teachers' goals have been met, rather than an authentic appraisal of professional growth. To complete a PGP in Virginia, for example, teachers fill out a form on which they list the activities they have completed with an assigned point value for each, and then provide their adviser with transcripts, conference agendas, copies of published articles, and attendance lists to verify that they completed those activities. The form doesn't ask teachers to explain how these activities were relevant to their professional development plan goals, or show evidence of having met them.

Georgia, though, is one state that's bucking this trend. There, supervisors are expected to review teachers' practices and knowledge to determine whether growth has occurred. The state promotes linking PGPs to teachers' demonstrated needs for growth, as well as to teachers' field of certification and school or district improvement plans—a clear attempt to encourage coherence between individual teacher needs and broader goals for improving student learning.

In addition, Georgia's model requires that PD primarily be completed as part of teachers' "regular" work, as opposed to one-off activities provided by external vendors on teachers' own time and dime. However, the state is still missing a clear definition of what constitutes "sufficient progress" on teacher goals, and lacks guidance on how to measure progress, raising the specter of inconsistent, subjective assessment by teachers' supervisors.

Luckily, there's a model states can borrow from in order to improve the PGP process as part of license renewal: the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' certification process. National Board certification is considered the gold standard in teaching, but it's a stretch, at least at the moment, to expect all teachers to meet this high bar. However, a feasible middle ground could be using the license renewal process to encourage some teachers to pursue National Board certification, while embracing standard license renewal processes that replicate some of the elements of National Board Certification—such as reflection on practice, evidence of impact on teaching and learning, and multiple assessors using a common framework—for all teachers. In fact, 28 states, in some fashion, already recognize National Board certification as a route to licensure renewal.

As many states wrestle with teacher shortage concerns, they'd be wise to remember that when teachers feel that their professional growth is a throwaway, it contributes to teacher turnover, and to a diminished interest in becoming a teacher. By rethinking their teacher re-licensure policies, states have the opportunity to address a root cause of teacher discontent, while also improving student achievement.

So what are they waiting for?

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.