A Less Cloistered Schoolhouse

University education departments are not the only place to find teachers.

[Editor’s note: The following essay is excerpted from The Great School Rethink (Harvard Education Press, 2023).]

A single-minded focus on recruiting new college graduates for teaching jobs once made sense, back when college-educated women were a captive applicant pool and it was routine for new college grads to settle into a job for a long haul. Today, though, it’s increasingly bizarre for schools to fixate on training and recruiting 22-year-olds in the hope that they’ll stay in the job into the 2050s. Even worse, the costly and complicated licensure apparatus still doesn’t offer any assurance that teachers are ready for the job.

The nation’s 1,200-plus teacher-preparation programs (traditional and alternative alike) are time-consuming but of suspect quality. They do little to screen applicants for academic performance. Researchers have found no demonstrable difference in performance between certified and noncertified teachers. And supervisors also don’t seem to think licenses mean much. The Aspen Institute has found that just 7 percent of superintendents and 13 percent of principals think certification ensures that a teacher “has what it takes” to be effective in the classroom.

There are many ways to make it easier for career-changers to demonstrate competence.Licensure systems (in tandem with seniority-based pay) also make teaching inhospitable to career-changers. While midcareer professionals move freely between most jobs, entering teaching requires enduring the licensure gauntlet and then starting at the bottom of an inflexible pay scale. This doesn’t make much sense, given the skills, maturity, and savvy that a veteran engineer, journalist, or staff sergeant might bring to the classroom. Indeed, professionals who enter teaching in their thirties or forties (or fifties) may well be more confident in their career choice and, in today’s workforce, could easily wind up teaching for decades.

Thus it’s no surprise that the pandemic led many states to explore loosening the licensure chokehold. There are many ways to make it easier for career-changers to demonstrate competence or for states to streamline the path to professional entry. Tennessee, for instance, has launched an apprenticeship program allowing school systems to recruit and train teachers outside of the usual licensure apparatus. This allows candidates entering the teaching field to stay in the workforce, collecting a paycheck and sidestepping student loans. Making a profession more welcoming to those who can’t afford to take time out of the workforce also turns out to be a recipe for broadening and diversifying the potential teaching pool.

Schools made their peace with a host of nontraditional educators during the pandemic when they relied so massively on parents and guardians. And, in the aftermath of COVID-19, tutors played an outsized role for systems seeking to provide students with essential support. A less bureaucratic licensure regime could give school leaders more freedom to hire the staff they need while giving veteran educators more room to provide hands-on (and appropriately compensated) mentorship. Such a shift isn’t a last resort; it’s a chance to think more creatively about how schools might benefit from a vast wave of untapped talent.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Great School Rethink (Harvard Education Press, 2023).