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Emergency-hired teachers do just as well as those who go through normal training

Chad Aldeman | January 10, 2024

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When K-12 schools closed their doors for in-person instruction in spring 2020, it had a variety of negative effects on students and teachers. It also shut off the training opportunities for future educators. 

In response, states instituted a variety of short-term waivers allowing candidates to teach without fulfilling their normal requirements. Those policies helped candidates who would have otherwise been prevented from teaching, while aiding school leaders in filling open positions.

Were teachers worse for this lack of training? 

New research from Massachusetts and New Jersey suggests maybe not. In both states, teachers who entered the profession without completing the full requirements performed no worse than their normally trained peers.

Starting June 2020, Massachusetts began temporarily letting anyone with a bachelor’s degree teach. According to data compiled by a team of researchers at Boston University, roughly 5,800 individuals received one of these emergency licenses. 

Like other first-year teachers, those granted emergency credentials were disproportionately assigned to work with children with disabilities, English learners and low-income students. And, in fact, they had more such children in their classrooms. Even so, their students saw about the same rate of growth in math and reading as children taught by regularly licensed educators. Because most did not teach tested grades and subjects, the researchers also looked at evaluation ratings. Both groups of teachers received similar marks from their supervisors.

When the Boston University team asked principals and administrators why they hired emergency-certified teachers, they reported using them to fill shortage areas, especially in special education. 

The teachers working under these licenses also helped diversify the state’s classrooms, as they were about twice as likely as other beginning educators to be Black, Hispanic or Asian.

New Jersey’s waiver policy was similar. Candidates could earn a temporary credential before passing the normal licensure exams or completing a teacher preparation program. The licenses were good for one year, at which point candidates would need to go back, pass the tests and complete their training. Still, researchers Ben Backes and Dan Goldhaber found similar outcomes as in Massachusetts: Teachers without the normal training and testing were at least as effective in reading and math as other novices. 

One preliminary explanation from the New Jersey study was that the emergency licensed teachers were working in schools that had a record of helping students make strong academic gains. It’s possible that the schools had supports in place, such as teacher coaching, a strong curriculum or something else that compensated for less training. 

Another recent study, out of Oakland, California, backs up this theory. Parents with high school diplomas who were given 10 weeks of training on a structured literacy program helped students produce strong early literacy gains, roughly on par with those made under fully credentialed teachers. 

The better question now is why these temporary waivers aren’t being made permanent. The New Jersey policy expired after one year, and Massachusetts is trying to phase its version out this year. But with such promising results, policymakers might want to reconsider.  

The results are, in fact,  part of a pendulum swing in teacher preparation. A decade ago, states were trying to raise the bar. The supply of new educators had risen steadily throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and there was a regular surplus of teacher candidates. There were regional and subject-area shortages, of course, but in general, school districts could be choosy about whom they hired. 

Given this backdrop, policymakers of all stripes came together to focus on quality over quantity. 

National leaders like then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten pushed for higher barriers to entering the profession. At the same time, the national accrediting bodies charged with overseeing teacher preparation programs pushed new standards of quality. And states adopted tougher licensing exams. 

Did these policies work? That’s a mixed bag at best. 

There’s some evidence that teacher licensure tests are mildly accurate predictors of who will be a good educator. All else equal, a school would be better off selecting candidates with a higher test score, especially if they’re going to be teaching math or science. But that general rule would mischaracterize a lot of teachers — some test well but don’t have great classroom management or interpersonal skills, while others may not test well but are effective at working with children. 

What’s undoubtedly true is that making it harder to become a teacher reduced the supply. Researchers found that the adoption of a new teacher licensure test called the edTPA reduced the supply by 14%, disproportionately hitting minority candidates in less selective or minority-concentrated universities. Another new working paper finds that in 21 states and D.C., shifting to the Praxis Core as their licensure test in 2013-14 led to a 12.5% decrease in teacher preparation completions.

In other words, making it harder to become a teacher will reduce the supply but offers no guarantee that those who meet the bar will actually be effective in the classroom. The recent COVID-related waivers should cause policymakers to re-evaluate whether barriers into the teaching profession actually serve a meaningful purpose, or if they’re keeping potentially talented educators out of the classroom.

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