News: CJ Exclusives

State Should Drop Certification Rules for Virtual School Teachers

JLF expert says restrictions block good educators from online instruction

North Carolina should dump certification and licensing rules that place artificial limits on the number and kinds of teachers who can work in state-managed virtual schools. The John Locke Foundation‘s top education expert recommends that change in a new Spotlight report.

“Teacher certification requirements are among the most onerous rules enforced by state education agencies,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Education Studies. “Those requirements have the potential to place serious limits on the scope, quality, and accessibility of virtual schooling for years to come.”

Stoops labels state teacher certification mandates “the most serious barrier to the widespread adoption of virtual schooling.”

“This type of instruction allows qualified instructors to deliver lectures, content, and assessments using Internet-based communications tools,” Stoops said. “What’s standing in the way of this innovative approach? It’s not an antiquated technological infrastructure or inadequate funding. It’s the application of one-size-fits-all teacher certification rules and regulations designed to maintain the educational status quo.”

Certification rules block high-quality teachers in multiple ways, Stoops explained.

“These regulations typically disqualify those who live outside a state from teaching in the state,” he said. “That means a high-caliber teacher like Jaime Escalante, the California math teacher profiled in the movie ‘Stand and Deliver,’ would not have been able to teach in a North Carolina virtual school unless he had a current teaching license in this state.”

Even highly qualified teachers within the state can be blocked from the classroom, Stoops said. “Higher education faculty, private-sector professionals, private school faculty, and independent scholars cannot teach a virtual course in a state-managed North Carolina virtual school without a current state teaching license, regardless of talent.”

The state-operated N.C. Virtual High School honors certification reciprocity agreements from other states, meaning certified teachers in one state can “transfer” their certification to another participating state, Stoops said. “Unfortunately, North Carolina does not have 100 percent reciprocity with any state,” he said. “An out-of-state teacher hoping to work with North Carolina’s virtual school might need to take various steps to meet state certification requirements, along with submitting extensive paperwork and paying an $85 processing fee.”

Certification rules form “one of the most entrenched hierarchical interdependencies” in public schools today, Stoops said. “A research team led by Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen came up with that technical term to describe the top-down rules and regulations that reinforce particular political, fiscal, professional, and educational practices,” Stoops explained. “Without a doubt, these rules stifle innovation and change.”

No one should be surprised to learn that financial interests play a role in keeping existing certification rules in place, Stoops said. “Colleges and universities enjoy considerable financial gain by maintaining a near monopoly on teacher training,” he said. “State education agencies collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from prospective and current teachers. Plus the testing industry makes millions from teachers who are required to pass standardized tests.”

Stoops is not alone in recognizing that certification rules create unnecessary barriers. “Even so, only a handful of others have acknowledged, let alone examined, the issue,” he said. “The Southern Regional Education Board published a comprehensive study of the problem in 2008. Its report argues that states should shift their virtual teacher recruitment efforts from residency to skills. Innosight Institute researchers also have raised red flags about the barriers certification and licensure rules create.”

North Carolina can take a number of steps on its own and in partnership with other states to tackle the problem of artificial limits for online teachers, Stoops said.

“States should acknowledge the disconnect between certification rules, teacher quality, and online learning,” he said. “State education agencies and legislators should ease or eliminate traditional certification and licensure requirements for online teachers.”

If it’s not possible to eliminate the existing certification process, North Carolina should reform its lateral-entry or alternative certification programs, Stoops said. “A group of states might also consider developing a common education credential for virtual school teachers,” he said. “The U.S. Department of Education or the National Governors’ Association should encourage states to adopt agreements for full reciprocity with other states.”

North Carolina should allow virtual schools to have the flexibility to focus on hiring teachers with the necessary skills, knowledge, and experience to do the job, Stoops said. “That’s more important than hiring only those teachers who hold state-mandated paperwork billed as a credential,” Stoops said. “In an era of budget shortfalls and economic uncertainty, policymakers and researchers should make these changes to promote high-quality online instruction.”