Wisconsin should rethink its entire teacher certification process

By Mark Schug and Scott Niederjohn for The Badger Institute

In an attempt to address perceived teacher shortages, a bipartisan group of state legislators have introduced a bill that would make it easier for qualified teachers from other states to become licensed in Wisconsin. While there may be as many surpluses in the wide array of teaching disciplines as there are shortages, this bill advances a worthwhile reform.

Much more, however, can and should be done to overhaul Wisconsin’s deficient teacher certification process.

We have written reports critical of Wisconsin’s approach to teacher certification. One of us (Schug) worked for decades at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, administering aspects of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) certification rules. The other (Niederjohn) is a higher education administrator who understands firsthand how the fossilized DPI teacher certification rules affect students.

In a 2017 Badger Institute report titled Government’s Love for Licensure, we recommended that “The Legislature should allow teachers who have been certified in other states to be granted an appropriate Wisconsin teaching license with a minimum of hassle.” AB 195 is a good start.

The bill requires DPI to issue a teaching license based on reciprocity to an individual who holds a license from another state if the person taught in Wisconsin under a temporary license issued by DPI for at least two semesters and the school employer confirms that the applicant’s teaching experience was successful. It also changes a reciprocal teaching license from an initial license to a provisional license.

What is the national picture on teacher license reciprocity?

Thirteen states have full reciprocity (or something very close and with minimal burdens) by statute for out-of-state teachers.

Twenty-nine states have additional coursework requirements in place for out-of-state teachers.

Ten states have a test-out exemption for additional coursework for out-of-state teachers.

Fourteen states require out-of-state teachers with experience to provide evidence of effectiveness.

Some states have several of these requirements.

AB 195, based on the assumption that Wisconsin faces a severe teacher shortage, would move the Badger State from the category that requires out-of-state teachers to complete additional coursework to the full reciprocity category. We have had chronic teacher shortages in some fields for decades. Ever try to hire a talented math teacher to teach in inner city Milwaukee? It’s almost impossible.

But, for all of the media hype regarding today’s teacher shortages, recall that we also have a long history of chronic teacher surpluses. The surpluses in some fields were staggering. Dozens of new teachers would apply for one elementary school teaching position or a middle school social studies vacancy.

Why was there such a mismatch between supply and demand? For decades, K-12 teaching was treated as one labor market — the market for a generic teacher. The old step-and-lane salary schedule long favored by teachers unions compensated all teachers in the same way (years of teaching experience and level of education) as if they all had the same skill set and classroom ability and faced the same opportunity cost (the next best job choice).

For example, the next best job choice for an early childhood teacher might be working in a day-care center. The next best choice for a high school chemistry teacher might be working at a chemical company. Clearly these are different labor markets.

The step-and-lane salary schedule was insensitive to the real labor market conditions for teachers and, over the years, did enormous damage. Prospective teachers spent years completing certification programs only to discover there were no jobs. Schools of education had high enrollments and became “cash cows” for universities. In the meantime, potential math and science teachers just walked away. Hardly anyone had an incentive to rock the boat.

Only recently has the labor market for teachers begun to function somewhat normally. Wisconsin’s Act 10, enacted in 2011, created a labor market for teachers that was much freer than what existed before. Younger teachers and those with skill sets that are in high demand are receiving improved compensation, benefits and respect. Valued teachers are being “re-recruited.”

Supply and demand

Let’s examine the supply and demand situation today. In January 2018, the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in the School of Education at UW-Madison released a rigorous working paper titled Supply and Demand for Public School Teachers in Wisconsin. The report is nuanced, but some generalizations stand out.

The authors state that there is no statewide teacher shortage. They conclude: “The supply data show a net excess of applicants across nearly all positions.” That said, teacher preferences are important, and some districts receive more applications than others. Districts with trouble attracting sufficient applicants have increased the use of emergency credentialing. While teachers tend to relocate in the same region of the state, there has been an increase in inter-district teacher mobility. Finally, the labor market is complex (but not unexpected). For example, there is:

  • A shortage in areas such as bilingual education, special education (visual, emotional), world languages and tech ed.
  • A more consistent supply in areas such as science, special education (speech, deaf) reading, math, English and health.
  • A surplus in areas including childhood, music, special education (general), elementary and middle school education, physical education and social studies.

AB 195 may help to alleviate some of the supply concerns. Now would be a good time to rethink Wisconsin’s entire teacher certification process. To become a teacher here, an individual has to comply with what many Wisconsin school leaders describe as the onerous provisions of licensure rules called PI 34.

Fifteen years after DPI approved PI 34, the regulations have yet to earn national respect. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), Wisconsin has flat-lined in its teacher preparation policies. In its 2017 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, Wisconsin received an overall grade of D+. Wisconsin earned a D in 2009, a D in 2011, a D+ in 2013 and a D in 2015.

Many of our neighboring states are ranked somewhat better. Minnesota gets an overall grade of C, Illinois a C+, Iowa a D+ and Michigan a C. Thus, making it easier for teachers from other states to become licensed in Wisconsin is a good thing, but it is unlikely to substantially improve the quality of Wisconsin’s teacher corps without additional reform .

Our recommendations in Government’s Love for Licensure included:

  • fine-tuning salary scales to reflect the reality of multiple teacher labor markets
  • the repeal and replacement of PI 34
  • allowing districts to develop their own teacher licensure programs, and
  • authorizing existing charter schools to hire teachers based solely on candidates’ experience and their ability to teach.

AB 195 suggests that there is bipartisan interest in common-sense teacher licensure reforms that make it easier to attract high-quality teachers to Wisconsin’s traditional public and charter schools. Now would be a good time to finally take action and reform PI 34.

Mark Schug, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Scott Niederjohn, Ph.D., is dean of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Lakeland University in Sheboygan. Reposted from the Badger Institute with permission.