Licensing and Teacher Shortages

Last week, the House Education Committee decided to abolish the teacher licensing system at the same time it abolished all state standards. If it stands, this move would virtually let anyone teach anything in the state without having to go through the arduous process of getting licensed to be a teacher and getting their subject endorsements. At first glance, this move may seem crazy, but is it? In truth, we actually do have a licensing problem in this state and it greatly contributes to the teacher shortages you hear a lot about in the news.

So, a little background. In Elementary School, teacher licenses look pretty much the same: All teachers are licensed to teach any grades and any subjects from K-6 grade. We don’t have an issue here, it’s secondary education where we have the problem. In grades 7-12, where teachers specialize in the subjects they teach, your endorsements are specific to the subjects you teach or what you do, for example: English 6-12, Exceptional Child (SPED), Administrator, etc. From grades 7-12, teachers must be endorsed in the subjects they teach, or if they’re not, districts must put them on an emergency “Provisional Endorsement” or they won’t get funding for the subjects the teacher teaches outside of their endorsement. 

The problem is that some of our endorsements are good, and some are not. “Exceptional Child K-12” is the most versatile endorsement. It’s for Special Education teachers, and it says, “this teacher can teach any subject to any grade of Special Education student.” The next most versatile are the English 6-12 and Math 6-12 endorsements. These allow English and Math teachers to teach any grades and any specific courses (like Algebra, or Geometry, or Calculus, etc.) for their endorsed subjects. In Science, you can be endorsed for Biological Science, Natural Science, Chemistry, and Physics. If you’re endorsed in Natural Science, you can teach Physical Science A/B, Chemistry or Physics, but you can’t teach any of the Biological Science courses. And if you’re endorsed in Biological Sciences, you can’t teach any of the Natural Science courses, but you can teach Biology, Anatomy, Botany, etc.

This arcane endorsement system actually causes major problems for schools across the state and is directly related to teacher shortages. In big schools, often teachers teach only one or two subjects so it’s not an issue. The problems are mainly in rural districts and charter schools because both typically have small schools. If you have a high school of only 300 students, it means that your teachers will have to teach multiple subjects because of numbers. Your English teacher doesn’t just teach English 9, he teaches English 9, 10, 11, and 12. The same is true for your History, Science, and electives teachers: they all have multiple subjects because you don’t have too many kids, and this is the heart of the problem. 

In small schools, your teachers must teach multiple subjects. If you have a Science teacher licensed in Natural Sciences, they can teach Physical Science, but not Biology and any other lab science grad requirement (students must earn 2 credits in Physical Science, 2 in Biology, and 2 in at least one other lab science to graduate). So you only have enough students for one Science teacher, but that teacher is only endorsed to teach some of the subjects students need to graduate, what can you do? 

Because in our state the majority of our schools are small, the state does provide a solution to this dilemma: the Emergency Provisional Endorsement Certificate. What a Provisional Endorsement does is allow the district to use the Science teacher to teach outside of endorsed subjects as long as both the teacher and district promise that in a certain time period the teacher will take the courses and exams needed to certify for the 2nd or 3rd subjects they are teaching. How many schools use this? I was once in a room with about 100 Principals, and they were asked to raise their hands if they had at least 1 teacher on a Provisional Certificate. Out of 100, only about 5-6 Principals didn’t raise their hands! 

So if you’re a beginning Science teacher hired at Butte County High School in Arco, ID (enrollment 166) and you have a Natural Science endorsement, your administration will put you on a provisional certificate right away. As a condition of your employment, you must agree to the (graduate level) coursework and exams that you’ll need to take to earn your additional endorsements in Biological Sciences and Chemistry in the next year or two. This means that for your teaching job for less than $40,000 a year, you must commit to take several expensive grad level courses and Praxis exams or they can’t hire you! So the heart of the problem is that in small schools, you must teach multiple subjects that you’re not endorsed for, and getting endorsed for them is too expensive considering the wages we pay for these jobs in the first place. 

Now, back to the beginning: is it logical to abolish our certificate system? I don’t think it is, because we want our teachers to be certified, but I think that the folks who establish these licenses would be wise to consider the reality that in our rural state that’s also full of charter schools, the majority of the schools are small and will require teachers to teach multiple subjects. The best solution is to make license endorsements as simple as possible: How about “Science 6-12”? I use Science, but this holds true in other subjects as well. We need to keep endorsements as simple as possible, and make earning additional endorsements as simple (and cheap) as possible or we will be in a continual teacher shortage, continually using large amounts of teachers on Provisional Certificates.

Clayton Trehal has been a teacher for 19 years and an administrator for the last 7.

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