Licensure Requirements

Teacher licensure is a measure designed to ensure a minimal level of competency for educators. Couched in the definition is the impression that the licensing agency warrants that the educator is qualified. Current licensure, or certificate, practices focus on ensuring proficiency in subject matter and pedagogy, often by means of testing. In addition, the licensure process allows licensing agencies to examine applications for individuals with prior criminal records. Agencies may require periodic license renewals, continued professional development, and established levels of acceptable behavior for educators to maintain their licenses.

In short, states may impose reasonable restrictions, such as citizenship, loyalty oaths, and residency requirements, as long as these requirements further a legitimate state interest. For example, in Ambach v. Norwick (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the New York State’s licensure requirement to be a citizen bore a rational relationship to the state’s educational goals. New York prohibited noncitizens from obtaining licensure unless the individual indicated intent to become a citizen. The Court noted that the state’s interest in promoting civic values was rationally related to the citizenship requirement.

There is no national teacher certification requirement, yet each state has adopted some form of licensure. As a result, there is substantial disparity in the specific rules and procedures among the states, although traditional state licensure schemes are similar. First, state licensing agencies establish standards or minimum guidelines for teacher education colleges within the states. In most instances, the licensing agency is the state’s board of education or a professional practices board made up of elected or appointed licensed teachers and administrators. Second, teacher education colleges (and universities) establish programs to meet the minimally established state criteria. Finally, when prospective educators complete the college programs, their institutions recommend the students to the state agencies, which then provide licenses to successful candidates.

Supportive of the licensure process, the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) requires all teachers in the core subject areas to be highly qualified. The U.S. Department of Education defines “highly qualified teachers” as those who possess bachelor’s degrees, are licensed by their states, and have demonstrated competency in the core academic areas they teach. Yet empirical studies supporting the efficacy of teacher licensure are scant, at best. There is some evidence that student performance in mathematics is positively associated with teacher licensure. However, studies that explore relationships between licensure and student success in other subject areas are inconclusive.

Standards Movement

The awarding of teacher’s licenses based on the completion of state-approved programs was the predominant means of licensing during the early 20th century. By the early 1950s, most states issued licenses based on this model. Citing studies showing the importance of the teacher on student learning, policymakers in the 1980s began to focus on teacher quality. Shifting from the process-oriented emphasis of teacher preparation, states moved to a standards-based emphasis. Influenced greatly by standards developed by the National State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, most state standards are similar in nature. Due to the similarity of standards, states frequently honor reciprocity agreements.

Affiliated with the standards-based movement, states implemented testing to make certain that licensed teachers met the minimum standards. Teacher testing serves two primary purposes. First, testing provides for an efficient method of evaluating teacher competence. Second, testing enables licensing agencies to focus on standards-related performances, as opposed to process-oriented regulations. Yet due to the pressure to help prospective educators excel on the state-administered tests, teacher testing also had the effect of altering teacher preparation curricula. Many programs adjusted the curricula to (a) align the content of the course work with the standards and (b) adjust course assessment to mimic the state assessment.

Legal challenges to the system of licensure tied to testing have produced few changes. As long as tests maintain content validity, the courts have upheld their use as a prerequisite to licensure.

Adverse Certification Actions

Each state has a method for taking adverse actions against licensed educators. These adverse actions include private reprimands, public reprimands, license suspensions, and license revocations. Using an administrative hearing process, licensing agencies can take adverse actions due to a wide range of improper actions on the part of educators in public schools. The improper actions include ethics violations, contract abandonment, and the violation of state or federal laws.

In sum, states may establish reasonable requirements for licensure as long as they are rationally related to the educational interests of the state. Often, those requirements include minimum levels of educational attainment, minimum age requirements, acceptable criminal records, and adequate performance on measures of academic and pedagogical competence. Continued licensure may be predicated on demonstrated continuing professional growth and adherence to state and federal laws and state educational ethical codes.

Mark Littleton

See also Ambach v. Norwick; Drug Testing of Teachers; Educational Malpractice; Highly Qualified Teachers; No Child Left Behind Act

Further Readings

  • Goldhaber, D., & Brewer, D. (2000). Does teacher certification matter? High school teacher certification status and student achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 22, 129–145. 
  • Kaye, E. A. (Ed.). (2003). Requirements for certification of teachers, counselors, librarians, administrators for elementary and secondary schools (68th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Roth, R. A., & Pipho, C. (1990). Teacher education standards. In W. R. Houston, M. Haberman, & J. Sikula (Eds.), Handbook of research on teacher education (pp. 119–135). New York: Macmillan. 

Legal Citations

  • Ambach v. Norwick, 441 U.S. 68 (1979). 
  • No Child Left Behind Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 6301 et seq. (2002).