Do we really need different teacher licensing for every state?


Every state has its own licensing requirements for teachers. Some states also allow for license reciprocity, meaning that if you have a teaching license from one state, you can transfer it fairly easily to another state and start teaching there. My state, Iowa, is not one of those states. In fact, the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners states quite clearly in its Licensure Handbook that

No, Iowa does not have reciprocity with any state. All individuals applying for licensure in Iowa must meet Iowa requirements. An evaluation is done to ensure that the coursework completed by the applicant meets Iowa’s minimum requirements. In most cases, applicants who have completed a teacher preparation program through a regionally-accredited college or university, received college credits, and completed either a student teaching or internship, may be eligible for Iowa licensure.

As many educators and schools can attest, the difficulty of transferring a teaching license (and, perhaps more importantly, retirement benefits) from one state to another can be a significant inhibitor to teacher mobility across state lines, recruitment of teaching talent from outside the state’s borders, and offering high-quality online learning opportunities to students that are facilitated by fantastic educators in other locations. You’re an excellent teacher from Montana that wants to move to Des Moines to work with students with special needs? Fill out all of this paperwork, pay us a big fee, and maybe you’ll be eligible. There’s a phenomenal physics teacher from Vermont whom you’d like to recruit to Cedar Rapids to work with urban high school kids? We’ll make her jump through a bunch of hoops. There’s an incredible online AP American History course taught by an awesome teacher in Delaware? Sorry, but if he doesn’t have an Iowa license, we’re skeptical.

This problem is not relegated to just Iowa, of course. Every state has an often-bewildering patchwork of rules, paperwork, processing fees, timelines, coursework demands, certification exam requirements, and other barriers to recognizing and utilizing out-of-state teacher excellence. This quote from a teacher in Kansas pretty much sums it up:

I graduated summa [cum laude], have three Master’s [degrees], and have scored perfect scores on four different Praxis tests. Shouldn’t I be able to teach in any state? [Teachers on the Move, p. 31]

Do we really need different teacher licensing for every state? Is the job of being a kindergarten teacher or special education teacher or high school math teacher or middle school physical education teacher in Iowa that much different than in Idaho or Arkansas? Couldn’t we come up with some sort of national teacher licensing scheme, accompanied by some short professional development experiences that got people up to speed on whatever state-specific regulations or professional knowledge they needed? Of course we could.

Many state teacher licensing rules exemplify legacy policies, structures, and mindsets that were created at a time when geography was a greater limitation. Today workers are much more mobile, workforce pools are global rather than just local, and we have the ability to share organizational information (and teach) across distance at the speed of light. Our teacher credentialing mechanisms have not kept up with our present reality. As such, they often inhibit the flexibility, adaptability, and nimbleness that we need our school systems to possess in these rapidly-changing times.

[Guiding Question: As we move toward more cognitively-complex, technology-suffused learning environments, what individual and societal mindsets – and local, state, and federal policy supports and/or barriers – need reconsideration?]

Image credit: Bigstock, 3d rendering of a map of USA

11 Responses to “Do we really need different teacher licensing for every state?”

  1. It’s worse if you didn’t go to an approved school of education. With 9 years of classroom teaching in private schools, three textbooks written and published and a MS in the field I taught I can’t teach in public schools in any state without going through more hoops than I can imagine.

  2. And despite the shortage of qualified Physics teachers, most states will not count an Engineering degree towards Physics certification.

  3. When the standards in some states are near non-existant the answer to your question is YES. For Al and Bill, the standards and requirements are public information. Please read them.

    I’ve read many very weak textbooks, and seen equally weak degree programs in all fields. You may agree that it would be irrational and inappropriate to generalize those experiences to all textbooks and degree programs or to apply such generalizations to your specific cases.

    Most hoops and difficulties you mention are the result of well considered standards for preparation and performance. Of course some people do not believe we should have any standards for the people we call teachers and place in classrooms with children and young adults.

    • Why would you want to defend a broken system? Because of the ridiculousness of the Physics certifications almost 40% of people teaching Physics do not have Physics certification, yet people who are highly qualified to teach the subject would be required to go back for several years worth of undergraduate classes just so that the transcripts would say “Physics” instead of “Engineering” even when many Universities cross-list the same class! A similar situation exists with Chemical Engineers vs. Chemistry Majors.

      • Bill, I won’t begin to list my degrees, certificates, endorsements, etc., beyond stating that I held permanent or professional licenses in 3 states prior to my current state, and National Board Certification. My current state gave me the same license they hand brand-new graduates and said I’d have to take the initial Praxis exam. The alternative? Get a doctorate. So, I dug out the nearly-finished dissertation, successfully defended, and sent them a large pile of papers with my transcript. Explain to me in what universe a basic literacy test is equivalent to a 200 page, peer reviewed, dissertation?

        • My point exactly.

          Don’t even get me started on how a multiple choice test is supposed to prove your fitness to be a teacher…

  4. I completely ran into this when moving from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. In Pennsylvania I had 7 certificates in elementary education, special education, reading specialist, and the middle school content areas. Massachusetts threw numerous obstacles in my path, so I now only have the one elementary education license.

    In addition, I had professional teaching status in Pennsylvania, but I got knocked back down to an Initial license in Massachusetts. It’s pretty embarrassing to have to go through state-mandated new teacher orientation when I was in my 9th year as a teacher.

  5. I’m so glad you posted this! The practice of having different licenses for different states seems, as you say, archaic and from a different era. In cases where teachers must move (for example, due to a spouse’s new job), we run the risk of good teachers opting for another profession altogether rather than having to go through the rigmarole of yet another licensing process.

  6. Even within a state, getting an additional certification is difficult. I wanted to add Environmental Science to my Masters and 7-12 Physics & Math certification. The State had a long checklist and 2 years of full time undergrad work. I asked about getting a Masters in Environmental Science (if i was going to do 2 years of course work it might as well mean something). They said no.

  7. Keep in mind that that the mess we are in thanks to NCLB and Race to the Top is the result of federal efforts. It would be nice if the feds put together a smart set of regulations for teacher certification, but I wouldn’t trust them. Maybe if they put one together and let states op in, it might work. All states that op in would then have reciprocity with each other. Does anyone have a list of which states accept certifications from other states?

  8. Dear Scott,

    Thank you for your article on teacher licensing. It does definitely make things difficult on teachers. We at TeacherStep, a company focused on making teacher recertification simple, offer professional development graduate courses for Teachers, created by Teachers!

    We have just developed new CCSS education courses, and we would love to have you check them out. Here is our website:

    Hope to hear back from you soon, our email address is below.

    And thank you so much, your articles are wonderful!

    Warmest Regards,
    -The TeacherStep Team

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