How to Become a Teacher: Public vs. Private

“Those who can’t do, teach,” goes the common refrain. But not among education reformers, many of whom say changing that attitude is the key to lasting systemic improvement in our schools. And research seems to back them up, as studies show teachers are the most important school-based factor in a student’s performance.

So how does someone qualify to become a teacher—the most important factor in a student’s academic progression?

As you probably expect, state governments play a gatekeeper role by requiring teachers to be licensed. Requirements vary state to state, and even from year to year, particularly at this time of widespread upheaval in how education is governed at the federal, state, and local levels.

But let’s look at Indiana, a state that has embraced reform on so many fronts, as an example of how teachers get into public and private school classrooms.

Public School Teacher Licensure Requirements

Indiana currently allows prospective teachers to follow one of three initial steps to get a teaching license.

The “traditional” route differs slightly for elementary teachers and middle/high school teachers, but it is the route most people commonly associate with being a teacher: The prospective teacher enrolls in classes in his or her college’s school of education and completes the requirements. Elementary teachers major in General Education with a minor in a state-approved content area, while middle/high school teachers major in the content area they will teach with a minor in education that includes education courses.

The second route is for the teacher, either elementary or secondary, to complete a bachelor’s degree in a non-education major and then either complete a state-approved minor in “essential pedagogy” or complete a state-approved “transition to teaching” program.

Finally, prospective teachers may complete a Master of Arts in Teaching approved by the state.

The second requirement of Indiana’s teacher licensure process is successful completion of certain standardized tests. Currently, Indiana requires passage of Educational Testing Service’s Praxis Series II exam for each content area that will appear on the teacher’s license. Beginning in May 2014, Indiana will fully transition from the Praxis exams to the new Indiana CORE Assessment.

Finally, teachers in Indiana must complete both CPR-Heimlich Maneuver-AED certification and an approved course in child suicide recognition and prevention.

Private School Teacher Licensure Requirements

In short, private schools in Indiana may decide for themselves whether teachers must be licensed by the state. In their application and hiring processes, some schools may decide they want all their teachers to be trained and licensed according to state guidelines. Other schools may decide that an individual’s previous education and/or employment qualifications can be determined through other avenues.

This allows private schools to consider a range of factors that public schools may not be able to. Many private schools are created with specific missions in mind and often have rules and codes of conduct that reflect those missions. Because of their staffing autonomy, schools can recruit, hire, and retain teachers in such a way that ensures every person directing the development of students focuses on the school’s mission.

Choice, Competition, and Teacher Licensure

In Indiana, private schools that participate in the Choice Scholarship (voucher) Program must be accredited either by the state itself or by a recognized accrediting agency. State accreditation requires that schools hire licensed teachers to teach certain subjects, so private schools do lose some autonomy in their hiring decisions.

But in a choice system that truly reflects Milton and Rose Friedman’s vision, the need for state licensure and all the regulatory and legislative energy those regimes consume would melt away. Schools could recruit and hire individuals whether they had navigated the maze of college credits, standardized tests, certifications, and any other requirement states come up with or not.

Individuals who currently look at what might seem to be unnecessary hoops to jump through before getting into classrooms and throw up their hands in frustration could instead approach schools directly and demonstrate their teaching ability. And, of course, if the teachers in a school aren’t performing well enough, parents could simply leave and find a school where they are effective—or advise the school leader that they might leave if staffing changes aren’t made.

In time, schools will learn that to retain families, they must hire effective teachers who partner with parents to meet the unique needs of their students.