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Every state in America has established laws that require a license or certificate to practice in most professional occupations. Included in those fields are building and construction, law enforcement, medical practices, cosmetology, counseling, and teaching—well, not all teaching. Licenses to teach are required only for professionals in K-12 education, not for those in higher education. Why is that?

The fact is that teachers in our nation’s elementary and secondary schools are held to higher standards for demonstrating competence in the practice of teaching than teachers in our nation’s colleges and universities. In K-12 education, candidates for teaching must complete an appropriate postsecondary degree program and also pass the state-required certification and licensure assessment for subject-matter knowledge and pedagogy.

Once candidates meet the program-completion requirement, which is often graduation in an appropriate undergraduate preparatory program, they must then demonstrate competence in their knowledge of subject matter and in the practice of teaching through passing state-required standardized test(s) of teacher preparedness before they are eligible to be a teacher in the state. Those requirements for establishing teaching quality across the nation’s K-12 schools were mandated first by No Child Left Behind in 2002 and have been carried over through reauthorizations of the law into the most recent Every Student Succeeds Act.

In contrast, to teach in higher education, faculty members are merely expected to meet the program-completion requirement, which is often simply graduating from an appropriate graduate program. They are not required to know how to teach the subject in which they earned their degree or to pass any test to measure their readiness to teach said subject. The problem here is that pedagogical knowledge is not a function of subject-matter expertise. Having acquired content knowledge in a given discipline is not an indicator that a person is prepared to teach that content. The problem with the lack of knowing whether a future faculty member is prepared to teach is heightened by the reality that there is an almost certain likelihood that the candidate was never taught how to teach in their graduate coursework, a well-established challenge in the academy.

Again, why is that? Well, generally speaking, accrediting agencies drive higher education program design, and those agencies are held accountable by the U.S. Department of Education in their interpretation and administration of the Higher Education Act. That law doesn’t require any measure of teaching quality (only an expectation), therefore the Department of Education doesn’t require it, therefore accreditors don’t require it, therefore programs don’t include it.

Is that an oversimplification? Perhaps, but the reality stands that future faculty members are not taught how to teach in their graduate coursework. They aren’t required in any way to demonstrate proficiency in pedagogy, instructional design or the assessment of students’ learning before they are eligible to teach in higher education—whereas our K-12 teacher candidates are required to demonstrate such proficiencies in order to be eligible for employment.

I question the disparity. Why would we require a professional license or certificate to practice in most other professional occupations, including K-12 teaching, but not as part of the professoriate? In fact, the professors who educate future teachers are, according to today’s standards, qualified to teach future teachers but not qualified to teach their prospective students.

The United States Department of Education requires only that accrediting agencies have established standards that “set forth clear expectations for the institutions or programs it accredits” related to faculty. And the Department of Labor’s Occupational Informational Network description for postsecondary teachers states, “Employees may need some on-the-job training, but most of these occupations assume that the person will already have the required skills, knowledge, work-related experience, and/or training” (emphasis added).

This question of why we don’t require professors to possess a license to teach in higher education comes at a time when enrollments in traditional colleges and universities have been declining, while online program enrollments and alternative educational options have been on the rise. Sure, the pandemic-induced shift to online and remote learning and living experiences has played its part. But the single greatest competitive advantage that institutions of higher education have over ed-tech companies and boutique online education providers is the expertise of its faculty and staff members, both individually and collectively. To fight the trending declines in student enrollment, college and university leaders need to maximize their advantage by ensuring that the learning experiences—and outcomes—of all their students are led by people who provide the highest quality of teaching.

The research is clear: the single greatest academically related factor in a student’s achievement is teaching quality. To make the most of their greatest resource and strongest competitive advantage, college and university leaders need to develop better ways of ensuring teaching quality across contexts within their institutions. A solid first step is to ensure faculty members are not only subject-matter experts but also prepared teachers of their subject matter—ready to deliver engaging learning experiences to their students from the very start of their career, just as we expect of our nation’s K-12 educators.

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