Tiered licensure puts Rube Goldberg to shame

The plan to push Idaho’s school teachers into a multi-level licensure plan is a complicated contraption that reminds me of Rube Goldberg’s Self-Operating Napkin; with strings and a parrot, a cigar lighter and a rocket, a pendulum is caused to swing, triggering the attached napkin to move back and forth, wiping the chin of good ol’ Professor Butts.

The State Board of Education’s proposal is similarly complicated in design, and likely equally vacuous in result. And that’s assuming that the proposal accomplishes nothing at all. I fear it will do less than that. This sophisticated system of linking professional certification to compensation will most likely generate an education system devoid of innovation. That will lead to a system where educators are afraid to be educators, where they’re fearful of failure because it will impact not only their pay but their access to the next tier of licensure.

There’s proof that this will be the case. A study in New Mexico, which in 2003 adopted a tiered licensure plan much like the one Idaho is contemplating, found that despite millions of dollars that have flooded the education system to reward teachers for moving to higher tiers, student achievement was unaffected. A legislative report found “small differences in performance despite large differences in pay among teachers” and recommendations to fix the problem were never implemented. “Furthermore,” the report said, “each licensure level has high and low performing teachers.”

Idaho officials will likely claim that they’ve solved New Mexico’s problems because Idaho officials want to include a healthy dose of student achievement into the state’s plan. That’s certainly important, and Idaho policymakers should be measuring whether their policies are having a positive impact on student achievement.

But the approach of tiered licensure presupposes that most teachers are bad and left to their own devices would likely starve children of a quality education. That’s not fair. And not true. Far from it. Left to teach, teachers might actually have time to do that.

Furthermore, the State Board of Education’s regimented and linear approach to attracting and retaining teachers makes it impossible for the very best, brightest and most exciting teachers to leap ahead of their colleagues — either professionally or in pay. For the teacher who is a rock star among teachers, the tiered licensure plan requires that educator to proceed in an orderly pace through the system, graduating through each tier like a train making its way through successive stations. It’s a system where even the extraordinary can be comfortably ordinary.

If Idaho wants to fix what’s wrong with public education, it should allow the marketplace of education ideas to grow and flourish. The system should encourage education entrepreneurs, not produce mindless automatons trying to master a system of bureaucratic hoops and obstacles. Teachers should be allowed to do what they’ve been taught to do, which is teach. They should be allowed to create, innovate and inspire. There’s next to none of that in the board’s tiered licensure plan.

Instead, it’s a bunch of levers and gears, spinning and buzzing and whirling about. It looks really impressive indeed, but it will manage to accomplish absolutely nothing, except expend lots of time, energy and money.

Wayne Hoffman is the president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.