Skip to main content

Reshaping Teacher Licensure: Lessons from the Pandemic

The implications of emergency teaching licenses, their impact on teacher diversity, and the ongoing efforts to ensure the quality and stability of the teaching workforce
Teacher standing happily in front of class

With looming threats of high teacher turnover rates during COVID-19, Olivia Chi, Ed.M.'17, Ph.D.’20, an assistant professor at Boston University, wanted to study how the pandemic shaped who decided to become a teacher.

Many states foresaw serious disruptions to the teacher pipeline as testing centers and schools closed around the county. While teacher requirements differ by state, many require a bachelor’s or master’s teacher education program, student teaching, state teaching exams, or some type of alternative certification program. Massachusetts sought innovative solutions to sustain their teaching workforce by issuing emergency teaching licenses. 

“In order to prevent a stopgap essentially in the teacher pipeline, Massachusetts issued what they called emergency teaching licenses. And these began in June of 2020, in response to all of the closures during the pandemic,” Chi says. “And the emergency teaching license is different from the others because it only requires a bachelor's degree to be eligible for the license. In other words, you did not have to complete and pass these teacher licensure exams in order to get the license. So if you have a bachelor's degree and you went through the typical checks, you could get that license and be eligible to be a Massachusetts classroom teacher in a public school.”

Chi's research, conducted in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, demonstrates how emergency licenses influenced the demographics and effectiveness of the teaching workforce.

“I think our results would put forth to consider more flexibility, particularly for those who have already engaged in the teacher pipeline or may already have lots of experience working in public schools as paraprofessionals or in other staff positions,” Chi says. “That being said, I don't necessarily think our results suggest we should just do away with all of the requirements and let anybody in.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, we discuss the study’s findings and what emergency licenses can tell us about teacher licensure requirements given the current state of the teaching workforce today.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Olivia Chi wanted to know how the pandemic's disruption of the teacher pipeline shaped who became a teacher. She's an assistant professor at Boston University whose research focuses on teacher labor markets. She studied what happened when Massachusetts implemented emergency teaching licenses to scale the teaching force during COVID-19. The traditional pathway to become a teacher varies by state and often includes a bachelor's or a master's teacher education program or some type of alternative certification. I wanted to know how teacher licensure requirements may impact the ongoing challenges of teacher diversity and the nationwide shortage of educators. First, I asked Olivia how difficult it is to become a teacher.

Olivia Chi
Olivia Chi

OLIVIA CHI: It can be. Going through the teacher preparation program, it's a big time commitment and it's a big monetary investment. So if you're going through an undergraduate program, that's the college tuition that you're paying. That's the time you're taking out of the workforce to go through education. And even with alternative certification programs, you may not necessarily be going through that traditional teacher preparation, like that four-year undergraduate program or the master's in education necessarily. But it still can be a big investment in terms of time that one needs to take to study for the exams and pass exams and the investment that you need to pay in order to pay for each examination. So these barriers to entry, they can disproportionately affect different groups. It can be hard for many individuals to enter the teacher workforce.

JILL ANDERSON: You looked specifically at what happened in Massachusetts during the pandemic when emergency teaching licenses were allowed. What made you particularly interested in studying this change in requirements?

OLIVIA CHI: I would say earlier on in the pandemic, there was a lot of national conversation. You saw a lot of headlines about what was going to happen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And there was a big concern that there was going to be high teacher turnover, that teachers weren't going to feel safe to work in schools, and that they were going to leave the profession. So it was unclear. At least in the summer of 2020, it was unclear what was going to happen. So some colleagues and I at Boston University, we proposed to examine what this looks like and how that played out in Massachusetts.

So we did an initial project where we looked at teacher turnover, how that varied by different types of schools, how that varied across different types of teacher demographic subgroups. And one thing we found when we were diving into this is that we saw that those who were coming in under an emergency teaching license, and teaching under the emergency teaching license, those folks were more ethnically and racially diverse than those who came in under the more traditional teacher licenses. We did this in the context of a research practice partnership with Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Massachusetts DESI. So we partnered with them to continue something like an evaluation of the emergency teaching license to try to examine who took up the emergency teaching license, what were the effectiveness of those who ended up teaching under the emergency license and so forth.

JILL ANDERSON: How did these emergency teaching licenses differ from the traditional requirements in the state?

OLIVIA CHI: Right. So this is all in the context of Massachusetts. A new teacher who wanted to join the Massachusetts teacher workforce, they typically had to get one of these initial licenses where they went through a teacher prep program and they would have to pass the licensure exams. Alternatively, there's something called a provisional license where folks with a bachelor's degree could take these licensure exams and get that provisional license. But as a result of the pandemic, testing centers for these licensure exams closed. Public schools closed, so students couldn't do their student teaching. So students who would've gone on to become teachers and get these licenses weren't able to complete these requirements.

So in order to prevent a stopgap essentially in the teacher pipeline, Massachusetts issued what they called emergency teaching licenses. And these began in June of 2020, in response to all of the closures during the pandemic. And the emergency teaching license is different from the others because it only requires a bachelor's degree to be eligible for the license. In other words, you did not have to complete and pass these teacher licensure exams in order to get the license. So if you have a bachelor's degree and you went through the typical checks, you could get that license and be eligible to be a Massachusetts classroom teacher in a public school.

JILL ANDERSON: How many people pursued this route of licensure?

OLIVIA CHI: We saw that in the first year that they were issued. So between June of 2020 and May of 2021, we saw about 5,800 individuals apply and receive these emergency teaching licenses. And I believe it made up roughly two-third of the folks getting teacher's licenses within that time span. Again, some of these folks would have gone on to get an initial or provisional license, but couldn't because of the pandemic. But there were others who took this... like you were saying, who took this as an opportunity to become eligible to teach in Massachusetts public schools when they otherwise wouldn't have been able to.

JILL ANDERSON: One of the fascinating findings of your research was how these licenses were able to boost the ethnic and racial diversity of teachers. And that's been something the field has long struggled with. Why do you think that is?

OLIVIA CHI: Yeah. So from prior research from folks like Melanie Rucinski and Josh Goodman, as well as Dan Goldhaber and his colleagues, among others, we've seen that licensure exams and the requirement to pass many licensure exams, it tends to disproportionately deter teacher candidates of color. We see that in many states, where there's been research done, that they pass at lower rates. And a part of it's also because once teacher candidates of color... those who don't pass, they're less likely to retake them as compared to white teacher candidates of color. So there are, I think these systematic differences in, for example, retaking rates that are disproportionately affecting teacher candidates of color. So that's one way in which licensure exams shape who's eligible to become public school teachers.

JILL ANDERSON: Do you have to pay every single time that you take these exams?

OLIVIA CHI: It depends by state. So in the context that we're studying in Massachusetts, the individuals do have to pay to retake exams. I've heard of other contexts where that's not necessarily the case. But in our context, in Massachusetts, folks have to pay the testing fee every time you take it, which could add up.

JILL ANDERSON: Were you surprised when you saw this, when you were looking at the data and what you collected to see this shift?

OLIVIA CHI: I guess in some ways there were a lot of folks who indicated that the licensure exams and other requirements served as barriers to entry into the teacher workforce for those individuals. Folks who said that they weren't previously able to pass the licensure exams, but they wanted to become teachers. So in some ways, there were a lot of folks who were "waiting in the wings", that when the emergency license was available, they were able to use that as an opportunity to become eligible to become classroom teachers in public schools in Massachusetts. So in many ways, because we know that there are folks that haven't been able to pass the licensure exams and yet want to become teachers, in some ways it wasn't all of that surprising that once the opportunity came about, they were able to obtain the emergency license and become eligible. In some ways, it wasn't entirely surprising knowing that there were folks waiting in the wings, given the licensure exams that some folks weren't able to pass.
So in some ways, that wasn't totally surprising. But I think the numbers are pretty clear. In the first year, among those who obtained emergency teaching licenses, roughly 25% of emergency teaching license holders who became teachers were Black or Hispanic. And this is in pretty sharp contrast to those holding provisional and initial licenses, those more traditional teaching licenses. I believe roughly 10% of provisional teaching license holders are Black or Hispanic, and roughly 5% of initial license holders who are teaching that were new in that year identified as Black and Hispanic. So the numbers are pretty stark in that sense.


OLIVIA CHI: Yeah. So while the vast majority of emergency license holders who became teachers, they were still majority white. But the share who identified as Black and Hispanic was much larger in comparison to their more traditionally licensed peers.

JILL ANDERSON: Do we know a lot about what ended up happening with some of these folks? Because this was a temporary situation and, obviously, it's still a little bit early. It's only a few years out.

OLIVIA CHI: Yeah. So from our survey interview and focus group data and asking these individuals what their intentions were, among the respondents, the vast majority said they wanted to remain teaching in Massachusetts public schools. And right now, Massachusetts has stopped issuing new emergency teaching licenses. And since the initial rollout, there have been some extensions of those existing emergency teaching licenses. So right now, for those who want to remain in the teacher workforce, they have to obtain a provisional or an initial license in order to remain teaching. And so I think there's a big push among policymakers at the state and among school districts and within schools that are trying to provide support to these emergency license holders, so that they can obtain the provisional or initial license in order to remain teaching in the workforce.

JILL ANDERSON: Right. So it's not a case of you get this emergency license and you never have to do any of these requirements.

OLIVIA CHI: That's right. These folks, they're eligible to use the emergency license for a limited amount of time. And then within a given time period, they're going to have to transition into one of these other licenses in order to remain as teachers.

JILL ANDERSON: There's so much in the news about teacher shortages around the country. There's talk about this nearing crisis levels. And I know there's debate around that entire concept. There were some reports I saw about 55,000 teacher vacancies and how there's a lot of unqualified teachers currently in positions. How do you think changes to teacher licensure requirements can impact the recruitment and retention of teachers?

OLIVIA CHI: I think that's a really good question. It's an open question. I think there are some out there who believe that reducing requirements would help make the supply of teachers larger. I think there are others who would argue that that's not necessarily the best way to go about it in terms of we want to make sure that we have the right requirements in place to ensure some level of quality among the individuals who are coming in. Because it's really difficult to assess quality from meeting an individual, let's say, in just in one interview. It's very much a national debate right now, what exactly to do with licensure. Something I will mention is that at least based on our study of the emergency teaching licenses, we did end up examining a few measures of teacher quality among those who came in with the emergency license. Meaning they only had a bachelor's degree. They hadn't passed the traditional licensure exams, didn't necessarily go to the traditional educator prep program.

And when we look at these measures of quality, when we look at administrator ratings, these teacher evaluation ratings, these folks who got the emergency license and got hired as teachers, they're largely rated as proficient. The vast majority are rated proficient. And they look pretty similarly rated as compared to their peers with provisional licenses. So some of their peers, they seem to look very similar to them in terms of their ratings. We also looked at measures of student growth. We looked at teachers' mean student growth percentiles. These are measures of how much teachers are able to improve their students' test scores in math and English language arts in tested grades and subjects. And what we find is that those with emergency teaching licenses again, on average, look very similar to those who hold provisional licenses and initial licenses on this measure of improving test scores for students.
So at least in the context of Massachusetts during the pandemic, we see that on average, those who entered in with an emergency teaching license seemed to perform pretty similarly to their traditionally licensed peers. However, and I would say this is a pretty big asterisk, what we did see is that when we look at the subgroup of emergency license holders who had no prior connection to the educator workforce or to educator preparation... In other words, when we looked at the folks who didn't previously work in any Massachusetts public schools and who had not been involved in teacher preparation programs, and had not attempted any licensure exams... When we looked at this subgroup of individuals without prior engagement in the teacher pipeline, we actually saw that they seem to be rated a bit lower on their evaluations. And we have some suggested evidence that they seem to have lower measures of ability to improve test scores, at least in English language arts.

That being said, it's a small sample, so we'll have to wait to see what happens in future years when folks continue to examine teacher quality among these individuals. All is to say, seeing that those without prior engagement in the teacher pipeline having potentially lower evaluation ratings and test score measures, we might worry that letting in just anybody might not necessarily be the best idea. And I think that's very unique to this context. Like in Massachusetts, there were all these folks who wanted to become teachers and they were waiting in the wings, as I was saying. These are folks that were either working as paraprofessionals in schools, they were working in public schools as staff members. They were engaged in teacher preparation programs and maybe didn't pass the licensure exams. So there were all these folks waiting in the wings, that once they were able to obtain emergency teaching license and enter the teacher workforce, they were already these engaged individuals.

We might worry that if we continued to offer an emergency license or restarted a new version of the emergency license, you might worry that the folks coming in aren't necessarily the same as those folks who are waiting in the wings. They might be of individuals who have different characteristics, and they might have different levels of teacher quality. I think that while our study does suggest there should be some flexibility maybe in the existing teacher licensure requirements because it appears that at the time, maybe some of these requirements were keeping out folks who seemed to have gone on to become as good teachers as they're traditionally licensed peers. There seemed to be folks that... Before they couldn't enter. They enter the workforce as a result of this emergency license, and they seem to perform similarly. So I think that suggests there maybe should be some flexibility in the existing structure that requires very specific cut scores for the licensure exams and very specific requirements for educator preparation.

I think our results would put forth to consider more flexibility, particularly for those who have already engaged in the teacher pipeline or may already have lots of experience working in public schools as paraprofessionals or in other staff positions. That being said, I don't necessarily think our results suggest we should just do away with all of the requirements and let anybody in. I don't think our results would suggest that. Though, there are folks in the policy realm out there who do believe that. I don't think our results push it that far, given what we see among those without prior engagement in the teacher pipeline. But putting it all together, I think our results suggest maybe there should be some flexibility in the existing requirements.

JILL ANDERSON: Right. If there is this issue of unqualified teachers at high levels nationwide in the field, then it did make me question if we significantly change licensure requirements, how that might impact kids in the long run. Because logic seems to say that would just increase the number of unqualified people in the teaching profession, which I imagine is not the direction that we want to go in, but...

OLIVIA CHI: Yeah. I think it's a tricky problem because I think there are arguments that licensure requirements deter individuals who would go on to become high quality teachers. I think our results suggest there are some folks out there who really want to become teachers and just can't get over some of those requirements, and they would go on to become as good as some of their peers with the traditional licenses. At the same time, I don't think it necessarily suggests that any single person who had the inkling to become a teacher and lands a classroom teaching position would necessarily be as awesome in that role. Again, like you were saying, I think it's a really tricky policymaking decision of what to do with teacher licensure moving forward. Based on the results of our study, I am a proponent of that flexibility.

And going back a little bit to what you were about teacher shortages. I think nationwide, we have a data problem in terms of being able to quantify the nature of teacher shortages nationwide. I don't think our data systems are where they need to be for us to truly understand the extent of teacher shortages. That being said, I think it's not a surprise for those who are in this field to know that there have been historical shortages in areas such as special education, such as English learners, such as STEM subjects. Those have historically been shortage areas. And they've continued to be shortage areas throughout the pandemic. In particular, there are certain types of schools that have historically been hard to staff. Teacher shortages are not a new issue. I think they've always been an issue, particularly in these hard to staff subject areas.

And in some particular schools, teacher shortages are not new. I think they're going to continue to be a problem, particularly in those subject areas and in certain types of schools. One thing for us to do is to try to get a better handle on the nature of these shortages is that we do need to improve the existing data systems that we have in our country to have a better understanding of the health of our teacher workforce and the nature of these shortages.

JILL ANDERSON: What do you think about the role of state education departments and school districts to ensure some long-term stability and diversity of the teaching workforce?

OLIVIA CHI: One strategy that I think a lot of states are either beginning to adopt or considering is this notion of Grow Your Own programs. And that term, "Grow your own," can mean lots of different things. There's a really great, I think, new working paper by Danielle Edwards and Matt Kraft that look at Grow Your Own programs and what that could all entail. So there are lots of different flavors of Grow Your Own profiles. Some are focused on recruiting folks who are in high school and getting them interested in teaching, and helping to ensure that they can find their way into and through the teacher pipeline to be able to serve as teachers when they finish their undergraduate degree.

And there are other programs that are targeting folks who are already working in schools, such as paraprofessionals or teachers aides or substitute teachers to try to figure out how to get them into the teacher pipeline, to go through teacher education programs and get their license to become public school teachers. So there are these initiatives that are put forth by districts and by states to try to grow their own teachers to make sure that there's a continuous healthy supply of teachers entering the workforce. That's one really popular strategy that a lot of folks are either considering or putting forth. I think time will tell the extent to which we're able to use these as a healthy supply into the teacher workforce.

JILL ANDERSON: Do you think that states should revisit their licensure requirements, given the current situation? Especially in some states, it's more dire than others about some of these teacher vacancies.

OLIVIA CHI: There are many states out there that have their own version of emergency teaching licenses that allow individuals who aren't traditionally licensed to take in positions. So as you were saying, the regulations vary from state to state. But again, based on the research that we see here in Massachusetts and from some existing work done by Ben Backus and Dan Goldhaber and colleagues in New Jersey where they look at something that's similar to the emergency teaching license that occurred in New Jersey during the pandemic, I think all of the points to the idea that states should really consider some flexibility. Particularly to those who are trying and have been trying to enter the teacher workforce. I would imagine all over the country, there are folks who do want to become teachers and are passionate about education, but yet can't meet the requirements for one reason or another.
It might be because they're unable to pass the licensure exams. And it's possible that they would go on to be as good as their peers. So thinking through some other flexible ways for them to meet requirements that's not necessarily meeting a given cut score on a licensure exam. I know Massachusetts is already exploring some of these possibilities. I think that they've been investigating something called the MTEL-Flex. The MTELs are the licensure exam in Massachusetts. And they've been investigating and evaluating an initiative to, again, provide some flexibility around how you pass the licensure exam. So I do think that states across the country should be thinking about how can we provide some flexibility. Again, this doesn't mean take away all requirements completely. But how do we provide some flexibility to the existing structure to make sure that we can let in folks who are extremely dedicated to the profession, seem to have the potential to be really good teachers, and really want to become teachers?
So how can we think about opportunities to do that? I know some work by Mary Lasky who examined, I think a pandemic policy in Mississippi that allowed paraprofessionals with bachelor's degrees to be essentially hand-chosen by their principals to become classroom teachers in certain parts of the state during the pandemic. So that's one possibility of thinking about flexibility. How do we allow folks under the supervision of other educators to be able to enter the workforce without necessarily having gone through a traditional requirement? Again, I think that an evaluation of that policy is underway. But I think that that's just an example of how policymakers can think flexibly about how to have folks meet requirements through an alternative pathway than what currently exists.

JILL ANDERSON: Well, thank you so much, Olivia.

OLIVIA CHI: Thank you.

JILL ANDERSON: Olivia Chi is an assistant professor at Boston University. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

Related Articles