Despite shortages of highly qualified math and science teachers nationwide, only 12 states have made any progress toward the equitable distribution of teachers in high-need areas, and 32 states do not allow someone to demonstrate subject-matter knowledge by means of a test in lieu of their requirement of a college degree in the subject. What’s more, only 28 states support differential pay initiatives for teachers in high-need areas.

That state policies, by and large, are not geared toward increasing the quality and number of math and science teachers is among the findings of a new report that reveals wide disparities among policies affecting the teaching profession from state to state.

Just as the federal No Child Left Behind Act is being rewritten on Capitol Hill, state laws nationwide need reworking, too, says the nonpartisan National Council on Teacher Quality, a private group in Washington, D.C. The group issued its State Teacher Policy Yearbook on June 27.

“For the most part, the current system is a mix of broken, counterproductive, and anachronistic policies in need of an overhaul,” says the report, which summarizes each state’s laws and regulations affecting teachers.

The group found differences in how teachers are evaluated, prepared, licensed, and compensated—all factors that affect teaching quality.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the variation in policies makes little sense, but she stopped short of calling for national standards for teachers.

“I’ve seen some states do some good things that I know wouldn’t happen if they were all in the same room trying to do it,” Walsh said.

One example of how states differ from each other, and the labor market more broadly, involves teacher evaluations.

While annual reviews might be a fact of life in many businesses, only about a quarter of states require annual evaluations for teachers, according to the report. Hawaii, Missouri, and Tennessee let teachers go as long as five years without a formal review, the report says. And only about half the states require reviews to include a classroom observation.

Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that’s unwise. “Evaluations are important. These are employees who are working with our children,” he said.

But Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll said states are reluctant to create too many requirements in this area. In large schools, he said, principals may not have time to review every teacher annually.

If on-the-job evaluations have gaps, the report says, initial preparation is often lacking as well. The majority of teachers go through undergraduate education programs at colleges or universities. But states, which approve these schools, set weak standards for them, according to the report.

For example, it finds that only nine states—California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington—require aspiring elementary-school teachers to take an introductory American history class while in education school.

“You want to make sure the teacher knows something about the American Revolution and the Civil War,” Walsh said.

The report finds many states are making it difficult for people who did not graduate from education schools to become teachers. Barriers include requiring large amounts of coursework and only allowing colleges, not other nonprofits or school districts, to run teacher-preparation programs, the report says.

“It’s OK to put up criteria of quality and rigor,” Driscoll said, adding that states should not “be making people jump through hoops that aren’t important.” The report gives Massachusetts good marks for bringing people with different backgrounds into teaching.

Similarly, veteran teachers should be able to move easily between states by taking licensing tests showing they meet the new state’s standards, the report says. Instead, newcomers are more likely to have to take additional course work, which can expensive and time consuming.

Barriers like these could hamper school systems’ efforts to recruit and hire highly qualified math and science instructors, as well as teachers in other high-need areas.

Even as states are erecting barriers that could prevent highly qualified people from teaching, they also are making it too easy for unqualified people to get in, the report says.

For example, the authors say states are letting novice teachers into classrooms before they have passed state licensing tests.

Just three states—New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York—require new teachers to pass such tests before entering the classroom. Many states give teachers one year to pass, but 20 states let people teach for three years or more without passing, the report says.

“Licensing tests serve a critical purpose,” says the report. “They provide the public with assurance that a person meets the minimal qualifications to be a teacher.”

National Council on Teacher Quality