Fixing the Teacher Certification Mess
I have no doubt our system for certifying teachers is broken. On Aug. 24, I wrote about a first-rate Prince George’s County teacher who was nearly fired because of official confusion over his certification credits. These are courses he must take to keep his job, but the people in charge had given him conflicting information about how many, and which, courses he needed. Since then, scores of educators have sent me their own horror stories---some of which I collected in another column on Sept. 7.
What do we do about this? Many readers have sent their ideas. But it’s not going to be easy. Injecting common sense into the process threatens the way our education schools teach and the way our school districts hire. Those powerful interest groups show little willingness to change. But the acidic frustrations expressed by people who contacted me are, thankfully, corroding the resistance to innovation.
Before I get to the big issues, I want to share some sage advice on dealing with officialdom in large, complex organizations. Many of the tales told to me by educators---including history teacher Jonathan Keiler, who inspired that first column---involved misinformation from credentialing officials. The teachers were told they needed a certain number of credits. Then at the last minute, when there was no time to enroll in more classes, they were told that the original advice was wrong and they needed more credits or would lose their jobs. Mike McMorrow of Arlington, who emphasized he is a retired lawyer, not a teacher, had a two-step approach:
“1. Get it in writing from a person who explicitly confirms that (s)he has the authority to decide the issue, and
2. The minute any difficulty arises downstream say, ‘Can we talk again in a couple of days after I consult with my lawyer and (s)he reviews my records on this point?’
My thought reading this advice was: good luck getting anything in writing. But McMorrow had that covered: “If the specialist advising cannot approve something, go up the chain of command. If the person is too busy to write a confirming letter, say you will send an e-mail to make it easier for that other person to confirm the advice in a few keystrokes (‘So my files are up-to-date’). Always copy a third party into a ‘thank you’ note--your union representative or a higher management figure—remarking that you do so because you are so happy with the professional caliber of the assistance you have been given, blah, blah, etc. Keep all correspondence.”
What of broader systemic reform? Michael Bishop, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago|http://www.uchicago.edu/, nicely summed up the research on this issue.
Studies “find that certified teachers do a little better, or at least no worse. Unfortunately this is very weak evidence that the certification process caused the teachers to become better, rather than merely identifying who is better. Furthermore, the typical study cannot make a fair comparison because uncertified teachers are more likely to be teaching disadvantaged students. What is clear is that there are many good teachers who are uncertified, and bad teachers who are certified.”
The teachers who contacted me asked for more flexibility and more focus on content knowledge when they take courses toward certification. Beth Cavett complained, for example, that she had a master’s degree, passed many content exams and was certified for middle school in Louisiana and Texas, but was denied certification in Maryland and the District until she finished a two-year program for professionals seeking a career change. Why, she asked, couldn’t states be more accepting of each other’s certification systems?
Christopher Childs, who is starting his eighth year teaching in a well-regarded D.C. private school, wondered why his efforts to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching degree encountered irrational roadblocks. He says the MAT program at Bowie State|http://www.bowiestate.edu/ will accept him only if he agrees to a 20-day teaching internship, which would require him to leave his current job.
As for the need for more emphasis on teachers knowing the content of subjects they are teaching, Hanover College|http://www.hanover.edu/ philosophy professor John Ahrens put it this way: “In most states, the courses that teachers are required to take to maintain their certification are courses in pedagogy—how to teach—a matter with which most teachers have considerable experience. They generally are not required, and have very little opportunity, to take additional courses in the fields they are teaching—math, history, or whatever. And when they do take such courses, they are generally at their own expense.”
Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has suggested a way to foster both more flexibility and better content knowledge. In a 2001 paper, “Tear Down This Wall: The Case for a Radical Overhaul of Teacher Certification,” Hess said the problem with the certification system “is not the existence of schools of education and teacher preparation programs or their particular failings. The real problem lies in state laws that give these schools and programs a monopoly on training and certifying teachers.”
His idea, which he calls “the competitive model,” is to replace complicated state laws with three simple requirements. Aspiring teachers may apply for teaching jobs if they: “hold a college degree; pass an examination of essential skills and content knowledge that would obviously vary by grade level and academic discipline and pass a criminal background check.”
If a school district wants all of its teachers to have master’s degrees in teaching from state universities, it can require that. If another district has organized all its schools as teams, and wants its hires to learn their jobs by daily contact with and instruction from their teammates, that’s okay too. This change would save money on paperwork at the state level and make it unnecessary to employ credential specialists, who are blamed for misleading teachers by everyone who misunderstands their advice.
Such a system would put great weight on the ability of principals to select the right people and oversee their training. That’s fine with me, and many of the teachers I respect. Learning how to teach seems to be done best on the job, not at education school. If our system allowed good principals to hire smart and energetic people, and help them improve their teaching skills without extra credentials, it might work. And it might cut down on the email traffic I get from irritated teachers.
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