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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.

By Washington Post editors  | September 18, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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Comments

I was bored early on in my coursework, and the first thing I did was fly to Japan for a job teaching Middle Ages British poetry. Fifteen years later, in Korea, I never went back for certification. I teach AP English Lit and enjoy being part of a team that sends 84% of our students to their school of choice. I hope to go back one day to the US to finally finish, hoping that that day soon comes.

Posted by: ericpollock | September 18, 2009 7:45 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps we should also drop graduation from an accredited law school or medical school as required credentialing in legal and medical professions.

Teaching is a profession, requiring professional skills and knowledge well beyond simply knowing the content field. Knowing the content field and staying current in it is critical, but understanding how to teach students is the other half of the skill set; and it is a complex and difficult skill set.

Just as one may know anatomy and biochemistry, but not know how to diagnose and treat patients, one may also know great literature or calculus and not be able to transfer that knowledge or inspire people to learn and love it.

Certainly, teachers are as exasperated as anyone with stories of petty bureaucracies and ridiculous rules, but to use them as an excuse to fill the classrooms with people illequipped to do the highly refined job of teaching is equally exasperating.

The consistent drum beat from some that our teachers are ill-trained and ineffective and could be replaced by anyone who knows a little about their content subject does a disservice to dedicated professionals who have worked very hard to excel in a field that offers no great financial reward or status.

Posted by: cheryldgb | September 18, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Cheryl,

You're right, knowing a subject doesn't mean that you will be good at teaching it, but as mentioned in the article, certification also does not ensure that one will be good at teaching.

Teaching -- "highly refined"? You've got be kidding me. In what way is it so?

Posted by: andrewbellia | September 18, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

The issue of state teacher certification and university-based teacher accredited programs is timely and significant, but it is also very complicated.

1) many states do have reciprocity, so that if you hold certification in one state, you may easily obtain certification in another (My state of New York, for instance, has reciprocity with 38 other states.)

2) it is impossible at this point in time to research the question: Do certified teachers cause better learning outcomes for students. This is an important question, but at this point in time there are a few blocks to valid and reliable research on this question. First of all, we do not have valid and reliable measures of student achievement OVER TIME. We can measure (in very broad ways) CURRENT LEARNER PERFORMANCE (e.g. How this child does on this test). That is NOT the same thing as: how much did this child learn in this one year. This is because state achievement tests are not vertically aligned.

But another large reason we cannot answer the question: do certified teachers produce better learning outcomes is that state standards for teacher education program accreditation are very broad and are very weak: they require COURSES, and are not focused on criteria for performance, they don't include many inputs (quality indicators for mentor teachers, etc.), and they are broad enough to allow for such a huge variability in teacher education program design and quality to disallow any valid comparison among programs.

Another huge issue in teacher education programs is internal to the programs themselves. My colleague Lin Goodwin and I co-authored a research study for a recent Handbook on Teacher Education Research and we studied the "gatekeeping" practices inside the programs. That is: how do teacher educators decide who is FIT to teach. We were utterly dismayed to find that too many programs (for many different reasons) have 'gates' for student teachers to get through, but these gates have no real locks. That is, very few programs systematically and routinely FAIL students from being certified. That must change.

All said, however, I am with Cheryl: I want teachers to be educated (with both content and pedagogy and also pedagogical content knowledge) and also certified. But teacher education programs have to step up and hold each other much more accountable to truly "high standards". Of course we will debate what these standards should be (I would argue for everyone to learn to use equitable instructional strategies, for example), but that is what we should be doing. States must require more than a list of courses, universities must sort the qualified from the unqualified, and psychometricians must design tests to measure learning over time so we can tease out the multiple and complex variables/factors that cause high levels of learning in our students. .. C. Oyler -- Teachers College, Columbia University

Posted by: oyler | September 19, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

After graduating college with a BA in philosophy and then getting an MA in public policy, I worked in education policy and research for a number of years before going into teaching in the DC public schools. After a ridiculous interview process, I was originally accepted into an emergency certification program for math teachers. However, on the first day of orientation I was pulled aside, told they had reviewed my transcripts, and determined that I didn't have enough math courses to quality for emergency certification (despite the fact that I had used regression analysis on my master's thesis and recently taken a college course Linear Algebra at night for fun). But then I was told I had enough courses on my transcript to get a provisional license to teach social studies, and would have to take additional courses to get fully certified. So that's how I became a history teacher, and was runner-up for first year teacher of the year. As for certification, each year the list of required courses changed, and I eventually ignored them and stopped taking the mickey mouse ed courses. I eventually moved to a charter school that did not require certification, and always wondered if I would have been fired had I not taken their required courses for certification. While I agree that teachers need more than content knowledge, I believe much effective teacher training can occur on the job, or while teachers are in their first few years in the classroom. Personally, I'd like to see more of an apprenticeship model, where teachers spend significant time in classrooms with strong mentors and increasing responsibility over time. Certification would come at the end of say 3 years after a teacher had proved him or herself in the classroom. Passing courses just doesn't indicate anything about a teacher's ability.

Posted by: Gideon2 | September 19, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

The answer to the certification "mess," like many answers, lies in our history.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, barbers were permitted to pull teeth and perform surgeries because the requirements for a physician, surgeon and dentist were not firmly established. Until the beginning of the twentieth centure, women who were adept at it could deliver babies without any formal education. Until the middle of the twentieth century lawyers could be admitted to the bar without going to college or law school. Nurses could take a short course in order to become RNs.

The fact is that each profession went through a phase before it was determined that a specific body of knowledge needed to be mastered before a person could become certified to practice his craft. Still there were people who were "natural" doctors, nurses, hairstylists, biologists, etc. who knew a great deal but were still not allowed to practice without credentials. The purpose of this was to protect the public, but most people realized that some very talented people were prevented from being employed in their field of "expertise."

Teaching is now at a professional crossroads. Many people still think that an intelligent high school graduate can teach the abc's and 1,2,3s to little children, and some undoubtedly can. However,anyone who has taught, or even volunteered in a modern classroom knows that there is a solid body of knowledge that a teacher needs to have. An elementary school teacher needs to know how to manage a class of twenty or more children. She needs to know how to teach reading to students who have skills that span as many as eight years in one classroom. In addition to having basic knowledge of a wide range of subjects, she needs to know how to plan her lesson in ways that will interest almost everyone in her class. A knowledge of children's literature is also very important. She needs to be aware of cultural differences in her African-American, Korean, Mexican-American, European-American, and Native American students. She needs to understand what standardized tests mean and how to administer them so the results will be valid. Most of all a teacher needs to learn techniques for reaching each child in the class. These techniques can definitely be learned. In short there IS a body of knowledge that the qualified teacher needs to know. The problem, as I see it, is that states often give "waivers" and "emergency" credentials to teachers in urban schools where the need for highly qualified teachers is so critical. Also, teacher education programs at universities do need to be more rigorous.

So I agree completely with Cheryl. Although there will always be very talented people locked out of the profession because they lack credentials, the same can be said of medicine, law and nursing.

Teaching is a profession in transition. Many are trying to de-professionalize it right now (probably to save money) but I predict that soon it will become a real profession at last.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 20, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Linda that there is a vast skill set required for being a teacher. The problem is that sitting through rubber-stamp teaching classes (which is how certification is done now) doesn't really help teachers obtain these skills.

No one is arguing that teachers should not be certified, but there are other things that can be done to certify.

Also, do lawyers have to keep taking law school classes to stay admitted to the bar? Do doctors have to re-do med school every 10 years? The certification mess mainly has to do with proven successes in the classroom that get booted because they didn't attend enough pointless, rubber-stamp classes.

Posted by: someguy100 | September 20, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

There are so many skills to becoming a good teacher that it boggles the mind. Salesmanship, drama, record keeping, psychology, cognitive developement, consensus building, and, oh yes, curriculum content. Having a degree in a particular subject, except for higher level courses, is not automatically a prerequisite.
Marketing of college courses is now a problem in education. There are great teachers with just bachelors degrees being told they don't know what they're doing and they need more courses. It just so happens that this is what colleges are telling school systems. Don't forget that's what colleges and universities sell.
The credentials of college instructors should be held to some scrutiny as well. Too many times there are college classes being taught by teachers with only 7 to 10 years experience or less. They figured out early that they didn't want to be in the secondary or elementary classroom and decided to go the college route. Do we want college educators who didn't want to be in the classroom teaching teachers going into the classroom?
As you can see there is no simple answer to the needs of education. I wish politicians and critics would stop trying to make it sound like there are!

Posted by: benathornton1 | September 22, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

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