Do Credentials Make a Good Teacher?
Throughout the past few decades, waves of education reformers have pushed the idea that poorly performing schools would get a big boost if only they jettisoned teachers who hold only a bachelor's degree and instead hired lots of folks with graduate degrees and certification in the field in which they teach.
At first glance, that seems reasonable enough: In most areas of work, getting training in the specifics of your field is a useful step. But consider that in teaching, many of the most highly admired schools--and especially the best religious and private schools--often have hiring approaches that pay zero attention to certification and put little premium on advanced degrees.
Is certification a good guide to good teaching, and are school systems such as the District's hurting themselves by insisting on certification?
Consider the experience of Isabelle Kaplan, who moved to Washington after teaching for five years in Indiana, where she holds a teacher's license with endorsements in English, U.S. history, world civilizations and Russian language. Kaplan's quest for a D.C. teacher's license is not merely a classic attempt to navigate the thicket of bureaucracy that is the D.C. public school system, but also a cautionary tale about what the D.C. schools are looking for.
As Kaplan discovered, even though the District says it will recognize teaching licenses from most states, the District still rejects applicants with out-of-state licenses if they did not come up through the traditional route of enrolling in a teacher prep program. More and more great teachers are coming into American schools as a second profession, but the District is geared toward teachers coming as they always have.
"Regardless of experience or substantive education in a content area," Kaplan says, "a teacher who has entered the profession through an alternative certification program cannot teach in DCPS."
Despite Kaplan's extensive experience, D.C. schools told her she had to enroll in six teacher prep courses and complete a 10-week student teacher assignment--at a total tuition cost of more than $20,000. She wonders if the D.C. requirements aren't geared to funnel students to the University of the District of Columbia's teacher prep courses.
Kaplan tried to persuade the District to let a local university school of education evaluate her credentials and advise the system whether her years of experience might qualify her for a license. The District school system told her to go ahead and try, but Kaplan and the George Washington University education school eventually concluded there was no way around D.C.'s byzantine requirements.
"We don't like to complete course-by-course evaluation of credentials," wrote Angela Skinner, state licensing coordinator for the D.C. schools, in an email turning away Kaplan's appeal. "Rather, applicants complete full approved teacher education programs in their area of licensure."
Spurned repeatedly by the D.C. schools, Kaplan found work as an adjunct professor, teaching undergraduate literature courses at George Washington University. She is, therefore, good enough to teach kids whose parents pay $50,630 a year for Junior to attend GW, but not good enough for the struggling D.C. schools. The state of Maryland happily granted Kaplan a standard license to teach secondary school English, but not the District.
"It is the students in our city's public schools who pay the price for this pork-barrel policy," Kaplan says.
Mayor Adrian Fenty will probably be able to get the D.C. system's decrepit buildings fixed--that's something a strong outside contractor could accomplish if given the ability to do an end run around the school system's procurement and contracting procedures. But changing the way teaching gets done is a whole 'nother thing, a very tall mountain to climb.
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