Assessing certification

The Education Beat

Teachers: Abell Foundation says academic requirements should be dropped.

October 10, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE ABELL Foundation has come up with a radical suggestion for improving the quality of teaching in Maryland: essentially eliminate teacher certification - or, more precisely, drop the college coursework required for licensing.

In a long-awaited 109-page report released Monday, the Baltimore-based foundation said there is no evidence that teachers who take the required college courses for certification perform better in the classroom than those who don't. So why require all those courses if a philosophy major or a midlife career-changer can teach as well as an education major?

"The academic research attempting to link teacher certification with student achievement is astonishingly deficient," says the report, which recommends that the state scrap all of its certification requirements except possession of a bachelor's degree and a passing score on an "appropriate" teacher exam.

Maryland should "devolve" its teacher hiring to the school level, where principals would make the bulk of the hiring decisions, the report recommends.

Those are all startling ideas that haven't been tried anywhere in public education. So it wasn't surprising that the Abell report rekindled an old and bitter debate between traditionalists who believe certification leads to teacher quality and those who say "credit counting" is of little value.

Abell's paper had been out only a day when Linda Darling-Hammond, the nation's leading proponent of traditional teacher education, branded it "an ideological polemic, littered with dozens of inaccuracies, misstatements and misrepresentations." The research of Darling-Hammond, head of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, is a primary target of the Abell report.

If Maryland became the first state to scrap academic requirements for teaching, Darling-Hammond argued, urban children, like those in Baltimore, "will not ever secure the high-quality teachers they deserve."

As it is, said Darling-Hammond, uncertified and inexperienced teachers are disproportionately concentrated in the cities, where there are often poor working conditions, poor salaries and inadequate recruitment incentives.

But the Abell report, "Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling for Quality," paints a picture of a state bureaucracy awash in regulations and accountable to no one, while individual schools aren't able "to decide freely the single most important variable to student achievement: the quality of their teachers."

The report, written by Abell senior policy analyst Kate Walsh, briefly profiles three accomplished teachers who, presented with the number of courses they would need for state certification to teach in Baltimore, gave up and sought employment elsewhere.

The Sun also comes in for implied criticism. Maryland officials quadrupled the number of reading courses required of elementary teachers in response to the newspaper's Reading By 9 campaign, the report says. But the state never gave a rationale for requiring four courses, and the new courses were poorly planned and executed on many campuses.

Darling-Hammond has been the nation's leading critic of alternative certification programs such as Teach for America, which allows recent liberal arts graduates to enter the classroom with a bare minimum of summer training. Such programs have had the "status of a poor cousin" in Maryland, says the Abell report, in part because of "mixed messages" from state officials, "compounded by strong adherence to traditional teacher certification" by local school officials.

Lawrence E. Leak, assistant state superintendent in charge of certification, said the state's teacher licensing process isn't the nightmare pictured by Abell, and he countered the Abell argument that private schools are better off without such requirements.

"Many private schools require state certification as a condition of employment," said Leak.

Most of the debate over the report concerns the quality of research on teacher certification. Abell's Walsh said she searched hundreds of studies carefully and found no evidence in responsible studies that teacher training has a bearing on student achievement.

"She's just dead wrong," Darling-Hammond said by telephone from her office at Stanford University.

Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary Principals, agreed. He said Connecticut, with the highest teacher salaries and student scores in the nation, is "a national model for recognizing the importance of dedicating and promoting a comprehensive teacher development, certification and licensure process."

"Our paper isn't about Connecticut," said Walsh. "We set out to review the research to find out if there's a relationship between certification and achievement, and there isn't."

Although she said traditional certification is a "crude measure," Darling-Hammond said well-thought-out and well-executed traditional programs beat the alternatives. She started out years ago as a proponent of alternative approaches, she said, but her research and the experience of her own child in a Maryland public school changed her mind.

At a conference last year, Darling-Hammond described her family's experience with an "alternatively recruited" teacher as "traumatizing."

"If you go into a first- or second-grade classroom, which is where kids learn to read, and the teacher is not prepared with the set of strategies and knowledge for this very complex task, and doesn't know how to organize the curriculum, then that's essentially the end of those kids' school careers," she said.

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