`Certified' doesn't mean better

Teachers: A study has found no proof that state-certified educators are more competent.

April 07, 2002|By Robert C. Embry Jr. | Robert C. Embry Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everybody wants children to be taught by competent teachers. In fact, numerous studies have documented the dramatic positive and measurable impact a good teacher can have on students and the harm that can be done by a bad teacher. Legislators, education regulatory agencies and editorial writers would have us believe that teachers in our public schools must be "certified" to be effective. The prevailing dogma is that teacher certification equals teacher competence, while lack of certification means incompetence.

This assumption was examined in a study recently released by The Abell Foundation that reviewed all published studies professing to show the value of teacher certification (more than 200) and found none that persuasively demonstrates that certified teachers produce better student outcomes than noncertified teachers.

Extensive public school teaching regulations contrast with the absence of comparable regulations for other kinds of educational institutions. The nation's most highly respected and successful educational institutions do not have to follow state credential requirements when hiring teachers. Private and public colleges and universities, private and religious K-12 schools and the home sector are free to decide who will teach. Only the nation's most criticized and largest educational institution, the K-12 public school system, requires teacher certification.

In considering the wisdom of teacher certification, it is essential to separate two questions. The first is whether the state should certify public school teachers at all or leave the decision of hiring up to individual schools or school systems. A second question is if state certification is a foregone conclusion, what should the state require for certification? All states now require teachers to have a bachelor's degree, pass a test and complete a certain list of courses, in subject matter and education. An option, if the state is to continue to certify teachers, is to require only a college degree, passing a test to determine whether the teacher knows the subject matter he or she wishes to teach, and a criminal background check. This would expand the supply of teachers by permitting school systems to choose among more applicants.

No research has been conducted in Maryland to assess the wisdom of its certification policies. Maryland's Department of Education has never commissioned a study to determine if certified teachers are more successful in teaching than uncertified teachers who are permitted to teach provisionally. To my knowledge, no state department of education has ever asked this question.

The Sondheim Commission Report of 1989, requested by the Maryland General Assembly, urged the Maryland State Department of Education to deregulate public education, specifically in the area of teacher certification. The commission recommended that schools be held accountable for student achievement and be given the flexibility to decide how to do so. As a result, schools are now being held accountable in Maryland, but regulations regarding teacher certification have increased in the past five years.

The only sure test of whether a person can teach is whether they, in fact, teach well.

Research on the qualities of effective teachers suggests that the most important measurable characteristic is not education coursework, but the degree to which they are literate. Research has measured literacy (verbal ability) in many ways (SAT and ACT verbal scores, written vocabulary tests) but however it is measured, a teacher's verbal ability appears to be the single most significant and measurable attribute in impacting student achievement.

Certification requirements intentionally restrict the supply of teachers. These restrictions are designed to raise the quality of the teaching force. Unfortunately, an unintended impact of certification requirements is that it can dissuade individuals who are likely to improve student achievement from considering teaching.

The national service organization Teach for America supplies recent college graduates as teachers to under-resourced areas such as Baltimore City. These teachers do not come from schools of education but from our country's most selective colleges and universities, many posting higher verbal ability scores than traditionally prepared teachers. Despite the strong potential contribution of its teachers to the education of Maryland students, the organization has a difficult time placing teachers to Maryland. In 2001 alone, Baltimore City lost 275 teacher applicants who requested the city but were deemed ineligible to teach here. By comparison, New York City, with a higher number of interested teacher candidates, had to turn away only 11 teachers.

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