Raise standards, lower barriers for Md. teachers

March 17, 2005|By Robert Maranto

REACTING TO a shortage of certified teachers, Maryland's General Assembly is considering a bill to allow public schools to hire teachers who have not gone through traditional certification programs.

Teacher certification is getting more attention because of the No Child Left Behind law, which requires all students to have qualified teachers. In a tight teacher job market, poor districts such as Baltimore have trouble hiring certified teachers. But does teacher certification matter? Are certified teachers qualified teachers?

After all, the current president, his dad and the man who won the most votes in the 2000 presidential election spent their high school years studying in private schools, which do not hire certified teachers. Does anyone think former Vice President Al Gore and the two Presidents Bush did not learn enough to succeed in life?

Research on teacher certification finds no evidence that students learn more from certified teachers than from uncertified teachers. As Andrew Wayne and Peter Youngs report in the Review of Educational Research, students learn more from teachers who studied at prestigious colleges and from more intellectually able teachers.

Yet "in the case of degrees, coursework and certification, findings have been inconclusive except in mathematics, where high school students clearly learn more from teachers with certification in mathematics, degrees related to mathematics and coursework related to mathematics." In other words, except for high school math, certification does not make better teachers.

Yet educators and lawmakers stress certification, which usually means attending a school of education. Indeed, certification is the whole reason we have education schools. So why don't certified teachers do better in the classroom?

Most likely the answer is because, unlike medical schools and law schools, education schools have no agreed-upon body of knowledge to impart. Graduates of all medical schools learn how to set broken bones the same way. Graduates of all law schools learn the same court cases. But education school graduates from different schools learn wildly different methods to teach reading. Education schools offer few courses on such vital topics as student discipline and parent involvement. It's as if the medical schools decided to leave out anatomy.

And as Frederick M. Hess shows in Common Sense School Reform, unlike law and medical schools, most schools of education do not screen out incompetents - they accept most applicants and flunk none. Not surprisingly, surveys find teachers complaining that their education courses did not prepare them to teach.

As former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, a former education school dean, reported in 2003, and as Mr. Hess also documents, most teacher certification programs offer "high barriers with low standards": Certification requirements annoy the talented without culling the turkeys.

The research rings true from my experience. As a University of Maryland sophomore in 1978, I decided against becoming a high school teacher when an education professor very condescendingly explained that I need not understand what I taught because "the curriculum people will tell you what to teach." This convinced me to spend six years in graduate school to become a college professor.

Though I earn less money than most high school teachers of comparable experience, as a professor, I'm a respected professional. I decide what I teach and how I teach it. (Two friends who wanted to teach high school got identical advice from their education professors with tragic results - they became attorneys.)

Clearly, policy-makers and educators need to reform our education schools so that their certified teachers are truly qualified teachers. Until that happens, however, we should make it easier for professionals from other fields to enter teaching while carefully monitoring the performance of all teachers to reward excellence and terminate incompetence.

In the long run, we need to move to a system of high standards with low barriers rather than high barriers with low standards. This would require many changes, but our kids are worth it.

Robert Maranto, a former Baltimore resident, teaches political science at Villanova University.

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