Teacher certification seems to be a hot-button issue, and a couple of recent pieces have had me thinking about it this past weekend: Eduwonkette's post on Richard Ingersoll's work and Nicholas Kristof's op-ed advocating less rigid teacher certification requirements.
A growing number of people seem to advocate against teacher certification, or at least against the rigid requirements that are often in place. And research offers quite a bit of support for this position; quite a bit of evidence exists that certified teachers do no better or only slightly better than uncertified ones. Furthermore, I don't think anybody doubts that certification requirements are a barrier to entry; that is, that they prevent some people from becoming a teacher.
So it's quite logical to advocate that we get rid of (or at least significantly reduce) requirements; they don't seem to be doing much, and we would likely have a wider field of people from which to choose. Such a position is eminently logical -- and probably wouldn't do much, if any, harm -- but it rests on two faulty assumptions.
First of all, it assumes that anybody who is smart and willing to work hard will be a good teacher. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I rarely take strong positions on things since the world is rarely so cut and dried. But few positions in education irk me as much this one. If you believe that anybody who is smart and works hard will be a good teacher, you are wrong. Let me repeat that. If you believe that anybody who is smart and works hard will be a good teacher, you are wrong.
The world simply does not work that way. What makes a good teacher? Nobody has been able to quantify this, but it certainly involves more than knowledge and work ethic. Take colleges as an example: virtually all courses are taught by an expert in that field and an awful lot of these people have a pretty strong work ethic, but how many are great teachers? In other words, how many brilliant professors are also awful teachers? A lot. And the same is true at all levels. You can know everything and work your butt off, but that doesn't guarantee you'll be a good teacher. Teaching is an art, and it simply doesn't work that way. This is not to say, of course, that intelligence, knowledge, and a strong work ethic aren't qualities we want in teachers -- simply that those qualities alone guarantee nothing about the ability of a person to teach well.
Secondly, those opposed to certification requirements assume that certification programs cannot help people. This is false. Oftentimes, they are not helping people. And there's a large gap between cannot and are not. In other words, the fact that a certification program is not working leaves us with two options: ending that program or improving it so that it does work.
Why do I say that these two are underlying assumptions of this position? Let's play fill in the blanks: People who are smart and work hard ______ good teachers, and teacher certification programs _______ help people become good teachers. Therefore, teacher certification requirements should ___________.
People who are smart and work hard are good teachers, and teacher certification programs do not help people become good teachers. Therefore, teacher certification requirements should be eliminated or drastically reduced.
People who are smart and work hard only sometimes make good teachers, and teacher certification programs aren't doing enough to help people become good teachers. Therefore, teacher certification requirements should do more to help people become better teachers.
You're welcome to fill it in your own way since there are always more than two options.
A few other notes:
1.) Be wary of research showing that certified teachers perform no better. The comparison groups in some of these studies aren't equal. Particularly with programs like Teach For America, the people in the uncertified group are quite different from those in the certified group. In other words, the fact that one group is certified and one isn't are not the main differences between those two groups.
Imagine a study of major league baseball players, including some who went straight to pro ball from high school and some who played in college before going to the pros. Let's say that we find no difference in batting average, home runs, etc. between the two groups and conclude that playing college baseball does nothing to enhance one's ability and, therefore, that there's no reason to play in college. We have two large problems with this conclusion. 1.) The top high school stars usually get large bonuses and forgo college -- meaning that the group of players who went straight from HS to the pros had better natural talent, or at least that their talent blossomed earlier. 2.) Success in baseball isn't only about hitting home runs or striking out batters -- just like success in teaching isn't only about raising test scores. It's entirely possible that those who went to college are better at sacrifice bunts or less likely to get arrested, etc. And those variables are going to be left out of the study b/c they're difficult and time-consuming to measure. They're what some economists like to call "unobservables" (despite the fact that they can be observed -- but that's a different pet peeve for a different time).
In this analogy, those who are coming in through other ways have more natural talent -- and the fact that certified teachers are doing just as well, if not better, might mean actually mean that certification contributes more than we think.
2.) But, wait, isn't the idea that those who are coming in through alternate routes have more natural talent an argument for getting rid of certification? Yes, it is. In case you thought I was making an argument for more rigid teacher certification requirements, I'm not. My goal was more to point out that the situation is not as simple and straightforward as it might seem. There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of this issue. And I'm annoyed with people who oversimplify from either end -- it's just that right now more people are oversimplifying from the side that teacher certification is bad.
That said, let me make one last point. Even if alternative routes to certification attract more talented people it doesn't necessarily mean that getting rid of certification is the answer. Certification affects more than just who enters the field -- it also affects who remains in the field. A lot of alt cert people (myself included) exit the field rather rapidly. It's entirely possible that having no certification requirements would lead to an increasingly transitory teaching force -- which could have all sorts of negative effects.
There's more to cover on this topic, but that's enough for now