Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What to do about Teacher Certification?

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 ___________.

Option A:
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.

Option B:
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


Anonymous said...

Interesting points. I did not think my certification program added anything significant to my teaching skills. Some people have said that their student teaching experience was useful. However, I taught for two years (and two summers) in private/alternative schools prior to entering the certification program. As such, I felt like going back to "student teaching" two periods a day (after working as a full time teacher) was kind of silly, and not very helpful. Certainly not helpful enough to be worth foregoing an entire year's paycheck and incurring student loan debt along the way.

That said, I don't think that all certification requirements are unnecessary. For instance, I think teachers should have a college education. Also, some basic proficiency tests might be useful (although I've seen good teachers who had difficulty with the tests, and visa-versa). Particularly when teaching lower level subjects, I think that skills like classroom management, enthusiasm, and organization are more important than "test" knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Well thought out and argued, Corey. But I have another angle that I think is important. I would argue that if you really believe in education courses (not that you necessarily do or don't) you should want all requirements abandoned. So long as such courses are required, one can reasonably entertain the notion that they are worthless. They have never had to hold their own in a free market of ideas. We do not, and can not, have any evidence that anyone would take them in order to be a better teacher. We take such courses because we have to.

What would happen if all requirements of education courses were abandoned? Suppose the superintendent of a school were entirely free to hire whomever he or she thought could best do the job, a person with absolutely no education courses, or a person with lots of education courses, or a person with something in between. I happen to think not much would change, at least not in the short term. Under such free market conditions I expect a lot of prospective teachers would still take education courses, at least in the short term, considering them to be resume enhancers, at least for the jobs for which they are aiming. I also expect a lot of school administrators would accept them as resume enhancers. Others would consider them worthless, as they do now. But under free market conditions such courses would have some legitimate claim of merit. As it is now, any claim of merit can easily be challenged as illegitimate. After all, we have to take them. Therefore we have very good grounds for assuming they cannot hold their own in a free market.

But what would happen in the long run with a free market? I happen to think that over the period of several generations the nature of education courses would change drastically. Some people would find what actually works, what people actually need to know to become good teachers. The courses that really work, and the experts who really know what they are talking about, would rise. The dead wood would fall away. It would be quite a new world of education. But that will not happen with the current situation. Bad teaching is protected. It won't change because it doesn't have to change. Mediocrity is enshrined like a bug in amber, impervious to the real world, decade after decade.

The parallel with Castro (or the Castro regime) and Cuba jumps to my mind. Castro can claim to have won many elections. People voted for him. Of course! They had to. So any vote of confidence in Castro can be taken as a vote of no confidence. They simple fact that they have to vote for Castro means that Castro can not win in a real election. A variety of this argument also applies to US trade sanctions on Cuba. Castro claims our trade sanctions have messed up their economy. That's why Cuba is poor, according to Castro. Of course that is not why Cuba is poor, but the argument is moot so long as trade sanctions are applied. We tried to bring down Castro with trade sanctions, but that only bolsters his argument that America is the villain.

Actually I don't know much about Cuba, but I think the parallel is apt.

My arguments above are mostly logical, based on the idea that only a free market, over a long period of time, could establish value of education courses. But I also have my own experience. I did go through a regular teacher training curriculum at the University of Missouri in the early sixties. One might argue that that experience is out of date, but I have seen no evidence of advancement since then.

I agree with you that it is not true that anybody who is smart and willing to work hard will be a good teacher. However I have arrived at a conclusion over the years that is not too far from this. I think it is true that good teachers are good because of their intelligence, their communication ability, their social skill, and their cultural knowledge, as well as their hard work. This gives no credit to ed school. I don't think ed school deserves any credit. So I have long been an advocate of getting rid of all education course requirements. The idea that education courses "might" be useful is at best damning with faint praise.

And, if I may, a comment on your option B. You say,

"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 are 100% correct. I agree with you 100%. But I also consider this statement utterly irrelevant, because of one word, "should". They "should" do more, but they can't. Education professors "should" make their courses better. But they can't. They don't know how. They are doing the best they can. They have no more.

They have no more, in my opinion, because they have allowed themselves, many decades ago, to have an ideology, the ideals of progressive education, to become their foundational basis. I have expanded on this idea in my article "A Personal Indictment Of Ed School". Here's a link: http://www.brianrude.com/indict-ed.htm

Anonymous said...

I would agree with Attorney DC in that, while as professional we should be consistently and constantly improving our skills, classes, state and national requirements do not prove the merit of a highly effective teacher. There is so much more to teaching than the data produced. We are helping to build excellent citizens and self-learner. Do we collect data on whether a child felt able and was more than willing to work hard at the next level? No. We collect numbers on the progress in the academic levels. While certainly pertinent, it does not prove the merit of a teacher. National Certification strips teachers of their worth in building the human spirit. That cannot be tested, except in the test of time. We are misguided in allowing National Certification to be the proof that a teacher is worth merit.

Anonymous said...

Here is my tale.

I was in the US Army Band for 15 years as a professional trombonist. I performed worldwide, starting various groups, conducting seminars with high school students, performing for dignitaries to include presidents. I went to college after my tenure in the military and received my BA in Music Education. However, I took the Praxis tests required by the state of Virginia and missed the math score by 2 points. I passed all of the other tests for certification with flying colors. Turns out that all sorts of people couldn't pass the math test either. The local newspaper in Lynchburg ran a series of articles on these tests. It turns out that a retired Major General couldn't pass the test either. I also knew a woman with a Master's degree that couldn't pass it too.

I guess despite my extensive musical background and the fact that I graduated with the highest instrumental scores in my class at the military's school of music wasn't good enough for the genius state of Virginia. By the way, when I left there, the local paper ran a series of articles on how the state had to hire full time substitutes to teach. No duh.

I took my Praxis scores to the State of Kentucky where the scores were lower and I got a job at a school that was so hard up for a teacher the principal drove 45 minutes to interview me. Yeah, you read that right. When I got to the school the official placed me into another program that I had to complete in my first year of teaching called Kentucky Teacher Internship Program (KTIP) I completed my first year at that school which was sheer hell. I knew there was a problem when the principal drove all that way to interview me. Located way out in the sticks I as faced with teen pregnancies, breaking up fights (mostly girls) and students that did not hesitate to tell me to F*** off whenever they felt like it.

However, the county that I worked for never submitted the KTIP observations (a large project requiring teachers to come all the way from Louisville to watch me as well as a teacher from the school) so I never received any certification. As a result, I took on a job at a private school in Lexington.

It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I now teach in paradise. My classes have about 20 students each and I am treated with respect and dignity. These kids are so nice to me and I am able to not only be their teacher but I can honestly be their friend. We have a tough curriculum and our students are held accountable as we teach them academics as well as responsibility, manners and morals. I would do anything for these kids because we respect each other.

In my opinion, it was my gain and the system's loss. I am currently getting my Master's degree in Education Technology and I am able to transfer all of these skills into our school which has been able to invest in technology. We have a blast in this school and the students as well as the parents ( along with the observations by our staff) have been very positive.

So, as I said before, it is the state's loss and not mine. I guess the the leadership needs to take a test on common sense.