Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Teaching and Barriers to Entry

Depending on whom you ask, there may or may not be a teacher shortage. I think everybody would agree, however, that there is a shortage of quality teachers and that there are certain positions that go unfilled each year. My school, for example, was short 2 science teachers, a special ed. teacher, and a Spanish teacher my second year -- and a Chorus teacher (after the original teacher and her replacement both quit in the first two months) for most of the year during the second year I taught.

So, in some way, shape, or form, more teachers are needed. What's interesting is how this problem has been addressed. A variety of strategies have been tried: bonuses, fellowships, cutting red tape on hiring, etc. But the most prevalent one seems to be simply lowering the barriers to entry. In other words, making it easier to become a teacher.

I, personally, would not have started teaching if the policy hadn't been in place. Even though I had no training in education, I was allowed to spend one intense summer (supposedly) learning the basics and then jump right into a classroom. Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, and who knows how many other local, regional, and national programs have popped up as alternative routes to certification.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this strategy, you have to admit that it's interesting. And I wonder what it says about the field of teaching. What if we had a shortage of doctors; would we address that by lowering barriers to entry? I can't imagine we would b/c nobody wants a doctor operating on them who is smart but knows little about the human body. What if there was a shortage of lawyers; would we shorten law school? If we had a shortage of bus drivers, would we let them finish the training courses while driving routes full-time? If we had a shortage of police officers, would we give people temporary badges while they figure out how to do their job?

I don't know the answers to above questions. I guess people used to be temporarily deputized in order to form posses to track outlaws in the old days (at least in books and movies anyway), so maybe there is some precedent for this. But I wonder which fields we'd be willing to lower entry requirements for and which we wouldn't. And why.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, teacher certification programs are very often useless. Teachers are not better teachers because they complete traditional certification programs. Unlike doctors (as you noted) who would have very different medical skills if they had not attended medical school.

As a former teacher, I taught in private schools before completing any teacher certification requirements. I then spent two years completing all the necessary classes, student teaching, and tests to obtain an official teaching license. I then taught in public schools.

Nothing changed. Nothing I learned in the programs made me a better teacher (other than the student teaching, which was no more or less helpful to me than my actual teaching in private schools and summer academies).

Good teaching requires enthusiasm, subject matter knowledge, people skills, hard work and classroom management. These are not things that are learned in a one-year "certification" program. They are skills aquired over a lifetime, and honed through the years teaching in the classroom.

Especially with the current system of state-specific licensure (e.g., I am officially licensed to teach English in X state, but am considered 'unqualified' to teach the exact same class in Y state), teaching certification becomes even more meaningless.

In my experience, teachers in my private schools WITH official certification were slightly less qualified than those without, because they often lacked the life experience (including military and business world experience) to be as effective as some of the career-changing teachers were.

Anonymous said...

Oops: Spelled 'acquired' wrong. Typing too fast!

RDT said...

I think the organizations that sponsor alternate certification routes do so in part because they believe that the barriers to entry are, if not too high, skewed in an unhelpful direction.

And, in my experience, the barriers were, if not high, strange. As a college senior, I was interested in teaching, and also in science education as a career path. At that time (late '70's) I did not find much encouragement from the people in education departments -- my general sense was that I was in some ways too ambitious -- that to see classroom experience as a piece of a career in education, but not its entirety, was to be less than fully dedicated to teaching. I think much of that has changed now that "educational leadership" is more fashionable, but I found it depressing.

On the other hand, my sense from watching my daughter's teachers is that teaching children how to learn is a skill -- and it's a skill that in my (admittedly limited) experience is more prevalent in credentialled public school teachers than in teachers in other educational settings.

Anonymous said...

Rachel: I may agree with you that credentialed teachers as a group have better teaching skills than non-credentialed teachers, but I think the cause and effect relationship is misunderstood.

If it is true that teachers with credentials are, on whole, more effective than teachers without credentials (which may or may not be correct), the process of obtaining a credential may be merely an indicator of a teacher's level of dedication to the profession.

Teachers who are sufficiently motivated to go through all the (many) hoops to become certified are perhaps the more dedicated or committed teachers. However, a teacher credential then becomes an indication of dedication, not the cause of better teaching skills.

Anonymous said...

Again I'd like to point out that state-specific credentialing requirements makes much of the credentialing debate silly. A fully credentialed teacher in X state who then moves to Y state is considered 'unqualified' under current law.

I'm in favor of standardizing and/or nationalizing the process, so that teachers are free to move from state to state (e.g., DC to Maryland) without losing their official certification.

RDT said...

Teachers who are sufficiently motivated to go through all the (many) hoops to become certified are perhaps the more dedicated or committed teachers. However, a teacher credential then becomes an indication of dedication, not the cause of better teaching skills.

That's in interesting hypothesis, though a hard one to test.

However, my sense is that there's more than just dedication behind the differences I've seen -- that there are also learned skills about how address a wide variety of student approaches to learning. Again, I can't argue solidly that this has anything to do with the credentialing program. But it is a reason I'd be very hesitant to enroll my child in a school where the teachers weren't credentialed.

P.S. I agree that the state-to-state differences are silly.

Anonymous said...

Rachel: Thanks for your insights. Always fun to debate teaching policies with others similarly interested! I may agree with you that I'd prefer to send my own (future) children to a school where the majority of the teachers are certified - but again I think it's because the dedicated teachers seek certification, not b/c the certification courses are so wonderful. (This could be in part due to my particularly useless teacher certification program in California - it's possible other programs in other states are more helpful).

That said, private schools often employ "uncertified" teachers with great credentials (including degrees from Ivy League schools, masters or even PhD's in their subject area, or certifications in other states) - so I wouldn't judge an individual teacher on his or her certification status alone.

Enjoy your holiday weekend!