Much Ado About Nothing: Fuss about Certification Protects Closed Shop

Five minutes into any discussion on the subject of teacher certification you’re bound to hear the analogy: “If you needed heart bypass surgery, wouldn’t you insist on having a licensed surgeon perform the procedure? Well, then, you certainly wouldn’t want an uncertified teacher instructing your child, would you?”

But is an uncertified teacher with a piece of chalk really as dangerous as an unlicensed physician wielding a scalpel? Hardly. In fact, on the whole, teacher-certification requirements do more to deter good teachers than to ensure them.

There has long been anecdotal evidence that non-certified teachers do a pretty good job educating children. Most of the teachers employed in private schools are not certified, yet private school students routinely outscore their public school counterparts. Similarly, students who are home-schooled score better than students in public schools, although their parents rarely have the credentials required of public school teachers. Such evidence, however, is usually dismissed as just another indication that public schools are teaching those kids who are hardest to educate. Thus, the “certified means qualified” argument survives to this day.

Times are changing. Arizona’s charter school law, unlike most charter school laws around the country, allows non-certified teachers in any classroom. While most of the 250-plus charter schools around Arizona still have self-imposed requirements to use certified teachers, a good number do not. Therefore, we finally have a substantial pool of non-certified public school teachers. While it is still too early to make many scientific comparisons, anecdotal evidence tends to confirm the suspicions of those who dismiss the value of teacher certification.

We used the 1997-1998 Stanford 9 test results to compare the academic progress of students at charter schools that require teacher certification to charter schools that do not require teacher certification. Of the charter schools demonstrating gains in all three subject areas (reading, language and math), 73 percent hired only certified teachers. This might sound like an endorsement for certification, until you consider that, of the charter schools experiencing losses in all three subject areas, 85 percent hired only certified teachers. Clearly, it would be difficult to argue that teacher certification requirements are key to the success of charter school students.

Other evidence makes an even more compelling case that teacher certification is not a necessary condition for high student achievement. Let’s take the case of the Tempe Preparatory Academy (TPA), a charter school in the East Valley. Each member of the TPA faculty has a bachelor’s degree. Some of these degrees were earned at such prestigious universities as the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Notre Dame and St. Johns. The 10th grade math teacher at TPA has a Ph.D., as does the 10th and 11th grade humane letters teacher. Despite these credentials, not one of TPA’s 14 full-time faculty members is Arizona-certified. So not one member of TPA’s full time faculty would be allowed to teach in a traditional public school in Arizona.

Nevertheless, this year TPA scored higher than all other public schools in Maricopa County. In fact, the only public school to outscore TPA statewide is a magnet school that is allowed to screen enrollment by virtue of a desegregation order. Lest anyone think that that state-of-the-art labs and high-tech classrooms contributed to these high scores, TPA meets in space leased from a local church.

Despite stories like these – or more accurately, because of stories like these – there is a big push by the education establishment to change the charter-school law to require all public school teachers to be certified. The Arizona Education Association (AEA), the state’s largest teachers union, is leading this charge. Supporting the AEA in this effort are Arizona’s colleges of education, which see their power and influence slipping by the hour. Also behind this effort are the school districts, which, having failed to halt the proliferation of charter schools, now seek to burden them with the same baggage they themselves carry.

To understand why the link between “certified” and “qualified” is so weak, one has to understand how the teacher preparation and certification process discourages subject-matter knowledge. The fastest track to becoming a classroom teacher is to declare yourself an education major and shy away from specific academic disciplines. This is probably why 60 percent of recent certification candidates in Massachusetts failed the teacher assessment meant to test subject knowledge. According to Robert Strauss of Carnegie-Mellon, teachers correctly answer less than half of the certification test questions in their specialized teaching subject area.

While it is true that the certification process may weed out some prospective teachers who shouldn’t be in front of the classroom, it also has the effect of weeding out prospective teachers who should be in front of the classroom, particularly those who have knowledge in the “hard sciences,” such as math and chemistry. Too often, potential teachers with knowledge and experience in a particular field are simply unwilling or unable to put in the seat-time required to obtain and maintain certification. Computer wiz Bill Gates, for example, couldn’t teach a high school computer course in Arizona (unless, of course, he were to teach at a charter school).

So a more accurate doctor/teacher analogy would be the following: If you have to undergo open heart surgery, would you rather have a surgeon who is trained in cardiology or a doctor who is an expert in the history of medicine? Well, then, you certainly wouldn’t want an education major teaching your child high school physics, would you?

The certification process does more to ensure a “closed shop” for unions than ensure quality instruction. Rather than heeding the union’s call to require certification at charter schools, policy makers ought to lift teacher certification requirements for all public schools.

Mr. Flake is executive director of the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. For related material with a Maryland theme, see George W. Liebmann, “The Agreement,” Calvert Issue Brief, July 1998.

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