Despite the ongoing frenzy over how to improve public education, an important new study on teaching slipped out with little notice. Perhaps that's because the findings do not mesh with the prescriptions of the professional teaching lobby.
The study found that teachers with "emergency" credentials seem to teach kids just fine. To fill personnel shortages, especially in math and science instruction, most states allow some teachers to enter the classroom without conventional certification. The Department of Education estimates there are about 50,000 teachers nationwide with emergency certification.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, mathematics and science students who have teachers with emergency credentials do no worse than students whose teachers have standard teaching credentials, all else being equal," conclude Dan D. Goldhaber and Dominic J. Brewer in their contribution to "Better Teachers, Better Schools," a report released by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a private research group advocating education reform.
After looking at the performance of 24,000 eighth-graders nationwide and subsets of the students in later years, Brewer, an economist and director of the RAND Corporation's education program, and Goldhaber, a labor economist with the Urban Institute's Education Policy Center and a member of the Alexandria (Virginia) City School Board, found that what's important is having teachers with a strong background in the subject they teach. This radical idea–that math teachers, say, should have math backgrounds–is what passes for unconventional wisdom in the bizarro world of the educational establishment.
Indeed, President Clinton called for a ban on emergency certification in his State of the Union address this year, a reward for teachers unions which have backed Democrats so strongly. And in May, the administration proposed a plan to eliminate emergency certification over the next four years.