Uncertified Learning

An ed-school prof says America's teachers need less formal training


"We need to elevate the profession," says Victoria K. Hunt, who teaches geography at New York's P.S. 165. "I think that's key. You find handfuls of very smart people who are committed to kids and have found a place where they can get support, but other than that you see people fleeing."

Frederick M. Hess, a professor of education and government at the University of Virginia, has proposed one way to elevate the profession and attract more highly qualified people to it. In a new study for the Progressive Policy Institute, Hess re-articulates an old idea: to alter radically the way we certify teachers. Under Hess's system, states would make sure that a prospective teacher has an undergraduate degree, is competent in his chosen area of instruction, and can pass a criminal background check. After that, it would be up to principals and school districts to decide who's best qualified to teach children.

The case for certification, Hess writes, rests on three assumptions. First, that the training is critical to job performance—that those lacking it will be unable to perform effectively. Second, that the certification process screens out people who are unable to perform. Finally, that certification makes teaching more of a profession, thus making it more desirable. Writes Hess, "Each of these assumptions is flawed."

Professional stature doesn't automatically flow from certification, and competence is not necessarily connected to formal education. Doctors and lawyers can't practice without being certified. But for other professions, such as business and journalism, no tests are required and school is optional. And for many professions and trades that are state-certified—cosmetology, dog grooming, pest control—the result is not to place credentialed individuals on a status par with brain surgeons.

Teachers may aspire to the doctors' and lawyers' model of certification. But in the latter cases, you have to clear major intellectual hurdles to get admitted to schools with sufficient prestige to secure later employment. Furthermore, you can't work without first passing rigorous tests that emphasize a body of well-defined knowledge. Neither is true for teachers.

There are certainly bodies of knowledge that teachers must master in order to be successful, but unfortunately, neither education schools nor certification tests dwell on them. "To receive National Board certification to teach high school math," writes Hess, "teachers are to demonstrate mastery of eleven standards, including: 'commitment to students and their learning,' 'the art of teaching,' 'reflection and growth,' and 'reasoning and thinking mathematically.'" These may be important, but they're tough to teach and measure.

The result, notes Hess, is that teacher certification is more akin to cosmetology licensing, where the emphasis is on completing a required course of classes and tasks, not acquiring difficult knowledge. It functions as an entry barrier to the profession, one that serves the already certified teachers and the schools that get paid to produce them.

Even critics of Hess's model acknowledge this. "The certification system is locked up by people who have an interest in perpetuating education schools," says Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst at The Education Trust. Wilkins, who thinks that education could adopt the law or medical model by toughening up the requirements, says that today's schools actually repel those we most need as teachers. "We get lots of people here as summer interns who are intellectually curious and very bright who say, 'I was in the ed school program, but it bored me to tears and I left.'"

School districts that are the most strapped for teachers are already moving toward Hess's model, albeit without the demonstration of core knowledge. When districts can't fill their teaching slots the old-fashioned way, they are forced to hire people with emergency certification. There are also pilot programs. Teach for America puts college graduates in charge of inner-city classrooms, which is how Victoria Hunt got her start teaching in Houston in 1990. Houston has a broad waiver from Texas that allows it to employ the uncertified. New York hired 1,000 emergency-trained teachers under such a program this year; D.C. hired 75.

Freeing up the labor market for teachers is only a partial solution to a part of the problem plaguing a portion of America's schools. But it's a start.