Teacher Certification: A Short-Cut for Determining Teacher Quality

Forest Road
The Ohio legislature is considering S.B.3, which includes provisions to exempt certain high-performing school districts from teacher certification requirements. Do we want that flavor of local control to be given to some districts, but not others? In other words, do we want some school districts to be able to hire teachers who are not certified? What education policy road do you prefer to travel?

I agree that government entities, including school districts, need a method of insuring that teachers are prepared to teach. Certification is that method of choice in nearly all parts of the United States, and in many other countries of the world. Certification provides a clear yes/no test to determine who is qualified to teach. The cost of certification, and hence the cost of determining who is qualified to teach, typically falls on the teaching candidate, not on the school district or other government entity.

If school districts and governments had more money, they might be able to cover the costs of finding good teachers in more expensive, more nuanced ways. Wealthy school districts might do what wealthy private schools already do: conduct interviews and background checks on a number of candidates after reviewing dozens of resumes, fly a few teaching candidates to the school for a day or two of more interviews, watch the teaching candidates teach a sample lesson or two, and have a committee conduct all those interviews, host all those visiting teacher candidates, watch them teach their sample lessons, and then decide which teachers to hire.

Most public school districts and governments are unable to afford the time and money that wealthy private schools pay to determine the quality of teaching candidates. Instead, most public schools and governments use certification as a proxy for teaching quality. Certification tells the qualification status of an individual teacher on the day certification was acquired, and tells whether the teacher has complied with any legally-required post-certification requirements, such as continuing education.

I have never been certified, but have a long history of teaching over four decades—public, private, independent, boarding, kindergarten, elementary, middle, high school, college, graduate school, rural, suburban, urban, international, single-sex, religious, English, ESL, algebra, business law, health care law, television production, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Connecticut, China, England. Sometimes I feel like the Forest Gump of the teaching world, as I’ve found myself in an almost fictional array of teaching situations. I have appreciated my students, my colleagues, and my administrators in every teaching position I have held.

During the past decade, I spent six years teaching in wealthy private schools in the New York and London metro areas. I enjoyed high salaries at those schools—salaries far larger than those offered by most public schools in the United States. Before hiring me, those schools screened me extensively at their expense. I am grateful for those teaching experiences.

ThistleI have also taught in two public school districts, but only when the districts could find no other teachers to fill the positions. Both positions were with children from low income families, and in both cases, school officials recruited me for the job. I found those teaching experiences rewarding and I found the students inspiring—I had my own kindergarten class one spring while in law school at night, and I briefly taught algebra at a school for at-risk high schoolers one spring while awaiting entry into my Ph.D. program the next fall. I am grateful for those teaching experiences, too.

I find it ironic that wealthy schools with children of rich and famous parents chose me to teach the children, but I am not allowed to teach in public schools except when no other teachers are available and willing to take the job. I accept the irony as the price of public education, where certification stands as the best available proxy for teacher effectiveness. I wish the world were more perfect; I wish schools had unlimited money to make better determinations of who is best qualified to teach the children in a particular school.

Absent unlimited money, current teacher certification laws provide a reasonable, defensible, and relatively inexpensive method for screening teachers. Let’s be aware, however, of the hidden costs of the teacher certification screening method: when wealthy parents prefer their children to be taught by teachers screened by other, more expensive and more nuanced methods, the wealthy parents place their children in private schools. Each time a child leaves the public school system, the public school system becomes a little less public.

My question remains: Do we want some school districts to be able to hire teachers who are not certified?

I welcome your comments, corrections, and suggestions. Thank you.

Floor of Orange Line MontrealNote: I wrote my 2004 dissertation on alternative teacher certification policies. The title of the dissertation: Teachers Union Influence on Alternative Teacher Certification Policies: An Event History Diffusion Analysis. 

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8 Comments on “Teacher Certification: A Short-Cut for Determining Teacher Quality”

  1. NO simply because of TFA . Thst is the only reason for thos bill…to help them get a foothold in public schools…I am not at this time going into the reason I am against TFA. Just suffice it to say not a good thing.

  2. Heather Yates says:

    There needs to be some kind of standard for teachers. State certification is not the only requirement for obtaining employment as a public school teacher, but it the only universal standard; although, in some cases it is temporarily waived or the hiring district will accept a provision certification. It is no different than in any professional field. We expect physicians, attorneys and counsellors to be licensed. Even mechanics, beauticians and nursing assistants are certified in their respective fields. After obtaining the expected education, field experience and/or passing a given test in conjunction with the particular state board that oversees that profession, a certificate or license is issued.

    Why would we NOT want the professional teaching organizations/unions, which are made up of teachers, to be involved in certification? Surely, we do not want that standard to fall upon our legislators! They have little to no background experience as educators, but because they vote on how state monies are spent, they have made fundamentally erroneous and monumental destructive moves in our nation’s public education system through mandating standardized testing and Common Core. In some cases, state legislatures have successfully removed the ability for highly qualified teachers to be protected under tenure law, too. Having teachers organizations’ involvement does nothing but support the interests of those in that field. If anything, we need greater involvement from them, not less. (They are the perfect choice to be given oversight abilities of local school boards. Many are running amuck because of dominating superintendents, whose teaching experiences have been limited to P.E., making decisions harmful to their district’s teachers and ultimately, to their student body.)

    By the way, I am not a member nor have I ever been of any teacher association/union. Unlike in other professions, it is not a requirement that you belong. To me, that serves as more evidence of the good they do. They are fair and considerate of all teachers and use their influence for the good of the whole, not just a select few. Limiting their influence, or the standard of a teaching certification devalues those who are in the profession.

  3. Tom says:

    On paper, I have zero qualification to teach. But the year I spent teaching finance in China was the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. And I can see myself some day returning to the profession. Yet, despite my lack of qualification and experience, I would dare say I was probably one of the best teachers on campus because I put my all my energy and passion into doing it. My students respected me and I still keep in touch with some of them to this day. My point here is not to toot my own horn but to say that the quality of a teacher cannot be measured on paper by a certificate. Passion for what you do cannot be measured or indicated by a piece of paper. When I hire someone, I want two things: can do the job and will do the job. A certificate only tells me the candidate can do the job.

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Tom, I love your astute comment that “Passion for what you do cannot be measured or indicated by a piece of paper.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

    • camb888 says:

      Self-reported “one of the best teachers on campus” because you tried hard? The vast majority of first-year teachers also put all their energy and passion into the job. They have to just to keep up and keep their heads above water. Other questions might be: Would administration agree with your self-assessment? Would your colleagues agree with your self-assessment? How did your students do on standardized tests? (because that’s how teachers are judged these days). Frankly, I’d trust a state certification over a self-assessment as to who CAN do the job any day. As to who WILL do the job, that’s up to the hiring committee and board approval. Applicant teachers these days are asked to teach model lessons which hiring committee members attend and later dissect.

  4. camb888 says:

    Those high-performing schools and districts got to be high-performing employing certified teachers.

  5. Sandy mcdonald says:

    Hello Wendy,
    Public education in this area is in crisis. True teachers( ones that know the material are able to engage students,and can make adaptations based on the individuals and class needs’) are leaving the profession or teaching in private schools. Our city has a university with a college of education that pumps out individuals who are not prepared for the reality of a classroom. I know, I attended this university. Classes that taught how to make cutesy worksheets and how to write a nice memo for parents. For my certification I had to take a class called ‘ math for elementary school teachers’. The level of instruction was about 6th grade.
    Upon graduation, new teachers get jobs in lower income schools and ‘ move their way UP’ to wealthier areas. There is a great deal of evaluating based a ‘some rubric’ that was designed by someone…..and standardized test scores of students. The teachers that are willing to tolerate ( by choice or the need to pay off student loans) the treatment are usually not the strongest, smartest individuals. The best teachers are recruited by private schools and leave the system. The remaining teachers in private schools have a speciallty degree and teach that subject. Math majors teach Math, Biology teachers teach Biology……. They have connections in their fields and make the subjects relevant. Intelligent folks (and those with the means) are pulling kids from the schools and following teachers to private ones. Other folks are homeschooling…..and not for religious reasons.
    I taught in Montessori schools for many years and remember the conversation I had with the director about evaluations. Her statement was,” I hire good people and leave them alone”.
    The schools here fear the brightest and the best ,so they leave


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