Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Teacher certification: does it keep qualified teachers out of the classroom?

Gordon Van Owen
July 20, 2009
Dr. King

When I applied for Teach for America nearly two years ago, I was certain of two things. First, I was essentially guaranteed a job after I finished my master’s degree following the summer of 2008, and I would be a certified teacher in somewhere – either temporary, permanent, or otherwise. However, what I was not aware of was the endless amount of paperwork, preparation, coursework, and wrangling that millions of teachers must face in order to step foot inside of a classroom. This left me wondering, with the serious shortage of teachers facing school districts across the country (especially in math and science content areas, is it wise to make the certification process so burdensome for those who are willing to start a career as a teacher? Also, does the process, which varies from state to state, completely rule out some excellent potential teachers because they lack one or two minor criterion? Ultimately, the states still control the requirements they ask of their teachers. However, increased pressed from the federal government for more qualified teachers is pushing the limit on who can teach. Will there be a breaking point?
The history of certification practices in the United States dates back to the 19th century. By the latter part of the century, only three states mandated state control of the certification process (Agnus, 2001). This state control grew throughout the early parts of the 20th century mostly as a result of urbanization and the efforts of the Progressives. “Administrative progressives never wavered from the view that a higher quality, more professional teaching corps could only be produced by requiring more and more training inc colleges of education (Agnus, 2001, p. 24). This continued expanse of mandated state certification helped spawn the development of education colleges at state schools to help produce more teachers. By the end of the 20th century, with the proliferation of teachers’ unions and collective bargaining, some states began enacting alternative certification processes, which also helped foster programs such as the New York Teacher Fellows and Teach for America (this may have helped the civil-servant ideology progress as well).
This history of teacher certification shows a wide range in development that was not necessarily equal by region. For instance, the three states that first required teachers to be certified were concentrated in the Northeast. The next entity to enforce teacher certification would be the Arizona territory in the last decade of the 19th century. Based on my observations, these early attempts at mandated certification were done in the name of increasing teacher quality and expertise. However, as the nation urbanized, and the population became more centralized in urban areas, these certification requirements made recruiting qualified teachers difficult. This ultimately led to alternative and emergency certification programs that gave new teachers a fast track to complete certification; this lessened the probationary period and helped career changers or first-time teachers enter the classroom as “qualified” teachers according to the state.
These alternative certification programs quickly garnered a number of high-profile critics. Darling-Hammond, Holtzman Gatlin, and Vazquez-Heilig (2005) found that certified teachers produce significantly larger gains with their students than their uncertified counter parts. Specifically, Harling-Hammond et al focused on the effectiveness of Teach for America corps members and found that uncertified Teach for America recruits are “less effective than certified teachers and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers” (2005, p. 1). However, they concede that uncertified teachers who eventually obtain full certification eventually become as effective as traditionally certified teachers.
Literature on the topic of teacher certification runs the gamut of opinion. Those supporting the certification process argue that teachers should understand how children learn and how to make information accessible to them to be successful (Shulman, 1987). Other supports of certification programs tend to support Darling-Hammond et al’s study that those teachers without traditional certification are not as effective as their peers.
However, Goldhaber and Brewer (2000) determined that the type of teacher certification had no direct effect on student achievement. For instance, they found that mathematics teachers with emergency credentials were as effective as teachers with traditional certification, as long as they had previous training in their content area. “This result should, at the very least, cast doubt on the claims of the educational establishment that standard certification should be required of all teachers. In fact, we believe it is incumbent on those who expound such a position to demonstrate that such training systematically leads to better teaching” (Goldhaber & Brewer, 2000, p. 141). While the authors did find evidence that argues the type of certification a teacher has does not inhibit student achievement, they do support some form of certification.
Considering my professional trajectory (I plan on staying in the educational field long term), I can see the merits to both arguments. In response to Darling-Hammond’s critique of programs like Teach for America, I believe the organization has worked toward having all of its members end their two-year commitments as certified teachers. The New York Teaching Fellows program seems to operate under a similar idea. However, what Darling-Hammond seems unable to recognize is alternative certification programs such as these fill a need that many school districts struggle to meet – having enough teachers to instruct students. Programs like these provide an alternative route for adults to enter the classroom instead of studying education while in college. By allowing access to jobs in education, these certification programs allow a greater flow of academic ideals and information, as well as allow career changers to bring their past experiences into their classroom teaching experience. As Goldhaber and Brewer concluded, teachers with alternative certifications are just as effective as those who are traditionally certified. Thus, I support alternative certification programs but still believe that some for of certification is necessary to ensure teachers are aware of the needs of their students and the materials available to help instruct them.

Agnus, D. (2001). Professionalism and the public good: a brief history of teacher certification. Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Washington D.C.

Darling-Hammond, L., Holtzman, D., Gatlin, S., & Vasquez-Heilig, J. (2005). Does teacher preparation matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America, and Teacher Effectiveness. Education Policy Analysis Archives.

Goldhaber, D. & Brewer, D. (2000). Does teacher certification matter? High school teacher certification status and student achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 22; 129

Shulman, L. S.. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of th e new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-22. EJ 351 846

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