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Opinion: Tangled teacher certification process offers no assurance of teacher quality

Robert Maranto ( is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and was recently elected to school board in Fayetteville where his two children attend public schools.

By Robert Maranto

Recently Birmingham made the news when Alabama Teach of the Year Ann Marie Corgill resigned rather than pay fees, take tests, and suffer endless paperwork to gain certification to teach 5th grade, after moving up from 2nd grade to fill a need. Corgill’s lower elementary certification didn’t allow her to teach 5th grade, no matter her intelligence and proven record in the classroom.

The Corgill case should put teacher certification on the national agenda. In many states teacher certification is incredibly bureaucratic, with principals playing guessing games as to which teachers are certified by what regulations within a cumbersome system only bureaucrats love. Yet. as my former colleague Sandra Stotsky details in “An Empty Curriculum, teacher certification offers no assurance of teacher quality. Teacher licensure tests are typically set to measure junior high school levels of intellect, shortchange subject matter expertise, and largely fail to cover such basics as how children learn to read.

Similarly, teacher surveys reported by former Teachers College Dean Arthur Levine , and my own fieldwork in over 150 public schools, indicate that teachers do not find their training and professional development useful. The courses required for an education major typically fail to cover basics like classroom management, leaving new teachers ill-prepared. Publishers offer a whole array of how-to books like Wong's and Wong’s “The First Days of School" and Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion” to cover what most schools of education fail to offer.

Need more proof teacher certification is broken? As Mike McShane and I report in "President Obama and Education Reform," the Hawaiian prep school young Barack Obama attended, the Punahou School , does not even consider certification when hiring new teachers. (I asked their personnel office.) That’s also true at the famous University of Chicago Laboratory (“Lab”) Schools once attended by the President’s daughters, and at their current school, Sidwell Friends, whose alumni include Chelsea Clinton.

It’s the same at St. Paul’s whose alumni include John Kerry, at John McCain’s Episcopal High School, and at Philips Academy (AKA Andover), attended by both Presidents Bush. America’s elites would never let unlicensed doctors operate on their kids; yet they pay big bucks for their kids to learn from unlicensed teachers. What gives?

As David Labaree details in "The Trouble With Ed. Schools, " teacher training developed in the early 20th century when teaching was considered “women’s work” unworthy of the attention accorded real professions like law or medicine. As Stotsky explains in "An Empty Curriculum," in the first half of the 20th century standardized tests assured that teachers had sufficient subject matter knowledge. Moreover, sexism assured schools an endless supply of highly talented female teachers who were by and large barred from other professions.

After World War II the old system began to break down. As Stotsky writes, by the 1950s the nation faced teacher shortages, and school superintendents had no interest in test scores when the law required a teacher in every classroom. Teacher licensure tests lost rigor and adopted embarrassingly low pass scores that “are not set to protect children in our public schools from academically incompetent teachers [but] to protect teacher preparation institutions” from losing funding if prospective teachers fail. This happened as college-educated women gained opportunities outside teaching, meaning that public schools no longer had a guaranteed supply of cheap, smart labor. State education bureaucracies made an already bad situation worse by adding layers of regulations to teacher certification, creating what then U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige described as systems of “high barriers with low standards.”

So what should we do? I would scrap nontransparent certification and professional development requirements, increase the rigor of teacher licensure examinations, and raise starting pay. In combination these could professionalize teaching to the point where presidents and senators insist their children study under certified teachers.

These changes would not attack public education, but rather save public schools from being strangled by useless red tape. Just ask Ann Marie Corgill.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.