Radical Reform of Teacher Certification

Published April 1, 2002

Do you have what it takes to be a K-12 teacher?

  • a college degree
  • content knowledge in the area to be taught
  • no criminal background.

That’s all it would take under the competitive model of teacher certification proposed by University of Virginia education professor Frederick M. Hess in a recent report from the Progressive Policy Institute.

Does that mean almost anyone should be allowed in a classroom to teach children? “Of course not,” says Hess in “Tear Down This Wall: The Case for a Radical Overhaul of Teacher Certification.” Being permitted to seek work is not the equivalent of having the right to hold a position. Principals would be responsible for selecting the best candidates.

But with Hess’s proposal, those principals would have a much broader and deeper pool of qualified candidates to choose from, including older professionals who want to teach children but aren’t “certified” to do so under the present rules.

As well as giving more flexibility and responsibility to principals for hiring teachers, Hess’s competitive model would spur the creation of training and professional development programs. For example, initial teacher training might come to resemble a “residency” program similar to that found in the medical profession.

Defenders of the present certification process claim it does the following:

  • Develops skills and expertise essential to teaching.
  • Weeds out unsuitable people.
  • Helps make teaching more “professional.”

Current System “Tolerates Incompetence”

Hess explains why each of these assumptions is flawed. In particular, teacher preparation programs “neither screen out nor weed out weak candidates, with even elite programs generally admitting 50 percent or more of applicants.”

“The problem [with the current process] is not schools of education or teacher preparation programs per se,” writes Hess, “but a system of teacher certification and licensure that tolerates incompetence, permits mediocre teacher training programs to flourish, and provides little incentive for training programs to be selective or weed out unsuitable candidates.”

The central dilemma of the present system, according to Hess, is that “professional educators want licensure without concrete standards.” This creates a series of “paper barriers” that frustrate the desire of many talented professionals who long to enter the teaching profession.

Former U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley warned in 1999 that “too many potential teachers are turned away because of the cumbersome process that requires them to jump though hoops and lots of them.”

For more information …

Frederick M. Hess’s paper for the Progressive Policy Institute, “Tear Down This Wall: The Case for a Radical Overhaul of Teacher Certification,” is available at the Institute’s Web site at www.ppionline.org/documents/teacher_certification.pdf.