Teacher Certification: Guarantee or Joke?

Published August 1, 2000

“[T]eacher certification procedures are a joke! . . . [They] don’t distinguish between those who can and those who cannot teach. They’re a series of bureaucratic routines, which some say serve only to keep talented people out of teaching.”

The views of a public school basher? Hardly. Those are the words of Arthur Wise, spoken in 1991 when he became president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

Was he speaking to an audience of school bashers? Hardly. Wise was quoted in an interview in NEA Today, the monthly publication of the National Education Association, reaching millions of public school educators and teacher union officers and staff.

After being in office for several years, Wise may have a different view today. But there has been no significant change in traditional certification procedures during the past decade. And even if there had been changes, they would have had little effect on the current teaching profession: The majority of the nation’s teachers were certified before 1991.

After a decade’s worth of inaction on certification reform, NCATE and its colleagues in the education establishment remain opposed to real change. In Pennsylvania, for example, the NEA and NCATE affiliates are in court seeking to block Governor Tom Ridge’s proposal for alternative teacher certification, without even waiting to see what the results might be.

The lawsuit, filed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators (PACTE), implies “alternative” certification means “no”certification, “inferior” certification, or even abolishing the present process. Ridge’s proposals calls for none of that.

At the time the suit was filed, the president of PSEA noted he became a certified teacher in 1971. “A teaching certificate . . . is the state’s guarantee that an individual can be safely entrusted with the education of the children,” he said, and “that a teacher has knowledge of the subject he or she is assigned to teach and of the psychology of learning.”

Yet according to the late Al Shanker, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, at least a quarter of the nation’s teachers are not qualified to be in the classroom. A teaching certificate doesn’t guarantee anything other than that the holder has gone through the certification process. “Certified” and “qualified” are not interchangeable terms, and too often they aren’t even related.

Consider some of the evidence.

Uncertified Professors

Nationally, about 1,200 schools of education prepare teachers. Less than half of these, only 550, are accredited. If teacher certification is valid, shouldn’t education professors also be certified in order to properly prepare teachers for certification? Doctors and lawyers, for example, are not prepared for their professions by non-doctors and non-lawyers. Many–perhaps most–teachers are certified by an educational program taught by uncertified staff in unaccredited institutions.

Subject Area Ignorance

Large numbers of certified teachers in grades 9-12 have neither a major nor a minor in the subject they teach. In Pennsylvania, for example, Education Week reports that the following percentages of high school teachers have no major or minor in the subject they teach:

  • 30 percent in English;
  • 21 percent in social studies;
  • 17 percent in math; and
  • 17 percent in science.

National percentages are a bit higher in math and science and a bit lower in English and social studies. According to Donald Erickson, an education professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, perhaps as many as a million of the nation’s 2.7 million teachers have no major or minor in the subject they teach to the nation’s children.

Certified vs. Qualified

With regard to certification, Erickson notes that, over the years, “hundreds of studies show that a certified teacher isn’t more qualified than an uncertified teacher.” A review of 113 studies found the following relationship between student achievement and a teacher’s educational background:

  • 7 percent reported a positive relationship;
  • 85 percent reported no relationship;
  • 15 percent reported a negative relationship.

In a 1978 Kentucky court case, the state was challenged to produce scholarly research proving certification corresponds to teacher competence or educational excellence. It could not do so.

Teacher College Standards

In 1997, the average combined SAT verbal and math score for all college applicants was 1,013 of a potential maximum of 1,600. The average for education schools was 964, and some students had scores as low as 642.

Richard Mitchell, who taught English at a New Jersey teachers college, said the final question in an education course there required drawing letters of the alphabet in both upper and lower case. The question counted for 52 percent of a student’s grade. Mitchell did not say how many of the students could meet that standard.

Alternative Certification

The State of New Jersey began an alternative teacher certification program in the mid-1980s. Former Governor Tom Kean noted that among the new teachers hired by the state’s public schools during the first year of the program were a Fulbright scholar, five Harvard graduates, and a scientist holding two patents. The teacher candidates produced through alternative certification scored higher on the National Teachers Exam than teachers trained by conventional methods.

By 1988, one of six new teachers in New Jersey was coming through the alternative certification route. By 1990, the number of teacher applicants and minority applicants had doubled. NTE exam results showed that the quality of applicants had improved.

By 1994, 41 states and the District of Columbia had adopted alternative teacher training programs. Not all are true alternatives.

For example, a PACTE spokesman claimed recently that Pennsylvania has had an alternative certification program for 20 years, available to someone with no education degree but a “strong knowledge in a specific subject matter.” The so-called “alternative”: take the same teacher college education courses required of all certification candidates–which could take up to three years to complete.

Current Trends

The trend is away from conventional certification approaches. A few years ago, Michigan discontinued certifying administrators, and a number of states, again including New Jersey, have successfully hired non-certified administrators, including superintendents in some districts.

The certification process, while going back to the early nineteenth century for a precedent, is relatively recent. In 1920, no state required even a college degree for elementary teachers, and most of them didn’t have one. Only 10 states required a college degree for secondary teachers. As late as 1948, almost 60 percent of the nation’s teachers still lacked a college degree. Were teachers less able then? Did students achieve less?

Defenders of the certification status quo should be required to prove two things:

  • that present certification procedures work; and
  • that proposed alternatives won’t work.

They won’t be able to do either.

David W. Kirkpatrick, a former teacher and president of the PSEA, is Senior Fellow for Teacher Choice at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. His Web site is at http://www.schoolreport.com.