Back when there was a surplus of teachers, US politicians ignored the opportunity to toughen teacher preparation. Instead, they sat by while self-serving colleges graduated thousands of half-trained, half-committed, half-witted candidates in order to cash their parent’s tuition checks.
Now that there is a growing scarcity of teachers, however, state officials are rushing to weaken already wimpy teacher certification standards. Pennsylvania provides a particularly worrisome example. Pennsylvania's former Governor Tom Ridge, (You remember, he's the Homeland Security chief who advised us to use duck tape as a security measure.) declared that those who have a hankering to teach need only take a ten day summer seminar to qualify for a classroom of their very own. After no more than six credits of additional instruction in pedagogy they can be certified for life. How’s that for standards?
Ridge said he wanted to “…help local education agencies fill critical vacant positions in secondary or K-12 content areas with ‘outstanding’ candidates for eventual level I certification.” The truth is he wanted to fill teaching vacancies in the state’s educational wastelands with whatever warm bodies could be found.
He also wanted to weaken the state’s teachers unions, both of whom were smart enough to oppose his election.
Right-wingers, like Chester Finn, argue that thousands would jump right into teaching if they just didn’t have to expend any effort to first learn something about it. Besides, Finn asserts, kids taught by certified teachers don’t do any better on achievement tests than those taught by scrubs. Here’s what’s wrong with this argument:
• Research shows kids tend to do better when taught by certified teachers.
• So-called “achievement” tests are only one measure of a teacher’s success — and a weak one at that. We need only consider what they don’t measure to appreciate their limitations.
• Just because a teacher is certified doesn’t mean they have adequate preparation. Certification means little so long as state officials fail to enforce tough program approval standards and close down low quality cash cow programs that are used simply to generate tuition.
• You don’t get elite troops without tough training and you don’t get top-flight teachers with blue light special certification either. Requiring a candidate to prove their commitment and capabilities by surviving a tough training process is vitally important.
• Filling public schools with marginally committed, virtually untrained warm bodies destroys whatever hope teaching has of becoming a full-fledged profession. This neatly fits the political agenda of “conservative” politicians, but it undermines efforts to make schools better.
• However weak they presently are, most certification programs sort out at least some of the candidates who are lazy, uncaring, mentally unstable and so forth. God knows what kind of people will sneak through alternative certification processes like Ridge has instituted.
• Subject matter knowledge is necessary for teaching competence; but it is not sufficient. To be competent a teacher must also command a body of professional knowledge.
• Certification was introduced largely because teaching was bedeviled by patronage. Hiring was based on everything but professional competence. Without tough certification standards that’s where we’ll end up again. Political affiliation, religious preference or who your brother-in-law is will be what gets you a teaching job.
• Alternative certification and cash cow traditional programs demoralize those teacher educators who continue to care. It’s tough to continue to insist on quality when the governor himself doesn’t give a damn about it.
In fact, alternative certification and cash-cow programs threaten to drive demanding programs out of existence. Why spend a lot of time and effort qualifying for certification when there are far easier ways?