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Teacher certification won't ensure quality instruction

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted April 11, 2005

The Washington Post reported just the other day that at least 25 percent of Washington, D.C.'s, teachers lack appropriate certification. According to the Post:

More than a quarter of D.C. school system teachers lack required certification, and 25 to 40 percent of its principals "are not the caliber they need to be," School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey said yesterday.

During a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors, Janey said a school system review has found that more than 1,400 teachers are not properly credentialed. Of that total, about half have never obtained a license in the subject they are teaching, and the other half have licenses that have expired, Janey said, although he added that some of the cases might involve lost or misplaced paperwork.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, school systems can lose federal funds if they do not maintain a teacher force that is 100 percent certified by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

This is some heavy stuff, and slightly unnerving considering a district entrusted with managing kids can barely manage its teachers. And I'm struggling to understand how teacher certifications can be considered "required" when over a quarter of a school district's instructors fail to possess these credentials. But, honestly, this isn't much of a concern to me. And neither should it be to you.

Milton Friedman discussed the overrated nature of certification and licensing in his book, Capitalism and Freedom, decades ago. Specifically, the esteemed economist noted that organizations -- public school districts not excepted -- usually impose certification requirements upon themselves, for any number of reasons. Certification policies are often required to limit the number of people granted access to a profession, to attempt to ensure that employees meet some minimum standard of competence, or so employees appear in the eyes of the public to possess qualifications others lack.

But any honest person who's ever taken a standard teacher certification exam will tell you such exams are virtually meaningless indicators of potential teaching ability. In actuality, certification exams are most effective at keeping many talented individuals out of the teaching profession in the first place. After all, D.C. schools have "required" teachers to retain certifications for years, yet they are among the worst schools in the country.

What should be a major requirement for public school teachers, on the other hand, is competence in the subject areas in which they teach. In 1997, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future found that nearly a quarter of all high school teachers did not even have a college minor in their primary teaching field. This was true of about 30 percent of mathematics teachers.

Teaching is one of the most subjective professions around. There are very few objective evaluative techniques that are capable of gauging teacher performance accurately, as success can be defined as anything the evaluator wishes it to be. Is teacher success to be measured by student behavior? Student test scores? Bulletin board attractiveness? Appropriate dress? Adherence to school instructional policy?

For example, is it always fair to judge a teacher's effectiveness by her students' test scores? Why should a teacher be held responsible for students who fail to study, or who don't attend class regularly? And even the best teachers can find it nearly impossible to get anything accomplished in a school whose principal refuses to discipline students who repeatedly disrupt classmates.

These are just a few of the reasons why the No Child Left Behind Act should be repealed, and why the federal Department of Education should cease to exist. States and local school districts are plenty capable of determining their own education policies, but they must be compelled to do so.

The best way to ensure quality academic instruction is to offer parents a choice of where their children can be educated. If all students were provided vouchers for schooling, children would automatically migrate to the best schools. Schools that failed to improve would close, as well they should. Most critics would consider this a radical maneuver -- and perhaps it would be -- but taxpayers have no obligation to subsidize failure. Most importantly, our determinant of quality instruction would be reconsidered, as meaningless certifications and licenses would lose relevance as well as reverence; these subjective "measures" of quality would be replaced by our ability to objectively observe those schools held in both the highest and lowest demand.

This is unlikely to happen, of course, as schools are dreadfully afraid of competitive measures that would both threaten their ironclad grip on education and weaken the influence of teachers' unions. But if teachers and administrators truly cared about education quality, not to mention discovering a method that would actually (and automatically) improve teacher pay for the best among them, school choice provisions would have been implemented long ago.

For the benefit of posterity, taxpayers must demand they be implemented now.

Trevor Bothwell is a freelance writer living in Maryland. He maintains a web log at www.therightreport.com, and he can be contacted at bothwelltj@yahoo.com.


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