Another blow to the Lollipop Guild

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted July 26, 1999

The most important requirement if we're to assure public school teachers can do their jobs, we've long been told, is their "certification." Experts in the science of education -- pedagogy -- must certify that these instructors have attended an education college (or equivalent endless night courses), and mastered all the specialized skills and techniques necessary to transfer knowledge to the young.

This is far more important -- government educators have long insisted -- than a teacher merely having specialized knowledge of his or her academic subject area (math, science, French, whatever.) That's why we must be wary of any scheme to facilitate the movement of professionals from other fields into the classroom under "emergency" or "alternative" licensure programs, without requiring them to go back and pass through the daunting gantlets and Augean portals of "education school."

Just because Einstein was a mathematical genius, this argument has long asserted, doesn't mean he would have been adept at transferring basic mathematical principles to the young.

(Actually, it turns out Einstein was a teacher, and a decent one. Perhaps inspiration and the ability to convey excitement about a field count for something.)

But now comes a collection of studies casting doubt on the very underpinnings of this reliance on traditional teacher certification.

Students whose teachers possess a bachelor's or master's degree in math outperform other students in math, regardless of the teacher's certification, reports Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation. The privately run school-reform research outfit last week released a collection of reports critical of current teacher hiring, training, and evaluation procedures.

"This result should cast doubt on assertions that standard certification should be required of all teachers," the Fordham researchers write.

The reports say teachers tend to have weak verbal and math skills and not nearly enough have a college major or minor in the subjects they teach. And standard state credential requirements fall short of putting better teachers in the classroom, the Fordham researchers found. In California, Ohio, New York, and Minnesota, approved preparation programs tend to have very low entry requirements, no exit requirements and low subject content.

Tomorrow's teachers might as well be studying "Theory of Physical Education" ... or are they?

On the other hand, the researchers found more innovative states like Pennsylvania have been able to raise teacher academic standards while maintaining strong "alternative certification" programs. Teachers there must take more academic courses and fewer education courses, and pass licensure exams with higher scores. But -- horrors! -- college graduates who pass those exams may teach in Pennsylvania under the mentorship of a principal or master teacher without attending a school of education, at all.

"Education is the last remaining field in America where people think you can boost quality by tightening the rules and multiplying the regulations," concludes Mr. Finn. By screening out well-educated graduates who took their degrees somewhere other than a teacher's college, "Education interest groups have pushed misguided regulatory schemes that will make it even harder for our public schools to attract strong teachers into their ranks."

Calling for teacher hiring criteria to be left to local districts, Mr. Finn directly contradicted the proposal outlined by President Clinton in this year's State of the Union Address, in which Mr. Clinton endorsed a teacher's union proposal to actually tighten up the exclusivity of the current guild, requiring states and school districts to phase out "emergency-certified" teachers, entirely.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His new book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at $21.95 plus $3 shipping ($6 UPS; $2 shipping each additional copy) through Mountain Media, P.O. Box 271122, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127. The 500-page trade paperback may also be ordered via web site, or at 1-800-244-2224. Credit cards accepted; volume discounts available.

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