Report on teacher certification riles education establishment

“Teacher Certification: Stumbling for Quality” is the title of a major report released in October by the Abell Foundation that has vexed the vociferous education establishment.

The report, by Kate Walsh, tackles the assumptions that undergird the regulatory policies that all states have implemented, mandating teacher certification as the way to ensure good teachers. “At the heart of this policy is a claim by the education establishment that taking the coursework needed to obtain certification is not only the best, but also the only means for preparing teachers,” Walsh writes.

The education establishment has long pushed for certification laws and opposed all proposals that would open up public school teaching to individuals with degrees in fields other than education. As justification for its position, the education establishment invariably points to a body of research consisting of numerous studies that purport to prove the superiority of teachers with the “right” credentials. Walsh reviewed 175 of those studies. She undertook this daunting challenge because, she says, “[t]here has been no comparable effort by analysts to drill down through the layers of evidence in order to determine what lies at the core.”

So what lies at the core? A great deal of rot.

Walsh finds selective citation aplenty, with research counter to the case for certification conveniently overlooked. Furthermore, she finds artificial bolstering of the case for certification through “padding analyses with multiple references that appear to provide support but, on careful reading, do not.” She finds “unmerited weight” given to non-peer-reviewed work and even unpublished dissertations. She finds certification advocates discarding the standardized measures of student achievement in order to design their own assessment tools to “prove” the worth of certification.

“Basic principles of sound statistical analysis, which are taken for granted in other academic disciplines, are violated routinely” in the research purporting the value of teacher certification, she states. Those include “failing to control for such key variables as poverty and prior student achievement, using sample sizes too small to allow generalization or reliable statistical inference, and relying on inappropriately aggregated data.”

After dispatching with one of the legs supporting the rickety case for certification, Walsh delivers a devastating blow to the other. “There is a scientifically sound body of research, conducted primarily by economists and social scientists, revealing the attributes of an effective teacher, defined as a teacher who has a positive impact on student achievement,” the report states. “In fact, the background and attributes characterizing effective teachers are more likely to be found outside the domain of schools of education” (emphasis added).

Among other education myths exploded by the sound research is idea that obtaining a master’s degree makes one a better teacher. Walsh finds no research indicating an advantage for teacher’s with master’s degrees at the elementary level, and at the secondary level she finds an advantage only if the teachers instructs in the same academic discipline of the master’s degree. In most states, teachers automatically receive raises just for having completed a master’s, which are usually in education, not in a teaching field. Thanks to the Walsh report, we now see clearly that such policies are a waste of money.

“The most consistent finding,” Walsh states, “is that effective teachers score higher on tests of verbal ability and other standardized tests.” However, students who pursue education degrees are notoriously among the weakest of college students. Certification thus blocks out sharp students who can’t abide what former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Chester Finn calls the “Mickey Mouse” curriculum of the education schools.

Predictably, Walsh’s study was greeted with loud protests from the education establishment. The chief hatcheteer was Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. In her 71-page response, Darling-Hammond accused Walsh of misrepresented nearly everything about teacher certification, but failed to meet Walsh’s criticisms of the pro-certification “research.”

Darling-Hammond saved her weightiest rhetoric for the predictable contention that teacher training (as she thinks it should be) and certification laws are necessary in order to protect the children. She writes, “the policies Walsh endorses could bring harm to many children, especially those who are already least well served by the current system.”

It used to be said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel, but today it is the false expression of concern for the welfare of kids, who are used as human shields for all sorts of policies that can’t withstand careful scrutiny. Here we see the education establishment playing this reprehensible trick once again. The truth is that many inner-city principals prefer teachers — when they can hire them — who don’t have the education school pedigree and all the bad habits that are taught there. They realize that children don’t need a “facilitator,” as progressive ed school theory says a teacher’s role should be, but instead real teachers who know their subjects and make sure their students learn them too.

The education establishment has managed to secure a near-monopoly in the training of teachers and gets extremely touchy whenever anyone suggests that the children of America might be better served by a dose of competition. The likes of Linda Darling-Hammond know that if they get to train the teachers, they will be able to exert tremendous influence over the schools. The Abell Foundation report has shown that the justification for the monopoly is a house of cards.

The right conclusion was drawn by Professor James W. Fraser who wrote in Education Week, “Perhaps the time has come for those of us in higher education to simply step out of the teacher-certification business. And for government to step out of regulating teacher-preparation programs. Let schools and school districts hire whom they will, certify whom they will.”

Fraser, by the way, is the Dean of the School of Education at Northeastern University.