A License to Innovate?

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors gives high priority to preparation of elementary and high school teachers, and for good reason. The education schools in the state university system produce one-third of the new teachers in North Carolina each year.

But those schools are not as effective as they should be. A study initiated by former UNC president Erskine Bowles found that Teach for America graduates were more effective in the classroom after a six-week summer program than were recent graduates of UNC schools. There have been other criticisms of education schools, too. Recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality, an independent group, gave most of UNC’s ed schools mediocre ratings; with one exception, none received more than two-and-a-half stars out of a four-star maximum.

So, with improving the quality of teachers an element of its strategic plan, Board of Governors members must be wondering how to do better. An experiment in North Carolina may help them do it.

The General Assembly is rewriting the rules governing charter schools (which are public schools that have more flexibility in their regulations than do traditional public schools). This spring, the Senate voted to allow charter schools complete freedom in hiring teachers; that is, they would not have to hire any state-licensed teachers but would be able to choose from a wider pool. They could hire retired chemists and lawyers to teach in high schools and professional tutors and parents to teach in kindergarten, if they wished. In traditional public schools, such individuals are prohibited from teaching without entering a costly and lengthy licensure process (30 credit hours of class time plus tuition).

The House has been less bold than the Senate. It would require that half of the teachers at all charter schools be licensed (the current figure is 75 percent for elementary and 50 percent for the higher grades). The House and Senate may have to hold a conference on the matter.

Any change, but especially dropping the licensing requirement, could provide a healthy competition for education schools that does not exist now.

Baker Mitchell, founder of the Roger Bacon Academy, a chain of charter schools, is unhappy with the way most education schools teach. He would like his and other charter schools to have more choice in teachers. “Charter schools exist to provide all parents choices in their children’s education. But if charters are forced to recruit from the same pool of teachers, this choice becomes somewhat illusionary—a Hobson’s choice,” he says. In Mitchell’s view, the hiring process will weed out the least qualified applicants, whether they are licensed or not.

Robert Luddy, founder of a popular charter school in Wake Forest and the private Thales Academy schools, agrees. “Many of our best teachers are not licensed but they are highly qualified.”

The education schools’ problems may stem from the incentives they face. All UNC education schools have chosen to be accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). There are serious doubts about whether the standards that must be met to be accredited are either academically demanding or useful in teaching.

In a 2008 Pope Center paper, George Cunningham, a retired professor of education at the University of Louisville, argued that NCATE is “in the grip of progressive education theorists” and that its evaluations “use criteria that fail to emphasize academic achievement.” Other experts point out that the load of paperwork is extremely heavy, but none of it involves actually measuring student accomplishment.

One school that decided to drop teacher certification a few years ago had something of an epiphany from the experience—its educators feel that it is better off now than it was. In 2007, the state of Michigan announced that it would no longer accredit programs, and Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, Michigan, didn’t want to adopt NCATE as the accreditor. Its faculty believed that meeting NCATE demands would be an expensive and pointless exercise.

Daniel Coupland, an associate professor of education at Hillsdale, says that once the decision to end accreditation was made, “we realized that many of our existing courses had been developed only to meet the state’s onerous standards, which had tightly controlled what was taught in teacher education courses.” With those requirements lifted, the school could “keep what was useful, eliminate that which was not, and create new courses to address whatever was being overlooked.”

The result has been the elimination of methods and “educational psychology and technology” courses; a renewed emphasis on taking courses in a student’s major (that is, a discipline like history or math, not education); a new course on teaching English grammar; and revitalization of education courses such as the philosophy of education and phonics—courses that should have met higher standards than those imposed by NCATE, and now do.

Does this change at Hillsdale, coupled with criticism of NCATE and UNC education schools, mean that getting rid of accreditation could actually lead to a more and effective teacher education program?

That is the question that the Pope Center has been wrestling with for several years and that the General Assembly appears to be at least considering.

Terrence Moore, a Hillsdale history professor and former charter school principal, told a Pope Center conference in January that “the monopoly of teacher certification” means that “virtually everyone who is going to teach [must] go through a school of education.”  The combination has been disastrous, he said.

“The things that they teach are completely Mickey Mouse; they are taught to dumb down learning,” he said, quoted in a story by Jay Schalin on the conference. For example, rather than teach about the U.S. Constitution, education schools encourage teachers to get students to create their own constitution.

It is probably fair to say that the public, right or wrong, prefers some kind of state-approved licensure for teachers in traditional public schools. With thousands of teachers hired every year, the public assumes that certification assures at least a minimum of quality. Whether it does or not remains debatable.

In any case, however, charter schools are supposed to be different; they are meant to be experimental. Wouldn’t it be great if an experimental elimination of licensure requirements not only expanded the pool of available teachers but also had an enriching effect on the education schools of the University of North Carolina?