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Published in Print: April 9, 2003, as What's Wrong With Teacher Certification?

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What's Wrong With Teacher Certification?

Current teacher licensing does not do what it is intended to do. The victims are the children.

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Current teacher licensing does not do what it is intended to do. The victims are the children.

Current teacher licensing, or teacher certification, as it is commonly called, does not do what it is intended to do. It does not differentiate clearly between those who are qualified to teach and those who are not. The victims are the children. With many children being left behind, especially in our largest urban districts, it is no wonder that there are many end runs around the system.

"Certification" is literally the grant by the state of a "certificate" that attests to the fact that the state has determined that an individual is qualified and thus authorized to teach. This process is similar to the process states employ to determine that doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and physical therapists should be licensed to practice their respective professions. (For reasons now obscure, the term "certification" entered the lexicon of teaching rather than the conventional term "licensing.")

Before a state licenses a person to practice a profession, it establishes the requirements for that license. These requirements typically include educational prerequisites and assessments of the knowledge and skill expected of a beginning professional. Then, if a candidate satisfies the educational prerequisites and demonstrates adequate knowledge and skill through tests and performance assessments, a state grants the candidate a license.

In most professions, the process works well enough that policymakers and the public generally accept the fact that an individual who is granted a license is fit to practice as a beginning professional.

In most professions, candidates complete a course of study that typically includes four years of liberal arts education, two to four years in a professional school, and substantial internship experience. Professional study must be in a school that has been accredited by a national professional accrediting agency. In some professions, internships must also be professionally accredited. These educational and internship requirements, carried out according to rigorous standards, begin to build the foundation for public confidence in the quality of beginning professionals.

A visitor to a university can be confident that every professional school on campus is professionally accredited, with one notable exception. Coincidence or not, that professional school spends less per student than any other professional school on campus, yet its students generally pay the same tuition as other students.

Though candidates in the established professions have high-quality educational and internship experiences, the states properly insist upon external validation that candidates are, in fact, ready to begin to practice. That external validation is the licensing process. The process assesses candidate knowledge, skills, dispositions, and performance. Assessment is not limited to fixed-response, multiple-choice tests; it includes multiple measures of the above-named attributes. A record is built, with evidence accumulated from the beginning of professional study to the final assessment required by the state. It is this aggregation of information that assures the public that a beginning professional is fit to practice, and that provides the basis for public confidence in the quality of beginning professionals.


Teacher preparation and teacher certiication clearly do not conform to the mainstream model of professional preparation and certification. In some cases, less is required for teacher certification than for occupational licensing. How is it, for example, that a substantial period of apprenticeship is required for those who trim our nails, our curls, or even the limbs of our trees, but is not required for those who are to help shape the minds of the next generation?

How is it that a substantial period of apprenticeship is not required for those who are to help shape the minds of the next generation?

Even today, the vast majority of new teacher graduates begin to teach with only four years of preparation. "New teacher graduates" are candidates who major in education (elementary teachers) and those who major in a discipline and minor in teacher preparation (secondary teachers). In these four years, education candidates (elementary and secondary) must acquire a liberal arts education, content knowledge, teaching knowledge and skill, and clinical experience. Thus, new teacher graduates begin with less overall preparation than do peers entering other professions. They have had to accomplish in four years what other professionals accomplish in six to nine years. In addition, professional accreditation of education schools is voluntary. Thus, teacher preparation may be delivered according to rigorous standards ... or not. Because of the unevenness of teacher preparation, the preparation experience provides an uncertain basis for public confidence in the quality of beginning teachers.

The certification process is weak in comparison to the licensing process in most professions. The public should expect the certification process to provide independent validation of teaching candidates' liberal arts education, content knowledge, teaching knowledge and skill, and teaching performance. Most state certification processes fall short of that expectation. The public should expect new teacher graduates to have a foundation in general and liberal arts studies. Yet no state assesses more than basic skills and only 40 states do that. Despite the outcry that new teachers should have content knowledge, only 34 states require a content test, and many of those states do not test in all content areas. Moreover, there is widespread agreement that state cutoff scores are too low. Only 23 states check to see whether new teachers have mastered subject-specific pedagogy, despite research that such knowledge is essential.

What the public wants to know—and what the certification process should reveal—is whether new teachers can put to work what they have learned, so that their students will learn. Unbelievably, only seven states assess teaching performance. Today's certification processes are very uneven and collectively do not provide a basis for public confidence in the quality of new teachers. In the face of this reality, what is being done?


What are education schools doing? Long maligned, many of these schools now deserve kudos. Accredited education schools and those seeking accreditation are engaged in strengthening their programs and providing more information about the performance of their candidates and graduates. First, they are becoming explicit about the knowledge, skills, dispositions, and teaching performance that they expect candidates to develop. Second, they are designing and implementing systems to assess whether their candidates are developing consistently with these expectations.

The real challenge for them is to determine how to assess the impact of their candidates on student achievement. Education schools know that they must gather evidence on candidates while they are still candidates, but they also know that the most persuasive evidence will come from studies of recent graduates.

Instead of relying on current systems, we should devise and implement a ‘professional beginning-teacher licensing process.’

Accredited education schools are developing strong partnerships with schools that enable candidates to have high-quality practical experiences. They are figuring out ways to prepare teachers to work with today's diverse student population. University faculty members are changing the ways they teach, including integrating technology into their instruction. Universities are investing in the preparation of teachers at accredited education schools. Six hundred and sixty education schools are on the move. We do not know about the half (about 600) which operate without the benefit of professional scrutiny. Not only would this situation not be tolerated in other professions, it would be illegal.

Nowhere is change more evident than in the approach of accredited education schools to teaching content. These institutions have placed content front and center for teacher-candidates. The largest and most comprehensive study to date of new teachers reveals that accredited education schools are very effective in preparing candidates to meet today's teaching-content testing requirements. Graduates of accredited schools passed state licensing tests at a much higher rate than liberal arts graduates and graduates of unaccredited schools.

In 1998, Congress, through Title II of the Higher Education Act, effectively challenged education schools not to graduate candidates who could not pass state licensing tests. These schools rose to the challenge and immediately imposed more-rigorous entrance and exit requirements, producing very high pass rates on today's licensing tests. Critics incorrectly alleged that colleges have manipulated the data. Instead, they have responded to the mandate of Congress and to today's state requirements. That is the good news.

The bad news is that today's teacher-certification procedures provide far too little information about whether new teachers are ready to teach.

Most accredited education schools have also opened alternate routes to teaching for nontraditional candidates. Indeed, most accredited education schools provide options like five-year programs, fifth-year programs, and internship programs to meet the variety of needs presented by traditional students, recent college graduates, and more mature candidates. Partnerships between education schools and school districts are also resulting in a variety of high-quality alternate routes to certification.

Some responses to the teacher shortage, however, contradict the mounting evidence that teacher preparation matters. Administrators, especially those in the largest urban areas, routinely hire individuals with no preparation. They do not want to do this, but the conditions in some schools make it difficult to attract and retain qualified teachers.

Meanwhile, recent research suggests that one- fourth of those who enter the teaching field without preparation quit by the end of their first year. Yet, those who have the knowledge and skill provided by teacher preparation have a first-year attrition rate that is half that of those who have no preparation.


Alternative certification (including temporary and emergency certification) and alternatives to certification (let anyone teach) will not do the job. In a misleading use of language, these certificates literally mean that the state is certifying that these certificate holders are not yet certifiable under the state's own laws and regulations. Dissembling is not a strategy for enhancing public confidence.

Instead, we should revolutionize teacher-certification procedures so that they achieve the purpose for which they are intended. We should devise and implement a "professional beginning-teacher licensing process." These would be its requirements:

General Knowledge. Basic-skills testing should be replaced with tests that measure the outcomes of liberal arts and general studies, including high-level literacy and numeracy and writing and speaking skills. Teachers need to be—and be seen as—well-educated.

Subject Matter. Rigorous content tests, aligned with professional standards for teachers and students, should be required of all, and professional cut scores should be set.

Teaching Knowledge. New teaching-knowledge tests should be developed. These should be based on the idea that teachers should be able to understand and critique educational research and various schools of thought about teaching and learning. Educational knowledge and practice, like medical knowledge and practice, undergo continuous development. Teachers need to be given the intellectual tools for evaluating new information and using it to guide their practice.

Assessments of Performance. Assessments of teaching performance, including the impact of a teacher on student achievement, must be a prerequisite for a professional teaching license. Assessments should begin during preservice teacher preparation and continue at least until the end of the first year of teaching. Every first-year teacher must have a real mentor, not just another teacher with full-time responsibilities who drops by when time permits. Every first-year teacher must be mentored as part of a systematic induction program which provides instruction and support.

No one should receive a professional teaching license until he or she meets all of these requirements. Some states have already created a tiered licensing system, with the first-year teacher on a provisional license.

If a school cannot hire enough prepared and licensed teachers, then it should be restructured so that master teachers are responsible for all children and supervise the work of all unlicensed personnel. ("The 10- Step Solution," Commentary, Feb. 27, 2002.)

If the licensing process were as rigorous as what is outlined here, it would end the call for end runs. If the process had sufficient integrity, it would reveal those few unusual individuals who do not need much preparation to teach. However, most who enter teaching need and want high-quality preparation. We must devise and implement a professional beginning-teacher licensing process so that schools, including those in our largest urban districts, will leave no child behind.

Arthur E. Wise is the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, based in Washington.

Vol. 22, Issue 30, Pages 42,56

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