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State Certification Is The Key

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Two kinds of reform now dominate American education policy. The first, state-oriented or top-down reform, has been the more popular over the last decade. The second, locally oriented or bottom-up reform, has enjoyed growing support since the mid-1980's. Unfortunately, unless current policies are changed, the two kinds of reform may cancel each other out and leave our schools not much better off than they were before. One way that the two brands of reform can be made to complement, not oppose, each other is for states to take a more active role in regulating the quality of the individuals who staff schools, while giving up attempts to micromanage what they do in the classroom.

State-oriented reform grew out of the belief by governors, legislators, and other state government officials that local boards of education and local educators had not provided the nature and quality of education that students need. The main effect of state-oriented reform has been a continuing consolidation of control by state authorities over local education agencies. The movement has been fueled partly by political ambition, as well as by good intentions. Ironically, it has been political conservatives who have pushed hardest to usurp control over local education. In decades past, conservatives believed that decisions should be made closest to the people being served.

The state-oriented approach has a number of problems. Often the changes that are imposed statewide are crude and based upon half-baked schemes, quasi-scientific management procedures, and the like. More importantly, the top-down approach adds yet another layer to an unwieldy bureaucracy set up to micromanage how teachers do their jobs.

Some school systems spend close to one-half of their budget on administration, which includes elaborate supervisory superstructures to plan what teachers are to do, to supervise how teachers execute these plans, and to ensure that teachers have done what they were supposed to do. Thus, school districts do extensive curriculum planning, are preoccupied with teacher evaluation procedures, and use more and more standardized testing. Increasingly, states have been seeking, under the guise of educational reform, to duplicate these functions by requiring mandatory tests for promotion and graduation, by setting up statewide teacher evaluation systems, and by establishing statewide curricula. There is now a suggestion to add a third layer. At the "Education Summit'' last September, the President and the nation's governors called for national goals and the measurement of progress toward these goals. They apparently have in mind a tremendous expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test previously given to a tiny sample of students to chart national improvement.

Locally oriented reform has arisen, in part, in response to the top-down approach. The major impetus has come from the advocates of school-based management. These reformers argue that the quality of education will improve if teachers and administrators at the school site are freer to determine how students are taught. They point out that the educational needs of students vary widely, and they criticize state micromanagement. For example, they note that under top-down reform, pressures build to teach to standardized tests. Critics of top-down reform also call for restructured schools, so-called teacher empowerment, decentralized decisionmaking, shared decisionmaking, teacher professionalism, and a re-emergence of the idea of local control of public schools.

The two kinds of reform are now antithetical to each other, but they need not be. The key is for the states to take a much stronger approach to teacher licensing. If states regulate the quality of the individuals who staff the schools, they will have less need to micromanage teachers and administrators in order to ensure that students get a high-quality education. Conversely, the more schools seek to rely upon the discretion of teachers and educators at the school site, the more states need to develop serious professional licensing systems to ensure accountability.

What procedures should state licensing authorities follow to give them the needed confidence in their educators? Education is lumbering along with an archaic "credentialling'' system for teachers and administrators that does little to guarantee that they are qualified. A redesigned teacher licensing system would license a new teacher only after he or she has demonstrated mastery of the subjects to be taught, pedagogical and professional knowledge and skills, and--most importantly--the capacity to teach. Wouldbe administrators would face similar requirements.

The management of the licensing process is key to the successful blending of the two kinds of reform. Here, education can learn from the experience of the established professions such as medicine and law. Their licensing process is in the hands of members of their profession operating under a grant of state authority. The profession itself has incentives to create meaningful assessment procedures that are then imposed on potential new entrants. This helps create a public perception that only qualified individuals are allowed to practice. In short, the vesting of state authority in professional practices boards can ensure the competence of those who are licensed.

Imagine a state in which the public had reason to believe that everyone who was licensed as a school teacher or a school administrator was, in fact, qualified to practice. The effect could be electrifying. It would do away with the layers of rules and regulations set up because state and local officials did not trust the teachers to carry out good instruction. Education could be in effect deregulated. But patronage, which dogs some local school districts, would become less of a problem because school boards would be allowed to hire only state-licensed personnel. State licensing could also facilitate radical departures from past educational practice.

The starting point for meaningful reform, however, should be a teaching force and an administrative force in which the public has confidence.

Arthur Wise is director of the RAND Corporation's Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession in Washington, D.C.

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