Opinion
Education Commentary

A Case for Trusting Teachers To Regulate Their Profession

By Arthur E. Wise — July 28, 2016 6 min read

Over the last few months, America’s policymakers have given unprecedented attention to the education and certification of teachers. They have read innumerable reports and attended many meetings to discuss the importance of establishing and enforcing standards for entry to teaching.

At the same time, however, policymakers are taking steps that undercut the maintenance of standards. Temporary certification and emergency certification are on the rise. Out-of-field placement is common practice. Programs that allow nonteachers to learn on the job (perhaps with occasional seminars and supervision) are growing. Eased entry in the form of “alternate certification” is increasing. Thus, while policy discussions underscore the need for standards in teacher education and certification, policy practices undercut them.

As the demand for teachers increases dramatically over the next few years, will teachers be hired under a system of fixed standards? Or will they be hired under a system that relaxes standards to whatever level is necessary to create supply? Policymakers have only a few years to decide. They cannot have it both ways.

A version of Gresham’s Law will operate. We can have standards. Or we can have a system that reduces the cost of entry to candidates and the price that school districts will have to pay for their services, with the cheap driving out the strong.

Currently, the United States has a teaching force of varied quality. There are excellent teachers, competent teachers, and some incompetent teachers. Teacher education, certification, and hiring practices over the last several decades have yielded this mix. The mix means that it is not hard to find examples of incompetent teachers. Every policymaker knows one or has a friend or relative who does. Policymakers and the public do not have a basis for trusting the people who staff our classrooms today. Some of them have come through fine training programs, most of them are well educated, but some were hired in the 50’s and 60’s, when administrators struggled to place a warm body in every classroom. Some were hired on Labor Day when principals and superintendents faced the prospect of unstaffed classrooms unless they hired the last applicant in line.

De facto, these “teachers” began to do the job. Some succeeded, some did not. With the passage of time, it became difficult to fire the marginally competent. Besides, firing them might have meant having to hire someone who was no better. After a few years, it became increasingly difficult to deny that they could do the job. Then the legislatures passed laws awarding them full certification.

A teaching force of variable quality undermines public confidence. To create trust, we must construct an education and certification system that guarantees to the public and to policymakers that those who survive are fit to teach.

One view (but not the only view) embedded in recent reports on education is that teaching should be professionalized in order to allay the mistrust of public schooling. Professionalizing teaching, in the first instance, would mean reform of the education and certification process. A prospective teacher would have to acquire and demonstrate the capacity to teach prior to full membership in the profession. This reform would follow the path taken by a number of occupations that we now call professions: medicine, law, architecture, engineering, accounting.

Happily, a consensus about the education and certification practices implied by professionalization has begun to develop. The first new practice would end undergraduate teacher education, and instead require every prospective teacher to first have a liberal-arts degree. The second would place teacher education at the graduate level and would be a one-year program during which the candidate would be expected to acquire the professional and pedagogical knowledge base. The third would create a supervised internship so that the novice teacher would learn how to turn theory into practice and how to perform those aspects of the job that cannot be taught in the professional-school classroom.

To bring about the standards implicit in the new preparation program, a new certification system would need to be developed. At appropriate stages, prospective teachers would be tested for subject-matter knowledge, professional and pedagogical knowledge, and performance. While some believe that existing tests are adequate, others believe that new tests are necessary. But who will control test development and administration?

In the last few months, a great deal of attention has focused on the Carnegie report’s proposal to create a national board for professional teaching standards. A national board (which would ultimately be run by teachers) has been presented as creating a set of voluntary standards to which experienced teachers would aspire, rather than a set of standards for entry to teaching. Yet, the critical need is for the establishment and maintenance of standards for entry.

For a national board to have a real effect, its standards must influence those employed by states to oversee the licensing of teachers. Curiously, state policymakers in their zeal to embrace such a board have overlooked the state’s central role in licensure. The oversight is all the more surprising because, in all professions, standards promulgated by national boards take effect only as they are implemented by state bodies.

Currently, in nearly all states, standards for entry to teaching are controlled by state boards of education. In this respect, the licensing of teachers is different from licensing in the professions (and in many occupations). And herein lies the critical difference.

In professions, the members, under a grant of authority from the state and in concert with national nongovernmental bodies, establish and maintain standards for entry. The members have every incentive to maintain their standards. They know that the overall reputation of their profession is at stake.

In teaching, control of entry rests with an agency of state government. And experience has shown that these agencies have been responsive to political pressures. In times of teacher surplus, they have sometimes joined in raising standards. In times of shortage, they have succumbed to pressures to ease entry.

The states--including departments of education, legislatures, school boards, and school administrators--have an overriding political need to have a teacher in every classroom every year, whatever the quality of that person. Political pressures will mount as projected teacher shortages arrive. States will relax standards to whatever level is necessary to ensure a “teacher” in every classroom. But the consequences of this are already clear, because it occurred in the 50’s and the 60’s. The result was that policymakers in the 70’s and 80’s bemoaned the fact that schools were staffed by some teachers who were plainly incompetent.

It turns out that the only people we can rely on to watch over the quality of members of a profession are the members themselves. The regulation of a profession by itself achieves results for society that cannot be achieved in any other way. It is true that giving a profession control over entry to its ranks can result in a premium wage being paid, especially in times of growing shortage. However, the premium wage has social utility. It induces supply of sufficient quality to maintain standards.

In short, for policymakers and the public to be able to trust individual teachers, they must trust teachers collectively to control access to teaching. Individual states should follow their own well-established practices for professions. Each state should create a board for professional teaching standards, and these boards should have the power to establish and enforce standards for entry.

It is paradoxical. If the state retains control because it is afraid to trust teachers, the standards will fall. IT the state trusts teachers and delegates control, the standards will rise. At least, that is the lesson of those occupations that the state has allowed to become professions.

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