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Education Opinion

Alternative Answers

January 01, 2001 3 min read

For the past decade or so, the mantra of the school reform movement has been: “All children can learn.” Now, there is another important one: “A qualified teacher in every classroom.”

The new school reform mantra: ‘A qualified teacher in every classroom.’

This is a worthwhile goal but a difficult one to achieve under the best of circumstances. The much-publicized teacher shortage makes it even tougher because principals, superintendents, and state officials tend to adopt the “warm body” solution and do whatever it takes to put a teacher—qualified or not—in every classroom. A majority of urban districts, for example, rely heavily on long-term substitutes and teachers with emergency licenses. (Even these measures don’t always work: Students in a Washington, D.C., technology class once played computer games for several months while waiting for a new teacher.)

The more creative states address the shortage by admitting teachers to the classroom via the side door of alternative-certification programs. More than 40 states now have such an option, and though their requirements vary widely, none demands that candidates have an education degree from a traditional teacher- preparation program.

Advocates for alternative certification insist that an education major in college doesn’t always make for a good teacher.

Advocates for alternative certification insist that an education major in college doesn’t always make for a good teacher. Work experience—as an engineer, for example, or a military officer—may be even more valuable than course work in pedagogy. Recent studies support this argument. The Educational Testing Service found that aspiring teachers who do best on Praxis II, the licensing exam used by many states, attended college full time but didn’t earn degrees in education. More evidence can be found in New York City, where prospective teachers from an alternative-credential program passed a licensure exam at a much higher rate than graduates of the biggest education school in the state.

Many teachers’ unions, education school deans, and reformers see danger in alternative certification. Standards for teacher licensing must be uniformly tough, they contend; alternative certification merely opens up a loophole that ensures that millions of children will be taught by unqualified teachers— especially in urban schools. One recent survey found that 82 percent of big- city districts allow individuals to teach without credentials because certified teachers can’t be found. We would never sanction that in medicine, say the opponents—imagine letting an uncertified surgeon in an operating room—so why do we permit it in education?

If we want a qualified teacher in every classroom, we’re going to have to make radical changes in the way we prepare and treat teachers.

The medical analogy is specious, of course. After four years of undergraduate education, a prospective surgeon faces another three years of medical school, at least a yearlong internship, and several years of supervised clinical residency. A prospective teacher usually begins teaching a few months after receiving a bachelor’s degree.

Still, the teacher-doctor comparison illustrates a key point that’s ignored in the debate over alternative certification. Whatever their route to certification, teachers generally get precious little of the kind of clinical training that doctors and other professionals do. The dirty little secret of higher education is that the undergraduate experience does little to prepare people for specific careers. The typical education major spends only a couple of months in “practice teaching,” where the odds are not especially good that he or she will be supervised by a master teacher. Alternative-certification programs generally don’t offer much practical training either.


Why don’t we demand of aspiring teachers the kind of rigorous education and clinical experience that we demand of other professionals? The answer lies in the fact that we don’t think of teachers as professionals. And we don’t treat them that way. We certainly don’t offer big enough salaries to persuade them to spend several more years in school preparing themselves for the job. Working conditions in the schools can hardly be called professional. Performance has little or no bearing on teachers’ compensation. And most classroom teachers have little influence in the system that employs them.

If we want a qualified teacher in every classroom, we’re going to have to make radical changes in the way we prepare and treat teachers. Failing that, the debate about certification is nothing but empty rhetoric.

—Ronald A. Wolk

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