Education Opinion

To Innovate, First Deregulate

By Willis D. Hawley — February 12, 1986 10 min read

There are many villains in the morality plays written by contemporary educational reformers, but among those most often given center stage are teacher-preparation programs. The critics--who include no small number of teachers and teacher educators--assert that there are too many programs, too few education professors with scholarly backgrounds or interests, too many requirements, too few courses that are intellectually rigorous, and too much tolerance for mediocrity. At best. However inaccurate these criticisms may be in particular situations, one thing is certain: There are few defenders of the status quo.

Much of the would-be reform of teacher education seeks to specify what must be learned by teachers, by establishing admissions standards, tests, and curriculum, certification, and accreditation requirements. The premise is that if we keep the people who cannot surmount these hurdles out of classrooms, we will improve the quality of the teaching corps.

This essentially regulatory path is not only unpromising, but likely to be counterproductive. Those who seek to regulate our way to better teacher preparation want to define the processes by which one can become a teacher--even though we do not know the relationship between effective teaching and preservice teacher-preparation programs. While existing research shows that formal teacher preparation improves teaching, little is known about how variations in the ways we educate teachers affect their performance.

If one does not know with much certainty how to build a machine that will produce the product one wants, one experiments with different modes of production, assesses the outcomes, and further refines the processes. Moreover, when it is not altogether clear what product the consumers want and need, the rational planner encourages competition among producers and lets the definition of quality derive, at least in part, from market choices. One cannot, of course, allow consumers to be injured by faulty choices when the stakes are high, and one wants to ensure that purchasing power and information are equally distributed when certain public goods are involved. Keeping this caution in mind, the lesson of the analogy is that rather than legislate specific processes by which one can become a teacher, we should encourage experimentation with different approaches, evaluate how variations in programs affect teacher effectiveness, and observe how the market for high-quality teaching responds to different models.

Among the primary obstacles to innovation and experimentation in teacher education are the laws and requirements on teacher certification and program approval that are found in most states. Indeed, the purpose of these requirements is to standardize teacher-preparation practices within states. Many certification requirements, however, have no demonstrable relationship to teaching effectiveness. The enormous variations among states is prima facie evidence of the absence of a link between teacher-certification standards and processes on the one hand and a scientific understanding of the sources of good education on the other.

Most specific certification and program-approval requirements are the handiwork of zealous legislators and professional or political interest groups, rather than the product of research--or even of expert consensus--about teacher effectiveness. In Tennessee, for example, elementary-school teachers must have 10 credits in health and physical-education, but there is no requirement that teachers understand cognitive psychology. Few states are without such horror stories.

What if we were to allow only those requirements that could be shown to foster student learning? The question is not even asked. In many states, certification requirements, especially for elementary-teacher candidates, have become a garbage can of log-rolled political and social values whose main effects are to increase the obstacles to entering the profession and to trivialize the process of teacher preparation in the eyes of those who are not in the business of teacher education.

In addition to certification requirements, and sometimes in lieu of them, many states require that teacher-preparation programs be approved by a state agency in order to keep from the classroom those who are unqualified to teach. But this strategy--despite the fact that it is time-consuming and expensive--provides students little protection and is sometimes counterproductive. Evidence of the effectiveness of program approval is manifest in the current variations--from excellent to shameful--in the quality of state-legitimated teacher-preparation programs. It is difficult to find programs that have been disapproved by their state agencies. Nondiscriminating state-approval processes provide the illusion of quality control and thereby reduce the vigilance of consumers.

The solution to the problems associated with teacher education is not regulatory reform; we need deregulation. Eliminate all state-certification requirements and program-approval procedures that define the content and process of teacher preparation. What would happen? A few state officials would have to be reassigned and a mountain of paperwork would be eliminated. Schools of education would not drop requirements they believed were important or that resulted in teacher competencies desired by school systems. There is no reason to believe that the intellectual quality of teacher candidates would go down. Indeed, the opposite is likely. We might expect deregulation to lead to efforts by teacher-education institutions to tailor their programs to the students most likely to be hired and most likely to enhance the reputation of the institutions themselves. We might see evaluation of teacher performance by the preparation programs in order to help market their students. Who knows?

If the market for teachers functioned so that the best teacher candidates were selected and if the absence of qualified teachers resulted in increased incentives to attract high-quality candidates, we could do without any consumer-protection devices related to teacher preparation and competence. But, alas, school systems do not always hire the most able teachers available nor, faced with shortages in either teacher quantity or quality, are they often willing or able to induce changes in the supply of teachers by adjusting the prices they will pay for the needed talent: And preparation programs too often graduate unqualified candidates.

These realities--which are rooted in a host of explanations, including vague standards, inadequate information about candidates, declining enrollment in teacher education, political and personal favoritism, inadequate resources, recalcitrant taxpayers, and union contracts--argue for the establishment of some mechanisms for determining who is qualified to teach. Assuming that we want to license teachers, as we do most professionals who provide services that directly affect the welfare of those they serve, how should this be done in the absence of government regulation?

Initial licensure should focus on the outcomes or results of teacher preparation, rather than on the processes by which would-be teachers learn to teach, and should have two stages: primary authorization to teach and the attainment of professional status. The preliminary license should be awarded after a prospective teacher has: (a) obtained a baccalaureate degree, (b) passed a test of basic skills (reading, writing, and computation) that should be required of all college graduates, (c) passed a test dealing with the subject matter to be taught (for elementary- and middle- school teachers, this test should cover the core topics embodied in state curriculum guides for the highest level to be taught), and (d) graduated from an accredited teacher-preparation program.

Programs could be accredited in one of two ways: approval by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, or demonstration that 90 percent or .so of the program’s graduates regularly receive favorable ratings on the performance evaluations that would be required for professional status. This second option would discourage NCATE from defining its criteria too narrowly or from excluding, de facto, programs in high-quality liberal-arts colleges. It will be argued that NCATE does not have high enough standards. Perhaps, but states have approved many programs NCATE has not. And NCATE standards are now tougher than ever before.

Testing of prospective teachers is controversial, but the majority of states have already moved in this direction. The tough issue, of course, is where to draw the pass-fail line. States should define their own standards, as they do now, but the temptation to adapt the failure rate to shortages in the supply of qualified teachers--a phenomenon already in evidence--could be countered if a single national or regionwide test of “basic skills” were used for each of the teaching specialties to be licensed.

The second stage of the licensure system I propose would require systematic, valid, and reliable processes for evaluating teacher performance. Such evaluation should focus on teacher behavior that is known to enhance student achievement. While their systems are imperfect, a number of states-including Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee- now have performance-based evaluation. Minimum scores for performance would be established by each state; teachers would receive their professional licenses after two or more years of teaching experience.

This entire licensing process would be more reliable and easier to administer if, as Phillip Schlechty has urged, new teachers were assigned in their first postcollege year to selected “teaching schools,” in which universities and school systems collaborated to provide clinical training. This would also allow a reduction in fieldwork during the preinduction period of teacher preparation. But that is another story.

The outcome-based approach to teacher licensing that is being proposed here does not directly address the problem of continuing teacher shortages in particular areas, such as mathematics and science, that seem related to the inability of school systems to narrow the large salary differences between jobs in education and in business. But by de-emphasizing pre-entry requirements and focusing attention on what prospective teachers know, such a licensing process would encourage the design and implementation of so-called “alternative-entry” programs. And if clinical training for first-year teachers were widely implemented, alternative-entry programs in fields with documented shortages would be relatively easy to develop.

If deregulation is to lead to improvements in teacher education, we must substantially increase the amount and quality of the information available to administrators, teachers, parents, and school boards for use in structuring and informing the selection of new teachers. For instance, states could require teacher-preparation programs to provide, perhaps through the state agency, information on program content and process, as well as on the qualifications of their graduates. A summary of the accreditation report, along with average scores on tests of basic skills and subject-matter knowledge for each preparation program, could then be provided to local school systems.

There are other nonregulatory ways to improve the quality of preparation programs. Federal and state money could be invested in upgrading the skills and knowledge of the education professoriate. Research could be funded that would lead to the identification of more effective ways of training; such information could be disseminated to those who educate the nation’s teachers and to those who hire them.

What will keep us from deregulating? We can expect to hear from those who seek to protect their professional turf and others . who want to define school curricula through teacher certification. But there are more fundamental obstacles to deregulation. One of these is the nation’s pervasive lack of confidence in its teacher educators. An even more basic barrier is the unspoken suspicion that we cannot trust school boards and professional educators to select from among aspiring teachers those who would most benefit children specifically if choosing less qualified people will cut costs.

This last concern is troubling, both because of the cynicism it reflects and the possibility that in some places it is well founded. Practically speaking, however, the approach to licensing teachers proposed here would avoid some of the more incapacitating aspects of state control, while strengthening the ability of both parents and state policymakers to hold educators and school boards responsible. For example, in states that measured beginning-teacher performance, the rate of teacher failure could be the basis for disaccrediting school systems.

Deregulation is not without its risks. But if we want reform, we have to encourage innovation. Regulation presumes that we know the right way to educate teachers who can improve student learning. Let the defense of regulation rest on evidence that it benefits schoolchildren.

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1986 edition of Education Week