The long-simmering debate over what makes a good teacher nearly boiled over last week, as a Baltimore-based philanthropy released a highly critical review questioning the research basis for state teacher-licensing rules.
In a 73-page report, “Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling for Quality,” the Abell Foundation says there’s scant evidence that students benefit when teacher-candidates are required to complete coursework in education. Adding that what studies do exist often are biased or flawed, it argues that deregulating the licensing process would open the field to more qualified people.
“It’s just a factual question,” the foundation’s president, Robert C. Embry, said in an interview. “Is there evidence to support certification? And as far as we can determine, there isn’t.”
With many education groups, the document struck either a nerve or a chord depending on their views on teacher preparation. In lengthy responses that were quickly posted on the Internet, the report was alternately hailed as an honest accounting and accused of committing the very shortcomings it claims to reveal.
The National Urban League and the National Association of Secondary School Principals issued statements defending state-licensure rules. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University whose writings were criticized extensively by the Abell report, drafted a 50-page rebuttal accusing the foundation of misrepresenting her work and that of other academics.
“It’s obviously a report that has an ideological agenda rather than a research agenda,” said Ms. Darling-Hammond, who heads the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, which strongly favors state licensure. “The implication here is that we should eliminate certification, which is the one lever that we have to say that teachers will know certain things before they go into the classroom.”
Meanwhile, a response to both the Abell report and Ms. Darling-Hammond’s rebuttal was being prepared late last week by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based organization critical of traditional teacher-licensing requirements.
The Abell Foundation has supported efforts to bring more nontraditional teaching recruits to the 100,000- student Baltimore district through such initiatives as Teach For America, the private program that recruits recent graduates of selective colleges to work in needy urban and rural schools for at least two years.
But those attempts often have been stymied, foundation officials said, by rules mandating that the novice teachers complete a specific number of education courses.
“We finally said to the state, ‘If certification is so important, on what research is this based?’” said Kate Walsh, Abell’s senior policy analyst and the author of the report.
The inquiry began a yearlong project examining research on teacher quality. Ms. Walsh says she found serious problems in studies that appeared to support traditional modes of teacher preparation. Some failed to use large enough sample sizes, others were never published in peer-reviewed journals, and many didn’t sift out the influence of various factors that could influence student achievement
“I was incredulous at some of the practices by education researchers, who would set out to prove that certification had value,” she said.
Her report adds, however, that there is credible research pointing to a link between teachers’ verbal skills and their students’ academic success. It recommends scrapping current licensing requirements in favor of a system based on vocabulary tests for potential teachers. It also says principals should be given greater authority to hire and fire their schools’ staffs.
The proposals come at a time of heightened interest in alternative forms of teacher recruitment and credentialing. The National Council on Teacher Quality has secured a federal grant to launch a process to identify outstanding veteran and new teachers based on standardized tests and on the academic gains made by their students.
The U.S. Department of Education this month also announced it has awarded $31 million in grants to help districts in recruiting nontraditional teacher-candidates for their schools.