In their Commentary, “Alternative Certification Is An Oxymoron” (Sept. 4, 1991), Arthur E. Wise and Linda Darling-Hammond accurately describe the tragic situation that exists in many of our nation’s urban and rural public schools when they state that students in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods are frequently subjected to a steady stream of substitute teachers alternating with a revolving door of inexperienced, underprepared, unsupported recruits. They go on to argue that the answer is subsidized “high-quality teacher education,” together with revamped certification requirements that set meaningful standards for preparation and use more legitimate and authentic assessments to determine readiness to teach. That would certainly be an improvement over the current system.
I would argue, however, that the real solution is something different. The first step would be to abolish state certification laws altogether. The next would be for every public school district in the nation to make a new commitment to human resources. Districts would launch national recruitment efforts not unlike those conducted by every major firm in corporate America. After screening applicants initially on college campuses, districts would invite certain candidates to interview directly with individual schools, where committees of teachers would recommend candidates and principals would approve them. Schools would not be looking for individuals who could recite the textbook versions of student learning styles and teaching strategies. They would look for dedicated, creative, dynamic individuals-for individuals who had demonstrated in their past a high level of commitment and leadership; for those who demonstrate professionalism, effective communication styles, and an educational approach consisting of high expectations for all students and sensitivity to diversity; and for those with a personality and philosophical approach that would be effective within the particular school.
Those hired would enter a program of training and support which each district would run in conjunction with local universities. All new teachers would receive some form of pre-service training, together with an ongoing component that included extensive support and exposure to the best of current practices and research on student learning and teaching strategies.
New teachers would have an experienced mentor teacher within the school as well as resource people outside of the school who would be able to provide additional support and help both inside and outside the classroom. They would meet with other new teachers in support groups, which would be facilitated by the best experienced teachers in the system. They would attend workshops and university classes--not only in their first two years, but throughout their careers--to keep abreast of the latest research that could make them more effective teachers.
The most significant difference between this proposal and the one offered by Mr. Wise and Ms. Darling-Hammond is that they propose a full-fledged graduate program before entering the classroom. As they suggest, teachers need to acquire knowledge about the learners they will teach, about learning patterns and learning problems, and about a wide array of teaching strategies. Yet most of the teachers I have spoken with tell me that they are best prepared to understand and absorb that knowledge after they have had experience in the classroom. They argue, as I do, that expert teachers are not made in any kind of pre-service program, but rather through experience and ongoing professional development.
The system I propose for teacher recruitment, selection, and professional development is exactly what Teach For America provides for our nation’s most underresourced school districts. We have not eliminated teacher-certification requirements in the states where we operate, but the fact that districts with teacher shortages have opted to waive those requirements enables us to place teachers in them regardless.
Teach For America is by no means a perfect program. We learned a tremendous amount during our first academic year and we will no doubt continue learning and revising our program for years to come. I would guess that by the beginning of our third or fourth operating year, we will have a program that could serve as a model for any coalition of districts and universities contemplating real reform of their human resources system.
Teach For America is one of the alternate routes to teacher certification Mr. Wise and Ms. Darling-Hammond criticize in their essay. That these alternate-route programs vary so widely is one fact that should make us all question the authors’ conclusions and arguments. Whether or not the majority of the programs are effective, it would be premature to discount alternate routes altogether. At the very least, we should make a commitment to conduct a thorough evaluation of the most effective of them.
The Commentary’s assertion that Teach For America sees teaching as an employment program for liberal-arts graduates en route to securing a “real” job leads me to believe that its authors don’t understand the context in which Teach For America was created. In general, the college students who had other career opportunities were not considering teaching--not because they were particularly driven in another specific direction, but simply because they were driven in general and had heard all their lives that teaching is not what you do if you can do anything else. While often uninspired by other more prestigious career options, they would enter two-year training programs in those fields with the thought that they would learn a lot and then move on to something else. As their employers had no doubt intended, they did learn a lot and their interest and career direction were simultaneously shaped. Many would go on to graduate schools and then return to the same field.
Why not channel all that energy into teaching? Sure, the working conditions and the salaries might turn more away from teaching than from other professions. On the other hand, these new teachers might find the rewards and challenges much more compelling than do their counterparts in other fields. Moreover, confident, caring individuals who witness the fact that working conditions and salaries are short-changing our nation’s children could very well decide that they could do nothing more satisfying and important than to join the efforts of those already dedicated to reforming these conditions.
The fact that our nation’s most outstanding college graduates are generally not considering an entire career in teaching cannot dissuade us from doing whatever it takes to interest them in the only field that truly has the potential to shape a better future.
Wendy Kopp is the founder and president of Teach For America, headquartered in New York City.
A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as Replace Certification With Recruitment