Teacher Preparation Opinion

Time To Cut the Link Between Teacher Preparation and Certification?

By James W. Fraser — January 31, 2001 12 min read
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Is it time to break the connection between teacher preparation and teacher certification?

To my own surprise, more and more, I find myself asking: Is it time to break the connection between teacher preparation and teacher certification? Is it time for us in the university to give up what has been a monopoly position and walk away from a role we have had for half a century, working as partners with state governments in operating virtually the only route to teacher certification? Is it time for us, instead, to concentrate on offering the best possible programs for future teachers, while leaving it to others, state and local governments and individual schools, to decide who is qualified to be certified and hired?

Such a move would certainly be a major departure from the current state of affairs. It would force us to focus on the “value added” by our programs and convince future students, their tuition-paying parents, and the school districts that do the hiring that the candidates for the profession whom we produce are, in fact, the most qualified in the many complex ways in which really good teachers must qualify for their work.

People have lost confidence in the traditional routes to certification: through an undergraduate or graduate program on a college campus. Many people have not only lost confidence, they are angry at the old system and at those of us who have been part of it.

There are many reasons for the anger and loss of confidence:

  • Without question, there has been a conservative agenda that has denigrated academic learning of any kind and that wants to move the professional preparation of teachers and administrators from the academy to the “real world” of practice in the schools. This was a major part of the Thatcher educational agenda in Britain, and it has come to the United States quickly. Many of us may have our misgivings about such an apprenticeship route. Apprenticeship works well at preparing people for a profession as it is currently practiced. It does not work very well at all in preparing people to be change agents. And if today’s schools need anything, it is some pretty basic rethinking and reconsidering.
  • On the other hand, we in teacher education do not have a stellar record of producing change agents, and we have failed at the task of policing ourselves. There are many wonderful teacher-preparation programs today; many more than there were only a few years ago. Leaders in teacher education have succeeded at raising the academic standards of programs and linking them much more effectively to schools through deeper partnerships, through year-long internships, through the development of a clinical faculty of school-based teacher-educators who are truly part of the teacher-preparation team. But if we are honest, the world of teacher education remains uneven. The teacher-educator who has not been in a school in years; the one who advocates “multiple modes of instruction,” but only lectures in class; the one who is just plain boring: These people are still all too real. And above all, the reality remains, the public—including many of our peers in the schools and in higher education—have lost confidence in us. It is not a confidence to be regained quickly.

How did we get to this sad state? The current university-state partnership in preparing and then certifying teachers is relatively new. For much of the nation’s history, districts often ran their own teacher-preparation programs. After all, in many cases, elementary school teachers were simply the graduates of the local high school. “Normal schools,” which began in the 1830s, were in their early years much closer to being high schools than the equivalent of colleges. Most only expanded their curricula for future teachers to the equivalent of a baccalaureate degree in the early decades of the 20th century.

Many people have lost confidence in the old system and they are angry at those of us who have been part of it.

For all the debates about the virtues and vices of progressive education, prior to World War II the vast majority of Americans attended only elementary school, and they were taught by people who were normal school or high school graduates who had often studied for one or two years at a school of pedagogy. Only in the mid-20th century did the notion that every teacher should have a college degree and some sort of professional preparation even begin to take hold. My home state of Massachusetts, long known as a leader in school reform, began requiring a bachelor’s degree for teachers only in 1954. About the same time, state departments of education began the process of monitoring college-based teacher-preparation programs, using standards that were usually the result of careful negotiations between the state, the representatives of the college, and— in some cases—representatives of teachers and school administrators.

There is no question that these midcentury reforms made a significant difference in the quality of teaching across the country. In many states, the old normal schools were transformed into a state college system after World War II. Opportunities for higher education were widened to many more in these same years. And a good number of these college graduates—especially the female graduates—became teachers. In the l980s, many states raised the standards once again. Especially after the 1986 reports of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and the Holmes Group of education deans, most states abolished the old education majors and required that future teachers combine a rich and full baccalaureate program and significant preparation in pedagogy, either as an undergraduate minor or through a fifth year or other kind of graduate program.

Those who have taught the nation’s children during the last half-century have been the best prepared of any generation of teachers in history. They have had better undergraduate educations, they have learned more of the subject matter that young people need, and they have learned more about the complex process of teaching and learning than any who have come before them. And—properly—we are not satisfied.

The college-based, state-regulated system has been a closed system that was excruciatingly difficult to change. Most school districts assumed that the system worked. Higher education recommended candidates for certification, following state guidelines, and the states certified the graduates of the state-approved college programs. Districts hired the certified teachers. They generally did not hire noncertified teachers. Many assumed that the system worked pretty well. As long as the system worked relatively well, it continued. But when it started to come apart, it had few defenders.

Today, the public has lost confidence that the closed higher education-state education department certification system will produce the best teachers. The loss of confidence has been quick and dramatic. With schools accountable—through high- stakes testing and other standards-based external measures—as never before, more and more people are asking: Do we have the best method for preparing and certifying our teachers? The result, by virtually any measure of public opinion, is a resounding no.

With schools being held accountable through high-stakes testing, more people than ever before are asking: Do we have the best method for preparing our teachers?

In the last few years, several developments have converged to raise the dissatisfaction almost to a fever pitch:

  • Leaders within the teacher education enterprise itself have demanded much better preparation for future teachers. The 1996 report of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future made a series of dramatic recommendations, including a call for states and school districts to “get serious about standards, for both students and teachers,” and for a thorough restructuring of teacher preparation, recruitment, and professional development.
  • At the same time, more and more states adopted various forms of high-stakes testing for students and teachers and were often appalled at the initial results. Newspapers across the country have been filled with horror stories on the very basic kinds of questions that students, and their teachers, could not answer. Deeper analysis has raised questions about the quality of many of these tests, but high-stakes tests are with us to stay. They speak for a public that has lost its faith in the bright assurances of professional educators that teachers were well- prepared and students were learning well.
  • Finally, in the last few years, more and more of the public’s dissatisfaction with schools has come to focus on the programs that prepare the teachers for those schools. If the schools are failing, it is argued, then the reason must be that the teachers are failing. And if the teachers are failing, it must be that the teacher- preparation programs are failing. So the call for alternative routes for certification, the development of more and more ways for schools to bypass traditional certification requirements for teachers, and allowances that all schools have the privilege now accorded to private schools, the freedom to hire the people they consider the best and the brightest, without regard to certification.
  • At the same time, and out of the same frustrations, many states have sought tighter and tighter regulation of the current state-approved college- and university-based teacher-preparation programs. In 1998, Congress joined in this effort with its requirements for tough new reporting measures— the Title II report cards—that every teacher-preparation program in the country will begin filing with the state departments of education this spring.

At the very moment when the authors of the “Teaching for America’s Future” report and many others are calling for new and better teacher-preparation programs, the whole fabric of teacher preparation seems to be coming unraveled. What one group of reformers sought to improve, another and more powerful group of reformers seems about to jettison along with all that preceded it.

What is to be done? If those of us in teacher education are to do anything effective, we need to begin with the recognition that for many in the larger public—the parents of today’s schoolchildren, the taxpayers who pay the bills, and the elected officials who represent them—the current system of teacher preparation and certification is seen as part of the problem and not part of the solution. We may complain that such judgments are unfair. They may be. But we need to address the reality that teacher education has lost its legitimacy.

As someone who has devoted a large part of my professional career to teacher preparation, this situation worries me. I am not a fan of much of the old system. But I am deeply worried that “alternative routes” are generally going to create a generation of teachers who do not have the fundamental skills needed to support student learning. I fear models that reinforce the status quo in our schools, and for me, the status quo in American education is unacceptable. Too many kids are left out, too many are marginalized, too many are taught that their failures are their own fault, and are then excluded from the benefits of today’s economy and from participation in tomorrow’s democracy. So, what is to be done?

Let the districts hire whom they will. Our job as educators is to provide programs of such caliber that they will want to hire our college graduates.

Perhaps the time has come for those of us in higher education to simply step out of the teacher-certification business. And for government to step out of regulating teacher-preparation programs.

Let the schools and school districts hire whom they will, certify whom they will. Our role as teacher- educators will be to provide programs with such clear and obvious value added that the districts will hire our graduates in preference to other candidates. If we are really doing a good job, our graduates will obviously be the best teachers. If we are not, then we will have only ourselves to blame. In return for freedom from state regulation of our curriculum—a regulation that we have too often hidden behind as an excuse for our own inaction—let us design the programs that we believe will truly prepare the best teachers, and then let them get the best teaching jobs on their merits and on the reputation of our programs.

If we give up the closed system that has protected us in the past, a closed system that is gone whether we like it or not, we should be given a much greater level of freedom to design the kinds of programs that we believe will truly prepare the best teachers for our nation’s schools. If the state no longer certifies some individuals because they are our graduates, then the state also must give up any claim to regulate our curriculum. Let us clearly separate the two functions. We would not offer any courses “because the state mandated them.” We would be free to design the best curriculum we could imagine, to seek accreditation or not, as it served the education of our students and—more important—their students. Let higher education prepare the best possible teachers, according to its own judgments. And let schools hire the best teachers, according to their best judgments. Both, I believe, will thrive on their newfound freedom.

What will such programs look like? It is my guess that the most successful of the unregulated programs would adopt many of the recommendations of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. I cannot imagine quality teacher education that is not based on a rigorous academic curriculum and a series of increasingly complex and extended field experiences. In such programs, students would mix the very best of school-based experiences in teaching with thoughtful and intellectually rigorous reflection on those experiences, along with a high-quality academic experience that is rich in content knowledge at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Those of us who live our professional lives in college- and university-based teacher-preparation programs must face a radically changed and changing reality. We cannot return to the old closed loop of state department- higher education certification and program regulation. It was not that good, and, in any case, it is gone. Our choice is to be defensive and mourn for the lost past or to strike out in a new direction, try something new and adventurous and engaging, for our students and ourselves. Who knows, it might even be more intellectually and professionally rewarding for us. And—what really matters—it might begin to prepare a generation of teachers who have the intellectual resources, the professional skills, and the moral courage to design colleagues.

James W. Fraser is a professor of history and education and the dean of the school of education at Northeastern University in Boston.

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2001 edition of Education Week as Time To Cut the Link Between Teacher Preparation and Certification?


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