Certified Isn't Always Best

Districts should judge who's qualified to teach

This article originially appeared in the Detroit Free Press on July 06, 2001 at http://www.freep.com/voices/editorials/ebrou6_20010706.htm.

Taking a step to head off an impending teacher shortage crisis, the state House Education Committee recently approved legislation that would allow local school leaders to decide whether a person is qualified to teach.

This shift in certification from the state to local control is based on the recognition that current certification does not necessarily equal qualification. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that certification does not ensure that the most qualified people are teaching in our classrooms.

To understand why changes in how we monitor who enters our public school classrooms are needed, people should consider the facts about certification and qualification.

Although it is implied, certification does not guarantee mastery of a subject. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 36 percent of public school teachers -- 972,000 teachers out of 2.7 million nationwide -- didn't major or minor in the core subjects they teach. Dr. Sam Peavey, professor emeritus of the School of Education at the University of Illinois, is among many experts who argue that "after 50 years of research, we have found no significant correlation between the requirements for teacher certification and the quality of student achievement."

Arizona's experience with local control of determining teacher qualification in charter schools has been effective. Not one of Tempe Preparatory Academy's (TPA's) 14 full-time faculty is state certified, yet each member holds a bachelor's degree. The 10th-grade math teacher has a PhD, as does the 10th- and 11th-grade Humane Letters teacher. However, none of these teachers would be allowed to teach in the traditional public schools.

Students from TPA also scored higher than all public schools in the state except one, a magnet school that is allowed to screen enrollment.

Statistics on homeschooled children further demonstrate the weak relationship between certification and academic success. Students who are educated by parents with teaching certificates score in the 88th percentile on a basic battery of tests, while children with uncertified parents score in the 85th percentile.

Sadly, the fastest and easiest way to teach in the classroom is to be an education major while at college, rather than specialize in a particular academic discipline. Although certification is ensured by this route, quality teaching is not. An October 1996 report from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy revealed that the curricula in our state university education departments are light on meaningful subject matter prospective teachers will eventually have to teach and heavy on politicized material of dubious value.

So why do lawmakers continue to embrace a requirement that is of dubious, if not detrimental, value?

Labor unions such as the Michigan Education Association -- Lansing's most powerful special interest -- will be sure to lobby to preserve the status quo, claiming that certification protects the best interests of children. The union's lobbyists are already scrambling to prevent the reform of state-level teacher certification. But if Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan could convince a school board that he could teach children, who would object to him teaching a high school economics class?

Ultimately, the power to ensure quality in teaching lies with local communities and schools, where on-the-job teacher training similar to an apprenticeship would be more beneficial than any certification requirement. Each principal should be permitted more authority to determine what qualifies a person to teach and, with the assistance of superintendents and school boards, set standards for teachers according to their respective community and school.

Second only to parental involvement, teacher quality dramatically affects student academic success. Michigan's public schools need teachers with a solid knowledge of subject matter, not state approval that does not ensure quality teaching. If we want the best and brightest people teaching our children, then the Legislature should empower local school leaders to determine who is qualified.

MATTHEW J. BROUILLETTE, a former high school history teacher, is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland. (More information on education is available at www.mackinac.org.) Write to him in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.