With few exceptions, anyone teaching in a public school must be licensed by the state in which they are providing instruction. Typically, teachers obtain such a license by completing a state-approved teacher-education program at a college or university within the state. While the certification process helps to ensure that prospective teachers have completed a certain course of study, it does not guarantee that an individual is fit to teach.

The true test of teacher competence should be teacher performance, not teacher licensing. Private practice, using the contract arrangement, can help ensure that teachers are accountable for their performance.

It does, however, serve as an effective barrier to entry for many talented adults interested in teaching. For the most part, individuals lacking certification, such as accountants, scientists, engineers, or nurses who have accumulated a lifetime of experience, are not qualified to teach under the various state regulations that govern our public schools. (They may, however, teach in private schools, which do not necessarily require certification as a prerequisite for employment). Moreover, unless a state has a reciprocity agreement with other states, certification requirements also keep able teachers from teaching in a state other than the one in which they earned their certification.

Alternative certification can enhance education opportunities for students by encouraging other professionals to enter into teaching. Some educators in private practice may benefit from alternative-certification programs. In their "true" form, these alternative-certification programs can significantly reduce the time and investment required to obtain a teacher license. A study titled Alternative Teacher Certification: A State-by-State Analysis 1993-94 reports that just 14 states have "true" alternative-certification programs.21 Programs meeting that criteria involve formal instruction and mentoring while teaching. An additional seven states have similar programs, but they are applicable only in cases of teacher shortages.

Alternative-certification programs do not go far enough in opening up the field of education to different service providers, or recruiting good teachers, however. Certification, in any of its forms, does not test that the teacher is fit for the job. But it does keep many educators out of the public-school job market. State-policy makers wanting to increase the pool of potential educators--and trying to invite new talent into the public schools--should make certification waivers available to otherwise qualified teachers.

The true test of teacher competence should be teacher performance, not teacher licensing. Private practice, using the contract arrangement, can help ensure that teachers are accountable for their performance. A contract with a private-practice teacher is an agreement for the provision of a service, and not a guarantee of employment. It is also usually for a limited time period. Because of these differences in the relationship between the school and the teacher, those private-practice educators who do not perform satisfactorily will have their contracts canceled or find that they are not renewed at the close of the term. Conversely, those teachers with very good performance records will likely see their contracts renewed and may even generate new business as a result of their good record.

Certification requirements have other adverse consequences, as well. In some cases, they can penalize students or increase school costs. For example, Berlitz Jr. provides foreign-language instruction to public schools in ten states. Even though Berlitz teachers may be very good at what they do, because most of them are not certified, high-school students learning a foreign language from a Berlitz Jr. teacher cannot earn credit for their coursework toward graduation. In some cases, high schools have had certified teachers--who serve no direct instructional purpose--sit in on the Berlitz Jr. classes solely for the purpose of assuring credit. Such a duplication of staff needlessly drives up the cost of public education.