Reforming Certification

As with teacher compensation reforms, lowering barriers to entry into the teacher labor market for intelligent and motivated career-changers and undergraduates considering multiple careers has great potential to impact teacher quality in Michigan. Certification is perhaps the most significant barrier to entry into the teaching profession. As noted in Part III, where certification requirements are described in more detail, the current traditional certification system in Michigan requires that teachers graduate from an approved teacher preparation program and pass at least two licensure tests. The state-approved teacher preparation programs determine the coursework requirements in both content areas and teaching skills. Research on the degree to which teacher certification impacts classroom performance (also presented in Part III) indicates that alternatively certified teachers and even intelligent uncertified teachers perform at least no worse than their traditionally certified counterparts. State policymakers should therefore consider reforms to traditional teacher certification to increase the pool of talented people willing to enter the profession.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that states certify teachers. NCLB does not, however, specify precisely what teacher certification must require. Thus, even under NCLB, states have discretion about how they will certify teachers.

Four main approaches to teacher certification are conceivable: first, the state could decide to give local districts or schools the discretion to certify teachers at the local level; second, the state could require teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities to change their coursework requirements to make teaching programs more attractive to undergraduate majors in other fields; third, the state could drop the coursework requirements altogether and simply require the passing of a content knowledge or other licensure test; or fourth, the state could make alternative certification programs more attractive and navigable for teachers seeking nontraditional licensure. The first option is ideal because it would give local schools greater autonomy, but the current emphasis on mandatory licensing requirements makes this approach unlikely in the near-term. The second option, though worth exploring, is outside the scope of this book, which emphasizes possible changes within the school system, rather than reforms to university curricula. This leaves the third and fourth options: reforms to teacher testing and alternative certification.

A 2005 annual report on teacher quality from the U.S. Department of Education revealed that in the prior year roughly 35,000 people nationwide received alternative certification, while 170,000 graduated from traditional certification programs.[184] In contrast, Michigan reported zero teachers entering the teaching ranks through alternative methods in 2002 and 2003, with only seven entering in 2004. Over the same three-year period, roughly 1,600 teaching candidates in Alabama, 8,600 teaching candidates in California and 5,000 teaching candidates in Massachusetts received alternative certification.[185] According to the USDOE’s 2006 annual teacher quality report, the number of new teachers entering the teaching profession through alternative programs "jumped by more than 15 percent from the previous year, and 47 states now have alternative route programs."[186] The 2006 report showed that in Michigan in the 2003-2004 school year, less than 1 percent of the 8,350 individuals completing teacher preparation programs arrived through alternative routes, versus 22 percent in California, 42 percent in New York and 4 percent in Ohio.[187]

An analysis by Jess Castle and Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality may indicate why Michigan does not have high-performing career-changers and undergraduates entering teaching through alternative routes.[188] Castle and Jacobs report that Michigan’s alternative programs — the "Section 1233b Permit" and "Limited License to Instruct (LLI)" — are not "genuine."[189] The NCTQ argues that genuine alternative certification programs have high admission standards regarding academic ability, but allow reasonably quick certification, without the completion of excessive coursework. In other words, for alternative routes to be worthwhile, there should be a combination of high academic standards for participants, but low requirements for program completion — not the other way around.

Michigan’s traditional certification requirements and ineffective alternative certification programs create excessive barriers to entry into the profession. Michigan policymakers at the state level should reform this process by modeling alternative certification routes on the successful programs in other states. Given that NCLB requires that states certify teachers as a part of its "Highly Qualified" teacher provision, it is not realistic to advocate doing away with certification altogether, but certainly Michigan policymakers can make entry into the profession through alternative means a more navigable and attractive process.

Although the teacher labor market is not growing in Michigan as it is in states experiencing major population growth, every year there are numerous teaching vacancies in Michigan’s public schools due to retirements and teachers making other career choices. New alternative certification routes would give schools a greater chance of filling these positions, a policy that could help schools in Michigan’s large urban centers. State policymakers should study other states that have had success in attracting highly intelligent and motivated new teachers through creative alternative certification programs.

One such alternative certification program is the New York City Teaching Fellows program. Research has shown that this program produces effective teachers (see Part III). To apply for this program, candidates must have earned a bachelor’s degree with a grade point average of at least 3.0. Before entering the classroom, the "teaching fellows" must pass the state’s basic skills and relevant content-area licensure tests. Participants in this program are then given provisional certificates and participate in intensive preservice teacher training. They also enroll in a master’s degree program that will allow them to earn full certification upon completion of three successful years of teaching in the district.[190] The program began in 2000, and it has drawn a large number of applicants since its inception. In its inaugural year, 2,100 applications were submitted for the 325 available slots.[191] For the 2007 program, less than 20 percent of applicants were accepted for the 2,000 slots that are now available annually. Currently, about 8,000 of the city’s 78,000 teachers have been a part of the NYCTF program.[192] Fellows earn the same salary as other starting teachers, but they receive a stipend during preservice training and tuition reduction for their master’s programs.

Teach for America is another alternative route to the classroom. As noted in Part III, TFA is a private program that works with uncertified, academically able recent college graduates. These participants receive some teacher training before being placed as teachers for two years in economically disadvantaged schools. Although there is some conflicting evidence on the effectiveness of TFA teachers, the highest-quality studies suggest that TFA teachers can be more effective than other uncertified and even traditionally certified teachers in raising math achievement, and that they are about the same as other teachers in raising reading achievement.

The TFA program began in 1990 by placing 500 teachers in public schools serving disadvantaged student populations, and Detroit Public Schools began to accept TFA teachers in 2002.[193] Citing the need to lay off a considerable number of teachers at the end of 2004 because of financial problems, DPS discontinued its relationship with TFA. The district had employed as many as 34 TFA teachers.[194]

Currently, there are more than 5,000 TFA members serving in 26 different geographical areas nationwide.[195] Given that TFA teachers tend to be reasonably effective in raising student achievement, it seems unfortunate that the program was ended in Detroit. Michigan districts seeking to fill teaching vacancies should consider establishing a working relationship with the program.

On another tack, state policymakers should review the teacher testing component of certification, since a small reform of teacher licensure testing might improve the existing certification system. As discussed in Part III, teacher testing may be a worthwhile mechanism to establish minimum standards for teacher quality. Despite some research that suggests that teachers who perform better on the current licensure tests tend to have higher-performing students, Michigan policymakers should not rush to impose higher cut points or to make tests harder in an effort to raise teacher quality. In addition to the concerns about unintended consequences raised in Part III, the University of Arkansas’ Sandra Stotsky explains that the issues involved in using teacher tests in this way may be complicated. In a recent paper reviewing the research literature about teacher licensure tests and mathematics teachers, Stotsky found that many decisions must be made before licensure tests for mathematics teachers can be designed for the purpose of raising teacher quality. According to Stotsky, these decisions involve determinations regarding "1) the mathematics needed for teaching mathematics at different educational levels, 2) the range of mathematical competence among the students who might be in a typical elementary, middle, or high school classroom, and 3) the demands of the mathematics textbooks and other curriculum materials that teachers may be required to use, especially in the elementary and middle school."[196] Stotsky added, "Some of the details can be informed by research; others require professional judgment."[197]

Thus, the substantive teacher testing reform policymakers should explore is asking applicants to provide their test scores when applying for a teaching position. This data could inform a principal’s hiring decisions and help local schools to make decisions about appropriate cut score levels. Policymakers need to address with teacher unions how these scores can be made available to principals. In principle, local schools and districts should be provided the maximum discretion to make hiring decisions.

State policymakers should be wary of calls to adopt licensure tests of applicants’ knowledge of pedagogy. A number of other states require such tests,[198] and the National Council on Teacher Quality recommends them.[199] But the NCTQ reports that the Michigan Department of Education doubts the validity of this testing, and the department is right to do so. At present, there does not appear to be any compelling evidence that teachers who pass tests of pedagogy as a part of traditional certification programs are more effective in the classroom. Absent such evidence, there seems little reason to add yet another barrier to entry into the teaching profession.

Other reforms are more promising. The American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., was started in 2001 with a federal grant.[200] ABCTE’s primary purpose is to serve as an alternative certification program that uses passage of a teaching skills test and a content knowledge test to help career-changers transition to the classroom. Currently, seven states, not including Michigan, allow ABCTE certification to count as state certification and to qualify teachers as "Highly Qualified" under the No Child Left Behind Act.[201] ABCTE certifies teachers in 11 subject areas, and the process, which must be completed within one year, generally takes six to 10 months.[202] In addition to passing the two tests, participants in the ABCTE program must hold a bachelor’s degree from an approved university and pass a background check.

According to a preliminary report on ABCTE conducted by Steven Glazerman and Christina Tuttle of Mathematica Policy Research Inc., participants pay $500 for the program, and they complete a study program to prepare for the two certification exams.[203] From the program’s initiation until November 2005, slightly more than 1,000 participants had registered for the ABCTE program, and 109 had successfully completed it. Of that number, 56 had begun teaching full time in American schools.[*] Most of these were located in Idaho, Pennsylvania and Florida. In a follow-up study, Glazerman and colleagues report that principal surveys of ABCTE teachers yielded generally positive results.[204] With these results in mind, Michigan policymakers should explore a relationship with ABCTE as a way to attract and certify high-quality career-changers into the classroom.

[*] Steven Glazerman and Christina Tuttle, “An Evaluation of American Board Teacher Certification: Progress and Plans” (Mathematica Policy Research Inc., 2006), 0000019b/80/28/09/9c.pdf (accessed May 21, 2008). Glazerman and Tuttle report: “The remaining 38 percent of Passport holders are not teaching in a full-time capacity, for a variety of reasons: 10 percent are working in an education-related field but are not in the classroom, and 6 percent are substitute teaching. The majority of the non-teachers indicated some desire to be teaching — 10 percent indicated that they could not find a position; of these, over half specified that it was because the hiring authority would not accept the American Board certification (either the state, locality, or school would not accept it, or they required additional credentials)” (Page 7).