Time to Take Another Look at Teacher Certification

Is Michigan’s education bureaucracy standing in the schoolhouse door to keep out qualified teachers? When Marc Robinson retired from a 15-year career in the Air Force, he wanted to teach in Detroit’s public schools. He had been an instructor and trainer in the military, and his many years overseas included serving as a senior executive NATO officer in Belgium. He had moved back to his hometown of Dearborn after leaving the Air Force and started looking for a teaching job.

Instead, Robinson found that the education bureaucracy was too much of an impediment. Robinson called the Detroit Public Schools Human Resources department several times without being able to talk to an official. He finally drove downtown in person. “We waited for 2 hours once and 3 hours on a second visit to talk to someone, while the ‘Customer Service’ people at the desk largely ignored us,” he said.

When he finally talked to someone, the official would not give him an application for teaching until he showed evidence that he was a certified teacher. “I showed them a document about LLI (Limited License to Instruct program — an alternative teacher certification program), and none of them had ever heard of it. I tried to track it down through Wayne State University, but was told the funding was pulled because the teachers unions didn’t want the program.”

Once Robinson got an application and completed the requirements, he found that getting into the system was nearly impossible. “I was told that I could not be hired because my degree is from outside of the state, because I have no union affiliation, or because it would be ‘too difficult to confirm my credentials.’ These were different ‘reasons’ on different occasions,” related Robinson. Ironically, a Detroit News column about Robinson prompted serious interest from officials in other school districts, but no call from the Detroit Public Schools.

Robinson is presently working with Cappella University, an online school through which he earned his master’s degree in education, to develop a new master’s program for people like himself who want to teach. He has since moved to Minnesota. Meanwhile, Detroit has lost the prospect of hiring a valuable new teacher.

Gov. Granholm has recently proposed improving Michigan’s current crop of teachers by focusing teacher training solely on meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards required by the No Child Left Behind Act.

While this is a good step, Granholm’s plan should also focus on attracting highly qualified new teachers as well. Along with meeting AYP requirements, the No Child Left Behind Act also calls for having a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by 2006.

A recent study by the Teaching Commission, a 19-member panel of business, education and union leaders set up to make recommendations on teacher improvement, identifies the problem. The Commission’s report, entitled “Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action,” focuses on the problems created by teacher certification rules and by teacher pay having no relation to performance.

The report states that too many students are taught by teachers who don’t have a major or minor in the subject they are teaching, or by teachers who have not demonstrated sufficient knowledge in their subject areas. Moreover, the best teachers are paid the same as the worst. “A system that does not reward excellence cannot inspire it,” the report states.

Most studies have detected no correlation between student performance and being taught by a certified teacher. Yet school districts typically require teachers to finish an accredited teacher certification program involving costly and lengthy courses on teaching theory. This system precludes retired military personnel, corporate leaders or anyone with expertise outside of the education field who would bring real-world experience into the classroom.

Conversely, the nation’s top universities often hire ex-legislators to teach government and politics. But in Michigan today, Gov. Granholm would be barred from teaching 8th grade civics in the state’s public schools.

What does such a system produce? In 2000, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy published a study, entitled “The Cost of Remedial Education,” showing that more than a third of Michigan students leave high school without learning basic academic skills. The study estimates that Michigan businesses and institutions of higher education spend over $600 million annually to teach employees skills they should have learned in high school.

Many states have successfully implemented alternative certification programs that have proved highly popular. Gov. Granholm should take the lead in Michigan and support programs like the Limited License to Instruct program, which could allow innovative and motivated teachers into Michigan classrooms.

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Jon Perdue is education policy research associate with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.


Many highly qualified individuals with real life working world experience are denied access to Michigan’s public school classrooms by the state’s teacher certification requirements.

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