Teacher qualifications: Raise the bar, remove the bar

New K-5 teachers are underprepared for the job. There are exceptions, of course, but most programs leading to teacher certification/licensure are grossly inadequate. There’s a deeply entrenched belief that how to teach can’t be taught, and so it isn’t. Teachers are left to learn on the job, which isn’t optimal for them or for their students. I document this in detail my book (LATSS).  See also Dana Goldstein’s book “The Teacher Wars”.

In the case of reading, for example, teachers aren’t exposed to basic information about how reading relates to speech; linguistic concepts such as phoneme, morpheme, dialect; facts about the bases of reading skill and the causes of reading impairments; relations between implicit learning and explicit instruction; and much else.  Schools of education have constructed elaborate rationalizations for why this science is irrelevant (see LATSS, chapter 11).

One response to inadequacies in teacher education is to raise the bar for certification (licensure). Massachusetts led the way with the introduction of the MTEL, certification tests in areas such as elementary reading, reading specialist, and many others.  These are good tests that include material that teachers need to know.  If it’s on the test, people will have to learn it, and schools of education will have to teach it–won’t they?

As discussed in the book, the test means that people will need to know the concepts to be allowed to teach, but it doesn’t insure they’ll know why the concepts are important.  I know from local experience that the certification test can be treated as “just politics,” an irrelevant hoop to jump through.  Preparation for the exam is literally “teaching to the test,” a cram course in concepts that can then be forgotten.

Maintaining high standards for entering the profession is important, and such tests are a useful tool, though they would have greater impact if coupled to changes in teacher education.

There’s a deeper problem, however.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-1-51-14-pmSchools need enough teachers to function.  If there aren’t enough people who have passed the test, exceptions will have to be made.  That means routes to certification that bypass the exam.  Charter, parochial, and private schools are also mechanisms for doing this.

Raising the certification bar has little impact if people are allowed to walk around it. That is the history of attempts to improve teacher quality via licensure, from the 1950s to the present (LATSS, 291-293).

Attempts to raise the bar now face an additional challenge: teacher shortages.  Not enough people who want to go into the field; too many people leaving the field. The sociologists can identify the several factors that are responsible, but surely this is one:

Who will want to be a teacher, given what the job has become?  Teachers are demonized as “part time” employees whose pensions are a taxpayer burden.  They’re tossed into a difficult job without adequate training, expected to figure it out on their own.  The pay’s not great, either.

So: raise certification standards via tests like MTEL?  Sure. Some people will benefit and some teacher education program might incorporate the concepts in a serious way.  But the effort is largely wasted if they are easily circumvented–or if demand for teachers outstrips the supply of well-qualified ones.


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