Tear Down This Wall: The Case for a Radical Overhaul of Teacher Certification

Frederick M. Hess, Progressive Policy Institute, November 2001

America needs more and better teachers and many education reformers are concerned that our existing system of teacher certification is contributing to the problem. How?  By forcing aspiring teachers to jump through hoops and hurdles that take time and money but do little to ensure that those who make it through are qualified to teach. In this paper, released a few days ago by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), U. Va. Professor Rick Hess argues that teacher certification is flawed but that so are the remedies proposed by most reformers: either making certification tougher or abolishing certification altogether.  Hess begins by rebutting three assumptions that are made by supporters of the existing approach to certification: that the training one receives while getting certified is so important that uncertified people cannot perform adequately, that certification weeds out unsuitable candidates, and that the existence of certification makes teaching more "professional."  He argues that certification cannot be justified unless there are clear standards by which teachers can demonstrate their competence, but notes that this is not true of education today. Instead, Hess proposes what he calls a competitive model of teacher certification, in which teaching candidates who have a college degree, and who can pass a test of subject knowledge and a criminal background check should be allowed to teach and all other regulations limiting entry into the profession are jettisoned. Unlike some who have argued for ending teacher certification, Hess maintains that we need to recognize that most of these would-be teachers still need training and preparation, both in the beginning and throughout their careers. Instead of creating one-size-fits-all regulatory barriers, Hess argues for giving districts and schools more flexibility to make their own arrangements to ensure that new teachers are appropriately prepared, inducted, and supervised. To those who say that schools and districts will inevitably under-invest in new teacher preparation and induction, Hess proposes state and/or federal funding of teacher development and professional induction. Under this system, ed schools would still exist, but their offerings would no longer be regulated by state law; since matriculation in the programs will be optional for prospective teachers, the folks who run teacher preparation programs will do their best to ensure that they add value to teaching candidates. Once they begin teaching, new teachers will experience training that is tailored to their needs in a particular district or school. By bringing teacher training back into the picture - but not necessarily entrusting it to the usual places that claim to do it - this paper makes an important contribution to the debate over how best to ensure the quality of our nation's teaching force. Copies are available on the Progressive Policy Institute website (www.ppionline.org) or by calling PPI at 202-547-0001.

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