Frederick M. Hess, Ph.D.—Tear Down This Wall: The Case for a Radical Overhaul of Teacher Certification
White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers

Our nation's schools are desperate for competent teachers. Why, then, do state licensure systems erect barriers in the path of potential applicants? After all, allowing someone to apply for a job is not a promise of employment; it simply permits an applicant to be hired if deemed superior to the other candidates.

I want to talk today about teacher certification, why it's problematic, and what we can do about it. Typically, such conversations devolve into attacks on teacher education, on the one hand, or calls for more stringent licensure requirements, on the other. However, larger changes create the opportunity to move past this tired dialogue and to embrace a new common sense model of "competitive certification".

The question is not the quality of teacher education. It is whether we ought to bar from teaching those who have not completed an approved program of preparation. After all, while journalism school may develop a graduate's skills, it is not a requirement for seeking work. Rather, we assume that employers factor training into the hiring process, along with considerations like experience, aptitude, diligence, and energy.

Ironically, in addressing such concerns, defenders of licensure hail existing provisions for alternative and emergency certification. However, if licensure actually ensures mastery of essential skills and provided quality control, such measures should be unacceptable. Would we tolerate alternatively licensed heart surgeons? Licensure presumes that all teachers should be certified—it's that premise we will address.

The Logic of Certification

Certification is most effective when licensure ensures mastery of essential skills or knowledge. Licensure does not ensure that doctors, lawyers, or engineers are talented practitioners in the fullest sense, only that they have demonstrated a minimal level of professional knowledge or skill.

In education, to date, despite the best efforts of many groups, we have been unwilling or unable to establish a specific, agreed—upon, measurable body of skills or knowledge that teachers must master.

If standards are unclear, we normally hesitate to prohibit some individuals from practicing a profession. This is not because we think incompetence acceptable, but because outcome measures, employer evaluations, and customer satisfaction are better ways to fully and fairly assess performance and foster innovation.

Even in professions with clear standards, licensure is not imagined to ensure competence in ambiguous, subtle skills like comforting a patient or swaying a jury. The skills that teacher educators deem most important—listening, caring, motivating—are not readily susceptible to standardized quality control.

To make teaching certification more akin to certification in law or medicine, it would be necessary to ensure that aspirants master a core of essential knowledge. The obvious candidate is content knowledge, even as we recognize that such knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient, to be a good teacher—just as knowledge of case law is necessary, but not sufficient, to be a good attorney.

Certification Is Flawed

The bottom line is that our current system of licensure rests on three assumptions, each of which is fundamentally flawed. Certification does not ensure mastery of essential skills or knowledge, does little to weed out unsuitable applicants, and is an unconvincing and ineffective way to bolster popular respect for teachers or teaching.

Not only does licensure not work as intended; it also entails real costs.

The opportunity cost of preparation programs can easily amount to $35,000 or more, significantly reducing the real pay of teachers. In effect, teacher preparation is quietly funded by this massive invisible tariff on aspiring teachers.

Certification dissuades potentially effective teachers. Energetic, talented individuals will have many attractive alternatives and may be the least willing to endure the hoops and hurdles of certification.

Finally, the either/or nature of certification, and the security it conveys, weakens the incentives for either teachers or providers to ensure the quality of professional development.

Is there some way to address these problems, without throwing classrooms open to the dangerous or the incompetent? Happily, there is. In fact, larger trends make this a moment of high promise for reform. Why?

What Has Changed?

For decades, the traditional licensure system made sense. We had a large captive population of teachers, no reliable means of assessing teacher performance, and reason to fear that administrators would make capricious decisions. Matters have changed.

New opportunities for women and minorities mean that we can no longer rely on a steady supply of capable classroom teachers.

Input regulation, while troublesome, was once the only feasible route to control teacher quality. Now we have assessment systems increasingly capable of providing feedback on student learning and outcomes.

Finally, administrators are subject to new forms of outcome accountability that can serve to check indiscretions and provide remedies for cronyism or incompetence.

Competitive Certification

What am I suggesting? I propose a radical overhaul of teacher certification. Barriers to teaching would be reduced to three essential safeguards that all seem to agree are essential and appropriate.

  1. Applicants ought to be subjected to rigorous criminal background checks.
  2. They ought to be required to hold at least a B.A. or B.S. degree from a recognized university or college.
  3. Aspirants ought to be required to pass a test that demonstrates competency of essential knowledge or skills. To the extent that we can agree upon clear, concrete prerequisites that extend beyond content knowledge, we should adopt such examinations. If we have a clear body of research-based knowledge that's essential to effectively teaching early childhood reading, for instance, then let's ensure that aspiring K-3 teachers master that knowledge—and not settle for their having taken a course called "Early Childhood Literacy."

That's it. If you meet these criteria, you may apply to teach.

Does this mean anyone who wishes should be free to walk into a school and teach? No. Being permitted to seek a position does not mean you are entitled to it. In fact, more applicants for a job enhance the talent pool by making employment more competitive.

Under competitive certification, little would change in high-performing districts where administrators have a raft of fully trained candidates. In these districts, local officials will be hesitant to tamper with a formula that is seen as working. It is in troubled districts filled with long-term substitutes and underqualified teachers where new teachers may be a welcome relief to administrators exhausted from scrambling to find certified bodies and hustling to fill classrooms using emergency provisions. While many—or most—new applicants may be deemed unsuitable, I've known few urban or rural principals who would not welcome the chance to choose from their ranks.

Competitive certification gets states out of input compliance, instead holding training programs and teachers accountable for performance. Because teachers—unlike doctors or psychologists—always work for institutions, they will be monitored by managers who are themselves accountable. Quality control will require that these administrators also be given new leeway to remediate or remove—and be held accountable for their actions.

Preparation and Induction

Now, what about teacher preparation and induction? Am I suggesting such efforts ought to be eliminated or scaled back? Absolutely not. In fact, I am suggesting quite the opposite. The current system does not take these concerns seriously enough. Licensure has a plug and play premise—that a "certified" teacher can be plopped into any classroom in the state where they hold certification and be ready to go. It's a ridiculous notion, but because certified teachers are declared "completed" professionals, there's little commitment to providing more relevant induction or ensuring that teachers learn to serve local students.

What happens when a district hires a new teacher who has not studied education or engaged in student teaching? First off, recognize that it currently happens every day. Many urban systems annually hire hundreds of untrained teachers, though in a haphazard fashion and with no meaningful induction. Practice teaching, while generally a good thing, is often a red herring in this discussion. Current student arrangements are uneven, do not ensure mastery of essential skills, and do not keep the ill-prepared out of classrooms. Supervised training can be done more professionally, more flexibly, with more accountability, and without discouraging potential aspirants.

Let's consider another profession, like consulting, that requires a mix of know—how and interpersonal skills. At the best consulting firms, new employees receive a rigorous induction, are expected to take advantage of ongoing development opportunities in accord with their needs, and are mentored while the firm invests in developing their full panoply of skills. Meanwhile, the performance of new employees is continuously monitored and both progress and competence are demanded.

Competitive certification would create new opportunities to enhance the quality and relevance of professional development. Not all districts will take advantage of this—those blessed with an abundant supply of trained teachers might forego the headaches—but the less fortunate are likely to seize the opportunity.

Districts might pay untrained teachers a reduced wage in their first year or two, assign them a reduced course load, provide mentoring and training, and require that they observe colleagues. In fact, this sounds a lot like model professional development. Rather than hoping that teacher preparation is locally appropriate, districts could tailor training to the needs of their students. Districts could contract with the best of the nation's training programs, without regard to state boundaries or regulations. New approaches could create additional rewards for effective teachers, incentives for teacher educators to improve their services and demonstrate their effectiveness, and opportunities for the best preparation programs to serve more teachers in more locales.

How to pay for all this? Primarily by shifting resources and understanding that, long-term, competition is likely to yield substantial efficiencies. Short-term, there will be significant start-up costs. These can be defrayed, in large part, by reducing compensation for starting teachers spared the expenses and opportunity costs of certification. This could be done at no net loss to these teachers. There will also be cause for providing transitional federal, state, and philanthropic support and for redirecting existing support for teacher preparation to districts.

Finally, there are legitimate concerns that districts may underinvest in teacher preparation, given the long-term nature of the benefits and the fact that teachers may move and take their training with them. This is a common challenge in human resources. It argues for new, targeted state and federal support that accounts for local need, including the rate of teacher turnover.

What of Teacher Preparation Programs?

In no sense, then, is "competitive certification" an assault on professional development or schools of education. Business schools do a brisk business, though no one has to attend them, because applicants and employers regard their training as valuable and useful. Similarly, aspiring teachers would continue to attend those training programs that add value or enhance employability.

In fact, leaders of many teacher education programs welcome the envisioned reform. Why? Explains one, "We're constantly worried about state regulations and state requirements. If we weren't in the certification business, we'd be free to design programs as we think best." Programs valued by aspiring teachers or school systems have nothing to lose but their chains.

Faced with the cleansing winds of competition, schools of education will enjoy new opportunities to innovate, pursue research, partner with districts, and train teachers as they deem best. At the same time, they would be accountable for results—not to bureaucrats, but to those who staff and run the public schools.

Such a system would replace a collection of fifty regulated markets with an open market that recognizes the changes wrought by information technology and modern mobility. Aspirants could seek out the most appropriate preparatory programs and school districts the most desirable and appropriate partners. The best programs could expand, launch satellite programs, or provide preparation through district-situated offerings.

We Can Do Better

There are a number of incremental steps that reformers might pursue. These include:

  • Creating "competitive certification" zones in one or more urban districts;
  • Expanding alternative certification programs and making them more accessible;
  • Directing resources to help develop and study appropriate training and induction models, such as is being done through the federal grants for Improving Teacher Quality;
  • Reevaluating and enhancing the content basis of licensure tests;
  • Providing support for efforts to distill a research-based, essentialist pedagogical canon that aspiring teachers ought to master, such as is being done under the Reading First initiative.

Today, while the D.C. public schools are desperate for good teachers, Capitol Hill and local technology firms are filled with thousands of capable, committed young college graduates who would be summarily rejected if they applied for teaching positions. In the 21st century, having finally recognized that accountability and flexibility allow educators to serve children better than bureaucracy and regulation, can't we do better?

Diane Ravitch "" Presentations "" Manuel J. Justiz

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Last Modified: 08/23/2003