Will the $80 million teacher training grant go to waste?

Andrew Campanella President, National School Choice Week
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When it comes to training new math and science teachers to prepare the next generation of children for the challenges of the future, will President Obama replicate sound, proven, cost-effective educator certification practices pioneered by education reformers?

That’s the question I asked yesterday, when I learned of President Obama’s newly minted plan to grant $80 million to the U.S. Department of Education for a competition among the states to support innovative teacher preparation programs, with an end goal of recruiting 100,000 new math and science teachers.

The plan is laudable, but it will succeed only if the money goes toward proven programs that attract talented individuals to teaching, individuals with the knowledge and abilities to dramatically increase student learning.

But to execute the plan, the president and his advisers won’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Instead, they should turn south — to Florida.

The Sunshine State was one of the first states to adopt a revolutionary new route to teacher certification that places a premium on a prospective teacher’s level of knowledge in the content they teach, allowing individuals with bachelor’s degrees to bypass arduous, costly and completely unnecessary lower-level pedagogy coursework.

The certification is offered by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), my employer in the early 2000s. Interestingly, ABCTE received start-up funding from the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President George W. Bush.

The ABCTE program combines online coursework in pedagogy with the most rigorous content knowledge test in U.S. history, for each subject. The concept — placing a higher value on content knowledge over the completion of coursework at colleges of education — was controversial, but the results have stunned even the biggest critics.

Former chief financial officers sought to become teachers, as did rocket scientists (literally), physicians, attorneys, authors — and they were passionate about entering the classroom and helping children achieve.

The only barrier that prevented these talented prospective educators from entering the classroom in the past, before ABCTE, was the traditional model of certifying teachers — which essentially required people to get another bachelor’s degree in “how to teach.”

Now, six years after I left ABCTE, a new report from Georgia State University, released in December, is proving that the program is just as effective as originally advertised.

According to the report, teachers certified by ABCTE “attract individuals with greater intellectual ability [which] trumps any human capital enhancement that may accrue from coursework in education.”

What does that mean? For one thing, it means that ABCTE recruits teachers with SAT scores that are 150 points higher, on average, than teachers who enter the profession by traditional means.

In science, ABCTE teachers’ experience and expertise was unparalleled: the ABCTE teachers reported taking four times more college-level coursework in science than their traditionally certified science-teacher peers.

And in math, ABCTE teachers educate students at a dramatically higher level than other teachers. According to the report: “Across a variety of model specifications and test metrics ABCTE teachers outperform their traditionally prepared colleagues by a wide margin — six to eleven percent of a standard deviation.” To put those gains in context: From 1971 to today, American 17-year-olds’ average proficiency in math only increased by one half of one percent.

In addition to producing significant student learning gains, ABCTE is financially advantageous. The certification program costs $2,000, a tiny fraction of the cost of a traditional education degree.

With $80 million and a smart investment strategy, President Obama can get nearly halfway toward his goal of recruiting and certifying 100,000 new math and science teachers. But if he follows the advice of education unions — ignoring innovative strategies, declining to support merit pay, pouring money into “professional development” and enriching traditional colleges of education that too often wallow in mediocrity — his program will be just another $80 million in wasted taxpayer dollars.

Andrew Campanella is the author of four consecutive editions of the “School Choice Yearbook” and has served as senior adviser to the Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children. He is the vice president of public affairs for National School Choice Week.