Teacher Certification A Mess, Says Report

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Blake Neff Reporter
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American teacher certification is in scandalous condition and in dire need of reform, according to a new report published by the center-left think tank Third Way.

The report takes to task the slapdash nature of teacher certification, comparing it with with the straightforward process lawyers, doctors and other professionals undergo to smoothly progress from college to the working world.

While virtually every attorney in the United States follows the same process of taking the LSAT, attending law school and then passing the bar exam, teachers are certified through a system Third Way describes as a “choose your own adventure book.” Across the 50 states, there are close to 600 different licensing exams, and the material they test can differ dramatically. Twenty-one states don’t require new teachers to pass a pedagogy exam showing they understand the basics of how to teach, and three don’t even require that prospective teachers show proficiency in their supposed subjects.

Not only are licensing exams numerous, but the standards for passing are typically “embarrassingly low.” In a majority of states, Third Way says, testing in the 16th percentile is enough to pass and be certified.

“What parent would (or should) be satisfied with knowing their child’s teacher scored 17th from the bottom out of 100?” ask the authors. “The truth is that if their child earned a similar grade on a test in that teacher’s class, they’d be handed a failing grade.”

Because standards from state to state are so different, it is also much harder for a teacher to go from one state to another than it is for other professionals. Sometimes, Third Way found, even teachers who already have years of experience must start the entire certification process from scratch.

“A doctor in California can perform surgery in Maryland. Why can’t a teacher in Maryland teach algebra in California?” the authors ask.

The solution recommended is relatively straightforward. States should collaborate, Third Way says, to create a basic two-step process across the country. First, teachers should pass a basic test of pedagogical methods and their particular subject, which could be supplemented by certain extra content a state may want, like knowledge of the state’s history or government.

Then, after each teacher has completed a year of teaching, they would earn permanent certification by passing an additional performance assessment that would assess their actual teaching methods using materials such as videotaped class lessons or portfolios of student work.

When a teacher wants to move to a new state, they could rely on a common application for reciprocity rather than the current system, where many teachers have to earn a new certification from scratch even if they have worked for several years already.

If this new common exam is adopted, Third Way says, it should also be substantially harder than current fare. While some might fear a tougher barrier to entry could lead to a teacher shortage, Third Way counters that raising the bar will make teaching a more prestigious profession and thereby attract more college students who currently set their sights on other fields.

Third Way’s call echoes one that has previously been made by teachers themselves. In 2012, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten advocated a “bar exam for teachers” as a way to improve teacher quality without having to gut tenure or other protections teachers currently enjoy.

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Blake Neff