Problems with Teacher Certification

Two recent articles are asserting that traditional methods of certifying and selecting teachers do not work well and that alternative methods may help.

The 'Certified' Teacher Myth

Like all unions, teachers unions have a vested interest in restricting the labor supply to reduce job competition. Traditional state certification rules help to limit the supply of "certified" teachers. But a new study suggests that such requirements also hinder student learning.

Harvard researchers Paul Peterson and Daniel Nadler compared states that have genuine alternative certification with those that have it in name only. And they found that between 2003 and 2007 students in states with a real alternative pathway to teaching gained more on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a federal standardized test) than did students in other states.

The authors conclude that strict certification standards hinder teaching competence. It's not clear why doing so would achieve that effect. Yet, as mentioned in What Works in Teaching, one study found that TFA teachers outperformed experienced, certified teachers. And another recent study found a somewhat similar finding: Alternative route teachers who took an intensive course on teaching outperformed experienced, traditionally certified teachers in some subjects (not all), with math again having the greatest differences.

The authors state that those states with genuine alternative certification have more minorities teaching, and assert that minority students benefit from having minority teachers. I'm guessing again, but what would make sense to me is that alternative route teachers have experience in their subject matter that enhances their instruction. Even so, the results of these intensive courses call into question the present methods in schools of education of preparing teachers for the classroom.


Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job?

This article (via Stephen Downes) compares selecting future teachers to predicting who will become a star quarterback in the NFL. With respect to the NFL, prediction has more failures than sucesses. Yet they have easily identifiable criteria for selection, years of statistics to refer to from when the player was in high school, and then in college, and videos of their performance over time on the field. In contrast, for future teachers, the criteria are more vague, there are no years of statistics, and no videos of their performance over time. However, even if there were such evidence, we still wouldn't be able to predict who would be a good teacher any more than they can pick a quarterback:

The problem with picking quarterbacks is that Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros.

Of course, the difference between good teachers and not-so-good teachers has implications for what students learn:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

And certification and degree level doesn't make a difference in teaching quality, either:

A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

That graduate degrees have an effect on teaching ability seems to call into question an earlier post stating that a thorough knowledge of subject matter was one characteristic of outstanding college teachers. But not necessarily. We would need to see what sorts of graduate degrees are being considered, whether there is a difference between a masters degree in education and one in the subject matter. And also how well one did in the graduate level subject matter courses.

From another perspective, I'm reminded of my first year teaching English in Istanbul to students admitted into Marmara University, an English-medium institution. Before they took courses in their majors, they had to take an intense, six-hour-a-day course for eight months to learn English. It's really not possible, but that's what the students had to do. Anyway, I had just finished my master's in Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) (plus I was certified in science and biology at the secondary level) in which I was introduced to a variety of theoretical courses, including a few that covered methods of teaching ESL. But no practice. I found myself flying by the seat of my pants, using very little of my graduate education. Apparently, education separated from contextualized practice is of little help, and soon forgotten.

Actually, it makes quite a bit of sense. Doctors have four years of medical education, and then at least three years of intense internship under the supervision of experienced doctors—specialists considerably more. Would anyone really want to undergo an operation by a doctor who knew the book procedures backwards and forwards but had no experience in surgery? Engineers, after graduating, go into the workplace surrounded by more "practiced" engineers and learn through a combination of doing, observing, collaborating, and being supervised. And so on for other disciplines. But teachers, after their education, which although it includes a semester or two internship, go into the classroom doing alone—generally not observing other teachers or team teaching—and receiving limited supervision.

Learning follows a power-law relationship:
Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets" (pdf) state that there are three learning processes governed by power laws:

1. Power Law of Learning. As a particular skill is practiced there is a gradual and systematic improvement in performance which corresponds to a power law. ...

2. Power Law of Forgetting. As time passes performance degrades, also according to a power function. ...

3. Multiplicative Effect of Practice and Retention. Most important, the Base-Level Equation implies a relationship between the combined variables of amount of practice and duration over which the information must be maintained. ...

This implies performance continuously improves with practice ... and continuously degrades with retention interval .... Most significantly the two factors multiply which means that increasing practice is a way to preserve the knowledge from the ravages of time.

Naturally, learning and practice need to be on target, as Albert Ip comments:

My daughter's swimming coach puts it very well: "Practice makes your stroke permanent. If you practise bad technique, you just become a more efficient bad swimmer with the bad stroke. It is even more difficult to unlearn the bad strokes."

With that caveat in mind, it's obvious that doctors and engineers follow up their book education with considerable practice in the presence of others, observing others, and receiving feedback from supervisors who see their work on a frequent basis. Other factors being equal, their environment supports learning, practice, and retention. Teachers, on the other hand, generally work alone in an environment that doesn't support collaboration, frequent feedback, or observation of others. Even if their education courses were terrific, the Power Law of Forgetting ensures that the content of all but the most recent ones is likely to be forgotten. It certainly was in my case in Turkey. And what if they don't forget, are they implementing it correctly? Or practicing "bad technique"? Without targeted feedback, they may simply become "more efficient bad" teachers.

As opposed to credentials, the most important element in good teaching, according to this article, was feedback:

Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback—a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student—seems to be most closely linked to academic success. ... [Not simply] "Yes-no feedback ... which provides almost no information to the kid in terms of learning."

In quite a few ways, the necessity of feedback, especially immediate feedback, makes sense (although see Harold Jarche's post noting the importance of the when and how of feedback). It's necessary for flow to take place, and it's an important part of developing procedural knowledge (according to ACT-R Theory). However, the ability to give appropriate and immediate feedback in the classroom cannot be measured before one begins to teach—thus, the problem in ascertaining who will be "good" teachers on the basis of credentials. Perhaps what is needed is ongoing professional development that focuses on giving feedback. As Downes comments,

there seems to be nothing that prevents us from either teaching these strategies to new teachers, or evaluating them in teachers put up for tenure.

Perhaps instead of taking two years of education courses, students might replace them with

  • one more year of subject matter courses,
  • a one-year internship in a work environment appropriate to their major, and
  • an intensive summer course right before teaching.

Once teaching, they would receive

  • a year of close mentoring with respect to feedback and other elements in that course, thus contextualizing their education and not letting it be forgotten,
  • professional development that includes ongoing feedback and collaboration throughout the school year, and
  • professoinal internships in their discipline either during the summer or perhaps a semester internship every four or so years.

Of course, I'm just speculating. But the fact that alternative route teachers can outperform experienced traditional route teachers, especially in math and the sciences, indicates that, at the least, we need to understand

  • why alternative route teachers who undergo these particular training programs are outperforming experienced teachers in some fields and
  • how traditional teacher training can be improved.

Somewhat related posts:
Just-in-time Learning
Engagement and Flow
Learning with Examples