Does the right piece of paper make you a teacher?

23 February 2005

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act has made it incumbent upon districts to place a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom. According to the feds, this means the following conditions are satisfied:
  • Hold at least a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution of higher education;
  • Be fully licensed/certified (traditional or alternate route) with no waivers (i.e., no emergency certificates); and
  • Demonstrate content expertise by passing a state test of elementary content knowledge and teaching skills. (Elementary Only)
  • Demonstrate content expertise in each of the core academic subject(s) taught by doing the following (Secondary Only):
    1. Passing a rigorous state test; or
    2. Completing an academic major, coursework equivalent to a major, or a graduate degree; or
    3. Earning an advanced certification or credentials (i.e., National Board Certification).

When these standards were first proposed, each state was given a time period in which to either adopt the definition or supply their own. Most states didn't choose option 2, and many of them are hurting for "highly qualified" teachers. (FYI: Washington state did select its own description, and it isn't quite as involved as ESEA's.)

Increasing numbers of teacher are being certified via alternative routes, as mentioned in this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer. There are only so many people willing to do this job---far fewer than there are positions. It is reasonable to expect that states will find some other way to put certificates in the hands of more people.

I can't quite decide what to think about all of this. On one hand, as I reflect on my own certification process, I really didn't think it did much to prepare me for being in a classroom. Perhaps it's not such a bad idea to let people head out on the job and earn their paperwork along the way. Seems like they'll find out a whole lot faster whether or not the career suits them. And yet, with all of the "dropouts" from the profession each year and the associated costs---shouldn't we make sure that those being sent into the classroom have every available piece of background we can provide?

I like the idea of having good people in the classroom. I want someone who knows his/her "stuff" to be working with kids. But a piece of paper does not a teacher make. I can think of plenty of certificated staff who don't make a bit of difference in the classroom. And I certainly have met lots of people who have a great deal of subject matter knowledge but would make for bad teachers. I'm just not sure that the hoops the government is setting up will allow us to accurately distinguish which group is which.

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