Why Teacher Quality And A Teaching Credential Matter
© Copyright 2002, Ken Futernick
en years ago, the writer Jonathan Kozol revealed in chilling detail the “savage inequalities” experienced by millions of poor children in America’s schools. Describing the filth and disrepair in the inner-city schools he visited, he wrote, “I often wondered why we would let our children go to school in places where no politician, school board president, or business CEO would dream of working.” Today in California the inequalities are particularly severe because there are hundreds of schools where few teachers dream of working. A critical shortage of teachers throughout the state has forced many districts to hire people who do not meet the licensing requirements for teachers. That is, they have not demonstrated subject matter competence, they do not have formal training as teachers, and many do not have prior experience teaching children. The problem is especially severe in schools with high concentrations of poor children because they have great difficulty attracting and keeping well-qualified teachers. Statewide, approximately 14% of all teachers have no teaching credential and are working on emergency permits. As reported recently by SRI and RAND, in the state’s poorest schools—those in which 90% or more of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch—nearly one-fourth of the teachers have no credential. In addition, not only do these schools have significantly higher teacher vacancy rates, but they also employ a disproportionate number of beginning teachers, and teachers transfer out in greater numbers than they do from low-poverty schools(1).
So, in addition to being subjected to poorly maintained, overcrowded facilities, outdated textbooks, and a shortage of materials, many poor children in this, one of the wealthiest states in the country, lack the single most important contributor to educational success: a qualified teacher. Today, there is little dispute about the importance of the classroom teacher.
A growing body of research says…that much—not all, mind you, but much—of the underachievement that we have historically blamed on poverty or family characteristics is instead attributable to what we have done: systematically assigned these children disproportionately to large numbers of our weakest teachers. ‘We expected some differences,’ said Robert Mendro, one of these researchers. ‘But we were stunned at the magnitude.’(2)
A study conducted in 1998 by the Education Trust found:
Students who have several effective teachers in a row make dramatic gains in achievement, while those who have even two ineffective teachers in a row lose significant ground, which they may never recover. Indeed, students who achieve at similar levels in the third grade may be separated by as many as 50 percentile points three years later, depending on the quality of the teachers to whom they were assigned!(3)
Is a Credentialed Teacher a Qualified Teacher? Is a Qualified Teacher a Competent Teacher?
Most of us would not think of having a surgical procedure performed by an unlicensed person. We do not have to worry about this because in this country it's a crime to practice medicine without a license. Our government has, however, issued emergency permits and waivers allowing thousands of people to teach with virtually no professional training, no classroom experience, and little or no knowledge of the subjects they will be asked to teach. This may change if schools receiving federal assistance are willing and able to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act which, in 2005-06, will prohibit schools from employing teachers who are not fully certified.
Some, however, question the validity of teacher certification and argue that merely having a credential is no guarantee that a teacher is qualified to teach. This is argument is valid, of course, in the same way that a medical license is no guarantee that a physician won't engage in malpractice. The fact that some qualified practitioners perform irresponsibly or incompetently does not mean the credential or license that signifies their qualifications does not matter. The point is that in the vast majority of cases there is a much higher likelihood that a licensed physician or a credentialed teacher will be effective in the classroom than one who is not.
One's credentials merely indicate that one has done what experts in a particular field say is necessary to perform a job competently. Usually this consists of a combination of training and experience. Having credentials, or being qualified, makes one eligible for a job, but normally just being qualified is not enough to get hired. It's up to those who conduct interviews and evaluate their work to determine which people in the pool are best suited for the job. Once hired, supervisors (or, in fields like medicine, quality review boards) must determine whether employees continue to perform competently. When there is sufficient evidence to the contrary and an employee has been given ample time and assistance to improve, the health of the organization demands that such individuals be dismissed. Assuming, of course, that competent replacements are available.
This, of course, is how rational and successful organizations operate. There are reasons why schools do not, or cannot, act rationally.
1. Lack of supervision. All teachers are subject to regular evaluations from their supervisors (usually the site principal). But supervisors in schools seldom have the time (and in some cases, the training) to conduct regular in-depth evaluations of their teachers. Consequently, performance evaluations often consist of little more than one brief informal observation of a lesson. Teacher unions are right, in my opinion, to protect teachers from disciplinary actions that are not based on a fair and thorough evaluation process. But they are wrong in doing so when a thorough evaluation reveals incompetence.
2. Lack of support. In our most challenging schools, new teachers often transfer out or quit the profession altogether soon after they arrive. Programs such as BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) which provide new teachers with experienced mentors have dramatically reduced attrition rates, and they have enabled new teachers to become more effective than those who lack such support. These programs cannot work, of course, if there are insufficient numbers of experienced teachers at a school who can serve as mentors. As the TQI database reveals, this is precisely the problem faced by many of California's lowest performing schools. Unfortunately, the Federal No Child Left Behind Act which requires schools to hire only "highly qualified" teachers, may not solve the problem described here. That's because a "highly qualified teacher," according to the federal law, does not have to have any experience. Nor do they have to complete their teacher certification program if they are enrolled in an alternative teacher preparation program.
3. Untenable working conditions. It is not reasonable to expect any individual to perform competently if one's working conditions do not allow one to do so. The fact that there may be exceptions--a few people who are successful in a similar environment--is not a valid argument to the contrary. If the vast majority of qualified individuals working in this kind of environment cannot succeed, the problem is a systemic and not personal in nature. The problem won't be solved by firing those who are there or recruiting better ones to take the place of those who have left on their own.
There is overwhelming evidence that the working conditions of many of our lowest performing schools make it virtually impossible for teachers and their students to succeed. In the currently litigated lawsuit Williams versus the State of California, the plaintiffs have alleged that students in low-income schools are routinely subjected to conditions that make it virtually impossible to teach and learn (4):
Materials and Basic Resources
- No textbooks or other educationally necessary curricular material
- No or not enough basic school supplies
- No access to a library
- No or not enough access to computers and computer instruction
- No access to music or art classes
- Too few guidance counselors
Facilities and Conditions
- Broken or nonexistent air conditioning or heating systems; extremely hot or cold classrooms
- Unrepaired, hazardous facilities, including broken windows, walls, and ceilings
- Vermin infestations
A recent poll of classroom teachers conducted by Louis Harris substantiates the findings cited in Williams. The poll also reveals that these working conditions play a significant role in teacher retention.
These numbers reveal serious disparities in children’s opportunities to learn and teachers’ opportunities for teaching, as well as teachers’ willingness to persevere despite the obstacles. In the “high risk” schools, 43% of the teachers say teacher turnover is serious, compared with no more than 11% of teachers in lower risk schools. Teacher turnover in turn is linked to other problems in the schools. While inadequate physical facilities are widespread (reported by 22% of teachers in lower-risk schools), nearly half (47%) of the teachers in “high risk” schools rate their physical facilities inadequate. Of those teachers planning to leave the teaching profession in the next three years, fully 38% indicate that poor facilities are a major reason for their decision.(5)
There is little doubt that if we are to attract and keep qualified teachers in the schools that need them most we must improve the conditions under which they and, of course, their students, are required to work. As the educational researcher Richard Ingersoll argues, the teacher shortage will not be solved simply by recruiting more teachers into the field(6). I, too, argue that the State of California's approach to solving the teacher shortage has placed too much emphasis on recruitment and too little on improving working conditions of our schools(7).
Is it possible that an uncredentialed teacher
could be qualified?
Yes. There are instances in which an uncredentialed teacher does have teaching experience, subject matter knowledge, and professional training -- even a credential from another state -- but for some reason does not hold a valid California teaching credential. In other cases, schools will hire an uncredentialed teacher because of his or her special expertise -- expertise (e.g., bilingual, subject matter expertise) that is not found among the pool of credentialed applicants. For this reason it would not seem sensible to prohibit the hiring of uncredentialed teachers, assuming a school could, on educational grounds, justify doing so. Presently, however, schools can hire as many uncredentialed teachers as they wish. Neither the school nor the district is required to demonstrate the steps they have taken to attract and retain qualified teachers. And, although few administrators or school board members would admit to such a practice, there is a financial incentive for schools to hire uncredentialed teachers.
Teacher Qualifications and Test Scores
It has become popular to evaluate school success in terms of achievement scores. We do so because they are a convenient way to compare how schools are doing over time and in comparison to one another. We forget, however, that test scores (and academic rankings from which they are derived) do not reveal all that we really should know about what goes in a school. They do not indicate how well it has prepared students to perform on tests; they do not tell us how students are doing in areas of the curriculum that are not tested, or whether these areas (e.g., social studies, science, art, music, citizenship) are even being taught at all. Thus, basing our assessments of schools entirely on test scores (which, in California, is now based on the CAT/6 test) can produce "false positives" when we conclude that a school is succeeding merely because its test scores are high. This is a little like giving a patient a clean bill of health simply because her cholesterol count is low. What if our "high achieving" students have learned nothing about history or science? What if the high school graduates who have passed the new high school exit exam show no interest in voting or participating in civic life of their community? What if large numbers of students at a school dropped out of school before graduation?(8) Since dropouts tend overwhelmingly to be low achievers, this would raise the achievement scores and the API rank of the school, giving a false impression about how the school was doing.
Before one can answer the question, Does a credential (or any other variable for that matter) make a difference? one must be clear about the kind of difference one is concerned with. Are credentialed teachers more likely to help students achieve higher test scores than students who lack a teaching credential? There is considerable evidence that they are.(9) As shown on this site, there is a statistically significant correlation between the presence of credentialed teachers and API rank. In schools with high API rankings (i.e., 9 or 10), only 4.5% of the teachers do not have a teaching credential. In low API schools (i.e., 1 or 2), the percentage of teachers without a credential is 18.3 (see Table). It is true, of course, that schools that have high percentages of underqualified teachers also tend to have high percentages of poor children (see Chart). Without performing more sophisticated regression analyses, we cannot assume that differences in API rank are attributable to the presence of credentialed teachers. Several studies have been conducted, however, to understand the relationship between teacher qualifications and student academic performance. David Berliner's recent study offers strong support for a causal link between these variables. In his conclusion he writes:
This study addressed one of these factors—the effectiveness of certification on student achievement. We found what might be expected of those who choose to do complex work, namely, that those who trained longer and harder to do that work do it better. Common sense and empirical data agree. Despite our lack of understanding of how it is accomplished, and despite the extreme variability in the programs of instruction (surely masking both excellent and dreadful programs), the present research study supports the assertion that university-prepared teachers are of higher quality than those prepared without an approved program of preparation (see also Evertson, 1984; Darling-Hammond, 1997a).
In this study regularly certified teachers significantly outperformed under-certified teachers with children who are most at risk of school failure and school dropout. These already low-achieving children, when assigned to the classrooms of under-certified teachers made gains that were approximately 2 months less per school year on three different subtests of the SAT 9. This is about 20% less academic growth than they would have made had they been assigned to a teacher with regular state certification. (David Berliner, "The Effectiveness of 'Teach for America' and Other Under-certified Teachers on Student Academic Achievement: A Case of Harmful Public Policy.")
Beyond Test Scores
Since test scores tell only one part of the story, we really must ask, What other differences does a credential make? How well do credentialed teachers do, compared with those without one, when it comes to increasing student learning in areas that are not tested or to such things as establishing positive classroom management, promoting cooperation, critical thinking and citizenship? Graphs, tables and statistical analysis won't help answer these questions since they are qualitative, not quantitative, in nature. While more costly and time intensive, qualitative analyses are essential if we want to know how well our schools are achieving the full range of purposes we expect of them.
Stephen J. Carroll, et al., The Distribution of Teachers Among California’s
School Districts and Schools, RAND, 2000.
2 Haycock, Kati, “Honor in the Boxcar,” Thinking K-16, Spring 2000, The Education Trust, Washington D.C.
3 Haycock, Kati, “Good Teaching Matters,” Thinking K-16, Summer 1998, The Education Trust, Washington DC.
4 Information about Williams v. State of California and the lawsuit itself can be viewed at www.publicadvocates.org.
5 Harris, Louis, A Survey of the Status of Equality in Public Education in California. A Survey of a Cross–Section of Public School Teachers, 2002. Click here to download a copy of this report (773 kilobytes).
6 Ingersoll, Richard, "A different approach to solving the teacher shortage problem," November, 2000, Policy Perspectives, 2(2), 6, 8.
7 Futernick, Ken, "Why Current Campaign to Recruit New Teachers Won't Solve the Problem," 2002.
8 According to the California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS), approximately 11% of high school students in California dropout before graduating. In Sacramento County, the percentage is nearly double (20.6%) the state dropout average.. See http://data1.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/.
9 See, for instance, Audrey L. Amrein and David Berliner, "High-Stakes Testing, Uncertainty, and Student Learning," Education Policy Analysis Archives, v10, n18, March 28,2002; Linda Darling-Hammond and Deborah Loewenberg Ball, "Teaching for High Standards. What Policy Makers Need to Know and be able to to do." Prepared for the National Education Goals Panel, June, 1997; Linda Darling-Hammond, "Research and Rhetoric on Teacher Certification: A Response to 'Teacher Certification Reconsidered,'" Education Policy Analysis Archives, v10, n36, September 6,2002; David Berliner, "The Effectiveness of 'Teach for America' and Other Under-certified Teachers on Student Academic Achievement: A Case of Harmful Public Policy." Education Policy Analysis Archives, v10, No 37, September 2002; Gene R. Carter, "They Passed the Test But Can They Teach?" ASCD, January, 2003.