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Alternative Teacher Certification: Opening the Education Market

Almost everyone can remember that one teacher who changed their life; the teacher who stimulated education and personal development of their students by virtue of teaching their subject well. A good teacher can truly change the trajectory of a child’s life. Right now, a subcommittee of the House Education and Workforce Committee is thinking about eliminating some Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) rules in order to improve American education. HQT rules prevent school districts nationwide from hiring talented applicants simply because they do not hold a “traditional” teaching certificate. Along this vein, the subcommittee called a hearing yesterday to discuss alternative teacher certification programs. Seth Andrew, a Harvard graduate and a superintendent of Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem, NY, gave potent testimony at the hearing. He brought up points which—backed by empirical data—may prove highly relevant to the debate over education reform. According to Mr. Andrew, HQT laws impose a senseless entry barrier on the teaching profession. He argued that school districts should be allowed to hire the best teachers possible, without having to worry about a meaningless slip of paper. After all, experts cannot find a statistically significant performance gap between teachers with traditional and nontraditional certifications. “Unfortunately,” the superintendent noted, “most districts, states, and the federal government continue to use a course-based certification model with a lock-step seniority pay system that deters the best and the brightest teachers from entering and remaining in the profession.” In other words, the practice of limiting teaching applicants to those with “traditional certification” favors educational systems tied to credentials and seniority, not performance. This in part explains why public school districts often sack the newest teachers first when they encounter budget problems—regardless of their performance in the classroom. Yet, as Mr. Andrew quipped, students know who the good teachers are. Jamie McCoy, Democracy Prep student who spoke before the committee, put it this way:
[It’s] not that certified teachers aren’t capable of teaching well, but there are also alternatively certified teachers and uncertified teachers who can also teach well. An example would be our chemistry teacher… she is a rigorous teacher. She brings passion because she is so passionate about chemistry, and she wanted to study chemistry more in depth so she brought that into the classroom and it almost makes you feel like a chemist when she’s teaching you.
What can be done about the “problem of credentialism”? Mr. Andrew suggested that the charter school model could be applied on a micro scale. School districts should be held accountable for the excellence of their teachers, but they should be given autonomy in how they find those teachers. Consider the testimony of another Democracy Prep student, Michael Cummings:
If principals were able to have the autonomy to choose what type of teachers that they allow to teach in their building and teach their students, then students would be able to benefit from that as well… My Korean teacher… went to school to be a librarian. And instead, she ended up teaching me Korean for the last two years, and so now I know Korean from someone who otherwise, if she was not able to teach, she would have been a librarian and I would not know Korean. So she is given an opportunity, I’m given an opportunity and it’s just beneficial to everyone.
Ultimately, as Mr. Andrew fondly repeated, results matter more than inputs. Good educators can come from a variety of rigorous training programs. Now, if only Congress will give them a chance to enter the teaching market.