Tag Archives: certification

Teach for America’s Critique of Traditional Certification

Ever since its formation, Teach for America has been embroiled in controversy. It has brought thousands of young, talented non-teachers into some of the toughest classrooms in the country, many of whom have chosen to remain in education in some capacity. But if its detractors are to be believed, the organization steals jobs from deserving teachers, cheapens the teaching profession, and serves as merely a career stepping stone for many purely self-interested college graduates. Yet it continues to expand, with 9000 corps members across the country teaching around 600,000 students.

I’m not going to insert myself into the omnipresent debate concerning the problems with TFA corps members leaving teaching, or how effective they are compared to “traditional” teachers. All I can say is that, as a corps member myself, I have been consistently awed by the drive of my colleagues to improve and become exceptional teachers. The students of the city are fortunate to have many great teachers in the classroom that wouldn’t have been there without TFA.

But TFA’s most important impact, in my view, is beyond these individual classrooms. It has questioned the unnecessarily lengthy, expensive, and bureaucratic traditional path to certification.

Before starting teaching, I was forced to go through the arduous process of becoming “highly qualified,” which I somehow managed before I actually started teaching. (To be honest, despite my credential, the only areas in which I could have definitely called myself “highly qualified” in the realm of education were sending checks to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, signing forms, completing checklists, and not having a criminal record.) The extent of the bureaucracy was comical.

Yet I was lucky: without TFA to help guide me down the rabbit-hole, I would have never been able to secure that certification, and so wouldn’t have had the opportunity to teach in a high-needs school. I have some incredibly smart, talented, and compassionate friends that wanted to start teaching after graduation but were unable to because they weren’t accepted into TFA or similar programs. In this country, if you want to teach, you basically need to major in education in college or be lucky enough to grab a slot in a fast-track cert program. This is a huge disservice to our students.

Now, I’m not saying that TFA’s teacher training system–centered on a 5 week summer crash course called “institute”–is perfect. I did learn an incredible amount about teaching in that amount of time, but my first few months were arduous, to say the least. (I consider it a blessing for my long-term mental health that my brain decided to erase September through November of that year from my memory.) But there is no amount of training that would have totally prepared me for that first year. Indeed, in teaching you learn primarily from experience. I made (and continue to make) many mistakes when I teach, and I continue to learn from them. The intangibles possessed by great teachers–presence in the classroom, effective communication with students–are built with experience.

Yet the traditional system of teacher education and certification doesn’t recognize that fact.     Undergraduate education programs, besides being widely regarded as one of the easiest college majors, require way too much sitting in classrooms and not enough standing in front of them. Their length and cost only serve to restrict and insulate the teaching profession, and for no good reason: Teach for America corps members are at least as effective as teachers coming from traditional certification programs.

Considering the educational crisis in this country, we should be trying to encourage as many people into the teaching profession as possible–a task made impossible by a certification system that is heavy on bureaucracy and light on helping kids. Teach for America has forced us to question the wisdom of that vestigial limb of the educational status quo.

A “Bar Exam” for Teachers Misses the Point

In an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten suggested that we establish a “bar exam” for public school teachers in America. This exam–which would be rigorous and would emphasize the teaching of critical thinking skills–would help to assuage growing concerns about the quality of teachers in America.

I respect and appreciate Weingarten’s intentions here. Ensuring that every classroom has a great teacher should be perhaps the primary goal of any education reform proposal. But I fear that another test will just be another hoop for potential teachers to jump through, further insulating the profession.

What we need to acknowledge is that, despite the emphasis on credentials in education, you learn how to teach by teaching; on-the-job training, experimenting, and adjusting is what makes great teachers great. I passed three PRAXIS exams before I started teaching, and I will be the first to admit that my high scores in no way correlated with immediate success in the classroom. (To be honest, closer to the opposite is true.) I’m not denying that learning key ideas and strategies before teaching can be beneficial for teachers. But creating a national exam for teachers and pointing to it as evidence of teacher quality falsely implies that teaching is akin to following an instruction manual–that we follow a set of clearly prescribed steps. It cheapens the art of effective teaching.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I fully support constant evaluation of teachers in order to ensure their instructional effectiveness. But evaluating teachers more before they step into a classroom only serves to further entangle the certification process in needless bureaucracy.

Performance Assessments and Certification

Today’s NYT features a piece by Michael Winerip on Ed students at UMass protesting a pilot program for an outsourced performance assessment to be used for teacher certification. Developed by Stanford University and Pearson, the Teacher Performance Assessment (TPA) would require teachers to submit a portfolio of their teaching experience, including lesson plans, student work, personal reflections, and a video of their teaching. The UMass students are concerned about the corporatization and standardization of what is traditionally a personalized process of evaluation; as Winerip quotes Barbara Madeloni, “This is something complex and we don’t like seeing it taken out of human hands. We are putting a stick in the gears.”

The TPA, which New York, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington have already committed to adopt, fits with a growing trend of standardizing education nationally. If we want common core standards nationally, isn’t it logical to have a national certification process as well? The TPA also seems to prioritize teacher practice and development over the mere theoretical and content knowledge required by tests like the PRAXIS, which remains a pillar of the certification process in most states. In that sense, performance-based certification assessments seem to be another example of progressive reform.

But the practical implications are more complicated. States that implement the TPA and similar systems for certification will actually create a hurdle for “fast-track” and alternative certification programs.

The TPA features the Teaching Event, focusing on student-teaching experiences over a 3–5 day learning segment with a class of students. Throughout the learning segment candidates organize and submit evidence of their teaching (e.g., video clips of instruction, lesson plans, student work samples, teacher assignments, daily reflections) to create their own personal Teaching Event portfolio.

All teachers, then, would need to be in a position where they can have a 3-5 day “learning segment” with the same group of students. That is not difficult if a teacher has a traditional student teaching placement. But it is not something that can be easily set up independently, without the help of a college or university program. Where does that leave the increasingly popular alternative/fast-track certification programs such as Teach for America? Though the TPA is presented as a progressive, forward-thinking reform, I fear that it will have the effect of further insulating the teaching profession and blocking smart, motivated people from entering the classroom.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly advocate using multiple metrics for evaluating teachers, and I really like the idea of using multiple sources of data–particularly student work–as part of that evaluation. But any step that further closes off the teaching profession is the wrong one. I would rather see the TPA used as a way to evaluate current teachers instead of as a further hindrance to certification.