Experts differ on certification’s impact

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 26A

The Dallas Morning News’ analysis of state data shows that schools with lots of disadvantaged kids are likely to have high percentages of uncertified teachers.

But does that matter?

The researchers seem to think so. Most education research on the subject indicates a link between teacher certification and student performance. Still, some researchers say uncertified teachers are just as good as their more highly trained peers.

“There’s just absolutely no evidence that certification raises student achievement,” said Kate Walsh, executive director of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group that advocates allowing more people to be teachers.

At issue is the effectiveness of alternative certification, or alt-cert, programs. While they can vary substantially, most programs put prospective teachers through several months of night or weekend classes in which they learn the basics of the profession.

That’s substantially less training than most educators get through traditional certification, when they typically take college courses on teaching methods and do some form of student teaching – often a full semester or more.

“We provide the nuts and bolts to be able to survive in the classroom,” said Brenda Kihl, who runs the alternative certification program at Collin County Community College. “That’s pretty much all an alternative program can do.”

Life experiences

Advocates of alt-cert say people who become teachers via this shortened path are just as prepared. They point out that many teachers who take that route are older and bring useful life and workplace experiences.

“The traditional system isn’t one that attracts teachers of high academic ability,” Ms. Walsh said. “We ought to let principals make their own decisions on who to hire.”

Most teachers who go through alt-cert programs receive a probationary certificate for their first year in the classroom. If they can pass the state certification exams, they usually are upgraded to a standard certificate after one year.

Several budding teachers who are going through that process said they feel qualified to teach, even with less experience.

Anthony Thomas is a former telecom engineer who’s enrolled in the Collin County program. He’ll be teaching algebra at Dallas’ Hillcrest High School this fall.

“I know the material,” he said. “I have the life experience, and I can communicate with these kids.”

Evidence from studies

But there’s evidence, from Texas and elsewhere, that while there are exceptions, uncertified teachers typically produce less student achievement.

Earlier this month, Texas’ State Board for Educator Certification released its own study. Researchers looked at about 25,000 Texas middle school students and how they performed on the math section of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test.

After taking into account a variety of student and teacher factors, such as student poverty, teacher experience and others, the study found that students in the classrooms of certified teachers produced substantially higher math scores than those with uncertified teachers.

In a study published last year, two Arizona researchers studied the academic performance of more than 4,000 students. The findings: Students in a fully certified teacher’s classroom learned about 20 percent more in a school year than other teachers.

That’s the equivalent of two months of instruction – a total that can pile up in schools where students are likely to get uncertified teachers for multiple years.

Those who say certification isn’t important argue that the traditional system sets up unnecessary barriers that keep qualified individuals from entering the classroom. But others say they’re devaluing the merits of training.

“Would you hire an uncertified accountant?” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher preparation. “Would you get your teeth done by someone who didn’t go to dental school? It’s a no-brainer that training helps. It’s not a guarantee of quality, but it helps.”