Vin Suprynowicz

The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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The 2001 federal “No Child Left Behind” law sets considerable store by a requirement that more public schools teachers be certified in “core academic subjects” such as math and English.

But a new study by the Brookings Institution -- hardly a right-wing outfit -- indicates it’s hardly worth the bother.

Teacher certification produces no significant increase in student performance, according to a Brookings study of some 150,000 Los Angeles students conducted from 2000 through 2003.

There was simply no statistically meaningful variation in the performance of those who had state-certified teachers, when compared to those who did not, the Washington-based research outfit said in a report released April 5.

“Whether a teacher is certified or not is largely irrelevant to predicting his or her effectiveness,” says the report, whose authors included Thomas Kane of Harvard University and Douglas Staiger of Dartmouth College.

Instead of requiring certification for teachers in “core academic subjects” such as math and English, schools instead should help more candidates get work as teachers and then devote greater efforts to identifying and keeping those who are most effective, the scholars conclude.

Other than the source, should this finding really come as a surprise? Education colleges are classic practitioners of “credentialism” -- a belief that the awarding of a certificate or placement of a set of letters after someone’s name, really indicating little more than his or her willingness to sit through a certain number of hours of “pedagogical instruction” -- magically indicates they’ve been “certified” to have the interpersonal skills, the empathic gifts, and most of all the patience necessary to guide young people along until they grasp sentence structures or the multiplication tables, and then to respond to such achievements with a reinforcing level of enthusiasm.

This is not to say all credentials are meaningless, of course. Your chances in the operating room are greatly enhanced if you’ve retained a surgeon who graduated medical school and completed the traditional residency and internship in a surgical specialty. A pair of naval pilot’s wings are a “credential” that mean a great deal.

But the value of medical schools -- and military flight training -- can be intuited by certain telltales: Admission is highly selective, based on objective standards demonstrated in the past to increase the likelihood of success. Then, a fair percentage of students are “washed out” for failure to meet a progressively tougher set of objective standards. “Showing up and trying hard” is not enough.

Most modern “education colleges” mock such truly rigorous certification programs. What’s really being measured is, in too many cases, a willingness to memorize a bunch of flim-flammery which pretends (for instance) that there are other ways to teach reading of a phonetic language than by helping the child match letters to sounds.

Such Ph.D-certified “improvements” have driven America’s literacy rates relentlessly downward for 60 years.

The Brookings folks have it right. And those who slyly add asterisks to sensible alternative licensure programs, driving away career-changing professionals by requiring them to go to night school or summer school at their own expense, backloading sufficient “ed credits,” should pay heed.

Some are cut out to be teachers, and some are not. Obviously, knowledge of the subject matter to be conveyed is a prerequisite. It is required, though not sufficient.

Once subject matter mastery is confirmed, there is only one best way to find out if someone is cut out to be a teacher. After being given some handy survival tips, he or she has to be given a trial in a classroom, observed by those who are already acknowledged to be skilled in this trade and art. Those who have the gift should be advanced, while those who do not must be given the bad news. Bureaucratic barriers which prevent many learned and talented potential teachers from even giving it a try, are not helping.

Finally, the Brookings folks -- true to their big-spending roots -- propose improving U.S. schools by providing bonuses to encourage the most effective teachers to serve in districts with the greatest need. Implementing the plan would cost “slightly more than $3 billion” a year, mostly for the bonuses and a system of tracking teachers, the report estimates.

Not really.

First, it’s not clear why any one school has more “need” of good teachers than another. In fact, if this is a euphemism for throwing away our best teachers on poor students, some might argue the nation would profit more from assigning good teachers to kids who are already doing well. They’re more likely to be tomorrow’s doctors and engineers, aren’t they? Ford spent more building Mustangs than Edsels, didn’t they?

No one is saying children from poorer neighborhoods shouldn’t be given an equal chance to work hard and excel. But why not give them a chance to attend better schools with better teachers based on their actual performance, by offering academic scholarships to attend classes full of eager, fast-paced young scholars?

Most importantly, give principals the power to pay less in areas of specialty where applicants are in surplus, shifting more of their existing budgets to compensate good math and science teachers, and watch the results.

Private industry does this kind of thing all the time. Or were you under impression the head of your company’s computer department makes the same salary as the folks dishing up codfish in the cafeteria?

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