Friday, August 9, 2013

Wendy Kopp Goes to the Doctor (or Does Certification Matter?)

I have a recurring dream. In my dream Wendy Kopp, founder and chair of the board for Teach for America (TFA), is visiting a remote part of the country preaching the TFA gospel, when she is stricken with a mysterious ailment causing severe headaches. Rushed to the nearest clinic, she is greeted by a young man who asks a few questions, takes her blood pressure, examines her eyes, ears and throat and declares that Wendy is suffering from a brain tumor and must schedule immediate surgery. Alarmed, Wendy asks the young man, “Are you a doctor?”

“Well, no, not technically, but I did graduate from an Ivy League school and I took a five week training course this past summer. One of the lectures was on brain tumors. I am here to make up for the doctor shortage in this rural area.”

The next scene shows Wendy running away screaming while googling “Board Certified Neurologist” on her smart phone.

In professional fields other than teaching, few would question the need for proper credentialing. In the profession of teaching, however, questions about the need for certified teachers in the classroom have been raised for the last two decades. If you read the research, as I have been doing for many years, and more intensively lately, you might get confused. Not surprisingly, the reform types have found lots of research that supports their concept that teaching preparation is not a predictor of teacher quality. Perhaps the most important of these was produced for the Abell Foundation by noted reformer Kate Walsh (no relation, thank goodness). Walsh concludes that the certification process is “neither an efficient nor an effective means by which to ensure a competent teaching force. Worse, it is often counterproductive.”(

Just as many, if not more, studies demonstrate that teacher certification does indeed matter. Here the most important voice has been Stanford professor, Linda Darling-Hammond. In her landmark 2002 study, she and her co-researchers posit that “teacher  effectiveness appears strongly related to the preparation they have received for teaching.”  (Darling-Hammond, L. et al. Does Teacher Preparation Matter? Evidence about teacher certification, Teach for America and teacher effectiveness)

As a proud possessor of teaching certificates from two states, I would like to think that certification does matter. I know other things matter, too: intellectual ability, content knowledge, experience. But if I am hiring a new teacher, as I did in my last position as Director of Human Resources in a suburban school district, I am going to hire the certified candidate over the non-certified candidate every time. Why? Certainly not because I was required to in these days of alternate routes to teaching, but because I knew that I was reasonably sure of some critical qualifications when I hired a certified teacher. I was assured that the candidate had some understanding of child development, had the ability to translate content knowledge into lessons that would help children learn, and had the knowledge and ability to adapt instruction to different learners' needs. I also had some confidence that the candidate understood how to manage a classroom.

Most importantly, however, I knew that the certified candidate was likely to still be teaching in the district 3, 5 even 10 years from the hire date. Candidates who commit themselves to a teacher certification program have committed themselves to the profession. With experience and professional development, they will get better at what they do, and the district’s investment in them in recruiting, training and retention will be rewarded.

Are there outstanding teachers coming out of programs like Teach for America? Undoubtedly. Is every certified teacher coming out of a teacher training program destined to be an outstanding teacher? Of course not. But ultimately, our schools, our parents and our children are better off with a committed, well-prepared, professional educator in the classroom.

And Wendy Kopp is better off with a certified physician.