Frederick County has raised salaries in an attempt to attract more teachers into the profession but has ignored a less expensive option for increasing the supply of educators.
Under Maryland law, local school systems are allowed to establish alternative pathways into the profession that expand their candidate pool. Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County have done this. Frederick County needs to follow suit, and could even set the new standard for how to do this well if it chose to.
But first, some background: whether it was the Abell Foundation’s “Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling Toward Quality“ report from 2001, McKinsey’s “How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top”, or the dozens upon dozens of reports from other reputable research organizations going back to the 1970s, research on teacher certification has shown for a long time that having traditional or alternative certification has little correlation with student learning.
Not only does the evidence suggest that being a certified teacher has little to nothing to do with teaching ability, requiring certification doesn’t pass the common sense test. A college math professor with decades of teaching experience and a Ph.D. isn’t considered qualified to teach AP Calculus in high school, yet a recent education school graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and only student teaching experience is considered fully qualified. Surely we ought to allow highly qualified, experienced college professors to prepare our high school students for college, wouldn’t you think?
What’s worse, we know that the SAT scores of prospective teachers tend to be below average, and education graduates are disproportionately in the bottom third of college graduates. The purpose of requiring certification is to ensure that only highly educated people with the ability to teach get into public school classrooms, but in reality tends to do the opposite. Unlike other countries such as Finland, which recruit teachers from the top 10% of students, America’s teachers are at best around average. It’s reasonable to expect that those tasked with educating others should be well above average academically.
“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”, McKinsey’s report rightly begins. But the unfortunate reality is that there aren’t enough good candidates in the current teacher applicant pool, and most counties in Maryland, including ours, have made the situation worse by requiring prospective teachers to go through teacher certification, which is expensive, time-consuming, and often promotes trendy pedagogical approaches that make teachers less effective in the classroom.
So if the evidence is clear, which it is, why do school systems continue to limit their own applicant pool to the detriment of students? In part it’s out of tradition. “I had to go through certification so everyone else should too.” is a common reaction I’ve heard from teachers. But we shouldn’t continue an ineffective practice just because we’ve done it in the past.
Another common reaction is, “You can’t just pick someone off the street and expect them to become a good teacher. You can’t just let anyone teach.” Of course you can’t do that, and this thinking is really misleading. Even if we eliminated all teacher certification requirements other than degree in the subject area and passing a background check, all candidates would have to go through an interview process and demonstrate competence through their experience. No one is suggesting that schools shouldn’t have standards for who they hire. Education reformers are simply saying that teacher certification is not the right standard to require.
Well-designed alternative certification programs actually raise standards in terms of attracting teaching candidates who have higher academic scores, attended more competitive colleges, and are often career changers with substantial experience in industries outside of education. These programs often attract more diverse candidates as well.
Instead of Frederick County continuing to put all of its teacher recruitment eggs into the higher salary basket, it needs to launch a serious effort to open up its artificial barriers to the profession. Establishing an alternative certification program that will offer career changers a streamlined route into the profession. Such a program should give more weight to candidates’ academic and personal qualities, which research shows more strongly correlate to effective teaching than having a traditional teaching certificate does.
Over 15 years ago, I testified at my first Frederick County Board of Education meeting in support of alternative certification. Since then, the research supporting this idea has only grown, but FCPS’ willingness to consider it has not. For the sake of providing our children with more academically able teachers and a more diverse workforce, let’s hope they’ll finally reconsider.
Tom Neumark was the founding president of the Frederick Classical Charter School and has been involved in education reform for more than 20 years. In 2019, he was selected as a national finalist in the Moonshot For Kids project for his proposal to improve reading instruction.