Autonomy and Accountability

On Tuesday July 24, 2012 the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, of the U.S. House of Representatives, held a hearing titled, “Education Reforms: Discussing the Value of Alternative Teacher Certification Programs.”  With the deadline for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) looming in the near future, education policy is on the forefront of many legislators’ minds.  More specifically, a hot topic has been focused on how to recruit and maintain quality teachers, especially at the most needy schools. 


According to No Child Left Behind a “highly qualified teacher” (HQT) is one who has a full State certification or has passed the State teacher licensing exam, has demonstrating proficiency in their respective subject areas, and holds at least a bachelors degree.  Often times the proficiency in their respective subject areas is signified by completion of a degree beyond a BA.  This means that teachers are often hired and paid based on the number of degrees they have obtained and the number of years of experience they have, rather than whether or not they are a qualified teacher.  That brings us to the question- what makes a successful teacher? 


Most would agree that it is not a teacher’s resume that makes a teacher a good teacher, but the results they produce in the classroom.  So why is their still so much emphasis on these traditional HQT indicators?  This is exactly what this subcommittee looked to address and the panel of witnesses provided colorful examples of how alternate certification, or in some cases, no certification at all, could get the same results as traditional teachers.


Democracy Prep Public Schools is a program that contains four high-performing schools in Harlem, New York, serving around 1,000 kids.  The students that attend their schools are 100% African-American or Latino and 82% are eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch and their futures could have looked very different, however they have 100% of their recent graduates’ college-bound.  What are the reasons for the program’s success?  Witness Mr. Seth Andrew says among lengthened school days, holding students to high academic expectations, creating a school culture of excellence, using data to track programs and most importantly finding, training and sustaining amazing teachers and leaders.  However, with this emphasis on recruiting successful teachers, one would think that their schools’ were staffed with individuals with the highest pedigree.  However, according to Andrew only 18% are traditionally certified and 30% aren’t certified at all.  By eliminating the necessary HQT standards, they were able to interview more applicants and were afforded more choices.  Secondly, once hired, they are able to put them through their own training programs, which will prepare teachers for the type of students they will encounter at their school specifically.  Thus traditional training is often times not applicable and or redundant.  Finally, after the hiring and training process if over, the teachers are continually going through workshops and evaluations.  The evaluations take student achievement and test scores into account as well as colleague evaluations, observable practices in teaching and learning, and observable practices in cultivating student citizenship, character, and behavior.  This emphasis on holding teachers accountable for their students’ progress, not only in test scores, but in their personal development is essential to the schools success.  Furthermore, it places an emphasis on effectiveness, not credentials.  Which, hey, isn’t that the whole point?


Jennifer Mulhern, Vice President at TNTP, an alternative teaching certification program, gave evidence of what a successful alternate certification program looks like.  Their program is just as competitive as some of the most competitive colleges, with a 10% acceptance rate.  Something that they look for in the screening process is whether that applicant has the attitude to be an effective teacher.  Are they results oriented?  Are they persistent and dedicated?  Are they a hard worker and driven to be successful?  These are not the type of qualities that a resume or transcript can give you.  Throughout their training they put their students into the classroom and watch their progress closely.  At the end of the program they recommend to the state whether or not they suggest certification.  Therefore, not only do they have a rigorous screening process, but it is only after they have demonstrated effective they become certified.


There are no statistical indicators that traditionally certified teachers produce greater results than those who are not certified.  Therefore, it is irrational to eliminate potential teachers from the application process based on certain certification requirements.  It is in a schools best interest to have a larger application pool.  TNTP and the Democracy Prep Public Schools both widen the application process and then restrictions get tights once those applicants have been accepted in order to monitor the actual effectiveness of the teacher.  Furthermore, as schools differ, their needs differ.  There is no one size fits all qualification and it should be up to those in charge at the local and school level to make those judgments.  Therefore, there should be more emphasis on accountability and teacher effectiveness and more emphasis on school autonomy and choice.