published in educational Horizons, Fall 1999

The Dynamics of Teacher Certification:
mythologies of competition

1999 Edward G. Rozycki
edited 1/27/19

Ecclesiastes tells us that "...the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong..." Nor, we might add, the job to the most skilled. Not always. But neither is it wise to bet on the slow horse, the weak combatant, or the incompetent practitioner.

I visit a doctor who tells me every so often that he thinks that licensure for medical professionals should be abolished. "Let anyone who will, practice medicine! Open competition on an equal basis will select the best!" Perhaps. But at what cost? And to whom?

Conflict is ubiquitous. Competition "on an equal basis" is rare. Any seven-year old recognizes that whoever decides what "on an equal basis" means, biases the conflict as he or she sees appropriate. The judges at the Olympics decide what's fair or foul; but who pays the judges? Don't they have a stake?

Why should we think that the reputation of a bad "doctor" would become common knowledge under conditions of open competition? Already there are states that have passed laws aimed at silencing critics who "defame the character of a product," e.g. beef, broccoli, eggs, etc. Wouldn't my claim that an unlicensed doctor harmed me more likely make me vulnerable to a defamation of character suit rather than drive the incompetent out of business?

Licensure procedures and the consequent restricted access to jobs are the price that the public pays for confidence that some pre-selection process is weeding out the most grossly incompetent and unsuited. And yet, we wonder, who pays the judges? Don't they have a stake? Can they be trusted? Perhaps the vehemently expressed confidence in a "free market" is nothing more than an expression of a hope that the random corruption of the "free market" will be less pernicious than the suspected systematic corruption of a bad licensure system.

Such a suspicion tends to rest on ignorance of history and the belief that the worst aspects of the status quo are its dominant ones. Indeed, such ignorance and pessimism motivate the dynamic in our restrictedly democratic and exaggeratedly pluralistic society of perpetual reform movements in education. Few people know anything of history and ignorance is bliss. The present is, so our communications media assail us, full of "crises"; and, the future looks threatening. Comforts and prerogatives our grandparents could only dream of, we take for granted. They're no big thing. Therefore change is imperative. Don't worry about the costs of change because the only costs we feel are those of the status quo.

So it is that long-time educators share a perception that most of the lay public does not: education goes through "pendulum swings" in policy and curriculum matters. Apparent innovations are seldom new; they thrive and perish as an incessantly unsatisfiable public demands, in turn, novelty or tradition.

Perpetual Educational Reform

The impulse to perpetual reform rests on the belief that all good things are compatible: that ever more of everything desirable is sustainable. Seldom considered is the idea that benefits may be competitive: to pursue one may reduce our ability to obtain another. Yet most people can understand that you can't drive fast and save gas -- the shorter trip does not offset the waste in fighting wind resistance. Athletes know that you can't build up for extreme strength and endurance at the same time. The great taste of that first cup of coffee in the morning is not sustained through the twentieth cup.

The basic mechanism of perpetual reform is easy to understand. To repeat, it takes an ignorance of history, and unending complaint about the downside of the present state of affairs promulgated in media much more concerned to attract the greatest attention than to report fact. The costs of the present, since they are with us, look so much worse than the costs of any future alternatives, which, being future costs have the benefit, at least, of not existing. The benefits of the present, taken for granted and oh!, so boring!, look much less attractive than the benefits of some proposed future. Clever sloganeering can be looked to in order to bring about a shallow majority consensus that present difficulties should be escaped by forging ahead into an uncharted future. And since the few who have any historical knowledge to leaven such a decision with wisdom are ignored, we blunder through yet another evanescent revolution.

Thus it goes with teacher certification efforts. On the one hand we hear much talk about the need to upgrade teacher training, a concern that most educators can have some sympathy for, if they overlook the insinuation that their own training wasn't quite up to snuff. This concern to "improve the quality of teachers" generally comes from quarters seen as having a vested interest in extending and complicating the certification process, e.g. teachers' unions, universities, professors of education. In the scandal mongering that characterizes many editorial columns "vested interest" easily becomes "selfish desire to exploit" therefore something to oppose and undo.

Yet this undoing is quite blithely pursued by school boards who, facing teacher shortages, look for ways to put warm bodies in classrooms; and, by the legislators who assist the downgrading of teacher preparation by allowing, even recommending, alternative routes into teaching. Seldom, however, do the media suggest that there are self-serving motives at work here.

I, myself, got into teaching by the back door. I had no teacher training and only a BA -- in philosophy -- when I landed a job teaching mathematics because of a teacher shortage. It turned out that I liked the job and the job liked me; the rest is a history thirty-plus years long. But in no way would I have taken an undergraduate major in education. First, I had a misconception about the nature of teaching that only real experience overcame. Secondly, I had vowed only to take courses which interested me. Education was not, I thought then, even a distant possibility.

An alternative route advocate might try to flatter me by arguing that the hundreds of students I undoubtedly have helped in my career might have missed out if only pre-certified teachers were permitted to teach. That is true. Perhaps more than one approach is --as it was in my early days -- desirable. But the abnormal way -- the emergency certificate and the make-up-your-coursework-later way -- should remain the abnormal. Let the abnormal discover, as I did, that it was abnormal interest and desire that keeps one on task in making up preparation for the occupation.

Teachers Leaving the Profession

But shouldn't teacher preparation be improved anyway? The Augusta Chronicle of December 12, 1997 reports the following:

More than a third of new Georgia teachers drop out of the profession within five years, leading to shortages in some key areas, members of the University System Board of Regents were told Wednesday . Recovered from
Other data I have found say that 40% of all teachers nationwide leave the profession within 4 years as do up to 76% who work in major urban school districts. Teachers in my own university classes have told me they are leaving teaching because of the high stress and the relatively low pay.

Why the attrition rate? Perhaps it is due to the lack of reality of many education programs. Students are encouraged to believe that they will be able to make major differences in the lives of many students with little more than enthusiasm and some minor pedagogical skills. They are required, but not encouraged, to study the history of education to find out where schooling practices came from. Subject-matter teachers tend to know little about the development of their discipline. Seldom, also, are they taught to treat the subject matter of their disciplines critically. Thus, grammar and history become either eternal verities or the concoctions of dead, white European males.

Educational psychology tends to be a mish-mash of watered-down scientific results and pop-psychology by means of which would be educators learn to substitute everyday language with more scientific-sounding words: instead of "reward," say "reinforcer;" instead of "evaluate" say "measure;" etc. Books on classroom management -- with few exceptions -- are full of treacle.

"Philosophy" becomes the cover word for any kind of thoughtless -- and consequently, useless -- blather. Logic, rhetoric and reasoning tend to get shoved into something called "critical thinking" -- or "higher order thinking skills" in communities where parents don't want their kids to be taught to be critical. Critical thinking itself is more honored in pronouncement than in practice -- some research I have seen finds that although teachers at both the high school and college levels believe it is important to teach critical thinking skills, very few in fact know how or bother to do it.

The politics of education receives short shrift in many teacher preparation programs -- because, so I have been told, thinking about politics only muddies the waters and undermines the dedication of future teachers. Organizational studies only makes its appearance when educators begin to undertake certification in administration. The complex environment in which teaching occurs is almost universally misrepresented to future teachers as majorly, if not entirely, under their control.

Then, they get a job. Then, reality hits. Then many, many of them leave permanently to find work where their expectations are not majorly contradicted by the realities of the job. No matter. Legislators will help school boards to find warm bodies -- with "emergency" certificates -- to take their places.

See, Cannonfodder
also, School Reform By Natural Selection