Do some certification requirements drive talented teachers away?

Travis Pillow

The lawmakers eyeing Florida’s teacher certification system follow straightforward logic: If talented people have to take a battery of education-specific courses before they can go into the classroom, they might take their skills elsewhere.

In other words, course requirements might unnecessarily crimp the state’s pipeline of quality teachers. And creating new paths around those requirements might help draw more talented people with diverse academic backgrounds into teaching.

Some recent research suggests they might be onto something.

Future teachers typically get an education degree from a college or university, or take a series of education-specific courses while working toward a different degree.

But a study published last year in the Journal of Law and Economics finds Florida teachers who go into the profession through routes that don’t require them to take a bunch of education-specific courses often have stronger credentials. And once they got into the classroom, their students tend to do as well or better as those taught by traditionally certified teachers.

The paper, by Tim Sass of Georgia State University, counts a total of 10 different routes to become a teacher in Florida.

Two of those routes allow teachers to become certified without taking any formal education courses.

The most common route allows teachers to become certified after finishing a competency-based prep program offered by their school district. The programs revolve around mentoring and online training. In English, students taught by these alternatively certified teachers tend to match the learning gains of similar students taught by traditionally certified teachers. In math, their performance is even stronger.

The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) passport requires prospective teachers to pass a series of tests offered by a national organization, and allows them to avoid going back to college or taking education-specific courses.

A relatively small (but growing) number of Florida teachers use this option, but Sass finds their positive impact on student achievement is largest of all. The difference between an ABCTE-certified teacher and a traditionally certified teacher is two to three times larger than the difference between a rookie teacher and one with at least three years of experience.

Sass identifies a potential reason people who get their teaching credentials through those alternative routes tend to perform so well. Education-specific courses probably have little utility outside of teaching. As a result, requiring formal education courses for would-be teachers might dissuade people with other academic backgrounds from pursuing careers in the classroom altogether.

He notes, however, that “one should be cautious about making blanket statements about the relative performance of alternatively certified teachers.”

Still, his findings in Florida, coupled with the results from widely publicized programs like Teach for America, prompted him to conclude:

[I]t does appear that certification programs with low entry requirements can produce teachers that are as productive, or even more productive, than traditionally prepared teachers. Given the opportunity cost of a 4-year degree in education, this implies that allowing some low-cost portals into the teaching profession appears to be an efficient mechanism for increasing the supply of teachers.

For education officials facing declining participation in traditional teacher preparation programs and teacher shortages key subject areas like math and science, this is food for thought. But as Sass notes in his paper, it’s unclear how people from other professions would respond if they faced fewer barriers to teaching careers. It’s possible policymakers would need to make other changes to draw large numbers of career-switchers to the profession.

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