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Up Front

When it comes to figuring out who is going to be a good teacher, Professor Tom Kane asks: Does certification really matter?

by Mary Tamer


Tom Kane

The initial research report was born, in part, from curiosity. Given that 25 percent of new teachers in New York City’s public schools were products of the NYC Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) program, an alternative certification initiative created to help boost the teaching ranks for the city’s lowest performing schools, Professor Tom Kane wondered, how did their students perform in the classroom compared with students from their traditionally certified, or even uncertified, counterparts?

The boiled-down conclusion — that the students performed similarly regardless of the initial certification status of who stood in the front of the chalkboard — was not exactly the expected or popular outcome after analyzing six years of data from America’s largest urban school district, consisting of 1.1 million students and more than 52,000 teachers.

“The NYCTF program was one of the primary means by which the district was hiring novice teachers, and there was very little evidence of whether kids assigned to teaching fellows did as well as those assigned to traditionally certified teachers,” says Kane. “We thought that we would implicitly learn something, knowing what impact certification was having on 1.1 million students. It seemed plausible to me that the teaching fellows could have been more effective in the classroom. I’d say what we found in New York was not so obvious.”


What Does Certification Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness?

Evidence from New York City was published in March 2006 and followed a month later by Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job. Both papers cite “a growing body of research” that suggests “certification of teachers bears little relationship to teacher effectiveness,” measured by impacts on students’ achievement.

“There are effective certified teachers and there are ineffective certified teachers; similarly, there are effective uncertified teachers and ineffective uncertified teachers,” the authors of the second white paper write. “The differences between the stronger teachers and the weaker teachers only become clear once teachers have been in the classroom for a couple of years.”

In the months following the release of the reports, a flurry of articles and opinion pieces appeared in newspapers and education journals around the country, some of which sharply criticized the research for perceived negation of traditionally certified teachers and of the highly selective Teach for America program, which places more than 4,000 college graduates in urban schools each year. While acknowledging the controversy, particularly in the labor movement, Kane says the research had less to do with “teacher bashing” than some initially thought.

“We knew it was controversial and the feedback reflected that,” says Kane, now faculty director for a new Harvard Graduate School of Education initiative, the Project for Policy Innovation in Education, “but surprisingly, I think the debate has moved in this last year . . . so I think the report has had some impact.”

Where the debate has moved, as Kane and his cowriters hoped, is toward the awarding of tenure — typically granted to public school teachers after three years on the job — on the basis of performance. As stated in the second report, “although it can be difficult to know with much certainty who is likely to be an effective teacher during a job interview, we have shown that school districts can learn a lot about teachers’ future effectiveness simply by scrutinizing their record during their first few years on the job. Currently, such information is not being used. Indeed, it is usually not even assembled since most districts now cannot link individual student test scores to teachers.”

Kane’s goal, to shift the focus from preservice qualifications — who has what type of certification — to actual job performance over the first two to three years, has seemingly met with success. In January of this year, both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor Eliot Spitzer announced education reforms within 10 days of one another, with Bloomberg pledging in his weekly radio address to “reform the tenure system to reward teacher excellence” and Spitzer committing to “review the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs and to establish minimum standards for local tenure determinations.”

In March, NYC Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein echoed the sentiments of Bloomberg and Spitzer as part of his own multipoint reform plan.

“Finally, because we know how important teachers are to student success, from now on, teacher tenure will no longer be the default position,” Klein said. “We will grant it only to those educators who prove they are able to help our students make progress.”

On the national front, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act Commission now recommends a similar approach to review the effectiveness of novice teachers prior to their receiving tenure, a move, Kane says, that “will make it much harder to tenure the bottom quartile” among the U.S. teaching ranks.

“We’re saying reward the better teachers and weed out others who should move on to other careers,” says Kane. “It seems obvious, but that would be a real paradigm shift. A metaphor that captures this is: rather than open the flood gate into teaching, what we’re taking about is moving the dam downstream.”

As his second paper reports, “Without the right people standing in front of the classroom, school reform is a futile exercise.”


Path to Certification

Citing the passage of NCLB in 2001, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, in a letter to chief state school officers in October 2005, wrote that the plan “recognizes that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in improving student achievement and eliminating these achievement gaps. As a result, the law set the important goal that all students be taught by a ‘highly qualified teacher’ who holds at least a bachelor’s degree, has obtained full state certification, and has demonstrated knowledge in the core academic subjects he or she teaches.”

Gone are the days of the early 19th century when a strong moral compass was the only requirement to lead a classroom, as potential teachers faced local school boards for a test of character over aptitude. In 1834, Pennsylvania was the first state to officially test teachers on their three Rs — reading, writing, and arithmetic — as a part of the hiring process, though most states followed suit some 30 years later, utilizing “a locally administered test to get a state certificate, which usually included not only the basic skills, but also U.S. history, geography, spelling, and grammar,” according to an article on the Department of Education website.

By the 20th century, the article says, “The new leaders of the profession took charge of teacher certification. Certification became, increasingly, dependent on taking courses in pedagogy and in passing tests of pedagogical theory. State education departments and the colleges of education agreed that longer periods of formal training in pedagogy were required for future professionals of education. Teacher certification eventually came to be identified with the completion of teacher education programs rather than with the receipt of local certificates or the passing of subject-matter examinations.”

In What Does Certification Tell Us, Kane and his coauthors write that 47 states and the District of Columbia now have “alternative certification” programs, which first came to being in the 1980s, with an estimated 35,000 alternatively certified teachers hired each year in U.S. schools.

“Although alternatively certified programs often differ in other ways, participants are generally required to possess a bachelor’s degree, pass state licensing exams, participate in a special training or mentoring program, and enroll in a teacher education program as they begin teaching,” Kane writes. Traditionally certified teachers have completed their teacher education program prior to entering the classroom. As urban systems, like New York City, found it more difficult to attract traditionally certified teachers, alternatively certified teachers, and even uncertified teachers, were added to the mix, though a state-led court case forced an end to the practice of hiring the uncertified in New York by 2003.

“Certification status, whether it be NYC Teaching Fellows or Teach for America, did not seem to have much larger or much smaller teacher impact than those [certified] with years of experiences. Moreover, teacher performance during the first two years has predictive power in anticipating student achievement impacts later.”

“One of the key norms in education has been that the way you ensure quality is to put hurdles on the front end,” says Kane, “Once people are in the door, you do very little screening. This only makes sense if you have two things: One, that the hurdles tell you something about the teachers you have and, two, you don’t learn anything more about the effective teachers after you have them. One of the points of this [research] was to see to which extent this was true. It turns out neither one of these things is true. Certification status, whether it be NYC Teaching Fellows or Teach for America, did not seem to have much larger or much smaller teacher impact than those [certified] with years of experiences. Moreover, teacher performance during the first two years has predictive power in anticipating student achievement impacts later.”

While other studies have looked at this issue with varying results, including another one focused in New York City, Kane’s initial report studied six years of data versus the five used by others and used a larger sample of schools and teachers in a district that employs teachers with many different types of certification, including Teach for America.

What Kane and his coauthors did find when reviewing New York City’s data on certified, alternatively certified, and uncertified teachers was that “within each of these groups, there are very large differences, and there is a big difference in student achievement associated with who you had as a teacher.”

The Teach for America program is highly selective: only one out of 10 applicants is chosen from a pool of candidates that includes 12 percent of graduating classes from Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale. The question becomes, after that intensive selection, does a Teach for America teacher from Harvard meet with the same success — or the same pitfalls — as the traditionally certified teacher from SUNY Binghamton?

Yes, says Kane, “at least among the people who got hired in New York.”

The bottom line, says Kane, is “it’s really hard to find the bottom line predictors which could be used for recruitment.”


Next Steps

Despite the findings, Kane says that there does need to be some form of prescreening for those interested in entering the teaching profession, but — for optimal results in the classroom — the key measure of effectiveness must take place within the first three years on the job.

“Having a serious hurdle for tenure is the best way to keep the best teachers,” says Kane. “In higher education, this is what we do, so we have a lot more information [on a pretenured professor] than [a pretenured teacher] in elementary school. In higher education, you hire the very best that you can and then [offer tenure] only to the superstars after five or six years on the job. The institutions that don’t do that don’t stay at the top for very long.”

As a continuation of his previous research, Kane has already moved on to another study, which he hopes may help answer the question of how to better judge a teacher’s effectiveness on the front end of the hiring process. Utilizing New York City’s teaching corps once again, Kane and his coresearchers are administering personality tests to determine if there is some other trait beyond one’s academic record that may predict a successful career in the classroom. Kane has also sent a proposal to the Department of Education to “see if there is something we could pick up in an interview” with prospective teachers “that could tell you how effective that teacher is going to be.” In Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the United States, with more than 740,000 students, Kane is looking at whether teachers who are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are more effective in the classroom than those teachers who are not, while in Charlotte, N.C., yet another study is taking place to see what happened when that district moved to a school choice system in the fall of 2002 after 30 years of busing.

“The rapid accumulation of student achievement data represents an untapped national resource, one that holds the promise of breaking longstanding stalemates in the education policy debate,” cites the literature of Kane’s newest initiative, the Project for Policy Innovation in Education, which aims to “work with university-based researchers and policymakers to bring this new data to bear in evaluating policies and drawing implications for reform.”

In some instances, school systems, like New York City, already had the data on the effectiveness of certified, uncertified, and alternatively certified teachers, says Kane, “but they didn’t have the analytic resources to study the implications for academic achievement.”

That, he says, is the niche the project is identifying.

“We knew we could try to identify important policy questions that [school systems] have answers to, but they don’t have the ability to study them,” says Kane. “In the case of the NYC Teaching Fellows, you can draw a direct line from that report to Mayor Bloomberg’s speech to Governor Spitzer’s speech to Chancellor Klein’s. Evidence can have a huge impact on the debate, often by redefining the question.”


Mary Tamer is a Boston-based freelance writer.

To read a full copy of the paper on the NYC Teaching Fellows program, written by Kane, Jonah Rockoff of Columbia Business School, and Douglas Staiger of Dartmouth College, go to www. gse.harvard.edu/news/features/kane/nycfellowsmarch2006.pdf.

To read the second report on the implications of federal policy, written by Kane, Staiger, and Robert Gordon, senior vice president for economic policy at the Center for American Progress, go to www.brookings.edu/views/papers/200604hamilton_1.pdf.


About the Article

A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Respond to this story with an e-mail to the editor.


Photo by Lisa Kessler

Ed Magazine: Spring 2007

Letters to the Editor


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