Is a good teacher certifiable?

Maggie Gallagher

7/22/2003 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
Of all the hard jobs around, one of the hardest is being a good teacher. (I should know, I am married to one.) So what makes a teacher good?

The word bandied about by the official teacher spokespeople is "certified," which is invariably treated as synonymous with the word "qualified." Requirements vary by state, but to be certified, teachers generally need to take college and/or graduate courses in education.

For unions, certification operates as an important barrier to entry. In New York, people who did not know they wanted to teach when they were 18 now have to spend two years and $40,000 getting an education degree. Keeps the pool of teachers down and union power up.

But do these expensive and time-consuming courses in education theory have anything to do with getting your kids the teacher of your dreams?

A new report on charter schools, "Apples to Apples: An Evaluation of Charter Schools Serving General Student Populations," casts deep doubt on the importance of teacher certification.

Charter schools are an important educational phenomenon: 2,700 charter schools in 39 states serve 684,000 students nationwide. They are part of a strategy of widening the options to parents and students in large urban school districts where many public schools are failing. Charter schools are public schools that operate, to a certain extent, outside the system. They have more control over their teachers, curriculum and resources. They also have less money than public schools.

One result? Charter schools have a far higher proportion of teachers who are not certified. Charter schools are also more likely to be opened in poor, urban neighborhoods, with kids who face multiple challenges to learning and lousy neighborhood public schools. Uncertified teachers for poor black kids? If the official teacher spokespeople are right, charter schools should be a disaster.

But in what the researchers say is the "first national empirical study of charter schools that compares apples to apples -- that is, test scores at charter schools and regular public schools serving similar student populations," students at charter schools are doing just fine, thank you. In fact, just one year of attendance at a charter school boosted the students' test scores significantly. The average student (one at the 50th percentile in test scores) gained 2 percentile points in reading and 3 percentile points in math. The study looked at students in 11 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

The strongest results were in Florida and Texas. In just one year in a Texas charter school, an average student gained 7 percentile points in math and 8 percentile points in reading, while Florida charter schools improved student performance by 6 percentile points. The researchers conclude by cautioning against "too much enthusiasm regarding the benefits of charter schools. The results of our study strongly support the conclusion that untargeted charter schools are somewhat better than regular public schools serving similar populations, but not a great deal better."

But a 3 percentile-point gain in one year is extremely significant, if this rate of improvement continues. If the educational gains hold (a 3 percentile-point improvement each year), a poor kid who starts out in the 50th percentile in first-grade math in a charter school will be in the upper third in academic achievement by sixth grade.

More research is clearly needed. Meanwhile, parents, students and teachers all report higher satisfaction with charter schools. People like them. They cost less money. They raise the academic achievement of poor kids. Go ahead, get a little enthused.