Punchback: Answering Critics

Top Collegians Won’t Solve What Ails Classrooms

by Walt Gardner

I repeatedly hear the argument about the urgent need to recruit the brightest college graduates — regardless of their lack of any education courses — to turn around failing schools. This strategy has great intuitive appeal for public school leaders responsible for formulating hiring practices in their school districts. Unfortunately it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Teach for America serves as an instructive case in point. In the 18 years that TFA has been in existence, it has never deviated from its original goal of recruiting, training and placing recent college graduates of all academic majors — but without teaching certification — in hard-to-staff urban and rural public schools across the nation. TFA is predicated on the assumption that the smartest graduates from America’s most selective colleges and universities can improve educational quality in elementary and secondary schools.

No one disputes their impressive intelligence and genuine passion. But despite isolated instances of success, those characteristics have not been enough to produce the overall expected results. The most compelling evidence comes from the landmark study led by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University’s School of Education that was released in 2005. It looked at the performance of more than 4,400 teachers and 132,000 students in Houston’s public schools. It concluded that although students of uncertified Teach for America teachers fared as well as students of other uncertified teachers, they lagged significantly behind students of certified non-TFA teachers.

Blaming Certification
The operative words in the study are certified and uncertified — not native intelligence, earned grades, class rankings and school cachet. Surprisingly, this distinction has been given short shrift by the news media in the ongoing debate about school reform. While it’s true certification is no assurance of success in the classroom, whether through traditional or alternative programs, it’s also true that knowledge of subject matter alone is no guarantee. If the latter were so, then possession of a doctorate in the subject being taught would assure effectiveness in teaching youngsters. But there’s a big difference between knowing the subject and knowing the way to teach it in K-12.

Patience, however, has its limits, even among supporters of public schools. Frustrated and angry over the failure of too many inner-city and rural schools to improve student achievement results, critics have laid the blame squarely on the teacher certification process and, in turn, on the nation’s 1,300 schools of education. If teachers really knew their material, which is reflected in their rankings at graduation, they would be producing far better results with their students. At least that’s the assertion.

This disaffection was on display in May at Teach for America’s annual dinner in New York City. Corporate executives raised $5.5 million in a single night, reflecting the partnership that Teach for America has forged with Goldman Sachs, Google and other blue-chip companies.

But course credits and high marks, whether in academic or educational subjects, are no substitute for competencies. That goes for traditional or alternative certification because whatever research exists on the subject is tendency research. It means that teachers who possess certain credentials tend to be more successful in the classroom. Yet as superintendents know, teachers can ignore seemingly inviolate practices and still achieve remarkable results with their students. There’s something about their personality and style that makes them the equivalent of virtuosos. Admittedly, these teachers are not the rule, but they exist.

Skeptics need to consider the careers of such classroom luminaries as Frank McCourt, Pat Conroy and Jonathan Kozol, all accomplished authors. All three were iconoclasts whose behavior didn’t go down well with administrators. In fact, Conroy and Kozol were fired for their unconventional teaching practices, despite their success with their students, who had long ago been written off as hopeless. Only McCourt survived in the profession. It’s doubtful that these individuals’ college rankings, the selectivity of the colleges they attended or the kind of certification they held played a role.

Personal Qualities
Nevertheless, the myth persists that what it takes to excel in a marquee-name college is what it takes to be successful with a class of students. Even if superintendents were somehow able to establish a policy restricting the hiring of teachers to those who finished in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes at any accredited college — never mind at an elite college — it would be impossible to find enough candidates for the more than 53 million students in the nation’s public schools. The demand for teachers would simply outstrip the supply. It’s estimated 200,000 teachers will need to be hired annually over the next decade to keep pace with rising student enrollment and teacher retirements. As a result, certification provides at least minimal evidence of readiness for the classroom.

It’s time to put to rest the assumption there is predictive value in class standing, no matter where the cut score is set, and in the brand name of the college. What matters far more are the personal backgrounds of candidates and the school to which they will be assigned. That’s the kind of marriage every superintendent should bless.

Walt Gardner was a teacher for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education. E-mail: walt.gard@verizon.net