In the colonial era, communities often vetted potential teachers by asking local ministers to judge their moral character.
The roots of today’s state certification system traces back to the early 1800s, according to a history by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. In its infancy, the process included basic examinations in a few core subjects. In 1834, Pennsylvania may have been the first state to mandate that teachers display competency in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Today, certification is far more complicated and formal. It typically centers on entrance tests and education requirements. The question is whether everything layered into the process over the last 200 years helps us separate the effective teachers from the ineffective ones.
Some experts are skeptical.
“In some ways, we’ve allowed this system to persist where all you have to do is get the paper qualification to have a career in teaching,” said Tom Kane, a professor of economics and education at Harvard University. “That’s not good for the profession.”
Kane co-authored a study that found the greatest predictor of future teacher excellence was the performance of that teacher’s students during their first few years in a classroom.
Kane believes a candidate’s level of training and education has some predictive power. But he believes it would be far better to let more people into the profession, study their effectiveness, and then use those measures to separate the wheat from the chaff.
And research shows that certification processes built around college GPA, postgraduate courses, and licensing exams disproportionately weed out prospective teachers of color.
Kane’s ideal licensure system would look more like the college tenure process — where final judgment happens after candidates spend some time on the job.