News: CJ Exclusives

Charter Certification Change Could Have Far-Reaching Effect

Charters can hire more teachers who did not get degrees from ed schools

A small change in a North Carolina law affecting charter schools could have a major impact on teacher education in North Carolina.

This summer, the General Assembly rewrote the rules governing charter schools. A compromise between the House and Senate determined that only 50 percent of charter schools’ teachers must be state-certified.

That means principals are free to hire whomever they think will do the best job to fill the other 50 percent of teaching positions, whether they have a state license or not. Those teachers could be retired chemists, college professors, lawyers, or professional tutors. (See Editor’s Note at the end of this story.)

The change could have an impact well beyond charter schools. It could introduce competition into the training of teachers.

Graduation from an accredited education school is necessary to get a state license, and until now most schools required teachers to have a state license (or else they had to begin a long and costly alternative-entry process). Only private schools are completely free to hire whom they want. Until the new rules went into effect, charter schools had even tighter restrictions on hiring: 75 percent of teachers in elementary schools and 50 percent of teachers in high schools had to hold a state certification. Moreover, until recently, there was a cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state, limiting hiring options even more.

Yet education schools — including UNC schools, which produce one third of North Carolina’s teachers — have been under fire. A study initiated by former UNC president Erskine Bowles found that Teach for America graduates were more effective in the classroom after a six-week summer program than were recent education graduates of UNC schools. A recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality, an independent group, gave most of UNC’s ed schools mediocre ratings.

For some school principals, the certification requirement is a negative rather than a positive. Robert Luddy, founder of a popular charter school in Wake Forest and the private Thales Academy schools, says, “Many of our best teachers are not licensed, but they are highly qualified.”

The UNC Board of Governors has set as a high priority the production of competent teachers from UNC schools. Yet the fact that students must take education school courses to get a license gives education schools an almost guaranteed market — which could lead faculty to become complacent about their responsibilities.

UNC education schools (and most teacher training institutions) are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. NCATE has been the subject of withering criticism.

In a 2008 Pope Center paper, George Cunningham, a retired professor of education at the University of Louisville, argued that NCATE is “in the grip of progressive education theorists” and that its evaluations “use criteria that fail to emphasize academic achievement.” Other experts point out that the load of paperwork is extremely heavy, yet none of it involves actually measuring student accomplishment.

One school that decided to drop teacher certification a few years ago had something of an epiphany from the experience — its educators feel that it is better off now than it was. In 2007, the state of Michigan announced that it would no longer accredit programs, and Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, Mich., didn’t want to adopt NCATE as the accreditor.

Daniel Coupland, an associate professor of education at Hillsdale, says that once the decision to end accreditation was made, “we realized that many of our existing courses had been developed only to meet the state’s onerous standards, which had tightly controlled what was taught in teacher education courses.” The department eliminated methods and “educational psychology and technology” courses; emphasized taking courses in a student’s major (that is, a discipline like history or math, not education); started a new course on teaching English grammar; and revitalized courses such as the philosophy of education and phonics.

Education schools, of course, have their defenders. The dean of a private education school in North Carolina points out that all the education schools in the state have just gone through a major “re-visioning” process that should make them more effective.

It is unlikely that certification will disappear entirely any time soon. The public may prefer state-approved licensure for teachers in traditional public schools. With thousands of teachers hired every year, the public assumes that certification assures at least a minimum of quality. Whether it does remains a topic of debate, as the criticism indicates.

In any case, for charter schools, which are supposed to allow more experimentation than traditional district schools, freeing up of the hiring process has begun.

Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Pope Center intern Zachary Williams provided additional reporting for this story.

Editor’s Note: In the final hours of the legislative session, the General Assembly changed the percentage of charter school teachers who need certification to 50 percent. This story was corrected after it was posted initially to reflect that change.