This article first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer.
RALEIGH – Last week the state Board of Education voted to strip some funding from charter schools that fail to meet state teacher licensing requirements. Current rules specify that 75 percent of elementary school and 50 percent of middle and high school teachers in charter schools must be licensed or certified by the state, but many schools fall short of those percentages. Now, such schools risk having state dollars withheld, and even the possibly of a state-imposed shutdown.
The argument the education establishment uses to support the need for certification and licensure is a familiar one: Only licensed teachers have the skills and training to properly educate our students. Therefore, only licensed teachers should be in the classroom.
Still, saying something over and over doesn’t make it true, especially when research fails to establish any credible link between certification and student performance.
The National Council on Teacher Quality (www.nctq.org), a well-respected education reform group, says teacher quality is more dependent on personal attributes — intelligence, motivation, level of literacy and writing ability — than certification or years of experience. A 2005 study by the John Locke Foundation compared teacher certification and student performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress mathematics exam for all 50 states. Researchers concluded that teacher certification did not improve test scores.
IN NORTH CAROLINA WE’VE INVESTED HEAVILY IN THE THEORY that says better trained teachers improve student performance. That was the thinking that won over the General Assembly in 1995 when it passed legislation to award teachers who earn National Board Professional Teaching Standards certification automatic salary increases of 12 percent — yes, 12 percent. North Carolina now has over 11,300 NBPTS-certified teachers, the most of any state.
Has it made any difference? Education researchers (Harris and Sass, 2006) found that NBPTS-certified math teachers in Florida are more effective only with high-achieving students. When the same teachers worked with students from low-socioeconomic status, researchers found no difference in effectiveness between certified and noncertified teachers.
An army of 11,000 certified teachers is certainly large enough to have a significant impact. If we take a general look at the data, the news is not good. Over half of North Carolina schools still fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals under No Child Left Behind. It was recently reported that North Carolina is the only state among 39 states tested to experience a significant decline in scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress writing exam. Why are scores for ABC, NAEP and SAT tests flat or declining?
The education establishment says certification is one of the keys to raising student achievement. If true, student performance in districts or schools with a higher percentage of certified teachers should outpace those districts or schools whose faculties have lower percentages. A cursory check of data from the Department of Public Schools’ N.C. Report Cards Web site reveals no visible link between the percentage of fully licensed or certified teachers and student performance on state tests.
A review of data from two schools in Wake County is instructive.
Sixty percent of the students at Garner High School have passing scores on the state End-of-Course exams (the state average is 66 percent). Ninety-five percent of the teachers at the school are classified as "fully licensed."
LAST YEAR, NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE NAMED RALEIGH CHARTER HIGH SCHOOL one of the top 50 high schools in the nation. Ninety-five percent of Raleigh Charter students passed state End-of-Course tests, one of the highest percentages in the state. Only 53 percent of the school’s teachers are classified as "fully licensed." The new state Board of Education rule would penalize Raleigh Charter if the school loses just a small number of certified teachers. Is the board more concerned with employing certified teachers or educating students?
The 27,000 students in North Carolina charter schools and more than 5,000 students on charter school waiting lists speak to the public’s growing support for charter schools. New penalties for schools that don’t employ the sufficient number of certified teachers lack a basis in logic and research and diminish the flexibility and innovative teaching methods that have contributed to the popularity and success of charter schools.
When all is said and done, the rule change isn’t about accountability and it won’t improve student performance. What it does give the Department of Public Instruction and the teachers association something they’ve wanted all along: greater control over charter schools. And, when that happens, charter schools aren’t the only ones who lose.