Association of Teacher Qualification and Certification is a False One

Terrence Moore

September 1, 2003

The great English philosopher John Locke warned the world of the psychological phenomenon known as the association of ideas. Whenever two elements that have no natural connection are nonetheless presented to the mind simultaneously, the mind often associates them. Once an association is made, it is almost impossible to break. A child who is bitten by a cat, for example, may hate cats his whole life. His mind has associated cats with pain. Locke feared that false associations made by public opinion have an adverse effect on the entire society. He called upon intelligent people to examine the unquestioned associations of their culture. Most famously, he challenged the association between fatherly rule in the home and patriarchal rule in the society (kingship) and thus became the Founding Fathers’ favorite philosopher.

The danger of the association of ideas is still prevalent today. Everyone who tries to sell something is attempting to create an association in people’s minds that may flatly contradict the truth. Beer commercials feature women falling all over themselves to talk to a man who orders a certain kind of beer in a bar. They never show a drunk driver crashing his car or a college kid vomiting in a toilet or an overweight man drinking beer and belching while watching television on the couch, all far more likely results of beer-drinking.

The world of education has its share of false associations. The most egregious is probably the association between teacher certification and teacher qualification. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education has tried to break this false association. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has alerted the nation to the shortage of qualified teachers in this country. Qualified here refers to whether a person has a mastery of the subject matter he teaches. Not only are there fewer qualified teachers entering the job market, but a considerable number of certified, veteran teachers are in no way qualified to teach their subjects. Predictably, career administrators and teachers’ unions around the nation fulminate against these common-sense observations that have been decades in coming. They claim that teachers can only become qualified by first becoming certified. Let us examine the case for certified teachers.

Certification is granted to anyone who passes through one of the nation’s schools of education. True, certification is usually state-specific, but there are all kinds of agreements that allow a certified teacher in one state to move to another. The programs across the country are virtually the same. Students entering the education major have the lowest average SAT scores relative to other majors, usually around 900. For four years these students take classes in their major of dubious value. Half of them deal with child psychology or progressive pedagogy taught at the most basic level through mind-numbing textbooks. The other courses offer instruction in the most mundane aspects of teaching, such as making bulletin boards and using audio-visual equipment.

Those ed-school students who hope to teach in the middle and high schools also take courses in their “content area,” whether math or history or literature. These classes, however, are in large part only the introductory classes to the subject. A student might take a year of World History but not more specialized courses for majors such as “The French Revolution,” “The History of Greece and Rome,” and “The Revolution and Constitution.” The ed-school student who concentrates in history takes only about two-thirds of the classes in the subject he will teach compared to the history major. Moreover, part of the concentration may be satisfied by classes called something like “Teaching High School Mathematics” that are housed in the education school. The level of math in these courses is nothing compared to those taught in the actual mathematics department. Finally, ed-school students, because of the tremendous number of courses they must take in their department, are less able to take electives that would improve their understanding of the subject they will teach, in the case of history, literature, languages, and economics. Anyone who doubts the validity of these claims is free to read Rita Kramer’s Ed School Follies.

When I taught history at the university level, I noticed an extreme division in my classes. The history majors reveled in the subject, did all the reading, and had significant things to say in class. The ed-school students sat at the back of the class, had little to say, showed little sign of enjoying or mastering the material, and usually skimmed by with a C minus. Which group is more qualified to teach history to the nation’s children?

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is the Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins.