January 10, 2011

A Certified Experiment

Justin Katz

Responding to last-week's post about his press release critical of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist for not cracking down on the Democracy Prep charter school in Cumberland on the matter of uncertified teachers, state senator James Sheehan (D, Narragansett, North Kingstown) writes:

Please allow me to explain why certification matters. First, the notion that the problem with education/low test scores is poorly performing teachers is blatantly false. The greatest factor in a child's education is not a motivated or competent teacher (although they should be), it is motivated and involved PARENTS. This is a fact that Commissioner Gist and I disagree. Surely, folks of a politically conservative mindset should understand this point.

Democracy Prep hired uncertified teachers in violation of the law. The end does not justify the means if it requires breaking the law. Public charters may operate more freely of unions, but still must adhere to the law and regulations of the Department of Education. If there are aspiring teachers at Democracy Prep, they have to show that they meet some standards that the Department of Education (Commissioner Gist involved?) sets, not the standards that Democracy Prep imagines for itself. If these uncertified teachers are as good as they say they, surely they would have no problem acquiring certification, especially if it is as easy many say it is!

More importantly, there needs to be SOME standards. Take lawyers and doctors, they need to be Board certified. Are there some bad lawyers and docs out there, sure. Is the solution to eliminate Board certification altogether? Further, even the Commissioner agrees with me on this one as she has sought to STRENGTHEN, not eliminate, teacher certification standards.

I continue to be intrigued by teachers' protestation that they are not the "greatest factor" in education. If they truly believe that, then there should be no contest when budget battles come down to their raises versus tax increases. As income and property taxes grow, parents must either find additional income or trim their expenses, neither of which is conducive to involvement with their children's education.

Rhode Island already has a high proportion of private school students (which I learned when looking into SAT scores), and private-school teachers aren't legally required to be certified. One could argue, therefore, that involved parents are motivated to seek schools that don't necessarily boast certified teachers. Leaving them more money, after taxes, would surely do more to improve education results in Rhode Island than, say, binding arbitration for public-school teachers.

On the point about the law, well, Mr. Sheehan is a legislator, and inasmuch as Rhode Island ethical standards don't prevent him from introducing legislation that will affect him directly as a union-member and teacher, he could change the requirement for certification in charter schools. The law, in other words, is a subsequent consideration to my point, which was that charter schools are generally presented as laboratories in which to test approaches to education, and if they are able to attract students and educate them better and/or more inexpensively than public schools in general without necessarily hiring certified teachers, then that's surely an experiment worth conducting.

In the meantime, considering that teachers like Mr. Sheehan like to compare themselves with doctors and lawyers, it arguably makes sense to strengthen the requirements for them to acquire those lucrative positions in public schools. If, however, highly motivated parents would still rather place their children in the classrooms of teachers who have not run that gauntlet, then it would be clear that our assumptions must be off.


It begins to drift from the limited topic under consideration, but the notion of needing highly motivated parents has interesting repercussions for other education debates. If parental motivation is so critical, then sizable portions of public-school budgets ought to be devoted to involving them... perhaps by funding their children's sports programs and promoting such extracurricular activities as are often first on the chopping block when work-to-ruling teachers push for greater raises and preservation of unsustainable benefits.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

I think it's pretty clear that 'parents' matter more than 'teachers', but I don't want to live in the kind of world where the government starts policing parenting (any more than they currently do).

It's a cheap cop-out to blame the parents, the students, or the government. The fact is that we have the government we voted for, parents and students are 'fixed' assets, and teachers are the only thing that can be changed directly.

Posted by: mangeek at January 10, 2011 12:18 PM

Taxpayers: "UV exposure can give you cancer."
Teachers Union: "But cigarette smoking is a much bigger source of cancer!"
Taxpayers: "..."

Posted by: Dan at January 10, 2011 6:37 PM

Either parental involvement matters or it doesn't. Seems to me if the teachers in Barrington and East Greenwich can't take credit for successful students then the teachers at Hope High and Central Falls High aren't the problem after all.

Posted by: glockster at January 10, 2011 6:54 PM

What I like most about this debate in Rhode Island is that the populace seems to be fine with the idea that -NOBODY- is accountable for overall student outcomes.

You obviously can't force parents to be nurturing. You can't force students to be eager learners. You can't force government to do anything since it -is- the embodied will of the people. That leaves teachers... And in Rhode Island, the administrators are hamstrung by 'touchy-feely' regulations and contracts that make it impossible to hold bad teachers truly accountable for their work.

Posted by: mangeek at January 10, 2011 6:59 PM

"nd in Rhode Island, the administrators are hamstrung by 'touchy-feely' regulations and contracts that make it impossible to hold bad teachers truly accountable for their work."

Don't forget that almost all administrators were touchy-feely teachers prior to getting into administration. Heterogeneous classroom grouping comes from either RIDE or a district administrator. Can't get any more touchy-feely than that.

Posted by: glockster at January 10, 2011 7:12 PM

Justin, did you edit Senator Sheehan's note? I almost hope so, because after saying "Please allow me to explain why certification matters," he writes for three paragraphs and never offers any argument at all, other than it's a law.

I was hoping for more.

Posted by: David C at January 10, 2011 9:22 PM

Nope. I copied and pasted it (leaving out an irrelevant introductory sentence).

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 10, 2011 9:41 PM
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