What Does a Teaching Credential Have to Do with Learning?

While I was writing my novel ReEnchantment: A Schoolboys' Adventure, one of the scenes I struggled with was when the mother, contemplating schooling her own child, has doubts about her ability to do the job. There are a number of motives at work in the character I developed, but unquestionably one of the major worries that besets her and most parents considering home schooling is whether they have the skill. I contend theirs is nothing more than a temporary lack of confidence. 

Teaching is not rocket science and there is plenty of good methodology out there for moms and dads to read about and use. What's so surprising is that most of the colleges that train the "real" teachers for our public and private schools don't pay attention to proven methods, and don't ask their undergrad students to explore or learn them.

This was one of the conclusions of Arthur Levine, former President of Columbia University's Teachers College, as he headed out the door to another job last year. Included was his opinion that a "majority of teacher education graduates are prepared in university-based programs that suffer from low admission and graduation standards." Is this what parents are fearful of not being equal to?

One of Levine's suggestions is that all teachers be required to go to college for five, not four years. In my mind that's playing fast and loose with somebody else's money; arbitrarily increasing the cost of a bachelors degree by 25%. In an era of already-too-large student loan balances, it's irresponsible.

When I was editor for a Diocesan department of schools' web site, one of the subjects I looked at was the dilemma Catholic Schools faced in marketing themselves to their public. For years, credentials have been one of the badges public instruction has worn to strengthen the impression that legitimate education can only happen in a classroom lead by a licensed teacher.

Catholic Schools were initially staffed by teaching orders in the persons of nuns and brothers. As the ranks of those orders thinned, these schools looked to lay teachers to fill the gaps. In a number of Catholic and other parochial schools, the lay persons in the classroom were oftentimes chosen because of their beliefs and compatibility with the mission of the school; and the issue of having a credential was often ignored or secondary to the teachers' demonstrated ability.

Eventually parents began asking about "credentials", and school administrators, worried that their staffs would not appear professional to questioning parents, initiated policies that would require even mature and proven instructors to get a certificate. Was it necessary? Because if it wasn't and isn't, then a lot of money and time and frustration has been needlessly wasted.

 The issue of whether a teacher need have a credential in order to be effective goes right to the subject of whether a parent can succeed in being the primary educator of his or her children, especially in the context of home schooling.

Frederick Hess has been a high school teacher and member of the faculty at the University of Virginia and Harvard. I've read his contributions to the conversation about education for years. In a published paper that appears under various titles but consistently includes the phrase "Tear Down This Wall", Dr. Hess continues his argument that licensing is irrelevant to the assurance that what happens in a classroom will be any different with a teacher who has a credential, than with a teacher who has not taken the extra courses and paid the fees currently required.

As he states, "Debate rages over what the best pedagogical strategies are, and even proponents of the existing system cannot define a clear set of concrete skills that make for a good teacher. Despite the absence of widely accepted pedagogical standards, aspiring teachers are forced to run an academic gauntlet of courses, requirements, and procedures created by accredited training programs that vary dramatically in quality. The prospect of spending substantial time and money on preparation and courses of study that may bear little relation to what it takes to be a good teacher discourages some talented people from entering the profession."

And that's a major issue with Hess. He's worried that the demand for good teachers, given the retirements of the existing workforce and rising enrollments, isn't going to be met with the system now in place that gives teacher's colleges monopolies on training and certifying. He proposes a new method and criteria for qualifying a teacher and it's beautiful in its simplicity. In order to apply for a job one would have to: a) have a college degree; b) pass an examination of essential skills and content knowledge that would obviously vary by grade level and academic discipline; and c) pass a criminal background check.

Hess' model emphasizes on-the-job training "as is true in other professions where subtle skills and interpersonal dynamics are essential to effective performance." He adds that his plan would allow for teachers to make their own informed decisions about what skills and expertise need development.

Kate Walsh is currently the director of The National Council on Teacher Quality. While a senior analyst with The Abell Foundation, Ms. Walsh wrote in a report titled Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling for Quality that "certification deems substandard all uncertified candidates, no matter what other attributes they possess, including those attributes that research correlates with effective teaching." You may read the entire report as a PDF document from the Spring 2002 issue of Education Next.

Findings like Hess's and Walsh's are "outside the box" of the traditional education school approach to teaching, especially Walsh's determination that two things stand out as characteristic of effective teachers: solid core subject knowledge and good communications skills. That's it! Not advanced degrees. Not classroom size. Not computer labs. Not even the age of the teacher. But experience can matter.

Now, what does effectiveness at teaching mean? It means having and being able to present and explain a body of knowledge to students in a way that resonates with the students, interests them, and is retained in a manner that the students demonstrate by giving proper responses when tested on that knowledge. How are good communications skills of value in this? They are the written and verbal skills necessary to capture the attention of the student and transmit the knowledge in an understandable way.

If you think about it, you can probably recall your favorite teacher or someone from whom you learned a great deal in school, and remember that person as engaging, interesting, verbally ebullient and outgoing, with lots of stories to tell. That could also describe an aunt, grandfather or loving parent.

When I asked Frederick Hess if he had published anything on home schooling, he admitted that he hasn't taken the opportunity to focus on it yet. But what he and Kate Walsh describe as the criteria for being an effective teacher is what many parents demonstrate daily as they prepare themselves for the task of teaching their children at home, and fulfilling their role as the primary educator in those children's lives.

In my book, one of the characters is encouraged by another with the Latin words es fortem. It's a directive to be brave.

Mom and Dad — you can do this.

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  • Guest

    I agree, credentials don't say it all. In forming and working with catechists I have found the best ones are not necessarily classroom teachers from public schools, who often are too rigid and cannot see the difference between faith formation and mastery of academic content. They are also way too hung up on tests and afraid to try new things, and do not stray much from the textbook. My best catechists are parents who are involved with kids, their own and others, in various ways outside the classroom–coaching, counselling, scouts, sports, babysitting etc., and whose own children are well-behaved, interested in learning, and in whom a strong faith is already being nourished. The one "credential" that is essential is a strong lived faith, which cannot be measured, quantified or tested.

  • Guest

    I agree no credential is necessary to be an effective teacher, however, on the job training is very important, esp with classroom management, in a public or private school setting.  Management is just as important as content knowledge.  Dealing with someone else's undisciplined kids sure can make teaching a real challenge.

  • Guest

    I take exception to this article's assertion that credentials and training aren't important in forming teachers.

    For one, most parents use text books and curriculums that have been prepared based on research and pedagogy.  The parents have to read the manuals to learn how to teach their kids.  I truly believe that excellent educators are "natural born" teachers, however, there are skills and methods important to teaching various subjects.  Also, it is important to know how children learn,ie, how the brain works.

    Children with special needs,in particular, need teachers with specialized training. A major pitfall I have observed in homeschooling families is that parents fail to recognize a child's very real learning disabilities.  Those children's needs aren't met.  I think it is sinful to deny children the professional help they need because you are too prideful to either acknowlege the problem or because you think you are a "one man band".

    I have been homeschooling for 12 years and I now have a child in college who is very successful.  My two public schooled high schoolers are achieving at a high level too, so I do believe homeschooling can prepare children for institutional settings and the work force.  However, I credit some of my success as a homeschool teacher to the fact that I was a trained HS teacher before I taught at home.  I knew what to look for in curriculum.  Further, my mother is a highly trained reading specialist who taught for 40+ years.  It is absurd to diminish her years of training and experience as unimportant in teaching kids.  One reason I have succeeded in teaching is because she has shared her vast knowlege of the pedagogy of reading with me.

    Also, my first two kids went to an institutional school for several years before I started homeschooling them.  I always tell new homeschooling moms that I learned valuable lessons in how to teach younger kids because of my kids' experience.  For example, in teaching math to first graders I learned about fact families and doubles plus one, and their importance in helping kids become "fluent" in math skills.  (Examples abound).  Here's another example. One of my children needed speech therapy because frequent ear infections in her first year interfered with hearing and speech development during critical developmental stages.  She has an IEP for speech and I attend therapy with her twice a week.  I have learned valuable lessons in how to work with her that I would never have figured out but for the certified speech therapist.  Also, it excited me to learn about how people acquire speech and how to "teach" speaking.

    I have always approached homeschooling with a certain humility that I not only can't reinvent the wheel, that is do the research, process it,  and come up with a pedagody, but that it is not in the best interest of my children to deny the fact that I am not a trained teacher.  (I'm also not a trained lawyer, doctor, stock broker, airline pilot, or massage therapist.  As good a lawyer as my husband is, I would go to a certified massage therapist if I needed a real massage…which by the way I do need after the stress hormones released by reading this article.)

    I am primarily upset because I think children are being hurt by the hubris of parents who think they can do it all.   Certification in any field demonstrates to third parties that one has a particular standardized skill set important to accomplish a given task.  Sure, many parents are able to learn how to educate children at home and some aren't for whatever reason.  All of them will use pedagogical strategies that certified educators constructed.

    As my husband, the lawyer tells me, "Sure, one can write one's own contract for free or one can pay me a relatively small amount now and I'll draft it.  Very often it is a case of pay me now or pay me a greater sum later."  The educational process is no different.  However, children should not have to pay the price of parents who don't know how to teach.

  • Guest

    elkabrikir, I understand what you're saying.  But I just cannot blanket agree with you. 

    Here's my own "dilemma."

    Ultimately, when I go back to work, I would love to teach high school physics.  Heck, if it is in a Catholic school, I would love to teach theology as well.  (I wouldn't mind working on a masters in theology if it was needed.)

    I graduated in 1995 and 1997 with 2 bachelors and a masters degree in science and engineering.  I have the "expertise covered". 

    I also recognize that I have a general talent for taking something complicated and representing it more understandably.  I do not claim to know all possible techniques of teaching, and would learn just as much more.

    When I will go back to teaching, I do not know, but most likely not until my youngest is in middle or high school (so…at least not for another 8 or 10 years…AT LEAST).  That's 2016?

    I can tell you right now that I have 0 desire to go through the redtape and the useless courses they now have for getting one's teaching certification.  The cost is one thing.  But the senseless garbage they pass these days (I know…my sister-in-law is going through it now) as needed for teaching is…well…useless.  Mindnumbing. 

    So what are my options?  Schools that recognize that teaching certification may be a good thing, but it certainly isn't a STAMP of QUALITY.  There are people out there…especially in the sciences and in math…that know their stuff and are wonderful with explaining things to children.  To require they also pay and work for a teaching certification pretty much guarantees that they will pass this important line of work for something that is more financially fruitful. 

    My options are private schools.  At least, for now, they do not REQUIRE certification – and use a case-by-case decision process to do what is best for their school.  If I want to teach in a Catholic school, it will have to be a private Catholic school (no parocial!), which pretty much narrows the field down considerably. 

    And why?

    Because of a false conception that certification guarantees quality.

  • Guest

    Professional programs will not "make a good teacher", but it will make a "better teacher".  But this is true of any profession.  Practice will make me a better athlete, but it may not make me better than an athlete with more talent.  Does that mean we shouldn't try to grow professionally?  I think not!

  • Guest


    Because of the nature of a "post" forum, I couldn't make every point I wanted to state. Your point is well taken.  Many states allow specialists in math and the sciences to bipass the certification process other teachers are required to fulfill.

    Some of these experts from other fields who cross over into the K-12 grade levels are outstanding.  You, yourself, said you believe you have natural teaching ability.  My daughter's Chemistry teacher came from the corporate world and she is not only a brilliant scientist, but also a skilled teacher.  Once in the educational system, she pursued education courses to help make her even more effective and increase her income.  I credit HER for my daughter's success in IB Chemistry and desire to major in  Chemistry at the university level.

    Many blessings to you as you try to help children.  It sounds like you know how to "bond" with them and desire to do so.  Thank you.

  • Guest

    Elkabrikur: I urge you to take another look at the article; and read the links that I referred to. Dr. Levine was the head of Columbia University's Teachers College. His parting remarks were not complimentary. Frederick Hess and Kate Walsh are no slouches in the arena of "pedagogy" although they do take opposing positions to a lot of the stuff that supports the status quo on how we develop teachers and guide curriculum in the country. Certainly, taking on a role of teacher is a challenge. But Hess's criteria — simply stated and emphasized here — is that solid subject knowledge is far more important than 30 hours of course work emphasizing the history of teaching. In other articles Hess writes about the lost year of employment — translate income — that the extra year of college costs the student [teacher to be]. The main point to remember is that kids are not doing well in school at a cost that is in some states astronomical. I think the risk to having an uneducated public and workforce is more than enough reason to look at the studies that are in the public domain, and think in other ways than what we have tried and failed at with our assumptions that a credential signifies that the job will be done well. It just isn't born out by the facts. 

  • Guest

    Having worked as both a public school teacher and a director of faith formation, I have found that the best teachers are the most structured teachers. They know how to manage a classroom and they know how to teach kids how to learn in a structured way. Despite the stigma against "rigidity," the fact is that youth NEED structure. We can't expect them to simply learn it themselves! And tests are NOT a bad thing! Good teachers use tests to measure whether students have learned what has been taught. If there is a question that a large number of students answered incorrectly, then the teacher needs to re-examine his/her method of teaching that concept.

    Also, tests add "accountability" to a curriculum. In other words, it holds students accountable for the information that is being taught. Believe it or not, learning isn't always fun, and many (if not most) people would rather not be in a classroom learning whatever you're teaching. If you don't hold them accountable in some way for the information being taught, they won't learn it. And if you don't employ techniques to measure whether students have learned what has been taught, you WON'T EVEN KNOW if you're being an effective teacher!

    The top 5%-10% of students don't need tests because they would learn the material whether they were tested on it or not. But the lower level learners DO need that accountability, otherwise they will choose not to learn. What a crime that is to let the ones who need that structured learning the most slip through the cracks!

  • Guest

    As a public school teacher, I know firsthand that the university-level teaching prep classes are virtually useless — that's where on-the-job training would be most useful.  It's the content that one teaches where the university-level education is so important; however, a highly motivated parent, willing to do the research and thinking, would be perfectly capable of teaching literary analysis, etc., to his/her child.  There are thousands of good sources that actual teachers use every day that are easily accessible to homeschooling parents.  A really good one is AP Central (excellent resource; I can't think of the URL right now, but a Google search would easily access it).  Most state depts of education would have a link for homeschoolers; Oklahoma's has one).  I have nothing but respect and admiration for homeschooling parents.  Some of my brightest students have come to my classroom from a homeschooling environment.

  • Guest

    I understand the sentiment here on both sides.  But really, who would go to an un-licensed doctor?  A non-bar recognized attorney?  An un-registered architect?  Do any of these credentials make for better professionals?  I'm guessing not.  But like all things in life there are hoops to be jumped through, they separate the professionals from the dabblers.  Those who really want to teach will get the certifications.  Those who don't will do something else.

    I have a college degree, could probably pass a test of basic elementary content, and have a clean criminal record.  But I have not a clue as to what the educational milestones are of a seventh grader.  No clue what an "A" essay might look like versus a "C" essay in the fourth grade.  Little to no enlightenment to the maturity levels of children beyond my own preschool kids.

    I admire homeschoolers for their dedication to Catholic identity and character/faith formation.  But I agree that humility must be added to know limitations and seek outside resources.

  • Guest

    Yes, but we do not have the president of a medical college who, upon leaving the college, boldly asserts that the education the docs are getting there is unrelated to their perfomance on the job, do we?

  • Guest

    Ken, you said

     In my book, one of the characters is encouraged by another with the Latin words es fortem. It's a directive to be brave.

    Mom and Dad — you can do this.


    I took that statement as the main point of your article.  Since there is no research as regarding the efficacy of homeschooling or the effect of parents who "paint by the numbers", so to speak, we don't know objectively what the picture in the aggregate looks like.

    Further, you pointed out several individuals who had negative comments regarding the education of teachers.  Could you find no one to speak on behalf of   the value of teachers learning how to teach?  To give a parallel example, there are plenty of fallen away Catholics and laicized priest who could lambast the Church.

    As I said, I homeschool my kids. (I'm homeschooling 4 children this year and schooled 5 last year.)  I pointed out that homeschooling parents use curriculum prepared by certified educators.  Every single curriculum I've ever seen empasizes its credentials.  So, regardless of whether a parent it certified, they are relying on a system based on established norms of pegagody and certification.

    I stand by my original post.  I think you could be doing children a grave disservice by telling parents es fortem and have faith!  After all, did you learn to write in a vaccuum?


  • Guest


    In all honesty, I would, if I did my own research into the PERSON.  We did some massive home improvements and additions.  Something I would be nervous about any CERTIFIED contractor and architect and laborer and electrician and plumber and and and…

    It was a huge project.

    Instead, we hired my father.  He did not get an education past high school.  He's retired now, having spent most of his life working at companies "fixing big machinery".  He has an intuition about such things.  But he has no degree or certification at all.  His work was beautiful, and even the inspectors praised that they rarely see such craftsmanship.

    If schools honestly care to teach children with the best teachers, they need to roll up their sleeves and look at ALL their options…not just using some useless "certification" to narrow down their search.  By doing so, they are cutting out some seriously good candidates.

    Teaching isn't for everyone.

    But it isn't just for the certified either.

  • Guest

    Internet resources help, structure, organization skills help. And other things too. But they don't make a good teacher, and never will, because they cannot put in the heart of the teacher what she needs to be a good teacher.

    A good teacher is made in her heart. She puts her loving heart into her teaching. A heart filled with love, virtue, a heart of service, of forgetting of oneself, of dedication.

    I love homeschooling, and I am not a good teacher everyday, as I believe few are. But the good homeschool days, aah, these are precious.

    Our two oldest are at Notre Dame, and the went to Diocesan High School for the most part–their good teachers loved them, and they loved their good teachers.

  • Guest

    Take heart homeschoolers.  There IS evidence regarding academic achiement in homeschooling.  A 1997 study by Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Research Institute found that home educated students excelled on nationally-normed standard achievement exams.  On average, homeschoolers outperformed their public school peers by 30-37% points across all subjects. see http://www.nheri.org.  Home educated students' maintained scores between 80-88% average regardless of whether their mothers had a college degree or did not finish high school. Those of us who choose to homeschool find the spiritual and character formation much more satisfying than their academic success.

  • Guest


    This is such a good point.  Sometimes we have to take a step back and look at the big picture.  Do we really think that what God wants us to "kill ourselves" (either as teachers going through very unnecessary hoops for certification…or as parents going through very unnecessary and pricey hoops) trying to get our children the most rigorous academics?  If the faith is lost or remains stagnant through it all, what a waste of time, money, energy, and all that is good. 

    Yes, we must do the best we can with whatever it is we are doing.  But if parents are the PRIMARY TEACHERS (not just of the faith!) of their children, God must have a plan to make it possible.  There must be a way, and it isn't just closing your eyes and wishing on faith.  But it isn't ridiculous bleeding of money for a piece of paper that means you had some very questionable training.

    I'm not saying no training is necessary.  As a homeschooler (or a teacher in general), one has an obligation to continued education.  Even as a housewife, I have an obligation to continued education.  But that does not mean I have to ENROLL somewhere and get a piece of paper (certificate) to get it. 

    People need to begin to think outside the very rigid (and sometimes arbitrary) box.

  • Guest


    I, too, was not an undergraduate education major, but I took some masters level education courses so that I could teach while my husband was in law school.  I taught several–horrible–years in some of the worst inner city schools.  We then started our family and I let my certification lapse.  It would take about 6 credit hours to be recertified.  However, I doubt I'll ever teach in an institutional setting again (other than Faith Formation).

    I am NOT an apologist for the way teachers are educated or for the continuing ed they receive.  Some of the most inane course I ever took were through the education department.  My daughter, who is a biology major at the university level notices the obvious difference between her workload and its complexity versus that of education majors.

    My main concern was what I believed Ken's assertion to be, "Hey mom and dad, there's nothing to teaching, anybody can do it!" I won't repeat my previous posts.  Many, many children can learn with highly motivated parents who have limited education and rely on teacher's manuals.  However, my concern is for the kids, and I've seen plenty of homeschooled kids in this category, who need special help because of learning disabilities or other special needs.  Even my mother, the reading specialist, wouldn't claim to know the best methods for teaching kids with special needs outside her area, and she doesn't represent herself as a special ed teacher.

    I agree with everything you have said especially the part that refers to excellent teachers as "natural born" teachers.  However, when millions of children need to be educated in this tremendous experiment called "Public Education" some sort of certification process is required.  Have the "educrats" gotten it right, yet?  I don't think so. But, mankind has never seen universal education before in its history.  Certainly this experiment is a work in progress that requires oversight and quite the genius in order to succeed. 

  • Guest


    "initiated policies that would require even mature and proven instructors to get a certificate. Was it necessary? Because if it wasn’t and isn’t, then a lot of money and time and frustration has been needlessly wasted."

    This erroneous infatuation with credentials has spread throughout society and is having a debilitating effect on quality of workers in many areas. 
    Initially this began in the information technology arena as it became increasingly difficult to find people who had really mastered the intricacies of "insert your favorite operating system". 
    Part of the response was to institute a system of certifications for systems and network engineers.  In the beginning these certificates might have held real value and conveyed real meaning.  However, matters have progressed to the point where the industry is now administering live tests of candidates to determine if they are really savy about their field.  A deliberate error is introduced and the candidate is challenged to find the error and fix it. 
    The certificate, the credential, has become effectively worthless as far as signaling true ability.
    For the value of a credential to be re-established someone needs to put their reputation on the line that the certified individual is truly capable. 
    This is hard to do in pedagogy.  Unlike the classical Romans who decreed that the bridge engineer stand under the arch as the scaffolding was removed, there is no way to visit the consequences of poor performance on a classroom instructor, teacher or professor.
    (In case you are wondering, Roman bridge engineers were the best, the ones that survived that is.)
    My thought is it is time to revive apprenticeships.

    Old Sigma (Cradle Catholic [Latin rite] & generally inveterate amateur)