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Talent vs. Training: Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers

by Gary Gordon, EdD
Global Practice Leader, Education Division

Could Alan Greenspan teach economics at your high school?

In most states, the chairman of the Federal Reserve could not teach economics because he has no formal teacher training, and new standards set for "highly qualified teachers" by the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law would make it even more difficult for Greenspan to teach in a high school classroom. Oddly enough, Greenspan could teach at any of the nation's state and private universities.

But a controversial proposal by the Texas educator-certification board, which may go into effect next month, would make it much easier for Greenspan to teach in Texas high schools. The proposed program would grant a two-year teacher certificate to people with bachelor's degrees and passing scores on subject matter and teaching tests. This approach is controversial because it bypasses not only the traditional university teaching coursework, but also the well-established alternative teacher certification programs in Texas.

Debates about teacher certification raise fundamental questions about teacher qualifications. How important is certification to producing good teachers? And is there an alternative approach to certification that might serve new teachers better?

Early Identification of Talent

The whole certification debate is largely moot if the wrong people are going into teaching in the first place. Gallup's research, spanning more than 30 years in education and the private sector, suggests that individuals with teaching talent develop that talent well before they enter a university or alternative certification program. Separate from skills and knowledge, talents are the intangibles usually thought of as "the art of teaching." Talent distinguishes outstanding performance from average performance.

Previous Gallup research indicates that teaching talent can be identified early. Gallup administered its teacher talent assessment to college sophomores and juniors who intend to apply to colleges of education. Whether the assessment was administered before or after the students took any teacher preparation courses, strong performance on the assessment predicted successful first-year teaching performance.

Certified vs. Uncertified Teachers

Developmental research for Gallup's new teacher selection tool also provides some interesting comparisons between certified and non-certified teacher applicants. Between March and June of 2003, participating districts asked nearly 11,000 certified and more than 2,500 non-certified people to complete Gallup's selection tool, which indicates whether individuals have the talents similar to those of the best teachers.

Researchers found similar levels of performance among the certified and non-certified individuals. The score distributions (the range of scores from high to low) were similar for the two groups of applicants. The reliability scores proved similar*, meaning that within both groups, members responded consistently to similar question items. A statistically significant difference was found between the average score for certified teachers and the average score for those without certifications, with certified applicants scoring 63.85 (out of a possible 100) and non-certified applicants scoring 62.25 -- however, the difference of 1.6 doesn't have much practical significance.

What does all this mean? Essentially, the applicant study provides evidence that teaching talent seems to exist equally in both certified and non-certified applicants.

What About the Alternatives?

If the traditional certification track is not especially helpful in producing great teachers, can alternative approaches be more effective?

Many universities offer alternative certification routes side by side with their traditional programs. In some states, alternative programs supply the majority of bilingual and special education applicants each year. The requirements of alternative-route programs vary widely, but all credible programs provide course training, practicum experience, intense supervision, close mentoring, and continued coursework in the teaching assignment. Usually, their main point of distinction from traditional teacher certification is that individuals with a bachelor's degree in a subject area concentrate on specialized coursework and training, bypassing many of the education courses common in university-based programs.

Even well-respected alternative licensure programs are criticized by observers who claim they lack intellectual rigor and undermine the professionalism of teaching. But given that so many talented teachers (one study found almost half) leave the profession within their first five years, the greater focus of many alternative-route programs on intensive, on-the-job support for newly placed teachers is likely to pay off. A "residency" period for new teachers in the classroom setting would help reduce attrition. Indeed, a 2003 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future states that "teachers without induction support leave the profession at a rate almost 70% higher than those who received it."

Bottom Line

Should Greenspan teach economics at your high school? It depends on whether he has the talent and a good alternative-route program to provide support and the ability to grow as a teacher.

*As measured by Cronbach's Alpha, with a correlation coefficient of .78 for certified and .76 for non-certified applicants.


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