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Cool People You Should Know: Richard Ingersoll

Richard Ingersoll is a sociologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies teacher quality, teacher retention, and how schools make use of teachers once they are on the job.

Last weekend, Ingersoll presented a talk out at Notre Dame called, "Misdiagnosing the Teacher Quality Problem," which unpacked three common ideas about the roots of the teacher quality problem: 1) entry requirements are too restrictive; 2) we are plagued by teacher shortages, and 3) upgrading training and certification standards is the central issue in preparing highly qualified teachers. You can read the whole policy brief here, but I want to focus here on Ingersoll's take on the first issue - the idea that the core of the teacher problem is that the entry barriers to teaching are too high - because it's received a lot of attention this week. (See Kristof, Carey, and Glaeser.)

Ingersoll's take is a comparative one - one that looks both across nations and across other professions within the United States. So how restrictive are other countries about who they allow to teach? Compared to a range of countries - from Asian nations like Korea, Japan, and Signapore to European countries - our barriers to entry are among the least restrictive out there. (See, for example, A Comparative Study of Teacher Qualifications in Six Nations.) And compared to a variety of other occupations and professions - teaching also has low entry barriers.

So the interesting question, Ingersoll argues, is why scrutiny on teacher qualifications has received so much attention, "Scrutiny of the value added by entry requirements is, of course, useful from the perspective of the public interest. But, such scrutiny also appears to be highly selective....Typically for most occupations, there is little or no empirical research done assessing the value added of practitioners having a particular credential, license or certification." Certainly there are people who would be good lawyers, good doctors, good professors, and good plumbers, but we rarely hear policymakers question licensing for these professions. Why, Ingersoll asks, is teaching so different?

That's something about which I've thought a lot. I can think of two major reasons:

1.) People are convinced that anybody who is smart and works hard can be a good teacher -- and, therefore, that entry barriers prevent potential good teachers from teaching.

2.) Everybody thinks they're an expert on schools b/c they spent a considerable portion of their life in one -- and, therefore, they feel comfortable critiquing them in ways they wouldn't critique the design of the latest nuclear plant or specifics of the latest supreme court ruling.

Corey's second point is apt: everyone knows teachers, has seen what they do, has been taught by a teacher, and/or has had kids taught by a teacher. What teachers do, for the most part, is less esoteric than what lawyers and doctors do, and it's easier for everyone to form an opinion about certification or other screening mechanisms.

Anyway, the real lesson here isn't that we need less scrutiny of the (virtually zero) value of teacher certifications and training programs; it's that we need more scrutiny of other professions and their barriers to entry. (Few lawyers could truthfully say that taking the bar exam was a useful measure of their ability to be a lawyer.)

Question: If certification doesn't mean anything, why the great imbalance in percentage of certified teachers between rich, white, suburban schools and poor, black inner city schools. Just a coincidence?

The issue, I think, is whether any value is indeed added by entry requirements and credentialing programs. Many teachers I know (including yours truly) feel little value is added, just as many teachers feel that professional development adds little value. Teacher education and continuing education often is pitched at a level so low that we cringe when we're subjected to it.

Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, etc. have certain content they have to master. Teachers do as well, but that's often not what credentialing concerns itself with. The only credentialing process I found relevant to teaching was the National Board Certification process.

Corey, everyone does think he or she is an expert in education, and to the extent that experience is one basis (though not the only basis) for expertise, isn't there truth in that opinion?

In most of the top-performing countries, teachers are recruited from the top third of college graduates. Here in the U.S., they are recruited from the bottom third. Doctors and lawyers by and large come from that top third. The stringent credentialing requirements for those professions serve to "weed out" the others.

The catch is that we as a society are unwilling to compensate teachers at the same level as doctors & lawyers, grant them the autonomy to do their jobs as they deem best (within reason), provide them with a path for career advancement, etc. No wonder that the profession has difficulty recruiting from the best & brightest college graduates...

To justasking: In my opinion, to the extent there is any correlation b/w teacher quality and having an official teaching credential, I would guess it's for the following reason: People who are more committed to working as teachers for the long haul go through the credentialing process. Teachers who have credentials may, on average, also have more teaching experience than teachers without credentials. Schools may also be more solicitious of credentialed teachers in order to comply with state regulations or to be able to say, "We have only credentialed teachers here."

The credentialing programs themselves don't add much to a person's teaching skills. I've seen both credentialed and uncredentialed teachers at work (in the private school environment) and didn't think there was any difference between the groups. To some degree, teachers who came from the traditional programs were worse in some areas because they had unrealistic ideas about classroom management and other subjects.

As a former teacher who taught for two years prior to obtaining my credential, and then taught after obtaining my teaching credential, I can attest that the one-year full time credentialing program I attended did not have any real impact on my teaching skills. All in all, it was a big waste of time and money. Essentially, I spent one year paying tuition and teaching part time ('student teaching') for free. In our district, the teachers who allowed a student teacher to work in their classes received a stipend; the student teachers received nothing. The whole experience put me in debt and didn't add anything to my teaching skills. But that's state regulation for you.

Attorney DC: If student teaching (and the rest of your certification program) didn't improve your capacity to teach, then what did? I think that all of us agree that experience in the classroom, especially early in our careers, is the primary means of improvment. It stands to reason that experience under the guidance of a veteran teacher would only expedite the process. Therefore, I have to assume that it wasn't the process of certification, but the people with whom you worked during that process, that failed you.

Tom: The certification program consisted of lots of courses ('educational psychology' and the like) combined with two semesters of student teaching. I thought the courses were completely meaningless (except for one on federal education laws like IDEA, which I thought was useful - but could have been learned from a short book; didn't need an entire semester!).

The student teaching experiences were exactly as useful as all my other teaching experiences. I believe I improved as a teacher with each teaching experience I had; but I improved more as a full time teacher with my own classes than as a part-time student teacher who was given limited control and discretion in my instruction. I certainly didn't think that student teaching (unpaid) was necessary to my teaching. Spending one year as a full time student (post-college) cost me about $20K (living frugally). Put me in debt and wiped out much of my savings. Not the best situation. It also took an entire year for me to qualify for entry into the teaching program due to the required pre-requisites. Although I was a college graduate who had taken the GRE, LSAT and other tests, I was not allowed to enter the program until I had taken the Praxis exam and a one-semeter "multiculturalism" course. Is this the best way to recruit new teachers?

I don't know. Just my gripes. Must say I'm much happier now as an attorney, with more control over my own workday and schedule. Less stress, more satisfaction (but I must say I miss the kids sometimes).

DC: Fair enough, but my experience was drastically different. I entered the teacher ed program at my college about 30 years ago with a college degree but no idea how to teach. The courses were mostly meaningful, with a few exceptions, but the student teaching experience was invaluable. I was given gradually more control over the teaching, always under the supervision of a veteran teacher with a vested interest in my continuous improvement. I went from there to my own classroom, where I continued to improve. And to answer your question, I don't see certification as a means of "recruiting" teachers anymore than I see law school or the bar exam as a means of recruiting lawyers. I see it as a way of ensuring that students get a teacher who knows what he's doing. I agree with Corey's first point: There's more to teaching than being smart and in command of the subject matter. A whole lot more. If teachers aren't satisfied with their certification programs, then that needs to be addressed; but not by eliminating them.

If certification doesn't mean anything, why the great imbalance in percentage of certified teachers between rich, white, suburban schools and poor, black inner city schools. Just a coincidence?

It's not that rich suburban districts understand something about the benefits of credentialing that poor urban districts don't. It's that rich suburban districts have a much deeper pool to hire from.

As long as districts believe that certification is a good thing -- and the NCLB powers that be are telling them that -- certification will be seen as a plus by a hiring panel, and more desirable districts will get the credentialed teachers.

MizzB: Yes, there's some truth in that statement -- I didn't mean to imply that there wasn't.

As to what to do about teacher certification, I started to write up something but I'm going to post a longer explanation on my blog.

Tom: Perhaps my negative response to the teaching credentialing program was in part due to the fact that I entered the program with two years of teaching already under my belt. Having already taught two years of schools (and two summer school sessions), along with several prior years of part-time SAT tutoring and volunteer work in low-income schools and after-school programs, I felt that it was generally a waste of my time to take a year out of the paid workforce to teach two periods a day as a student teacher. There was no exception to the credentialing process for teachers in my situation - those who had already taught full-time in private or charter schools.

Even if I hadn't taught at all, though, I still don't think the program was very useful. The one thing I did like (that wasn't stressed very much in our program) was observing different teachers for a few periods at a time, to see how different teachers approached their subjects and to observe their classroom management styles. That was pretty instructive - but we only did it for a couple days, unfortunately.

Following the conversation between Tom and D.C. Attorney--

I always read D.C. Attorney's comments, and appreciate his smart and thoughtful viewpoints on a wide range of educational issues. I hate to see anybody, however, fall prey to the often-asserted myth that there is no body of intellectual and technical knowledge that will improve teaching--or the corollary myth that you can't learn anything about teaching from taking classes. Teaching well is a series of complex intellectual tasks and decisions--and becoming a master teacher should involve knowledge from a wide range of fields: educational psychology, philosophy, sociology--not to mention rhetoric, policy-making, stand-up comedy and, oh yeah, subject matter knowledge. Pedagogy is a real thing.

The U.S. seems to be the only western country where teaching is seen as a combination of missionary work and craft learning--and time spent in front of students the only time defined as "work." When we look at the way teachers in other countries are selected, trained, mentored, and brought into intellectual communities of practice, it's clear that our notion of teaching as something any bright and educated person can do is a politically driven concept. Not a plan to improve or professionalize teaching.

D.C. Attorney is right that many lateral-entry programs make no sense and amount to useless credential-gathering. But let's not buy into the idea that all teacher education programs are cash cows or nothing but meaningless course-taking. There are excellent preparation institutions and models out there, although they're far from universal. I like the early results from urban teacher residencies, for example--further confirmation that most people learn to teach well by building a set of practice skills, and combining experience with solid ideas.

Nancy: Thanks for your input with respect to my comments. I enjoy reading your comments, as well. But FYI: I'm not a "his" - I'm a "her" :)

Anyway, I agree with you that there are ways that teachers can learn to be better teachers. I read some interesting reviews of Asian teaching practices where teachers spend part of their PAID time at work observing other teachers and collaborating with them to develop best practices for each subject. Sounds great (but will never happen in the U.S., I'll bet).

Tom: One other thought...You said that 'recruitment' shouldn't be a factor in evaluating teacher credentialing programs because, for example, no one criticizes law schools or the bar exam as barriers to recruitment. My response is that the legal field isn't suffering from a lack of lawyers... Seriously, if there were tons of people who were qualified and wanted to be teachers (and stay in the profession after starting), we wouldn't worry so much about having high entry requirements. The problem is that teaching suffers from high turnover and relatively low retention rates - especially in certain schools and in certain subjects. That's why I think it would be beneficial to re-evaluate some entry barriers to teaching, if they have not proven to be necessary.

DC: What strikes me more than anything about our conversation is how strikingly different the educational climates are between where I live (suburban Seattle) and the DC area. (Where I assume you taught) First of all, we do not presently, nor have we recently had a teacher shortage. It's actually very hard to get a teaching job anywhere in this area and the competition is fierce. Secondly, we actually do have a lot of professional development programs in which teachers get into other classrooms and observe. The best example is Lesson Study, borrowed from Japan, in which teams of teachers collaborate on a learning activity and then observe one another teaching the lesson. We've been doing it at my school for years.
I agree with Nancy that we should always look for innovative ways to get people from other careers into the teaching force (or in your case, the same career!) and we should never use certification as a "barrier" to prospective teachers. And I also agree with her point that there is just way too much involved in the art and science of teaching to expect smart people to simply know how to do it. I'm sure there are exceptions. (Perhaps you're one of them) I'm not willing to dispense with certification programs based solely on the argument that some people don't get anything of value out of them.


I think some of the issue has to do with lopsided supply--an issue faced by health-care, as well BTW. Some of it is oversupply in some geographic areas and some of it is oversupply in some content areas. My area of certification ages ago was in English. Even if the path to re-certification were not a barrier, odds are that I would never find employment. Nor would the salary scale acknowledge any of my considerable years of experience working with children in other arenas (if you think classroom management is tough, try managing a busful of kids stuck on the side of the road in the middle of no-where while the driver changes a tire).

There was a time at which I was both a licensed social worker and a licensed teacher--this did not make me eligible for a position as a school social worker, however. So--I can see an argument for alternative certification programs, particularly if they are able to bring in qualified persons who have followed another route. One problem, however, is that we have a very low bar when it comes to qualification. The folks who come through the traditional route are not meeting very high qualifications--mostly they have to get through four years of college (and now pass a content test). I would suggest that perhaps a paid internship/residency system might solve both the problem of how to bring in intelligent second-career people--and serve as a training/screening ground for novices. Entry into these programs might be somewhat controlled by the need in the field (can't train more English teachers than there are English classrooms, for instance). Placement of these residency programs might also respond somewhat to geographic need (in health care there are defined Medically Underserved Areas that meet federal loan repayment requirements). There might be all kinds of ways to structure these programs around needed classroom skills and competencies, with a sign-off of some kind on each one. Imagine if that poor first year teacher who gets stuck with playground duty not only had in her pocket a cadre of games that she was able to teach and a selection of conflict resolution strategies, but also the assistance of two residents who had to learn and demonstrate those same skills in order to advance.

I have seen enough teachers to know that the ones who come into the classroom are a very mixed bag. Using this first year as some kind of sorting tool to pick out those without enough native skills to make it, is very expensive--in terms of student learning. And some who are unskilled but tenacious manage to make it through with an accumulation of bad habits that aid in their survival but not in student learning.

I suspect that such a program might be financed through some combination of larger class size, tuition vouchers from universities who place the residents and funding to target programs to high-need areas. The larger class size would have to be seen as a trade-off for having the assistance of residents. I don't think that I would want lawyers who don't pass a bar exam, or health care personnel who cannot demonstrate both knowledge and skills. Why do we so easily accept this from teachers?

DC: I'm blushing to think that I assumed you were a "he"--my apologies. I should know better. Duh.

Here's my question: why do people assume that integrated observations, lesson study models, analysis of instruction, etc. can never take root in the U. S., although they're common in other countries' very successful education programs?

Possibly it's because we've let our highest-needs schools and kids slide into collapse, and a comeback would involve much more than fine-tuning instruction. Maybe it's because the general public believes that most teachers are uncaring, union-driven automatons rather than highly skilled professionals. Or possibly it's because our outstanding teachers get publicity for "awards" rather than solid daily practice.

I know Tom is a National Board Certified Teacher, so he understands the rigorous collaboration and critical examination of practice that goes on in the NB Certification process. About 100,000 teachers have voluntarily signed up to critique their own effectiveness, to open their practice up to colleagues, to hold their work up to high standards for professional practice. This kind of teacher-driven continuous improvement work can be done, and is being done here in the U.S..

But--improving teacher practice involves time and resources. And here in America, we try to do things fast and cheap--and not just in education. Lots of evidence of that lately. Still, I feel audacious and hopeful that our national perspective on education will shift in the next few years, to a longer view and a belief that careful investments in teacher skills and knowledge will pay off.


I think that there are some schools who have been able to implement collaboration-based models (such as Lesson Study), or other reflective improvement mechanisms. Where they work, I think that they work well. I believe that a major barrier to wider implementation is the belief that nothing more can be done in terms of improving performance in poorly performing schools--that those other schools are just naive about other kinds of kids, families, communities and situations.

I don't think I have read of Positive Behavior Support being a means of improving school climate without some skeptic asking--yeah, what do you do when a kid throws a desk at you? And then let the horror stories begin. The parents are all drug addicts and don't care about their children, the children have been taught to cuss, fight and be disrespectful, the principal is a loser, central office is out of touch and soaks up all the available time. Too many teachers believe that we don't need to improve teaching practice, because they have defined the problem as existing outside their realm of influence.

This doesn't discount the number who have sought Board Certification, or as I alluded, the schools that have already embarked on processes of school improvement that are collaborative and inclusive of improving teacher practice. But we still have too many buildings and districts where the prevailing culture is that I am doing all that can humanly be done. Don't bother me unless you can change everything else, first.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Margo/Mom: Nancy: I think that there are some schools who have read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: DC: I'm blushing to think that I assumed you were read more
  • Margo/Mom: DC: I think some of the issue has to do read more
  • Tom: DC: What strikes me more than anything about our conversation read more
  • Attorney DC: Nancy: Thanks for your input with respect to my comments. read more




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