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Certifiable!

Via Matt Yglesias, an interesting and troubling Wall Street Journal article on the proliferation of state licensure requirements for growing numbers of "professions," from cat groomers to florists, and smart analysis on the same. Matt's been writing a lot about this issue lately, and it's really fascinating to read the comments on his blog posts on this, all of which boil down to some version of:

"But don't you want (people in X profession) to know how to do (professional thing x)?!?!?!"

There's a weirdness to these comments. No one's disputing that it's good for, say, cat groomers to know something about grooming cats. But it doesn't necessarily follow that this means the state ought to legally preclude people who haven't completed a specifically defined training program and paid a hefty fee to the state from practicing that profession. After all, allowing people without certain training/credentials (or just with different training/credentials) to do a job is not the same as requiring consumers or employers hire them to do it.

Folks who are having trouble understanding this distinction should read Rick Hess's great 2001 paper on teacher certification, Tear Down this Wall. While the conversation Matt and his commenters are having is primarily about semi-skilled professions, there's actually a ton of similarity between that conversation and education debates over teacher certification.

Do people who support Teach for America, alternative certification, or (heaven forbid!) just getting the state out of the business of teacher certification altogether think that teachers don't need specific training and expertise in both the subjects they teach and how to educate children? Of course not. But it's a long and twisty road from there to saying that the state should narrowly define how prospective teachers may acquire the necessary skills and knowledge, and should then preclude schools from ever hiring people who have not completed exactly that defined program.

People in general seem to be susceptible to a kind of "there ought to be a law" dynamic, to readily think that if something is bad, there should be a law against it, and if something is good, there should be laws requiring it, to think and talk about laws almost as symbolic expressions of public approbation of disapproval, rather than the force of the state that has real consequences. We see this dynamic in debates over everything from abortion, to drug policy, to zoning, to teacher certification (I also sometimes worry about this in debates over performance-based teacher pay and preschool teacher preparation). But a lot of times this type of thinking can lead to blind allies because laws mandating or prohibiting something may not actually be the most effective way to promote desirable actions or minimize negative ones--and may have perverse unintended consequences.

The other funny thing here is that Rick actually cites the profusion of licensure requirements for jobs like shampoo specialists (who, I learned from this article, must complete mandatory coursework in Texas) and equine massage therapists as evidence that certification and licensure requirements do not necessarily convey on a line-of-work the kind of professional stature that proponents argue teacher certification advances for the teaching profession.

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