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Last Updated: 02/23/2018

 Article of Interest - Teaching

Who Is and Isn't Qualified to Teach?
Experts Disagree on What Makes Good Teachers: Specialized Knowledge, Personal Qualities or Training
Washington Post, October 1, 2002
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Martin Haberman, who has helped train more American teachers than perhaps anyone else alive, recalled visiting a student-teacher at an ailing Milwaukee public school and learning that she had no chalk.

Haberman began to rant about her working conditions, and he screamed at her principal to get some supplies. Ultimately, she had to spend $50 of her own money to buy chalk -- and it was stolen the next day.

Haberman was furious, but the student-teacher stayed calm.

"She told me that kids don't steal chalk, that it must be another teacher, and that it was fine because it went to a good cause," said Haberman, a University of Wisconsin professor who has played a role in placing about 150,000 teachers in classrooms.

"What does that show you? It shows you flexibility, a person who can survive in a mindless bureaucracy. I couldn't do that, but she can," he said. "Looking at her math scores wouldn't tell you that, nor would making sure she had 60 hours of traditional teacher preparation."

Haberman was referring to the fierce debate among educators and government officials about who is and who isn't qualified to teach in the country's public schools.

The debate comes at a time when the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future estimates that more than 2 million teachers must be hired in the next decade, and that most will be needed to serve 14 million children living in rural and urban poverty.

Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige recently stirred up the debate by saying that anyone with expert knowledge of a subject should be able to teach it, that traditional education programs are largely fluff and that state certification qualifications need to be revamped.

Paige's comments angered supporters of traditional teacher education -- a model in which prospects spend several years taking college courses on theory and practice, as well as student-teach.

"Teaching is incredibly complex work," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Teachers Association. "It is rocket science. People who think they can walk in off the street and do it are just not fully informed about how complex it is."

Some of the traditionalists oppose a growing number of alternative certification programs, which allow candidates to train at a faster pace and generally appeal to those switching careers to become teachers.

Haberman believes the whole debate is off the mark.

The key to finding enough teachers to help children in poverty, he said, is to identify people who not only know their subjects but also have personal qualities to succeed in classrooms where students come in hungry.

Haberman said he knows how to do it, with a series of interview questions developed years ago, and knows the best kind of candidates: not young people, who have historically populated college teacher-education programs, but mature adults who have had one career already and live in the city where they are training. Most, he said, should be minorities.

The issue has never been more crucial. No Child Left Behind, the new federal education law, requires a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom by 2006.

What constitutes "highly qualified" is left to each state, and many are struggling with the definition. In fact, many educators, including Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, worry that "there is going to be a rush to stamp as certified programs that may, in fact, be minimal and inadequate."

America's teacher shortage and the federal law have combined to cause more educators to question traditional certification, which Haberman says graduates too many young people uninterested in teaching in poor areas.

Of more than half a million teachers under age 26 who are prepared annually by traditional programs, fewer than 15 percent seek employment in the major urban areas of the country, he said.

Researchers have tried to determine whether certified teachers are more successful than uncertified, but numerous studies conflict. Two recent attempts to look at the effectiveness of Teach for America teachers -- who are college graduates quickly trained to work in needy urban schools -- reached different conclusions; each has been criticized by the opposing side for poor methodology.

Amy Wilson, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, trains students in Teach for America at the Baltimore campus. She said it is hard to figure out requirements for certification without agreement on what qualities create successful teachers.

David Berliner, dean of the School of Education at Arizona State University, has done extensive research on characteristics of exemplary teachers. Yet he's still not sure he knows enough to train one. But he is sure it takes at least five years to become one.

Haberman began researching teacher quality in the late 1950s and devised a set of interview questions now used in more than 100 cities to ferret out those candidates with qualities that he believes can predict success in high-poverty schools.

The qualities include persistence in problem solving, an understanding of the concept of burnout, organizational skills and the ability to see oneself as fallible.

Haberman's method has worked well at a number of schools, including Buffalo Creek Elementary School in Houston, where student performance jumped in just one year with new teachers hired using the interview process.

"We have a crisis here, where 14 million diverse children in poverty are not being served well," Haberman said. "We have to get them qualified teachers, now, under the conditions that exist today.

"Traditional education programs aren't getting the job done by themselves, and every cabdriver knows that just because somebody knows a lot about a subject, it doesn't mean they would be any good teaching it," he said. "Come on, this isn't rocket science."

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