What Strangles American Teaching: The Certification Racket

Has the certification of teachers for the public schools become an obstruction rather than an aid to good education? There is reason to believe that the abuses which LYDIA STOUT finds in the Florida system are paralleled in many other states. A faculty wife at the University of Florida in Gainesville.Mrs. Stout taught in the public schools of New Hampshire and New Jersey and has served for the past three years as an unpaid lobbyist for an independent group on the certification issue.

THE most stubborn obstruction to good schooling in the United States is the hierarchy which the educationists themselves have established. Their influence has a restricting effect I) on teacher-training courses, with the emphasis on theory or method as opposed to content, 2) on the lawmaking bodies where, by means of lobbying and other wirepulling tactics, they have gained so much power, and 3) on the prestige of the organized groups within the teaching profession itself.

Teacher training, from the point of view of students or teachers, is humiliating. Every state has its own code of laws or regulations governing the education and certification of teachers. Usually those requirements specify that the students planning to teach shall, while obtaining their college degree, pursue some general and some specific courses in education (that is, pedagogy or the howto courses), and obtain some experience in practice teaching. Ostensibly those regulations were intended to keep poorly qualified teachers out of the classrooms, and parents and the public have been led to think that is what they do. State departments of education enforce the regulations and issue certificates which teachers must have before they can be hired. But colleges of education, when left to themselves, often require a great many more credits in how-to courses than the law specifies. As a result, the teacher-training programs have become top-heavy and tragically wasteful while the quality of the education being given to the pupil has been progressively downgraded.

In Florida even a kindergarten teacher must now take more than half of her whole college curriculum in education courses, and in order to obtain the highest pay and rank must have a doctor’s degree. The certification requirements are backed up by a rigid pay scale. With some thirty thousand teachers in Florida, each of whom has probably had to take ten courses in a college of education, and with a demand for two thousand or more new teachers each year, the education colleges must teach several hundred classes in pedagogy just to satisfy the state requirements. The teachers’ colleges then become big business and the cornerstone of the powerful empire that the educationists have built for themselves. Other devices are the automatic pay raises for advanced degrees, restrictions on reactivation of certificates, and the limiting of scholarships to prospective teachers. These require brief explanations.

Many older teachers hold life certificates from “normal schools,” but such long-term certificates are no longer issued or honored. The theory is that a teacher constantly on the job does not keep sufficiently informed in the most recent educational theories and therefore forgets how to teach. The most competent of university faculties can boast not more than a half-dozen professors who could actually be certified to teach in public school, and not even Albert Einstein could legally have taught first-grade arithmetic! College graduates who have fulfilled the so-called requirements are now given a “graduate” certificate and required to return to college periodically to take summer courses in the latest theories (the victims call it “sipping at the same old soup”); otherwise their certificates will expire. These refresher courses often work a real hardship on women teachers with families and on others who are physically exhausted from teaching, but they do help swell the enrollments in education classes and keep the summer-school machinery running at full capacity.

Florida, like many other states, has a law, written by a professor of education, which provides automatic rank and pay raises for teachers who obtain advanced degrees in education! In substance, the law states that a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is placed in Rank III and receives the minimum teaching salary. The teacher with a master’s degree is placed in Rank II and automatically receives $400 to $600 a year more salary. Likewise the teacher with a doctor’s degree 1 is placed in Rank I with another increase of $400 to $600. Merit has nothing to do with the teacher’s rank and salary — they are simply a matter of obtaining the advanced degrees, and the pay increase is dependent upon the teacher’s returning to college and taking graduate work.

Even as an undergraduate the prospective teacher has had to pursue so many courses in educational theory and so few in any scholarly field that he has little choice but to take his degree in education. His desire for financial betterment naturally helps fill the classrooms of the professional pedagogues in the universities. The University of Florida offers 125 graduate courses in teacher training. The dean of that college of education justifies this situation by saying that “If you know enough about haw to teach, you can always pick up enough facts to face a high school class.

Meanwhile the National Education Association and other agencies arc insisting that the federal government must make large contributions toward improvement of the schools. The staggering sum of $4.5 billion has been suggested, much of it to go for increases in teachers’ salaries. But unless the certification laws are changed, any federal money that is poured into salaries in expectation of attracting better teachers to the profession will be wasted, because genuinely superior teachers will refuse, as they do now, to submit to ridiculous certification requirements. Obviously it is going to take drastic measures to alter a system on which the public has been so thoroughly misled.

THE EDUCATIONIST LOBBY

In order to see the educationists in operation, one has to go to the Legislature to watch them actually legislate themselves into business. The account that follows tells of the political stratagems of the departments of education and the state educational associations in Florida, but Florida is controlled by pretty much the same kind of educational politicians as Ohio or any other state.

Prompted by a desire to get at the facts, I helped form a Committee of Parents and became its chairman. We succeeded in getting a bill introduced into the 1955 session of the Florida Legislature. The most important provision of the bill was to permit arts and science students to meet certification requirements with a minimum number of credit hours in how-to-teach courses specified by the State Department of Education. The Senate passed this bill thirty-four to one, the one vote being that of a senator who had promised the president of Florida State University that he would oppose it.

The educationists, marshaling their forces and campaigning the state, solicited letters and telegrams from teachers and parents in opposition to the bill. They thus succeeded in keeping the measure from reaching the House floor for debate. Their argument was that such legislation would lower the standard for teachers and would make the shortage more critical, though just how it would do so was never explained. Our experience with this bill taught us the lesson that we want desperately to pass on to other parents and legislators: that control of the school system has been taken over by people who are concerned only with their own aggrandizement and who have no sincere desire to advance the cause of better education. With those people in control, and all advice coming from them, we shall never have good schools no matter how much money we pour into them! The teacher shortage has been created by and for the colleges of education, and the certification requirements arc being used to operate a closed shop.

The colleges of education, in their efforts toward self-expansion, depend on two powerful auxiliaries, the Florida Education Association (FEA) and the State Department of Education, to do the actual lobbying in the Legislature. The State Department of Education is headed by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The department supposedly is an executive branch of the state government, but in Florida the Superintendent appears to have plenty of money with which to lobby for more state money, much like the farmer who bought more land so he could grow more corn to feed more hogs so he eould buy more land, and so forth. However, our Superintendent, who is a product or a convert of a college of education, has charge of the actual issuing of the teachers’ certificates, and it is not unusual to find that former teachers, or experienced teachers from other states, must take more than a solid year of professional education courses before they can teach in Florida schools.

Our Florida Education Association is similar to organized groups of teachers found in other states and is also the state counterpart of the National Education Association. The FEA serves the same trade-union type of purposes as NEA and uses its enormous slush fund — in 1957 it was $240,000, collected as dues from teacher members — for lobbying or any other purposes which will ‘ protect the interests” of those teachers. Teachers are not required to belong to these state and national organizations but are generally pressured into doing so. Like any other trade union, the FEA has some legitimate aims, such as better salaries and working conditions, but for the most part the money is used to further the ambitions of the educationists. The executive secretary of FEA and his assistants constitute what one legislator called “the most powerful lobby that ever walked the halls of the State Capitol.”

These three branches of the educationist hierarchy work hand in glove. Invariably the laws and regulations which are drafted by professors of education are railroaded through the Legislature by the FEA. The State Superintendent then carries out those laws and regulations in accordance with the interpretations which he or the other educationists choose to put on them. By this system of coordination, the triple alliance has been able to dictate school policies all the way from certifying teachers and specifying the curriculums down to selecting and buying all textbooks, planning and approving the school building programs, running the buses and cafeterias, and dictating new school legislation.

SCHOLARSHIPS LIMITED

The triple alliance is assisted in this lobbying by a number of other groups, among them the Continuing Educational Council, the Citizens Advisory Council, the Course of Study Committee for Public Schools, the Junior College Council, the Classroom Teachers’ Association, and other special organizations for county superintendents, principals, and school board members. Despite their important-sounding titles, they serve as “fronts” and execute the commands of the FEA, impress the Legislature, and confuse the issues for outsiders. They are particularly effective in the committees of the Legislature which deal with education.

An illustration of their performance occurred in 1955, when a scholarship bill was amended so as to make the Legislature a party to channeling students into the classrooms of the colleges of education. This scholarship bill regularly provides each of 1050 students with $400 a year during undergraduate years. According to the original law, the scholarships were available to meritorious students in any field of learning. A student had only to sign an agreement that for each year he received the $400 he would, upon graduation, teach a year in Florida schools or refund the money.

Early in the 1955 session, the Superintendent, as is the custom, presented the bill which would appropriate this scholarship money. Routinely passed by the Senate, the bill then went to the House, where it was held up until nearly the end of the session. When affairs had become so rushed that small items could be given iittle attention, an assistant to the Superintendent sent an amendment to the House Committee on Public School Education, and the committee then hurriedly approved the bill as amended. The bill then went to the House, where it was passed at once and returned to the Senate and given final approval. Not one of the legislators I talked with was aware that the amendment restricted all the scholarships to students enrolled in colleges of education. Even students already receiving those scholarships and not enrolled in education colleges were required to transfer or were taken off the list for the following year,

Several members were so enraged about the manipulation of this deal that another bill was introduced in the 1957 session designed to remove the restriction. Somehow this bill was “lost” after it passed the Senate but before it reached the House committees, so it never got to the floor of the House. The railroading of the amendment is but one of many instances which showed the educationists’ methods and power.

When Representative Pratt introduced a bill providing for three lay citizens — to be appointed by the governor — to serve on the eleven-man Course of Study Committee for Public Schools, the Superintendent objected strenuously. The bill was reviewed by the House Committee for Public School Education, and several legislators spoke out about the need for citizens to take an interest in school matters and pointed out that youngsters are getting inferior preparation in mathematics and science. Representative Maness said that the Legislature should call on the people who foot the big bills to take a look at what is being taught. Several others spoke in favor of Pratt’s bill because it would give citizens at least some voice in school programs. But the bill was defeated by lobbyists of the FEA.

MICKEY MOUSE COURSES

It has come to be taken for granted that colleges of education, with rare exceptions, attract the poorest students. Only the most naïve can bear up under the equivalent of fifteen to twenty repetitious and often meaningless “Mickey Mouse” courses, as the students themselves call them. The college of education at the University of Florida requires of its students a score of only 400 on the Graduate Record Examination for entrance into its graduate department, while all other branches of the university require a score of 500. The low level of ability required to get a degree in education is a standing joke in colleges and universities. Other departments, such as engineering, science, and liberal arts, routinely advise their poorest students to look for easier berths in the colleges of education. These castoffs from the other colleges obtain certificates and stay with teaching indefinitely because their trade union (FEA) has seen to it that they can draw just as much pay as the best teachers.

As another example of the way those laws operate, take the case of a family man for whom jobs other than teaching are available. To him, the equal salary scale for men and women teachers with the same certification rating provides little attraction, because a man has a struggle to support a family on a salary that is adequate for the spinster schoolma’am or working wife. Consequently, the few men now entering the teaching profession are the athletic coaches and vocational teachers who receive substantial salary supplements. But in due time their jobs become blind alleys, and if they seek greater opportunity, they must find it in the higher pay and prestige of the school administrative positions.

Again and again I have heard teachers and former teachers complain of unpleasant or undesirable working conditions. One of them said, “I couldn’t complain about my salary, but it was the other things that made teaching unattractive. We rarely have principals nowadays with liberal-arts backgrounds, and so they just don’t believe in the kind of standards we need in our schools.” When I began checking, I found that in order to qualify for a certificate in supervision, a person must earn twenty-four to thirty credits in special education courses and must hold a master’s degree. Those requirements alone are sufficient to keep qualified liberal arts graduates out of principalships because one cannot get an M.A. degree requiring thirty to thirtysix credits in liberal arts if he has to take so many courses in education.

The result, as pointed out by a professor of physical education, is that 60 per cent of the principals in Florida schools are majors in physical education and were formerly the coaches. Many of the others are graduates in agricultural education. No wonder a local school board member complained, “It is useless to change principals hoping to get a better one, because all the new candidates have had the same educationist background.”

The new look in the school system, brought about by administrators of characteristic ex-at hlete caliber, explains why the emphasis in Florida schools has all been transferred from scholarship to activities and why we find these administrators in their trade journals and elsewhere making statements such as: “The trouble with the ninth grade is that some people still think English, algebra, science, and foreign language should be included.” Older teachers, fighting to maintain high standards, admit that they have their backs to the wall. In Gainesville, when the physics teacher resigned from our high school, her letter to the school board stated that her reason for quitting was that the principal had turned her physics laboratory over to the student activities and driver-training groups.

NO CREDIT FOR EXPERIENCE

No small part of the difficulty with certification laws has been the way the State Superintendent’s office administers them. Perhaps I chose a bad day to visit the certification office, but when I arrived, there were two people, a man and a woman, talking about obtaining certificates. I couldn’t help overhearing them and sensing the annoyance and irritation in the atmosphere. “I’m just not going to take any more of those courses,” said the man as he walked out. When the woman picked up her papers to leave, I followed her and got her story. She said, “I’ve taught elementary school for thirty years. When I retired in Oklahoma, my husband and I came to live in Florida. I don’t need to work, but I love to teach. My degree was in liberal arts with a major in Latin, which I have never taught. All my experience has been in elementary schools, and I have a master’s degree in education. Last fall I started teaching before receiving my certificate and was astonished to find, when it came, that I was certified to teach nothing but Latin. Then because I was teaching outside my field (I was teaching an elementary grade), I was given only a temporary certificate, good for one year, and told that I would have to take twenty-four credits in education,”

Early in the 1957 session of the Legislature, the Superintendent made the grandiose announcement that he would never be a party to any legislation that would “lower standards for teachers.” But just four years previously he had lowered requirements in subject matter, so colleges of education could require students to take more of their teacher-training courses.

Last year a new organization called the National Teacher Accreditation Association was formed. This is an organization of institutions that train teachers, but its purpose evidently is to make sure that certification requirements operate to the maximum advantage of the colleges of education in those institutions. The Superintendent declared that Florida has joined that association and that it (the NTAA) is “going to seek to put out of commission some liberal-arts colleges by not accrediting their graduates to teach.” One cannot help wondering why a State Superintendent of Public Instruction is interested in putting any educational institutions out of business. Does he fear competition from those colleges, or is it just because he cannot hold the certification club over the heads of all their teachers?

Recently newspaper and magazine articles and programs on the air have begun to scrutinize the educationists and have put them on the defensive. In spite of the criticisms, the Superintendent continues to make it clear that he and his cohorts intend to stick to their guns. Immediately after Sputnik I, the Superintendent’s office released a story to the newspapers, placing the blame for poor schools squarely on the shoulders of parents because they are not taking sufficient interest in school problems. But that story is haunted by the ghost of Representative Pratt’s bill, which the Superintendent fought and defeated because it would have placed just three lay citizens on the eleven-man Course of Study Committee for Public Schools.

At a state meeting of school board members a representative of the Superintendent gave them to understand that it was they who have been at fault all along because they have not paid enough attention to curriculums. That is a hollow argument because, on the recommendation of the Superintendent’s own agents, every school board has one or more specialists on its payroll who arc known as “coordinators of curriculum.” Immediately after Christmas the Superintendent released another item, this time blaming pupils because they have not been taking more courses in science and mathematics. He insisted that the schools have been offering nine to twelve years of mathematics, with equally adequate science courses, but that pupils just have not been electing those courses. But he did not mention that the State Department of Education requires for graduation from high school only three years of English, one year of mathematics (which may be general math, similar to that of the eighth grade), one year of science (which may be general science, similar to what pupils already had in grammar school), two years of social studies, and two years of physical education. Neither did he mention the educationists’ constant preachings that pupils should be allowed to elect their own courses without interference.

The educationists are seeking desperately to escape the blame for shortcomings in the school system. Undoubtedly they will next point at Washington, and the federal government will be blamed for not appropriating a few billion more for buildings and salaries. Everything possible is being done to divert attention from the real cause, certification, and to make us believe that dollars are a cure-all. But higher salaries, per se, will do little more than give the hierarchy a stronger hold on the schools. As long as all the teachers and administrators in elementary, high, and junior college schools must be processed through a system that attracts the least capable people and indoctrinates them with an overdose of pedagogy and the myth that you need not know a subject in order to teach it, there will be a continuous downgrading of education at every level.

  1. Even with a doctor’s degree in education, a teacher may have fewer course credits in subject matter than are required for a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.