First Person

Teacher Certification: What About Doctors and Lawyers?

I believe that our current system of teacher certification requirements could be greatly improved.  I think we should focus more on competency exams and less on required coursework, especially if that coursework has a questionable relationship to teacher effectiveness.  Also, I think we should liberalize the ability of high-performing schools to make exceptions to any coursework-related certification requirements.

When I debate this issue, perhaps the most common questions revolve around comparisons to doctors and lawyers.  Would you go to a doctor who didn’t go to medical school?  Do you think lawyers shouldn’t have to go to law school?  Here are some of my thoughts on these questions.

1. In general, I don’t have the option to see a doctor or lawyer who didn’t go to professional school.  (Lawyers, in a few states, can be admitted to the bar without completing law school, but this is uncommon.)  Before the 20th century, I would have had more choices, but movements lead by the medical and law schools and by professionals who were concerned with excessive competition have managed to eliminate almost all alternative routes.  (I recommend “The Social Transformation of American Medicine” by Paul Starr and “American Law in the 20th Century” by Lawrence Friedman for the gory details.)  Here is some advice from one well-known lawyer who couldn’t afford law school.

2. If I had the choice, for the near future and for most matters I would use doctors and lawyers who went to well-regarded professional schools.  I can think of two reasons for this.  First, based on my experiences, the well-regarded professional schools accept talented applicants and educate them in a manner that seems valuable to me with respect to providing the services I am interested in.  Second, the free markets have not been given a chance to develop alternative preparation routes that I might prefer from a consumer standpoint.  It could turn out that a program with the same exams, less coursework, and more apprenticeship could be better, for example.

3. For some matters, I would be happy to use lawyers and doctors who didn’t graduate from well-regarded professional schools.  For example, if I wanted to prepare a routine contract, I could probably save hundreds of dollars by avoiding an expensively-educated lawyer.  If I wanted a simple medical test that I felt I could interpret myself, I would try to avoid the cost of compensating an expensively-educated doctor.  For what it’s worth, I think this lack of flexibility is one of the big cost problems with our current medical system.

4. For the next four points, I quote from Diane Ravitch, who wrote an excellent short article called “A Brief History of Teacher Professionalism”.  “Both law and medicine have a specific body of knowledge that the future member of the profession is required to learn… There is persuasive evidence that those who have this knowledge are more effective than those who lack it.  This was not the case in education…”

5. “Both law and medicine have well established research-based standards and procedures… This is not the case in education, where pedagogues have debated what to teach, how to teach, how to test, whether to test, and which research methods are acceptable.  Because of this lack of consensus on even the most elementary procedures, teachers have received a constant din of conflicting signals from the leaders of the field.”

6. “… [G]raduates of law and medical schools have always known that they must pass an external examination in order to be licensed in their field.  In education, however, the leaders of education programs sought to eliminate external examinations and to replace them with their own credentials.”

7. “… [A]dvances in medical sciences have clearly resulted in better health for the American people.”

8. Many parents send their kids to private schools which don’t have education school requirements for their teachers.  This lack of a coursework requirement doesn’t seem to be a public policy issue.

9. Consumers can generally choose their doctors and lawyers.  They can also “fire” their doctors and lawyers if they are not happy with their service.  Doctors and lawyers often depend on referrals for a majority of their business. Consumers can sue their doctors or lawyers for malpractice.  These consumer choice factors put a check on the efficacy of professional schools.  In general, public school parents don’t have a similar choice.  (Charter schools and other forms of school choice are, of course, changing this dynamic.)

10. In general, the government doesn’t operate medical practices or law firms.  The private sector management provides another check on professional school efficacy.  Doctors, for example, can be fired from medical practices.  The government-run schools have a much less efficient incentive to provide this check.  In fact, it often seems that the government incentive is to avoid providing a check.

11. Doctors and lawyers are represented by professional associations, not unions.  Teachers unions, unlike the AMA or bar associations, rigidly control compensation and other employment matters in a manner that reduces the differential value amongst competing professional schools.  In other words, union contracts greatly reduce the useful competitive dynamic amongst education schools.

As always, I hope readers (including teachers, doctors, and lawyers!) will help to improve my viewpoint on this matter.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.