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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.

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