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May 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 8

In Harm's Way: How Undercertified Teachers Hurt Their Students

How worried should we be about teachers who enter classrooms without traditional certification? The research evidence gives us cause for grave concern.

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U.S. education has a problem. As the demand for highly qualified teachers has increased in response to standards- driven reform efforts, a teacher shortage has developed in certain subject areas and in schools that teach the poor. At the same time that schools are working to improve student performance, they are hiring undercertified teachers—those with insufficient teacher education course-work and training for traditional certification—to cope with the shortage. Some of these undercertified teachers come from short alternative teacher training programs; some come from the national program Teach for America; and some hold bachelor's degrees and enter classrooms without any training at all.
The quality of these teachers has always been a concern, but now that the No Child Left Behind legislation requires a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom, the issue of quality takes on even greater importance. For example, are certified teachers who have received traditional training but are new to the profession likely to be highly qualified? In fact, they are more likely to be qualified novices than highly qualified teachers during their first years in the classroom.
But how do we assess the qualifications of new, undercertified teachers? Are they as effective on the job as those with traditional teacher training? If their students do not perform as well as students of teachers from traditional programs, shouldn't we consider their employment illegal when the provisions of the new law go into effect in 2005–2006?
To examine the impact of different kinds of teacher training on teacher effectiveness, we reviewed the research literature and then conducted an empirical study comparing the performance of undercertified and certified teachers in Arizona schools. Because approximately one in six teachers in Arizona is uncertified (Go, 2002), this study has special relevance to that state's public education system.
Other parts of the United States have the same problem. An audit by the Chicago Board of Education showed that 22 percent of teachers in the system's 81 probationary schools—those with the greatest academic needs and the lowest test scores—were not fully certified to teach. Other teachers had certificates but were teaching subjects for which they lacked certification. Thus, 900 teachers in Chicago's worst-performing public schools were apparently unqualified to teach during the 2001–2002 school year (Rossi & Grossman, 2002).
In several urban schools serving poor students in New York State, fewer than half of the teachers held certification for the courses that they taught during a recent school year (Lankford, Loeb, & Wycoff, 2002). In Philadelphia, about 30,000 students had uncertified teachers (Mezzacappa, 2002). And in Texas, former governor George W. Bush allowed uncertified teachers to instruct 760,000 of the state's 3.8 million students during 1996–1997, even though these students did not perform as well on the state achievement tests as did the students of regularly certified teachers (Fuller, 1998; Students of certified teachers more likely to pass skills test, 1999).

Reasons for Certification

States are responsible for certifying and licensing practitioners of many trades or crafts—whether they are plumbers, cosmetologists, or teachers—to ensure that they do no harm. When these states employ undercertified teachers, then, do they disregard their oversight responsibilities? The literature suggests that they do.
Correlational analyses of state-level data by Darling-Hammond (2000), for example, found negative correlations between the percentage of a state's new uncertified teachers and the level of student performance on six different state assessments conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and equally large positive correlations between student performance, again according to six NAEP data sets, and a state's percentage of teachers with regular certification and a major in the field in which they were teaching. Darling-Hammond concluded that students achieve better when they have certified teachers as instructors. Undercertified teachers apparently do harm.
Dissenters, however, continue to claim that coursework in education methods is unnecessary, arguing that a teacher with subject knowledge has enough skill to begin teaching. Prominent among this group is U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, whose report on teacher quality (2002) draws on a faulty and ideological report by the Abell Foundation of Baltimore (Walsh, 2001) that fails to distinguish anecdotal from trustworthy data (Darling-Hammond, 2002a, 2002b).
In our opinion, Secretary Paige distorts the data on the effects of teachers' verbal ability and subject-matter knowledge on student achievement. Research provides convincing evidence that subject-matter knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for teaching well. Without methods courses to learn pedagogical content knowledge, novices are unlikely to provide quality instruction. Moreover, measures of verbal ability demonstrate no more powerful a relationship with student achievement than do measures of pedagogical training and knowledge. To promote uncertified teachers and alternative certification programs, the Secretary and the Abell Foundation misrepresent the research in these areas.
Secretary Paige's comments are even more puzzling because he frequently advocates evidence-based research. Yet the U.S. Department of Education recently requested a review of “rigorous empirical research” on teacher preparation (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2002), and the authors of this federally commissioned study reported that[the studies reviewed] suggest that the subject matter preparation that prospective teachers currently receive is inadequate for teaching toward high subject-matter standards, by anyone's definition. It appears that prospective teachers may have mastered basic skills but lack the deeper conceptual understanding necessary when responding to student questions and extending lessons beyond the basics. (p. 192)
For teachers to have both a deeper knowledge of subject matter and the ability to teach it, sufficient training in both subject matter and pedagogy is clearly a necessity. Yet former U.S. Secretary of Education Chester Finn also argues that we should let anyone who wants to teach do so and that we should deregulate the teacher certification process (Kanstoroom & Finn, 1999).
Both Finn and Paige ignore persuasive research that contradicts their ideology. We found sufficient evidence to conclude that teachers who have training in pedagogy outperform teachers without such training (Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002). The data on these issues, however, are certainly not unequivocal (see, for example, Ballou & Podgursky, 2000; Miller, McKenna, & McKenna, 1998).

The Role of Pedagogical Training

Ferguson and Womack (1993) were among the researchers who persuaded us of the importance of pedagogical training. They found that the amount of a teacher's education coursework explained about 16 percent of the variance in teaching performance, as measured by supervisor evaluations. This variance was greater than the variance accounted for by teachers' content knowledge, as measured by the National Teachers Examination specialty scores. Education coursework is a stronger predictor of teaching effectiveness than are teachers' grade-point averages in their majors or their test scores on content knowledge. Other researchers have also found education coursework to be significantly related to teacher performance (Ashton, Crocker, & Olejnik, 1986).
More recent research by Wenglinsky (2002) suggests that the greatest influence on student achievement comes not from students' socioeconomic status but from teachers' classroom practices and professional development. Rowan, Correnti, and Miller (2002) found relatively large effects on young students that could be attributed to their teachers and that were independent of the school or students' social class and previous achievement. Teachers' education practices accounted for 4 to 18 percent of the variance in students' reading and mathematics achievement on single tests taken during any given year, and their impact on student achievement became roughly three times greater across several years. The most consistent predictor of young students' achievement was the teacher's years of experience and not the teacher's subject-matter competency.
These demonstrations of teachers' powerful effects on students should remind us that teachers receive most of their pedagogical training in their teacher training programs. High-quality student teaching and methods courses enable teachers to profit from experience. Most traditional teacher certification programs provide appropriate training and coursework, and most alternative and emergency certification programs do not.
Jelmberg (1996) showed the importance of preservice training for experienced teachers. He compared experienced teachers who were traditionally certified with those who had alternative certifications. He found that those from traditional programs performed better and received much higher ratings from principals on instructional skills and planning than did those from alternative programs. Experience, then, is a great teacher of those who have the training to profit from it.
We agree with Wilson, Floden, and Ferrini-Mundy (2002), who concluded that “the research suggests that there is value added by teacher preparation” (p. 194), especially the clinical experiences and fieldwork provided through student teaching. Undercertified teachers are at a distinct disadvantage when they start teaching because they lack adequate training and coursework.

Alternative Routes to Teaching

Although many programs of alternative teacher education are similar to traditional certification programs in both the level and rigor of training provided (Darling-Hammond, Berry, & Thoreson, 2001; Miller, McKenna, & McKenna, 1998; Stoddard, 1992), many other alternative teacher training programs are poorly designed and administered and provide little appropriate training (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2002).
  • Attract teachers who are more willing than are traditionally trained teachers to work in rural or urban poor districts.
  • Attract individuals with majors in mathematics and science who are interested in teaching but not interested in traditional certification.
  • Attract a more diverse group of candidates, specifically men, older adults, minorities, and retired military personnel.
  • Are cost-effective because they take less time and provide less instruction, supervision, and assessment.
  • Teachers in alternative routes to certification have high dropout rates from both training and teaching.
  • Recruits for alternative certification in mathematics and science have lower grade-point averages than do recruits in traditional programs.
  • Teachers from alternative programs report many more problems with their preparation programs—on 39 of 40 questions, for example, Teach for America teachers rated their preparation more poorly than did those from traditional programs (Darling-Hammond, Chung, & Frelow, 2002).
  • Those prepared in traditional programs have more self-confidence.
  • Alternatively certified teachers tend to have a limited view of curriculum; lack understandings of student ability and motivation; experience difficulty translating content knowledge into meaningful information for students to understand; plan instruction less effectively; and tend not to learn about teaching through their experiences.
  • The mentoring support given to preservice teachers in most alternative programs is deficient.
In other words, poorly run and short alternative certification programs, particularly those that do not provide much classroom experience and supervision, may not be any better than simply hiring emergency-certified teachers with no teacher education experiences.

The Special Case of Teach for America

The most familiar alternative certification program is Teach for America, which provides graduates from top universities with minimal training to teach in rural or poor urban public school classrooms. Research conducted on Teach for America has been less than positive. According to Darling-Hammond (1997),Four separate evaluations found that Teach for America's training program did not prepare candidates to succeed with students, despite the noticeable intelligence and enthusiasm of many of the recruits. Most criticism of a corps member's teaching behavior (classroom management was the greatest area of concern, followed by insufficient knowledge of the fundamentals of teaching and learning) was qualified by the cooperating teachers' perceptions of limitations of the program in providing the corps member with adequate practice or theory to be successful. (p. 310)
Jonathan Schorr (1993), formerly with Teach for America, describes the inadequate preparation that he and others in the program received. He admits, “I was not a successful teacher, and the loss to the students was real and large” (p. 318). His firsthand account illustrates researchers' criticisms of the program: its limited training, its lack of teacher evaluation, and its perpetuation of the practice of placing poorly trained teachers with the most needy students (Darling-Hammond, 1994, 1997; Darling-Hammond, Berry, & Thoreson, 2001).

Traditional Teacher Certification

Teachers entering the field from university teacher education programs are generally more academically able than the average college student of any major, whereas unlicensed entrants into teaching have significantly lower levels of academic achievement than most college students and those in education programs (Gitomer, Latham, & Ziomek, 1999). In fact,reviews of research over the past 30 years, summarizing hundreds of studies, have concluded that even with the shortcomings of current teacher education and licensing, fully prepared and certified teachers are better rated and more successful with students than teachers without this preparation. (Darling-Hammond, 1997, p. 308)
Teachers perform better if their training program focused on content knowledge in a subject area, pedagogical coursework (including learning theories, developmental theories, theories of motivation, and issues of student assessment), and practice teaching. Although variations in the philosophy, implementation, and quality of teacher education programs are enormous, the programs that focus on these areas produce new teachers who can handle the complexities of classroom instruction (Ashton & Crocker, 1987; Darling-Hammond, 1992; McDiarmid & Wilson, 1991; Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2002).

The Empirical Study

We studied the performance of elementary school students in the classes of undercertified and certified teachers in five urban, poor school districts in Arizona. We used each class's mean scores on the Stanford Nine (SAT-9) to assess student performance.
Undercertified teachers included emergency teachers—holders of bachelor's degrees from accredited institutions, with little or no education coursework—and provisional teachers, those who have had some teacher education training but have not fulfilled requirements for a standard certification. Some undercertified teachers in our study were from the Teach for America program. All undercertified teachers were compared with regularly certified teachers who met all state requirements: a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution and completion of 45 semester hours of elementary education coursework.

Methods of Data Collection

The five participating school districts provided lists of newly hired teachers. We removed from the sample those who taught kindergarten, 1st grade, art, music, special education, or the grades and subjects not assessed by the SAT-9.
We then matched certified teachers with undercertified teachers on the basis of grade level and highest degree attained, removing those for whom we could find no match. We matched within schools first, within districts next, and, if we had to, across district lines, using districts with similar demographic characteristics.
The assignment of teachers to schools, and to classrooms within schools, appears to have been unbiased. Similarly, class size and student ability were not different for the certified or undercertified teachers in our sample. Without any knowledge of the teachers' class scores on the SAT-9, we created 109 pairs of matched undercertified and certified teachers in grades 3–8.


To ascertain whether the effectiveness of teachers in the Teach for America program was different from that of other undercertified teachers, we analyzed the SAT-9 scores of the two groups in reading, mathematics, and language in two different data sets (1998–1999 and 1999–2000) and found no statistically significant differences. Those in the Teach for America program have no special advantage when entering the classroom as untrained teachers.
To find out whether students taught by certified teachers outscore students taught by undercertified teachers, we evaluated the difference in matched teachers' student achievement scores. In all six analyses—the three subtests of the SAT-9 in both years studied—the students of certified teachers had higher scores than did the students of undercertified teachers.
We concluded that the advantage of having a certified teacher is worth about two months on a grade-equivalent scale. The school year is 10 months long, so the loss from having an undercertified teacher is 20 percent of an academic year. In other words, students pay a 20 percent penalty in academic growth for each year of placement with under-certified teachers.

Undercertified Means Unqualified

Common sense and empirical data agree: Those who have trained longer and harder to do the complex work of teaching do it better.
Our results directly contradict claims made by Teach for America advocates that enthusiasm and subject-matter knowledge, as well as a general education in a prestigious university, prepare their recruits to adequately teach in U.S. classrooms. The hiring of undercertified teachers results in the hiring of unqualified teachers. Applied to the impoverished students of the United States, this education policy is harmful, and we should abandon it immediately. We hope that the new federal legislation will help us insist on having highly qualified teachers in all U.S. classrooms.

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End Notes

1 A full account of this research appears in Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(37), available athttp://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n37. The second author received partial funding for this research from the Rockefeller Foundation. The views expressed in this report are the sole responsibility of its authors and may not reflect the views of the Rockefeller Foundation or the Arizona Department of Education.

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