Do Credentials Matter?

24 Oct

 

Does it matter if a teacher or a professor has the right credentials for the job? What can credentials tell you anyway?

 

Just because a person is an expert in a subject area does not necessarily make them a competent teacher of that content. Every holder of a doctorate has spent about half a decade creating their nugget of knowledge to share with the world, often confined to the library, laboratory, research arena and the company of peers. They have been trained in asking a good question and then answering it with rigour. In this process, they know a lot about their PhD domain, but know little about the world of teaching and learning. Would they make good teachers?

 

Not just recent PhD students. The same question applies to anyone with deep domain knowledge from the industry who wishes to share their expertise with students. Some are excellent teachers, others are not. They, like the PhD candidates, have received little or no training in teaching and mentoring their students. Do their credentials and degrees have anything to do with becoming good teachers? Taking it one step foward – Do academic credentials have any meaning for leadership and administrative roles, such as the directorship of an institution?

 

At the school level too, one wonders if there is a correlation between good degrees and good teaching. On the one hand we have clear evidence from countries with Finland where every teacher must study both content and teaching for at least seven years before they are allowed to teach. Finland, of course, keeps topping the league tables in student achievement. On the other hand, there is evidence gathered from studies in some states of India where trained teachers were often absent. Para teachers were able to match their output as measured in student achievement. Does this mean we don’t need trained teachers at all for our primary schools? (Not really – further details in the study revealed that trained teachers could turn out higher achievement rates, if given the right incentives. And if they were present)

 

Again and again we find the certificate that is seen as a pre-requisite for obtaining a job has little to do with the skills required for the job. A vice chancellor of a university is expected to watch over governance, manage the politics and be the ambassador for the university. While the selection criteria clearly include these, the certificates and credentials they are expected to produce are often more academic than anything else. They have little relevance to the job at hand. A professor to a university has far more value in their networks and experience than the mere certificates that they must produce for the selection procedure. A school teacher who holds a B.Ed degree may still be utterly unqualified for the task of teaching a real class despite having spent years on the theory of education and child psychology.

 

This issue is coming to a head in India as the provisions of  RTE (Right to Education Act) are being implemented and imposed upon schools with fines and punitive action for non-compliance. There are arguments on both sides. The RTE insists that all teachers have a B.Ed qualification. This is doubly challenging. First, there are not enough qualified teachers in the country. Second – what happens to those teachers who have been doing a wonderful job of teaching for decades without ever needing this qualification? There is no provision in the act for accepting years of competent service as a proxy for the qualification.

 

Of course our students should have well qualified teachers – they are better teachers, are they not? Err.. sadly, not necessarily. Well, then are they not at least better prepared teachers? In theory yes, but even a good B.Ed program has not exposed them to enough classrooms to actually prove or train them to be better teachers. Let us not speak of the incompetence in B.Ed teaching that allows teachers to receive credentials with minimal learning – it has often been called a scam, a shame. The B.Ed credential has lost value due to such misuse by many colleges.

 

Even if the schools were willing to recruit, would they be able to afford to do so? Budget schools that often charge as little as Rs. 50 per month as fees from students are unable to meet the RTE criteria regarding teachers – both for pay and qualifications. Teacher pay at the higher level is an absolute amount that works out to more than the total revenue they collect as fees! The fact that children and parents opt to join these schools actively rejecting the free government schools in their areas proves that these schools provide good value – even with uncredentialled teachers. The business model breaks down with the new requirements imposed by law, and a valuable public service will be forced to shut down leaving students with little or no choice in their education.

 

What does a credential tell us anyway? All it can truly say is that the person named in the credential had access to certain resources for a certain period of time, and was able to secure a decent attendance and examination record. The link between credentials and competence is patchy at best.

 

The real question that remains to be answered is this: Can learning (read: student achievement)  be improved with better teacher training? If uncredentialled teachers are doing such a good job, wouldn’t teachers with a degree do even better? We do not have definite answers to this question yet, even if the intuitive response (and some studies) is in the positive.

 

Even if we agree on the basic truism that more training, teaching and experience will turn out better teachers, credentials are not the correct response. They are merely another gate that needs to be crossed creating a hurdle for many – and only makes the scarcity situtation worse. What India needs is a system of teacher appointments and training without an insistence on certification. Teacher training is not a one off process. It needs reinforcement and maintenance. Teachers who have been teaching well for many years need a pathway to receive accreditation of prior learning (APL) via a rigorous process. Para teachers and B.Ed certified teachers need to recognise the need for life long learning for teaching rather than rest on a static piece of paper that may not be of much value when standing in front of a classroom full of possibilities.

 

 

 

This was published in the Times of India blogs on October 17, 2013 and is linked here http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/do-credentials-matter

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