All teachers should be licensed
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All teachers should be licensed

The National Board of License for Teachers and Principals of Jewish Schools in North America will cease operations as of Dec. 1. The NBL has been certifying educators since 1941 and was the only national body to do so.

Accreditation is the primary vehicle for quality control in all professions. Jewish education is perhaps the only profession in which untrained, uncertified, and often unskilled individuals can have a career as teachers.

Many of today’s Jewish educators are exceptionally motivated, passionate, and creative. Yet the Jewish community does not value their services in the same way it values other professionals. General studies teachers must be licensed. Why aren’t the same demands made for those who teach Jewish studies?

There must be a normative national or regional standard for teaching certification. In addition to guaranteeing minimum competency, standards-based training and licensure lead to more effective teaching and improved student learning.

“The Teachers Report: Background and Professional Training of Teachers in Jewish Schools” (Mandel Foundation, 1999) dramatized the poor qualifications of the majority of teachers in congregational schools in the United States. Day schools do a bit better on the scale, but have far to go.

Student achievement and teacher effectiveness can be measured in the public schools because grade and subject benchmarks for mastery have been established and testing indices are available. In Jewish studies, there is no uniformly accepted standard for what students should know by grade and subject, nor are testing instruments generally available to gauge success.

The contemporary Jewish community frowns on mandatory standards. Enforcement is difficult. However, as the world’s oldest model for universal education, we ought to voluntarily establish and adhere to standards of teacher preparation. The standards articulated by the board were accepted by those who wished to demonstrate competence and by those communities that wished to have trained, competent teachers in their schools. Some schools would not hire a teacher without an NBL license. Some communities made their allocations contingent on the number of licensed faculty and not on the usual per capita basis.

Across the nation, numerous unqualified individuals are in the classrooms of Jewish schools. Students are exposed to them because communities cannot find, hire, pay, or retain teachers with the proper credentials. They are placed in classrooms because of economic reality and the pool of those willing to teach. There are so many excuses and rationalizations for this practice that the Jewish public has trouble grasping its extent and impact. Precise studies have not yet been conducted in Jewish schools, but anecdotal reporting by professionals in the field has confirmed this. For example, Israelis may not be trained in teaching Hebrew as a second language, nor do many have the knowledge base to teach beyond the primary grades. Rabbis and seminary graduates may have the knowledge base but not the Hebrew language or the pedagogic skills.

Teachers need coursework and, more important, supervised student-teaching experience before they walk into a classroom on their own. Allocations and financial support to Jewish schools must be linked to objective standards for student performance and faculty licensure. Communities must just say no to unlicensed and unqualified teachers. If we want our students to meet certain standards, we must hold their teachers to high expectations.

One study of public attitudes towards teaching revealed that parents want teachers to be well-trained and knowledgeable about how to teach effectively and have prior experience as a student teacher. Another study showed that 82 percent of those surveyed about how to improve education felt that recruitment and retention of better teachers was paramount. Interestingly, in that same study, 67 percent wanted to require teachers to pass a competency test every year. Lest we think that this problem is only endemic to U.S. public and Jewish schools, Simon Goulden, head of the Agency For Jewish Education in London, also bemoans “the urgent need for more – and better qualified – secular and Jewish Studies teachers.”

The research shows the value of teacher preparation, especially the clinical experiences and fieldwork provided through student teaching. Under-certified teachers are at a distinct disadvantage when they start teaching because they lack adequate training and coursework. Common sense and empirical data agree: Those who have trained longer and harder to do the complex work of teaching do it better.

What concerns the general public about the lack of qualified teachers also concerns (or should concern) the Jewish community. Sadly, the axiom about Jews having higher standards in education than the general society is no longer true. We have always prided ourselves on being well-educated and showed the highest respect to teachers and scholars. Unfortunately this is not the case today.

Clearly, change is needed. But if change is to be effective and long-lasting , it must be instituted not from the top down but from the bottom up. That means starting with the classroom teacher. This resistance, especially in the area of teacher preparation and certification, is a major obstacle to creating and sustaining systemic improvement. The Jewish communal/educational structure/authorities must work to make their models open to change. The evidence is in to convince them of the need for new paradigms. This is not an easy task.

We have an obligation to our children to build a high-quality teaching profession in which teachers can thrive. The Jewish community’s challenge includes developing a sustainable and rewarding professional career system for all teachers. Licensure for all teachers in Jewish schools is part of a larger plan, which includes mentoring, incentives, and quality professional development. We should:

• set and maintain high standards for entry to all teaching positions in Jewish schools;

• adopt National Board of License criteria for licensure, with some modifications, for a multi-tiered and entry-level system;

• Make data on teacher licensure public;

• collect and use data on student achievement and teacher licensure;

• enact incentives and support for certification; and

• allocations to schools should be based on a per capita of licensed teachers.

The Jewish community must sharpen its focus on educational practices, standards, and accountability. We must keep sight of the impact that quality teaching and professional development have on student learning. This requires a persuasive, effective, and continuous system of professional development.

To be sure, there are philosophical and strategic differences over the place of licensing at this time and in this environment. However, the recent survey by Jewish Education Services of North America showing the diminution taking place in central agencies, coupled with the Jewish community’s willingness to accept almost anyone as a teacher of Judaica, is very disconcerting. Standards should not be ignored nor denigrated. We lament the fact that no national or regional Jewish educational entity was able or willing to continue this important work.

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