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Collision Courses, Safer Places: Teacher Licensure, Private Schools, and the Making of a Profession

by Susan M. Lloyd - 1991

Describes teacher certification in private schools, noting tension between private schools and state regulations. The article examines experiences with and reactions to state standards by Vermont and Michigan private schools. It discusses alternative teacher certification, alternative student assessment, and teacher professionalism as means of coping with the public-private split. (Source: ERIC)

The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution delegates the conduct of education to the states. Many citizens contend that states should require all teachers within their borders—whether in public or private schools—to be prepared and licensed for teaching according to a single state standard. For their part, private school leaders point out that private corporations are institutions far older than the North American states. They claim that their schools’ freedom to select, support, and dismiss teachers on their merits defines their nature as private enterprises, and allows them sensitively to respond to parents’ wants and children’s needs.

Where private schools have lost the argument, their teachers often feel limited in their professional practice and growth by orders from above. Yet in states where private schools have won, their teachers also bear consequences. In return for their freedom, they have distanced themselves from their public school colleagues. Rarely can they move from private to public school teaching, because state licensing agencies find them unqualified. Teachers on each side of this divided profession have tended to insist on their own definition of professional practice—to resent rather than to learn from each other’s successes.

Private schools’ claim to legal longevity clearly has some merit. In 1815, the New Hampshire state legislature assumed it could radically alter the charter of Dartmouth College, reasoning (in part) that Dartmouth’s charter had been issued by King George III well before the United States existed as a nation. Chief Justice John Marshall’s Supreme Court turned back the state takeover, affirming for the long future the sanctity of corporate charters under Article I, Section 10, of the Constitution.1 Legal scholars also draw on “natural law” to describe the family as a “natural entity” whose educational choices for their children become one of the myriad ways in which government is held in check.2

This is not to say that private school owners or trustees can do anything they please. Teaching candidates will not show up to be hired if salaries or workloads or evaluation procedures are known to be unfair. Even in a pure free market, parents can refuse to buy an unsatisfactory service, and children can close eyes and ears to learning. In fact, there is no pure free market in the business of schooling. The twentieth-century Supreme Court decision that guarantees the right of parents to send their children to private schools also acknowledges the right of states “reasonably to regulate” schools; to “supervise and examine” their teachers as well as their pupils.3 The obligation of states to protect children and ensure their education is well established in law and practice.


Willingly do private schools submit to safety, health, and pupil attendance regulations. Many draw the line, however, at teacher licensure requirements, grounding their arguments in the First Amendment and on contract law as it has evolved since Dartmouth v. Woodward. Meanwhile, over the past century, states have invented so many different policies—with rationales to match—that individual states have lost the power to convince. A few states require all private school teachers to hold state licenses; other states require no private school teachers to hold licenses. A large middle group makes licensure voluntary, except where the school receives public money, or except where the school wants state accreditation.4 The last provision effectively forces teacher licensure on many private schools.

However, even the states with the most flexible policies are being pressed by Washington to respond to new special-education directives, and the states that look the strictest on paper may make no moves to enforce their rules, or may invoke them only when someone complains. They may exempt parochial school teachers or teachers of religion from mandatory licensure. They may accept other assurances of teacher quality, such as the accreditation of a private school by a reputable regional association. They may have developed alternative routes to teacher licensure so much like those by which private school teachers have prepared themselves that it comes to seem irrational to hold those teachers to the letter of licensure law.

Perhaps most significant for the purposes of this article, the licensure laws of nearly all the states are currently in flux for both public and private school teachers. This rapid change feeds private school people’s hopes as well as their fears.

On the one hand, energy for change comes out of “new” definitions of the teaching profession that have for decades been central to much private school teaching practice: Teachers, the people on education’s front lines, can and should be major actors in school-based management, making key all-school decisions concerning curriculum, schedules, student grouping, and parent relations. They should help with financial planning, and work as colleagues with their principals in hiring and evaluating their peers. They are obliged to know their subjects so well that they can choose textbooks, reject them, or even—if need be—write their own. They are professionals, not just followers-of-directions, and they should be judged primarily by their results, not by their ability to follow teacher-proof pedagogical routines. Here is a vision of the professional teacher that private school people can readily accept.

On the other hand, public school teachers asserting these new responsibilities and rights are seeking aggressively to write them into state licensure laws. They find allies everywhere in the nation within newly activist state departments of education, under pressure from politicians and the public since the early 1980s to improve public schools. Since 1985, the National Education Association (NEA) has been in the lead in pushing states to establish licensure standards boards on which teachers hold the majority. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has built “restructuring” provisions into its most imaginative local contracts, obliging AFT-affiliated teachers to make educational decisions as colleagues with administrators, rather than perpetuating the usual adversary excuses for poor learning outcomes. In four states (California, Minnesota, Oregon, and Nevada) standards boards are empowered to decide the details of licensure rather than merely to recommend them. Governors and legislators join the teachers in advocating mentor or lead-teacher status for demonstrably effective teachers, begging the old question of how excellent teaching can be demonstrated. As public school teachers gain confidence and power, numbers of them contend that what is required for them should be required for all teachers.

Adding their prestige to teachers’ determination to raise professional standards, a weighty group of university teacher educators asserts that a true professional needs lengthy training, encompassing a B.A. in the liberal arts and a master’s degree in education, as well as supervised clinical practice. This “more-is-better” advocacy seems wasteful and self-serving to many private school leaders, who must constantly be trimming their costs to their clientele. Private school teachers’ distrust of the traditional teacher preparation programs is also an old story—as old as the rash overselling of their benefits by teacher educators, beginning in the Progressive era. Immersed in their academic disciplines and in the many roles they play within their schools, private school teachers tend not to have noticed that the reliable knowledge base of pedagogy has expanded in significant ways. Research is finally bearing fruit in key areas such as classroom management and student assessment. New insights into the effects of family environment on learning have deepened and strengthened knowledgeable teachers’ responses to diverse student needs.

If the knowledge base of teaching has become so much more useful than in the past, why do so many private school people object when states require the study of education and pedagogy along with supervised practice? The most sharply focused field in which to seek answers to this question is in the states where private schools and their teachers have recently been pressed on the licensure issue. States that have lived and let live for decades are casting around for a new relationship with their private schools. Louisiana, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Maryland, Iowa, and Indiana are states whose private school teachers and leaders feel threatened by serious moves to tighten state control.5 Of these, it is Indiana where teacher licensure has become the central issue, following the passage of a reform law tightening licensure standards to ensure that no teachers practice outside the specific subjects for which they were licensed—and requiring all teachers in accredited private schools to meet the new, more rigorous standards instead of making licensure optional, as it had been for many years. For their schools to regain state accreditation, thousands of teachers would now have to take new education courses, or drop some of their teaching assignments, or both. Yet without accreditation, a private school’s students would lose their customary access to the state university system and statewide athletic leagues. Parents would shy away from unaccredited schools no matter how worthy.6


Licensure controversies in Vermont and Michigan bear a closer look, for they reveal with particular clarity the pressures under which private educators labor wherever state policies are challenged or changing. Vermont makes a dramatic instance, because it has historically been among the most liberal—if not libertarian—of states in its hospitality to independent and parochial schools. This has been as much a matter of principle as a matter of convenience: Originally settled by Massachusetts citizens who had had their fill of governmental and church direction, Vermont briefly declared itself an independent republic before joining the union in 1791. At the same time, Vermonters shared the general New England passion for education, and they soon founded dozens of private academies on the Massachusetts model. Trustees were ordinarily local businessmen and selectmen; the typical Vermont academy guaranteed admission at low cost to local pupils fresh from the common schools, whether they wished to prepare for college, for teaching, or for business.

As the nineteenth century progressed and schooling beyond sixth or eighth grade became the expectation for all students, most of Vermont’s independent academies began to accept pupils funded by tuition vouchers from remote towns lacking access to public high schools. Thus they became entangled with the state even though they remained under the control of independent trustees. Five of the largest antebellum academies remain, serving some 2,400 (9 percent) of the state’s high school students.

Smaller numbers of voucher students attend other private schools, including the majority of those Vermont children requiring specialized schools because of severe physical handicaps. Vermont has been hospitable to innovation. The state has chartered dozens of new private schools in the past century, and has granted to some improbable but unusually inventive colleges and graduate schools the right to prepare teachers for its public schools. According to John Holden, Vermont’s commissioner of education from 1949 to 1965, the state’s tolerance for and financial support of “Approved” private schools were so much taken for granted—and so firmly endorsed by local communities as well as the parents of special-needs children—that no one ever asked for a review of the system of private school approval. Early in Holden’s tenure, these procedures even supported partial tuitions at sectarian schools like St. Paul’s across the New Hampshire border. While the state eliminated this possibility about thirty years ago, Vermont quietly stayed with the independent schools on its approved list, keeping its distance from the constitutional controversies of the 1960s that swirled around state-supported segregationist academies in the Old South.

The system cracked in 1988. For several years preceding, the approved list had been too casually maintained. Parent complaints had repeatedly come in to the commissioner’s office about a small school in northern Vermont, but no one had looked into them, much less removed the school from the list. Nobody in the state offices can explain the inaction, for there was every reason to investigate: The school had lost its accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the independent schools’ regional accrediting agency; thus it lacked a certification of institutional worth that the state had long accepted as meeting its requirement that private school teachers be “qualified to perform their assigned duties.” The errant school was reapplying for accreditation, and this may have signaled sufficient corrective intent to those attending the approved list. “The state was caught with its pants down,” says one Vermont headmaster. “It was terribly embarrassing to all of us,” say two others.

A new commissioner arrived in 1988. Though he valued the alternatives independent schools can offer, having been a private school founder and teacher himself, he saw no choice but to revise the independent school approval process. At his and others’ recommendation, the legislature enacted a bill to begin the job: Act 44. A year of hearings has followed, during which state officials and school heads from the Vermont Independent School Association (VISA) have worked toward new definitions of the qualified school and the qualified teacher.

The revisions applying to ordinary classroom teachers have been deeply complicated by the state’s effort to comply with new federal rules for special-education teachers in voucher-receiving schools. No longer could their qualifications be merely “appropriate” to their task; instead they must meet the “highest requirements” applicable to public school teachers under state law.7 By Vermont law, all public school special-education teachers must be “certified” (licensed) by the state.

Eight of the twenty-seven VISA schools had contracted with local school districts to carry out special-needs students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Some of these had chosen to hire state-licensed special-education teachers—but most insisted that this choice remained theirs, not the state’s. Others had deliberately chosen not to. Among the last group are several small schools that seem amply to satisfy the federal requirement that handicapped children be educated in the “least restrictive” learning environment. One independent boarding school specializes in serving bright dyslexic youngsters; its founder and principal insists that to meet the requirements for state licensure would unfit teachers to work at his school, narrowing and routinizing their teaching. He looks for articulate liberal arts graduates who have majored in one of the humanities, love children, love language, and have the intelligence to absorb the school’s own in-service training in phonetics, rule-based language structures, and language teaching techniques.

The special-education controversy has confirmed Vermont NEA leaders in their conviction that all teachers in any private school receiving public money should be state licensed; it has also energized state officials’ search for federal guidance in legally defining a “qualified” special-education teacher.

State officials say that the effort to align Vermont special education with federal standards has nothing to do with simultaneous revisions of the general independent school approval process under Act 44, and that it is not “Vermont’s way” to unilaterally impose teacher licensure if it can be avoided. Independent school leaders fear, however, that the search will ultimately end where it began: with a proposal that all special-education teachers be licensed by the state, as they are in most other states. Few are appeased by state officials’ suggestion that the “highest requirement might be satisfied if private school special needs teachers would accept supervision by a state-licensed teacher.” John Sanders, vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools and director of NAIS’s Washington office, sees “no evidence that Vermont’s independent schools are failing to meet these kids’ needs.” On the contrary, “both parents and local decision-makers confirm their success.” Sanders finds it “outrageous that the state-certified special ed. interests should be trying to change a system that works.” Says the headmaster of a school with a widely admired special-education division, “If they hang certification around our necks we won’t have a chance.” He thinks his trustees will cancel the voucher program before they accept a state licensure requirement.

The anxious include at least a dozen headmasters of Vermont schools that take little or no public voucher money. They speak of these looming legal definitions and special-education requirements as the “opening wedge” in the traditional barriers between independent schools and state encroachment. David Wilson, president of VISA and in close touch with independent school leaders in other states, says that “Vermont’s licensure controversy and its implications for non-special ed. teachers has [sic] sent shock waves around New England.” For Vermont’s public-private controversy is no more unique than are those in other states with other histories. It has become newly relevant to states like Wisconsin, with its state voucher program for low-income Milwaukee families. Minnesota took Vermont as one model for its public school parent choice program and its state tax credit for private school parents (now $1,000 per child). Several VISA leaders think that Vermont independent schools are “walking the tightrope for the whole country” in their efforts to win from the federal government a broad-minded definition of the “qualified” special-education teacher.

Even those (like David Wilson) who knew early in 1989 that the general school approval process had to be tightened were deeply worried by the legislature’s passage of Act 44. The first school approval hearing opened in “an emotionally charged” atmosphere, says Peg Meyer, Independent School Consultant for the state. A peacemaker at heart and in practice, she saw that the conduct of this meeting and those to come could “make or break” the state’s relationship with its independent school community. In fact, private school attendees were soon somewhat reassured by the state people’s sincere interest in gathering their opinions. “Vermont officials really believe in participatory bureaucracy,” jokes the headmaster of Vermont’s school for the deaf, who has attended every one of the Act 44 meetings.

At first it seemed that the general approval revisions might be assisted by federal definitions of a “qualified” special-education teacher. The state education department attorney wrote to the federal Office of Special Education after the first two meetings, pointing out that “if the private school standards are identical to the public school standards in the services they provide and in the qualifications of staff, private schools will not be able to develop the necessary alternatives to the public schools,” and asking if the state could “create exceptions through its licensing rules that allow different licensing standards for [special-education] personnel in the private schools.”8

Six months after this letter, however, Vermont is still waiting for federal officials to resolve their own disagreements over acceptable private school standards so that they can provide Vermont with the ones it needs. In the meantime, the state-sponsored working groups have come up with proposals of their own to satisfy Act 44 and to improve the general approval process for non-special education schools. The heart of the plan is for the state to define as qualified all teachers working in schools accredited by NEASC or by any other regional accrediting agency recognized by the state board of education. Acknowledging NEASC’s ten-year accreditation interval as too long, VISA representatives have agreed with the state on a five-year interim NEASC visit to each school. They have also pledged to elect six representatives to the twelve-member Council of Independent Schools, established under Act 44 to advise the commissioner concerning the approval process and to help the state act quickly to investigate any complaint. They have agreed to report regularly to the state the provisions their schools have made for teachers’ professional development, acknowledging the salience of this component of Vermont’s new licensing standards for public school teachers. Significantly, these proposed standards contain not a single reference to the state licensure of private school teachers.

As for the separate special-education issues, “If the feds will let us, we can give Vermont something much better than mere compliance with state licensure standards,” says David Wilson. NEASC has launched a committee to begin designing a special-education accreditation process. Committee members (including a VISA representative) envision a school visiting and reporting procedure far more appreciative of careful innovation than any likely to be developed by state bureaucracies. At the same time they acknowledge that much can be learned through dialogue between private and public school specialists: They plan to invite all New England state special-education directors to a NEASC committee meeting. “We will try to help,” says a NEASC official, “but we’re not about to go to war with the Vermont Department of Education.” And, of course, “the feds” must also approve NEASC standards for IEP contracting schools. Federal officials are watching to see what happens, some of them hoping that Vermont and NEASC efforts will reduce the adversary stress that so often accompanies decisions regarding teacher licensure.

In spite of all the conciliation and all the progress, several of Vermont’s independent school leaders remain anxious. One headmaster wonders what he will do if the state eventually decides to require licenses of the several valuable teachers who have come to his school from college teaching or from other professions. Another talks gloomily of a top-notch faculty member whose Ph.D. will never get him a regular Vermont teaching license, even though he was last year’s state Chemistry Teacher of the Year. A third is working out with his trustees a way to get on without federal library aid, though it has meant $11,000 a year, in order to help his school stay clear of the next assault on its independence, whatever it may be—for no one thinks the advocates of state licensure for private school teachers will give up. As one school head puts it, “We’re on a collision course with the state.”

None of the school heads has self-protective plans to begin hiring licensed teachers. On the contrary, “A licensed teacher who comes looking for a job with us is suspect till we’ve looked at exactly what courses he’s taken and where,” says the headmaster of one of Vermont’s larger academies. Another remarks, “We’ve had 350 unsolicited applicants this year for our few job openings. Most of them show the strong liberal arts background we value. If we have to require state licenses of our teachers, we won’t have a chance at attracting candidates like that.” David Wilson summarizes the views of most of his fellow headmasters: “We’ll work with the state, but we oppose teacher licensure for anyone in our schools, for any reason.”


On the surface, Michigan’s traditional state policy appears light years away from that of Vermont. It was crafted in the 1920s to flatly mandate state licensure for all private school teachers, and it has, for the most part, been enforced. The majority of private school people have learned to live with the system. “For years, the Department of Education never came down on us,” says Billie Kops Wimmer, who is executive director of the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools, the largest of three statewide private school organizations. With the backing of her association, she continues, schools have made certain that their veteran teachers met all license renewal requirements. “We don’t believe that these requirements violate our religious rights, but we can’t always find licensed teachers. So we often have to urge new teachers to enroll in one of Michigan’s excellent state university teacher preparation programs.” Fulfilling state demands has not been easy for parochial schools struggling with shrinking budgets. A few have had to close their doors, unable to meet these and other costs, but all have done their best to obey Michigan law. “In our association, we’re voluntarily complying,” says Wimmer, “even though we realize that technically the law gives us no choice. If a school resists, the state can hold a hearing and close it.”

Independent nonsectarian schools have their own association in Michigan, and they have taken a more assertive stance to try to maintain their freedom. They have asked (and have usually received) special state permits to hire and keep the occasional uncredentialed teacher with unusual qualifications; a few schools have hired such teachers without formal permits, remaining in noncompliance for years and hoping no one from the state would complain too much. The state’s wish to avoid confrontation made persuasion and paperwork its first resorts, and “benign neglect” its last. The success of these strategies is suggested by the fact that 85 to 90 percent of Michigan’s independent school teachers are licensed.

True, “some of our very best teachers are not certified—and have had no plans to get certified,” according to Richard Halsey, spokesman and state liaison for the Association of Independent Michigan Schools (AIMS). “This has clearly put some of our schools in technical violation of the law.” The holdouts were encouraged by the fact that Michigan’s last superintendent of public instruction was interested in alternative routes toward licensure (one possible route combined private school experience with in-service training). The present state superintendent bears no animosity toward private schools. Until recently, independent schools and the state carried on their reporting and monitoring responsibilities from year to year in a “compliance-if-possible” mode, and it worked fairly well.

In January 1990, every noncomplying private school in Michigan received a letter from the state department of education warning that it had fifteen days to let the state know its precise plans for meeting the requirements of Michigan’s teacher licensure laws. Either the unlicensed teachers must set up a schedule of course-taking and credit accumulation, or, to receive a special permit to keep an unusually able teacher, the school head must take an oath that no licensed replacement teacher could possibly be found. In other words, Interlochen Arts Academy would have to fire one of its most gifted instrumental teachers, a cellist from the Detroit Symphony, as soon as a state-licensed cello teacher could be located to take his place.

Two of the eighteen teachers at work in Richard Halsey’s Kingsbury School had been too busy to renew their licenses, and would have to be let go unless Halsey could demonstrate that he had conducted an exhaustive, unsuccessful search for licensed replacements and would formally swear to the state that he had done so. Richard Halsey will not so swear. Nor has a single AIMS school head been willing to take an oath that assumes that licensure automatically guarantees superiority. Though AIMS teachers and principals have been granted an extension of the fifteen-day reply interval to decide how they will respond, the tenure of that valuable 10 to 15 percent of unlicensed teachers—and all that is left of the private schools’ freedom to use their judgment in seeking the best teachers available—is in jeopardy.

How did it come about, this donnybrook desired by neither state nor independent schools? For the last twenty years, Michigan has been threshing floor to a new group of private schools: Evangelical Christian schools, usually sponsored by a Baptist or New Testament church congregation. Christian school teachers and leaders believe that all education is inescapably religious. They have assumed a ministry to children in partnership with parents, who, it is written (Deuteronomy, Chapter 6), are granted by God the right and responsibility to educate their children. By many accounts, the parents began founding schools of their own when they saw public schools “becoming hostile to Christianity in their efforts to stay religiously neutral,” as Robert Baldwin, the director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Christian Schools, puts it. As for conventional, state-approved teacher preparation programs, evangelical Christians write that their “courses are filled with a philosophy that is contradictory to our Christian values.”9

Christian schools are ardently determined to render no more to Caesar than is absolutely necessary to meet the state’s legitimate school attendance and safety statutes. For many years, the schools duly reported to the state on these matters; they sought and received permits to hire unlicensed teachers. By the mid 1970s, however, the energetic Michigan schools were growing fast toward their present enrollment of over 20,000. “They began to loom as a threat to public schools,” says Baldwin. He recalls hearing from the then state superintendent of public instruction that the Michigan Education Association (MEA) had threatened legal action against the state if it did not enforce the 1921 law. Other observers not present at this conversation attest to the MEA’s preference for universal licensure.10

Whatever the MEA leaders’ motives, there is no doubt that state officials began scrutinizing every annual report and permit request submitted by the Christian schools, refusing permits to Honors-in-Education graduates from institutions such as Bob Jones University and Tennessee Temple College. They promised again and again to close the schools whose teachers refused to secure Michigan licenses. All intended compromises collapsed.

Since the annual reports could never satisfy the state, most Christian schools decided to stop sending them in. Finally, in 1985, the Sheridan Road Baptist Church brought the state to court for ordering it to violate its constituents’ consciences and their First Amendment rights. The church and its school won their case in the local courts, but lost on appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court on a 3-3 vote in 1986. Under cross-examination procedures in the Sheridan Road case, the churches’ attorney had asked the state’s expert witness if there were any empirical data to demonstrate a correlation between educational outcomes and a teacher’s adherence to licensure rules. The witness replied that there was not.11

Further negotiations between schools and state having failed by 1987, the Christian schools introduced a bill to the legislature presenting alternative means of demonstrating teachers’ effectiveness, including a regular student testing program. In spite of throngs of advocates on the capitol steps and widespread editorial support, the bill failed in the House education committee after passing in the Senate.

Robert Baldwin has lately assisted the Michigan Association of Christian Schools in a new suit against the state (People v. DeJong and Bennett). He reminds anyone who will listen that Baptists went to jail in the eighteenth century for refusing to allow the states to license their ministers, and that twentieth-century minister-teachers are ready to go to jail for the same reason, as a Nebraska minister and several parents did in 1982. The Michigan principals hope they will not have to do so, because Christian schools have brought similar cases in Ohio, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Vermont—and have either won them or gained by negotiation a compromise for their teachers concerning state licensure requirements.

Criminal penalties are indeed involved because the Christian schools’ refusal to report on nonsafety matters is in defiance of Michigan’s Compulsory Pupil Attendance Act. No one is in jail yet, but the state has finished hearings for 12 Christian schools and issued final orders to report. Leaders of 4 of the schools have said that the state will have to come and padlock the schoolhouse doors before they will comply. Sixteen more schools have received formal notice of their hearings, and 140 more expect to get them any day now.

Even if the Michigan legislators agreed that the private schools’ own associations’ accreditation process might meet their present requirements for teacher licensure, most of the schools in Robert Baldwin’s organization would refuse the favor. Changes in state requirements will not do for a holy people to whom “the ability to teach is a God-given talent which cannot be learned”—however richly it can be nurtured in a sound Christian teacher preparation program. “We are glad to take suggestions from the state,” Baldwin continues, “but each of our schools must have its own, final authority over the teachers it hires.”

Meanwhile, state officials feel that the Christian schools’ lawsuit has given them no choice but to enforce all Michigan’s requirements fully and equally on every independent school, sectarian traditional school, and evangelical Christian school within the borders of the state.

Michigan’s litigious confrontations are exactly what most Vermonters wish to avoid. Indeed, the Michigan case has jangled nerves all over the country, especially in states where more conciliatory solutions are being tried. Peaceful, productive relationships between state governments and private schools take years to build. Unlike Indiana, Connecticut has not unilaterally imposed its new “advanced” public school licensure requirements on accredited private schools. Teachers and administrators from both public and private sectors speak appreciatively of the trust that prevails between them. Education officials have for several decades deliberately sought private school leaders’ advice as they make plans to implement state standards; state consultants offer in-service workshops to private school teachers, and private schools repeatedly take them up on the offer. The state board of education monitors the regional private school associations (including two for independent schools and one for parochial schools), which in turn regularly visit the 95 percent of schools wishing state accreditation, always including a state consultant on the accreditation team. An advisory commission much like Vermont’s new Council for Private Schools meets with the commissioner three times a year. All this coming and going between state and schools has woven a supportive web of personal relationships. One large prep school regularly opens its meeting rooms for state department of education gatherings; it also sponsors an array of public-private institutes for both students and teachers. Its headmaster hosts monthly meetings of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents—and every one of them comes.

Even the evangelical Christian schools voluntarily submit their attendance and health reports to the state of Connecticut. Private school leaders in neighboring New York State look on this comity with some envy, given the adversary relationships that have periodically surfaced between their schools and an activist department of education. In New York as in several other states, private school heads and trustees can anticipate the annual introduction in the legislature of a bill demanding state licensure of private school teachers. In some years this has loomed as a real threat; recently it has looked more like an empty populist gesture made for harassment. Leaders of New York’s Association of Independent Schools (NYAIS) think the state too preoccupied with other concerns right now to do battle for basic licensure of their teachers.

“But we’ve been very worried about advanced licensing,” says Gardner Dunnan, president of NYAIS. Both Dunnan and Fred Calder, NYAIS’s executive director, believe that the teacher unions are pushing advanced state licensure, and they are watching with mingled hope and anxiety to see what happens. “We’re not opposed to voluntary advanced licensure,” says Calder; Calder and Dunnan see some real educational advantages in it, just as the unions do. Calder believes, however, that in past years “the unions have been in bed with the powerful teacher education interests” who supply the market for basic teacher credentials. “If they can force the nonpublic schools into the advanced credential mode, they might hope to bring our teachers closer to becoming unionized. And we would resist mandatory licensing to the end.”


Divisions run deep, then, between the worlds occupied by public and private schools, and go back through generations of teachers. Those who try to cross them may find that they have helped to deepen them further. The national “voucher” movement, designed to allow all parents the right to choose either a private or publicly controlled school for their children, has aroused such fierce opposition from public school interest groups that no large-scale private school voucher plan has yet become reality; smaller scale voucher systems like Vermont’s are under suspicion. Nevertheless, voucher advocates keep trying, encouraged by the success some private schools have had working with inner-city families to help their children thrive in school.

Wisconsin’s governor, determined that children from low-income Milwaukee families should have a chance at such success, has recently signed a bill to allow 1,000 youngsters to take a $2,500 voucher—the amount of state aid Wisconsin provides local public schools for every low-income student—to any accredited nonsectarian school that will accept the voucher as full tuition. Since two-thirds of the nation’s nonpublic schools charge less than $2,500, it is not surprising that many Milwaukee schools were immediately interested in joining up. Voucher-holding students may comprise no more than 49 percent of a private school’s student body; thus no school can depend exclusively on public money for its existence. Though the students are to be chosen by lottery, Wisconsin’s teacher union members have risen in a body to argue (with some justice) that the voucher holders will inevitably be children of the parents who care most about education, leaving the public schools to struggle as usual with the unmotivated remainder. Many public school teachers also object to the absence of a licensure requirement in the thirteen participating private schools, especially in a state that has long required the licensing of teachers in any school receiving state aid—even while they agree that the thirteen private schools’ tradition of parent involvement (including yearly fund-raising in the several schools whose tuition is much lower than the real cost per pupil) will help to engage the children in their new schools. Union members also fear teacher layoffs in proportion to the numbers of students who leave the public schools, carrying their state aid with them.

Yet in other areas, common ground is widening, ground on which public and private school teachers can meet and work together. It is most often found among those who recognize that excellent teaching is two things at once: It demands broad and deep knowledge—including subject matter knowledge—on which teachers can draw, whether they are making long-range curricular decisions or working out from moment to moment the most constructive response to a fast-changing classroom situation. But teaching is also specific to its particular context within a particular school community. Thus there is now widespread recognition that the “wisdom of practice” comes from practicing, that neither public nor private schools hold a monopoly on the ideal setting for such practicing, and that good-teaching practice can be both nurtured and assessed.

These views converge in the growing number of “alternative certification” programs, which grant provisional licensure—and for unusually well qualified recruits in a few states like California, full licensure—to teaching candidates experienced in other professions, or to teachers with private school experience. Forty-eight of the states now field some kind of alternative licensure process. A typical program provides an intensive summer of course work and supervised practice teaching before the new teacher moves into full-time or near-full-time work in the classroom, usually as a member of a team or close-knit department.

RAND Corporation studies clearly show that some alternative programs work better than others; those programs most supportive to nontraditional candidates follow summer methods courses with fall-term internships rather than all-absorbing jobs, and give the new teachers time both to observe mentor teachers and to receive their frequent critiques. New Jersey’s alternative program, initially sponsored by a governor whose first job as a new college graduate was teaching in a private school, is live years old now, and ready to claim success. Its recruits include young people fresh from liberal arts colleges as well as mid-career candidates. If headed for high school teaching, these neophytes must have majored in the subject they will teach and pass a subject matter exam; if for elementary school they must simply hold a liberal arts degree. New Jersey guarantees new teachers, following summer orientation, a moderate teaching load, supervision by a mentor, and three formal evaluations during the school year. Though conventionally trained teachers have tended in New Jersey (as in several other states) initially to resent alternatively licensed colleagues as “eight-week wonders,” the hiring school district can head off ill feeling by engaging affected teachers in decision making about hiring. In 1989, 25 percent of New Jersey’s teaching vacancies were filled by nontraditional candidates. Their attrition rate has proved to be just 4 to 8 percent compared with 18 percent among regularly licensed teachers who entered the system at the same time—and more promising than rates for traditional beginners in the nation as a whole.12

The strongest alternative licensure programs appear to depend heavily on the watchfulness of experienced teachers. The mentor teacher is a familiar phenomenon in private schools, as is the colleagueship that grows out of shared responsibility for student learning, supporting both novice and veteran teachers. Integral to public school leaders’ determination to make of teaching a true profession is the understanding that experienced teachers, working sometimes in concert with a principal, sometimes not, can and should take on—or at least share—mentoring responsibilities that once belonged exclusively to administrators.

With responsibility comes accountability: Results matter. Credentials are no substitute. With care, results can be tested—though there is clearly great danger that the national mania for comparable statistics will lock teachers and students into stale, fragmented patterns of learning. It is teachers—and, in states like Vermont and California, teachers’ unions—who are leading the new efforts to develop broad-gauged assessments for student “competencies” such as writing, oral presentation, visual perceptiveness, and historical or mathematical analysis. The competencies are not free-floating and meaningless; rather, they are embedded in the content of student learning, and the assessments are made to be adapted by a particular teacher to the work of a particular class or student work. These efforts are deeply congruent with private schools’ obligation to go beyond standardized tests to define what they mean by student success, and to demonstrate it to the clientele that keeps the school going: the parents.

Teachers also form one of the cheering sections for a variety of new assessment measures designed to scrutinize their own performance in the classroom—though not all teachers, for teachers get just as anxious about evaluation of their practice as do other professionals (perhaps more so, given that their most productive interchanges with students are often, by their nature, hidden ones). Teacher advocates of professional assessment believe that much in teaching practice remains open to fair evaluation; recent experiments sponsored by both states and foundations suggest that it can be done.

Two major new teacher assessment projects are in the works: for beginning teachers, the revision by the Educational Testing Service of its widely used—and to many teachers, insultingly simplistic—National Teachers Examination (NTE); and for advanced practitioners, voluntary national certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The two have in common an emphasis on the profound value of subject-matter learning (“How else,” asks a private school special-education director, “can my elementary teachers discover how human beings learn?”), a respect for the most reliable pedagogical research, and a conviction that the usefulness of both is chiefly demonstrated in performance. Their very complexity compels attention; early indications are that neither private nor public educators will find the new assessments insulting.

Revising the NTE means much more than developing a new multiple-choice test. Basic academic skills will be assessed, but this will be done in the sophomore year while aspiring teachers still have time to either change their aspirations or improve their skills. Pedagogical and subject-matter knowledge will be tested just before or after graduation, and will use open-ended assessment techniques (some of these computer-based exercises) as well as multiple-choice items. For the twenty-eight states now requiring extensive supervised teaching before licensure—and for the others likely to join this “positive trend”—systematic supports for locally based performance observation systems will be developed, including training for observers.13

Like the NTE project, the development of advanced, voluntary National Board certification is a many-dimensional effort that is demanding years of expensive experimentation and a wide network of planners, including hundreds of teachers from both public and private schools. On the sixty-four member National Board itself, classroom teachers form the majority; more than advisors, they make policy, along with fellow members from the leadership of both national teachers’ unions, and from business, higher education, and government. Following a national search, the original teaching members were chosen in 1987 by participants in the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy as a first step in carrying out the forum’s recommendation that “high and rigorous” standards for the teaching profession be developed by teachers themselves. Teaching members of the board must eventually be elected by board-certified teachers, just as physicians and accountants elect their national boards.

The National Board’s most controversial policy so far is consistent with its emphasis on performance over credentials: All teachers, whether from public or private school, will be eligible to sit for its assessments after three years of teaching experience. No state license or education degree is required—no degree at all beyond the bachelor’s level. The great majority of board members—including many teachers who value and daily use what they learned in education courses—believe that there are nearly as many ways to prepare for teaching as there are to teach well. Two organizations of teachers’ colleges and universities fiercely oppose this decision, insisting instead that the only acceptable candidates be state-licensed teachers with degrees from an accredited teacher preparation program; the NEA’s Executive Committee also seeks to change it. Still, while no National Board policy can be fixed forever, for now this guarantee of its independence remains in force.

Creating performance-based assessments for thirty-four national certification fields is a task of awesome complexity. Keeping them current, sensitive to the myriad contexts of teaching, and open to change may be a still larger challenge. The mathematics disciplinary associations have, for example, managed to unite (for now) behind a broad but rigorous approach to the teaching of K-12 math, and are ready to work energetically with the National Board and its assessment-development contractors to complete the requisite exercises for secondary school math teachers by 1993. One must ask, however, how the board will reconcile the history teachers who lobby for political-constitutional history and denigrate social or economic history with those whose intellectual preferences are exactly the opposite. How can assessment-makers design subject matter assessments that will be relatively easy to grade, yet also open to the renegade scholarship that unseats conventional paradigms?

Large problems like these are high on the agenda of groups such as a growing cabal of humanities teachers, which finds women (half the world’s population) and people of color (four-fifths of the world’s population) to be grossly underrepresented in the Hirsch- and Bloom-approved curriculum. Yet these large problems are exactly the problems that teachers should be debating. It is far better for teaching professionals to be arguing among themselves and from their expertise than to be pounding unheard on the doors of the meeting rooms at the legislatures and the schools of education. It is a conversation, moreover, in which public and private school teachers can fully share, since they can expect together to guide the development of a voluntary process of national certification. Once implemented, board certification could radically ease the movement of teachers between private and public schools, serving as evidence of superior potential in either sector—sufficient evidence, perhaps, to satisfy advanced standards in the many states that now offer alternative routes to teacher licensure.

All signs indicate that this late twentieth century drive to make a true profession of a lowly public service will not go away. Its supporting coalition is broader and more determined than that for any previous education reform movement. Teachers themselves have gotten into the act. Not only do they—with their students—hold the largest stake in the outcome; they know the territory better than most of the generals who strutted about the field a century ago, or eighty years ago, or sixty or thirty or twenty years ago. The risks of such a national effort are all too well evident. They can be glimpsed wherever states impose rigid systems of teacher licensure on private school teachers in their efforts to raise the standards of the profession as a whole. Such a strategy, in my view, only vitiates the energy for change that now lodges in the academic freedoms most private school teachers have traditionally enjoyed. The potential of the current movement toward teacher professionalism is also great, however, and is bound to affect both public and private education. There is always the chance that, this time, it will be fulfilled.

Sources: Interviews (April and May, 1990)

The following people made invaluable contributions to this article. They are, however, in no way responsible for any errors of fact or interpretation; these are the author’s alone.

American Christian Schools International (ACSI): Paul Kienel

Connecticut: William Bagley, Rachel Balash, Marjorie Bradley, Marie Della Bella

Indiana: Lawrence Bowman, Sister Lawrence Ann Liston, Eugene Picolo, Stephen Noone

Michigan: Robert Baldwin, Richard Halsey, Judith Lanier, Billie Kops Wimmer, Leslie Hawker

National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS): Stephen Clem, John Esty, John Sanders

New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC): Vincent Durnan, Emi Flynn, Marcus Hurlbut

New York: Fred Calder, Gardner Dunnan, Evelyn Halpert

United States Department of Education: Patricia Lines, Charles O’Malley, Eleanora Morris

Vermont: Kenneth Bergstrom, Maria Briere, Robert Brigham, Marlene Burke, William Cruess, Dwight Davis, John Holden, Sven Huseby, Lloyd Kelley, Susan Kimmerly, Robert Long, Bernard Mayo, Donald McCafferty, Jonathan McIntire, Peg Meyer, Richard Mills, Renee Peters, Thomas Scheidler, Martha Schmelzenbach, Ray Stevens, David Wilson

Wisconsin: Zakiya Courtney, Tom Fanfara, Sister Callista Robinson

Others: Joyce McCray, (March 1990); Susan Adler Kaplan, Sally Pappenheimer, Arthur Powell

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 3, 1991, p. 451-469
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 307, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 11:44:59 PM

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