By Marty Nemko
December 8, 2014
IDEAS
Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology from UC Berkeley and is a career and personal coach.

After passing student teaching, it typically takes a public school teacher only two or three years after being hired to get tenure for life. That tenure stands whether they’re energized and helping kids for decades or if they’re burned out and hurting them.

So, when I supervised student teachers at San Jose State University, I gave a passing grade only to students whom I believed would be at least reasonably good for kids. Actually, my criterion was, “Would it be okay if my daughter had this person as a teacher?” As a result, I failed one-third of my students. They were really bad; I couldn’t begin to understand how such people could have made it all the way to student teaching. I recall one student teacher–who knew I’d be visiting—who showed a movie for three-quarters of the period, and when it ended with a few minutes left in the period, played the movie backwards. Instead of being praised for high standards in passing only two-thirds of the students, despite fine student evaluations, I was not asked back.

To be a doctor, lawyer, psychologist, teacher, or accountant, you must be licensed. That’s appropriate, but how licensure is granted is inappropriate. In most fields, a license is usually granted after completing the prescribed university-based education and, often, a written examination. Both do an inadequate job of what we actually want a license to mean: that this professional is likely to help us.

Training

Most university-based training programs are taught heavily by academics, professors who are hired and promoted not mainly on how well they prepare practitioners but on their research. The researcher’s skills and personality are different from the trainer’s. Research demands great intellectual rigor and years-long focus on a narrow area. In contrast, training pre-professionals more requires the ability to explain basic practicalities clearly, create experiences for students that both educate and inspire, and connect interpersonally with students of widely varying intellectual and personal styles.

We’ve ceded far too much power to academia. Professionals should be trained primarily by master practitioners. Indeed, that now is an option for aspiring teachers in California. They can, for example, choose to receive much of their training on the job, hired by a school district as a paid “intern” who teaches a classroom under a supervising mentor and takes a few short, practical courses. Aspiring lawyers in California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington can forgo the three years and six-figure cost of law school by, as The New York Times put it, “studying at the elbow of a seasoned lawyer.”

Why would an organization other than a university want to get involved in training, apart from tuition it would receive? Because it builds a pipeline of well-trained talent. A school district, law firm, and health organization such as Kaiser, of course, wants people who are well trained and want to work there. If the organization trains well, it will have accomplished that while gaining revenue. And many individual master practitioners derive pleasure and growth from mentoring an aspirant. If additional incentive were needed to encourage organizations to train aspirants, the trainees would agree to work for that organization for at least a year. If additional incentive were needed to encourage students to select that organization as its trainer, it could guarantee employment to the program’s completers.

Testing

After completing the education component of professional training, certification is usually based on passing a written exam that consists mainly or totally of multiple-choice questions, not a live demonstration of expertise. But we all know people who do well on written tests and badly in the real world. The skills to pass a written exam omit crucialities: Can a physician, in the space of a short patient visit, forge sufficient trust to get that patient to reveal what she’s really experiencing? To actually comply with the physician’s recommendations? Can a lawyer remain ethical in the face of pressures for dishonesty? Does a psychologist get a significant percentage of clients to improve their lives?

Passing a written exam should qualify the professional only for provisional licensure. Full licensure should require passing grades on a report card issued by the provisional licensee’s supervisor and by a random sample of the person’s patients or clients. To maximize integrity, the supervisor, not the candidate, would randomly select those people, emailing them a brief online report card, which need consist only of rating the practitioner A to F on three simple items: effectiveness in meeting your goal, ethics, and overall satisfaction.

A call for pilot testing

The proposed model may be logical but does it actually work? That could be tested: In each profession, traditionally train and test a random half of aspiring professionals, and train and test the other half as proposed here. Then compare the graduates over time on effectiveness and job satisfaction.

For example, to measure effectiveness, do traditionally or innovatively trained and tested teachers end up with students with greater risk-adjusted growth in reading, writing, critical thinking, and math? Which group of physicians has better risk-adjusted patient outcomes? Which group of lawyers has greater risk-adjusted client satisfaction and more lawyers that are given greater responsibility?

Evaluation

Whatever training model is used, training institutions have largely been immune from accountability. Government doesn’t shut down a medical school whose graduates have well-below-average risk-adjusted patient outcomes. No one de-accredits a teacher training program because its graduates do a weak of job improving student learning. That should change.

How come this hasn’t yet come to pass?

Why has university-centric training remained the standard even though it has little accountability for its graduates’ effectiveness, and we all know of well-certified people who do a poor job? My best guess is that we are intimidated by academics—book-smart PhDs. It would seem anti-intellectual to replace those lofty intellects with mere practitioners. But perhaps we would change our approach if we applied the same common sense we’d use in choosing our own practitioners. For example, wouldn’t you choose a surgeon that had done your surgery 100 times rather than someone who wrote a book on the theory of that surgery but had rarely performed it?

Why have written exams remained the standard for licensure? I’m guessing it’s mainly cost. But if the pilot testing recommended here indicates that real-world evaluation adds significantly more validity to licensure, it would mean we’d all have better doctors, lawyers, teachers, psychologists and accountants. Wouldn’t that be a wiser expenditure of societal dollars than on much of what society already spends?

Making it happen

In whatever profession you’re in, there’s probably a professional association involved in determining how professionals get certified and recertified. Perhaps you might want to share this article with that organization’s education committee.

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