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Briefing paper

Certified teachers – better results?

As of July 2015, only certified teachers – i e teachers who have completed an accredited teaching degree - are allowed to grade students. In addition, only certified teachers can obtain permanent teaching positions in Swedish schools. In this briefing paper, we find no indications that schools with more certified teachers obtain better result than other schools. Hence, it is unlikely that the reform will improve educational results in Sweden. On the contrary, the reform will most likely increase the problems the Swedish school system is facing.


  • Schools with a higher number of pedagogically-trained teachers do not, on average, achieve better results than others. Therefore, the Swedish teacher certification reform cannot be expected to produce better results in schools.
  • This is backed up by a body of research on the differences between qualified and unqualified teachers.
  • It comes as no huge surprise, as teaching degrees do not attract the best students and the quality of the training has been subject to fierce criticism.
  • In order to ensure that the reform does not exacerbate the shortage of teachers, leads to talented yet unqualified teachers leaving the profession, or results in much more bloated teaching degrees, certification must be abolished and alternative paths into the profession must be opened up.

Sweden’s schools have opened up their doors for a new academic year. This is the first year that the Alliance government’s teacher certification requirements are in full effect. Since July 1st 2015, only teachers who have completed an accredited teaching degree are permitted to independently grade pupils. This comes on the heels of a previous edict stipulating that only acredited teachers can be given permanent employment. The aim of the reform is to improve quality in the school system, raise the status of the teaching profession and highlight teacher competence. Teacher certification has been advocated by the National Union of Teachers in Sweden since the beginning of the 1990s, and political support for the idea has grown concurrently with the declining results in Swedish schools. This growth in support nonetheless disregards the fact that the proportion of teachers with a pedagogical teaching qualification has actually grown somewhat over the last fifteen years (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2014) – the very period that has seen Sweden’s most marked tumble down the PISA survey rankings.

Effects of teacher certification

The certification requirement can be expected to dissuade both the best and worst- suited people from entering the teaching profession. If the impact is to be positive, the entry costs associated with the introduction of the certification requirement have to be as low as possible, so that suitable candidates (who could choose other attractive degrees with no certification requirements) are not put off, while at the same time, effective instruments are needed to determine which candidates are unsuitable for the profession (Fredriksson & Vlachos, 2011).

Failure to implement these measures could, in contrast, entail considerable costs occasioned by the certification requirement and the professional constraints. President Obama’s economic advisers recently released a report (White House, 2015) analysing the prevalence and effects of occupational licensing in the USA, and presented proposals for how occupational licensing could be reduced. The report found that the increased prevalence of licensed occupations often raises costs without improving the quality of the services, and that employment in licensed occupations decreased by, on average, 10-15 %.

A reasonable assumption would be that the implementation of the teaching certification in Sweden will give rise to an even greater shortage of teachers. Every fifth person working as a teacher lacks a formal teaching degree and cannot therefore qualify for teaching certification (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2015). Many of these teachers are likely to seek employment in an alternative sector, as further restrictions are imposed on their ability to work in schools. This group of people is almost certain to include a number of talented, experienced teachers who do, and could continue to do, a good job for their pupils. The loss of these teachers would aggravate what the Swedish National Agency for Education (2015) already sees as an alarming shortage of teachers, and the general teaching quality is also at risk of deterioration, at least initially. The situation may be further exacerbated by the fact that the application numbers for many teaching degrees are low.

In order to temporarily remedy this shortfall, the Swedish National Agency for Education has implemented provisional rules allowing qualified teachers to set grades for pupils who they themselves do not teach, since unqualified teachers are no longer authorised to set grades. For many pupils, there will thus be some uncertainty surrounding who actually decides what grades they are given – the teacher they meet in the classroom or the qualified teacher with whom they have no regular interaction.

A further effect is that head teachers’ abilities to find the right competence for their school, and to assess the knowledge and results of their teachers is impaired, when parliamentary directives dictate which teachers should be hired and which ones are unsuitable. Predicated on the notion that a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses are best assessed by means of an evaluation of his or her performance in the classroom (Kane et al., 2008), and the fact that the majority of evidence indicates that the work of head teachers can impact pupil results (Böhlmark, Grönqvist & Vlachos, 2012) we must consider the introduction of the teaching certification as a cost for the school system.

Does a teaching qualification lead to higher quality?

The teacher and his/her actions in the classroom is one of the most important factors determining pupil development (Hattie, 2008). Exactly what qualities a teacher should have is not, however, crystal clear (Rockoff, 2004 and Rivkin et al, 2005). Nonetheless, a common assumption is that a four-year teaching degree will foster these characteristics – that is, after all, the whole point of the degree. This assumption is the basis for the belief that the introduction of the teaching certification will lead to improved results, and by studying the actual outcome we can gauge whether or not the assumption is correct.

Based on the presumed association between pedagogically trained teachers and better results, it could be surmised that focusing on teachers with a degree would have been an intelligent strategy for individual schools and municipalities.

In order to appraise if and how the results of schools and municipalities are affected by the proportion of teachers with a pedagogical university degree, Timbro has analysed data from SALSA, the Swedish National Agency for Education’s database, in which the final grades for all upper secondary schools in Sweden are compiled.

Since 2005, the database has also provided details on schools in terms of pupil composition, ownership forms, teacher/pupil ratio and proportion of teachers with a pedagogical degree (i.e. those who qualify for teaching certification). If the proportion of qualified teachers is a measure of teaching quality, and the quality of the teachers affects the results of the pupils, there should be a distinct correlation between the results (average grade tariff and the percentage of pupils receiving pass grades in all subjects, with consideration given to the percentage of boys, the educational background of the parents and the percentage of pupils with an immigrant background) and the proportion of teachers with a pedagogical degree.

It should be noted that a teacher with a pedagogical degree does not have to be qualified for the subject which he/she in fact teaches, and the Swedish National Agency for Education (2014) has shown that the proportion of qualified teachers is considerably lower than the proportion of teachers with a pedagogical degree. The rules for teacher certification do not, however, stipulate that a teacher has to be qualified in the subject he/she teaches, simply that he/she must be qualified to teach a subject. The current format of the teacher certification system can therefore be expected to result in more teachers with a pedagogical degree, but not necessarily more teachers qualified in the subject they teach. For this reason, it is crucial to examine how schools with a high proportion of pedagogically trained teachers have performed in comparison to the rest, to assess whether there is a link between a school’s results and the proportion of its teachers that hold a pedagogical degree.

We cannot find any obvious such link for the period 2005/06 to 2013/14, neither for a specific year nor for the period as a whole. On the other hand, there is a weak, but significant, negative link between a school’s grade tariff (with consideration given to pupil composition) and the proportion of pedagogically trained teachers during these years. Schools with a lower proportion of pedagogically-qualified teachers actually tend to be more successful in raising their grade tariffs. At the same time, there is an even weaker, yet for certain years significant, positive link between the percentage of pupils receiving pass grades in all subjects and the proportion of pedagogically-trained teachers.

The fact that we have not identified any unequivocally positive effect of the proportion of pedagogically qualified teachers on the results does not necessarily mean that no such effect exists.

A conceivable explanation could be that the country’s municipalities concentrate their resources, such as qualified teachers, on schools that are underperforming. However, this does not appear to be the case, looking at the Swedish National Agency for Education’s statistics. The proportion of qualified teachers is not higher in schools where the pupils’ parents are less well-educated, and the proportion of qualified teachers is lower in schools with a high percentage of pupils with an immigrant background, two factors which tend to impact study results. Nor does it seem to be the case that schools with a higher proportion of unqualified teachers give higher grades; the negative link as regards grade tariffs remains even when accounting for differences in grading and test results in mathematics and Swedish.

Another potential explanation is the existence specialist education programmes, which have difficulty attracting qualified teachers as the competence is too specific, and the fact that these programmes generate better results than others because, for example, they attract more motivated students. We cannot discount this, but, if these programmes are successful, it is difficult to understand why legislators would want to add a further obstacle to teacher recruitment through teacher certification.

We could also imagine that the explanation might lie in the differences between free schools and municipal schools. Free schools have a lower proportion of pedagogically trained teachers than municipal schools, but nonetheless achieve a somewhat better result. Free schools tend to recruit staff with higher cognitive capabilities and professional experience outside of the teaching profession to a larger extent than municipal schools (Hensvik, 2010). There is however a weak negative link between the proportion of teachers with a pedagogical degree and results in terms of grade tariffs, both for free schools and municipal schools.

Nor does it seem to have been a beneficial strategy overall for municipalities to focus on ensuring a high proportion of teachers with a pedagogical degree. Municipalities with a higher number of qualified teachers have had no more success in relation to results than municipalities with a lower proportion of qualified teachers – there is no significant connection in terms of how well municipalities perform in terms of grade tariffs (taking into account pupil composition).

Results in line with research

It seems then that today’s teaching graduates do not, on average, have the capacity to help pupils achieve better results than teachers with other backgrounds. This conclusion is also supported by US studies (see e.g. Kane et al., 2008), which have not found any concrete differences in results between qualified and unqualified teachers, even if the differences between individual teachers can be substantial. Hanushek & Rivkin’s (2006) aggregated research findings conclude that it is difficult to find conclusive evidence that a teaching degree results in better teachers. According to the aforementioned report by President Obama’s economic advisers, the majority of studies do not indicate any increase in quality as a result of the extended occupational licensing requirements for teachers in the USA. One Swedish study (Andersson & Waldenström, 2007) does, however, highlight a negative effect of unqualified teachers, at least for pupils with a privileged socio-economic background.

Why do pedagogically trained teachers not fare better?

In order for those who have undergone teacher training to perform better than those who have not, said degrees either have to apply higher entry requirements than others or develop skills in students that are valuable in the teaching profession. Björklund, Fredriksson, Gustafsson & Öckert (2010) state that a teacher’s didactic skills in a subject are important for pupil performance, but that we do not know whether teacher training furnishes students with these skills. As noted previously, a teacher is authorised to set grades in subjects that he/she is not specifically qualified in. This means that the teaching certification system does not guarantee didactic skills in specific subjects. It is clear that the entry requirements for teaching degrees are lower than for most other degrees (the number of students for whom the teaching was the first choice per accepted student has, during the period 2009-2013, varied between 1.2 and 1.4). This figure is somewhat lower than for vocational training courses. Börjesson (2004) shows that teaching students are more likely to have a less well-educated family background than other student.

Grönqvist & Vlachos (2008) have demonstrated that today’s newly qualified teachers have lower high school grades, lower cognitive abilities (IQ) and weaker leadership skills than in earlier generations. They also show that these characteristics impact pupil performance. The higher the high school grades etc that a teacher received, the better the performance of their pupils, with the caveat that the association is complex and applies to different pupils to varying degrees.

It is not surprising that teaching degrees fail to attract the top students. Björklund, Fredriksson, Gustafsson & Öckert (2010) have deduced that the financial return on training as a teacher is negative.

It is also likely that the poor working environment in many schools contributes to many suitable candidates choosing other professions. It should, nonetheless, be possible to compensate for a poor student basis with high quality teacher training.

However, the evaluations which have been undertaken, such as SOU 2008:109, which has compiled criticism of teaching degrees, indicate that this is not the case. According to a survey undertaken by the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, TCO, (2013), the majority of teaching students currently have fewer than nine teacher directed hours of study per week; considerably fewer than the medicine and nursing degrees used by the government for comparison when the reform was launched.

Even if there had been an abundance of qualified teachers ready to replace those with other qualifications who will now experience difficulties in working in schools – which there is not – neither our analysis of the statistics from the Swedish National Agency for Education’s, nor research on teaching degrees or the quality of teaching students and teaching degrees suggests that results will improve with more pedagogically trained teachers. In the short term, the shortage of qualified teachers may force municipalities to raise salaries and attract more candidates, which could improve teacher status. However, over a slightly longer term there is an obvious risk is that the government will choose to further increase the number of applicants accepted into teaching degrees. The number of applicants accepted has increased steeply in recent years (the Swedish Higher Education Authority, 2014) and in its spring budget proposal for 2015; the government announced that an additional 6,000 places will be created on teaching degrees. An increase in the number of places risks a further decrease in entry requirements and in students’ capabilities, as well as putting a brake on salary increase trends. A reform with the commendable objective of improving the status of the teaching profession thus risks damaging it instead.

We stated in our introduction that for the teaching certification to work, those who are unsuitable for the profession must be filtered out. Since the introduction year, which was intended to assess whether or not a trained teacher was suitable, is not being implemented, the only quality control is that the teacher was accepted onto a course with unusually low entry requirements and managed to complete a course with unusually low requirements regarding study input.

The ambition of improving results in the Swedish school system has, in other words, led to a reform which makes the situation difficult for teachers who have not completed a degree characterised by low entry requirements and poor quality. This exacerbates the shortage of teachers, makes the grading system uncertain for many pupils, disqualifies skilled teachers with other backgrounds, and hampers the recruitment of individuals with the competences required within the school system.

Reform proposal

Several aspects of the Swedish school system need to be reformed. Timbro has previously highlighted governance and accountability in the school system and has presented the view that a general strengthening of resources and smaller classes will most likely not succeed in halting the negative development (see e g Sahlgren, 2013, Sahlgren, 2014 and Melander, 2015). With regard to strengthening recruitment to the teaching profession, it is clear that the reasons for introducing certification for teachers were not strong enough to justify the teaching shortages and reduced head teacher influence, which we are now seeing. There is a long history of drastic reforms in the school system failing to provide any strong evidence of their success (Fredriksson & Vlachos, 2011). The teaching certification is just one more to add to the list.

In order to ensure that the reform does not exacerbate the shortage of teachers, causes talented yet unqualified teachers to leave the profession, or results in much more bloated teaching degrees with reduced entry requirements, at even greater detriment to the education quality in comparison with other degrees, a number of measures must be implemented:

1) Abolish the teaching certification and give head teachers more influence over who can be employed or dismissed.

2) Reduce the number of places on teacher degrees programmes and the number of institutions where such degrees are offered. Use the money saved to increase quality. These policies have already been launched in Denmark, with positive results.

3) Open up access to alternative teacher training, organised by foundations and companies.

4) Cut study times for students with previous qualifications, thus allowing them to access the labour market sooner.

5) Work actively to persuade students taking other degrees to spend some time working as a teacher in the subject they are studying.

6) Enforce a system whereby individuals with experience of working as a teacher but with no formal teacher training can demonstrate their competence and quickly be granted the appropriate qualification.


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