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Lesson 3.2

Preparation and Certification:
How To Make a Teacher

Here’s what a teacher’s credentials can tell you.

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In California, as elsewhere, most teachers enter their profession by first earning a credential, a document authorizing them to teach. In California’s public schools a credential is mandatory.

Although teacher preparation programs vary, candidates generally spend limited time in actual classrooms. Most new teachers arrive in school with little practical classroom experience. A combination of “sink or swim” experience and formal on-the-job training gets them through the first few years.

In California, about half of new teachers earn their credentials through the CSU system

In most states, including California, teachers tend to earn their credential through a university-based program. Nearly half of California's teachers earn their credentials through the California State University (CSU) system, usually through a four- or five-year course of study. The rules for credentials are set by a combination of legislation and policies of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC).

The CTC authorizes colleges and universities to offer teacher credential programs in a variety of grade-level and content areas, and for special student populations such as English learners and students with disabilities. Once an institution is accredited, it is responsible for quality control related to student admissions, course content, rigor, and candidate assessment.

Teacher prep programs accredited by the CTC allow teacher candidates to acquire a teaching credential by studying the course they plan to teach, and are on par with the standards outlined in the CTC’s handbooks and templates.

Alternative paths to a credential

In addition to attending universities, teachers may obtain credentials through alternative credential providers, or may work in the classroom as interns. The Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) established in law the expectation that all teachers should be highly qualified, and this expectation persists in federal law today.

Having a strong pool of teaching candidates is a concern in California. California's Commission for Teacher Credentialing reports annually to the California legislature about the future supply of teacher candidates, based on enrollments in teacher preparation programs of any kind. The training pipeline ran dry in 2013, perhaps largely because candidates understood the job market. Why enroll to become a teacher if the jobs weren't going to be there at the end of the program?

When fully-prepared teachers are unavailable, school districts resort to using emergency teaching credentials. This is legal as long as the substitute can meet standards set by the state board. The Learning Policy Institute keeps an eye out for looming teacher shortages across the USA.

California has prompt and accurate data about the future "supply" of teachers — a rare success story when it comes to government data in this state. Much education data, like many other kinds of government data, is delivered by tortoises with a delay of about three years; analysis of the data can take even longer.

Even with good data, however, it is difficult to address a teacher shortage promptly. It takes time to recruit and train instructors, secure space, enroll prospective teachers and train them. A budget increase can boost demand quite suddenly; if the system cannot respond quickly, supplying qualified teachers where they are needed, the imbalance can lead to permanent hiring of under-qualified teachers, or spikes in wage pressure.

In 2017 a large fraction of new teachers throughout California were hired without full credentials. In 14% of districts, a majority of teachers hired were under-credentialed according to research conducted for the Getting Down to Facts II studies.

Are teachers in your district fully certified? An interactive map from the Learning Policy Center lets you take a look at the data.

Are teacher shortages overblown?

Teacher shortages have become an annual concern, and some have argued that the system is crying wolf. There may be a shortage of teachers willing to work in certain districts, or in specific subjects – especially special education, math, and science – but there is not a shortage of teachers across the board.

There may be some truth to this argument, but it is clearly true that when the economy changes significantly the supply of good teachers always seems mismatched. From the perspective of parents and students, when hiring teachers it's better to have a choice of candidates.

Faster certification options

Not all teacher preparation programs are lengthy. For example, the training program of Teach for America (TFA), which selectively recruits new teachers, is famously short: in contrast to the usual two-year program offered by education schools, the TFA program lasts less than two months. A number of studies, but not all, indicate that Teach for America's elite rookies perform as well and sometimes better than graduates of longer programs, particularly for middle and high school math.

Teach for America is not immune from the nation-wide difficulty in attracting new teachers. Faced with declining enrollment, it has revamped recruitment strategies and changed its training program to provide more extended support for its teachers.

Locally Grown, Locally Certified?

Communities want teachers who understand their children, including strengths, challenges and culture that they bring with them to school. Some districts have addressed this demand by developing a grow your own strategy, helping students advance from local community colleges to become locally-credentialed teachers. The California State University system is working to support the development of teachers with a sense of place as part of their Pathways to Teaching and Education Careers effort.

Should certification programs be rigorous?

Do credentials really matter? Should they? Oversimplifying greatly, there are two schools of thought about them: less is more, and more is more.

More is more. Some argue that credentials should be hard to get and narrowly defined, to protect children from unqualified teachers. This point of view was generally ascendant in the first decade of the 21st century, partly driven by the requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that every teacher be certified as highly qualified. It takes several years to obtain a teaching credential through normal channels.

Less is more. The "less is more" perspective argues that complex credential requirements do more harm than good by deterring good people from entering the teaching profession, protecting less-talented teachers from competition, and wasting time.

Perhaps the most pure example of this concept is the recommendation of the Education Excellence committee that county superintendents should have the authority to write credential waivers for individual candidates.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these recurring questions came back to prominence, particularly in connection to two standardized tests, CBEST and CSET, that teacher candidates are required to pass and love to loathe. Strong teacher candidates tend to find the tests depressingly easy. Governor Newsom proposed to waive them for teacher candidates that earn good marks in university-based prep programs.

How useful are teacher credential programs?

In 2014, a scathing report argued that many teacher preparation programs lack rigor.

In 2014, a scathing report of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) argued that many teacher preparation programs lack rigor. The report called for sweeping changes in accreditation of teacher preparation programs to make them more relevant.

California withdrew from the quality review system after receiving a D

In 2013, the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) evaluated teacher preparation programs in California. The state was graded a D, up from a D- the prior year. The Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (yes, there really is an association for everything in education) collected objections to the low grade. The state of California subsequently stopped providing data to NCTQ for this evaluation.

Partly in response to this national conversation, California's CTC convened a high-profile advisory panel in 2013, which generated a thick report with forty recommendations for change. EdSource slimmed its advice down to seven recommendations. But since the report, the state of California has mainly been consumed by addressing the chronic shortage of teachers.

How has COVID-19 affected teacher supply?

It will take time to sort out the implications of the Pandemic on supply and demand in the market for teachers. In a 2020 report, the Learning Policy Institute predicted that it could lead to a severe teacher shortage by provoking early retirements and delaying new entries to the profession. On the other hand, if the economy tanks and Congress doesn't enact a budget that shores up state funding for education, the opposite could happen.

This lesson was updated May, 2017; March, 2018; September 2018; and February 2021


Enrollment in California's teacher preparation programs declined by 80% from 2001-02 to 2012-13. Which ONE of the following explanations is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
amy su November 10, 2020 at 10:25 am
It’s unfortunate how many educated teachers have to take temp positions as subs
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 14, 2019 at 10:48 am
Two comments (highly subjective) about TFA: The program attracts a large number of people wanting to pad their resume on their way to some other profession. Secondly the short training period however intensive is a farce; the fact that they are amping up their support afterwards underscores the poor training given in just a month.

Another subjective comment: the idea that California would "take its ball and go home" because it got a D grade is horrifying. Withholding of data undermines the effectiveness of state to state and whole nation evaluation when a state as large as California refuses to play (and take its lumps if it isn't doing a good job).
user avatar
Caryn January 15, 2019 at 10:02 am
Hi Susannah, thanks for commenting. I value our readers' opinions so subjective works just fine for me. I agree with you that California refusing to submit data seems troubling. Transparency is imperative if real and lasting improvements are our goal in education. As unpleasant as it may be to hear "you're failing and here's how", it can be a gift for those sincerely searching for solutions.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 8, 2018 at 12:56 pm
The news on the teacher shortage is not getting better.
This roundup from the Learning Policy Institute finds that "teacher workforce trends have worsened in the past year, with especially severe consequences in special education, math, and science, and significant threats in bilingual education."
Yes, it contains suggestions on what to do.
Find out more more
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 17, 2017 at 2:17 pm
A teaching credential earned in one state doesn't qualify you to teach in another. When experienced teachers move over a state line, they often have a painful choice: take time out and enroll in more college classes to meet local credential requirements, or change careers? The harms of this policy are pretty clear -- do the benefits outweigh them? Based on this research summary by Matt Barnum of T74, the answer is probably no.
user avatar
Mo Kashmiri July 11, 2020 at 12:07 pm
Isn’t the 74 funded by Michael Bloomberg to push charter schools?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 4:42 pm
The US Education Department Releases Final Teacher Preparation Regulations 2016

"The rules require new reporting by states about program effectiveness. The also seek to provide better information to address the mismatch between the available teaching jobs and fields in which programs are preparing educators and to help districts and schools place teachers where they are needed the most.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 4:34 pm
The Learning Policy Institute on the Teacher Shortage:

Understanding Teacher Shortages - A State-by-State Analysis of the Factors Influencing Teacher Supply, Demand, and Equity
Take a look at their interactive map to see how California compares...
user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 6:32 pm
The best teachers were good students. They experienced the joy & wonder of learning stuff and want to share that experience. In our schools I have seen an obvious divide between the teachers who came from a CSU (average students) and those from a UC, (or equivalent.) The better student -teachers were consistently better informed, motivational, and respected by students. We have been using the JVs, we should hire the varsity.
user avatar
Stacey W April 6, 2015 at 6:14 pm
The difficulties of California's economy have been detrimental to our state's education and the hiring and retention of teachers. I've seen young teachers let go (pink slipped) and their positions given to other teachers due to budget cuts, experienced teachers have been offered early retirement packages (which many of them took) since it was too good to pass up, and my kids have had teachers who are only teaching because it was a means to pay the bills. Our children need teachers who are passionate about teaching, who want to make a difference in our children's lives, and are given the necessary support and continued education as we transition to CCSS. Several of my kids teachers have returned to school for their masters degrees, which not only makes them better teachers, but it improves the learning process for all their students.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 4, 2015 at 9:24 pm
The teaching credential program that I completed left me woefully unprepared for the classroom. Once in the classroom I felt unsuccessful and decided that this wasn't the profession for me. Credential programs need to do a better job of preparing teachers for the reality and challenges of the classroom.
user avatar
Shereen W March 3, 2015 at 8:38 pm
We are not attracting our best and brightest students into the teaching profession. The only way to do this is to make teaching an attractive occupation with competitive salaries.
user avatar
Kim April 10, 2016 at 8:16 pm
I agree totally with Shereen. The profession of teaching needs to be regarded with high respect, and teachers need to be recognized as one of the most honorable people in society. In Asian countries, the job of being a teacher is as important as the job of the Prime Minister. And so teachers act as so. The students benefit. Society benefits. If we value education, we need to value our teachers. And pay them salaries that reflect that. In both Asia and part of Europe where education is highly valued, teachers make as much as professionals in business, law, etc.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:41 am
I am highly disappointed in the way by which CA teachers are hired. I was turned down for multiple jobs even though I am highly qualified in several states, am willing to teach in the toughest of neighborhoods, accept wages below poverty level, and have gone above and beyond to gain every certification possible to expand my pool of opportunities. Yet, there are teachers who are just hanging onto their careers until retirement because of the economy. Your loss CA. I just want to teach and spend my days with kids who want to learn. Oh and in the other states I was certified in Sped, high school, and Pre-K however CA doesn't recognize any of that.
user avatar
Paul Muench November 5, 2014 at 10:21 pm
In looking at teacher credentials at the California Commission on teacher credentialing, I noticed that teachers have major and minor credentials. What does this mean? I also noticed that science teachers seem to often have a minor in science and a major in physical education. Does that mean these teachers were really hoping to become PE teachers?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 October 15, 2014 at 3:36 pm
Another insight on teacher preparation:
"Bumpy Path Into a Profession: What California's Beginning Teachers Experience"
Policy Analysis for California Education
This study on induction, evaluation, clear credentialing and tenure indicates that California’s policy system fails to recognize the realities facing beginning teachers, who follow a much longer, bumpier and more circuitous path into the teaching profession than state policymakers currently recognize.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 11, 2014 at 11:58 am
Enrollment in teacher preparation courses in California continued to fall in 2012-13, to 19,933. EdSource chief Louis Freedberg points out that "over an 11-year period, enrollments have declined by 74 percent."
The EdSource article and its comments includes an interesting debate about the root causes of the decline.
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