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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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Teaching is a calling, but it's also a profession. Most teachers begin their career by earning a credential that authorizes them to teach.

This lesson explains how teachers in California are recruited, prepared and certified, not necessarily in that order. It also addresses criticisms of the certification system.

Supply and demand for teachers

School districts and charter schools hire teachers when they have open positions and budget available to fill them. Demand can vary based on local conditions, but the condition of the state budget matters a lot. When the economy booms, tax receipts rise, the state budget expands, and funds flow to school districts. Job openings suddenly blossom on EdJoin like California poppies in spring.

Most teachers earn their credentials at a college.

Inevitably, at these times there's a gap between the demand for teachers and the supply of candidates with the required credentials. For districts with a reputation for good working conditions and competitive pay, this is an opportunity — they can attract their choice of new teachers, even recruiting star teachers away from other schools to fill openings. Schools with less enticing working conditions, on the other hand, struggle to fill openings. In boom conditions, they may resort to expedited hiring using emergency credentials.

Boom-bust hiring patterns can have a significant impact on schools in high-poverty communities. When teachers leave "difficult" schools to take open positions elsewhere, it's easiest to fill the resulting open position with a new teacher, often without a full credential. This boom-bust hiring pattern, sometimes known as churn, can have a particularly significant impact on schools in high-poverty communities. (This challenge will be explored further in Lesson 3.4.)

Most teaching credentials are earned in programs offered by colleges or universities. The California State University system (CSU) is particularly crucial to California's supply of teachers.

How are most teachers certified?

The Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) established the expectation that all teachers should be highly qualified. This expectation persists in federal law today, and it influences the widespread use of certification programs. Most teachers earn their credential as part of a college program. If course scheduling goes perfectly, it can take four years, but five years is typical. The Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC), oversees the requirements, guided by legislation. Rules change from time to time — for example, in 2021, legislation directed the CTC to modify its reading standards to reflect evidence about how children learn to read, drawing on research about how to effectively teach kids with dyslexia. It takes time for policy changes to find their way to implementation in the classroom.

Teacher credentials come in many flavors, meant to reflect readiness to teach particular grade levels and subject areas. Specific credentials designate that teachers are prepared to teach particular student populations such as English learners and students with disabilities. California law requires districts to verify the credential status of the teachers they employ.

Once a college or other institution is accredited to issue teaching credentials, it is responsible for quality control related to student admissions, course content, rigor, and candidate assessment. In principal, institutions that lack rigor or do a bad job can lose their accreditation status.

Alternative paths to a credential

In addition to colleges, teachers may earn credentials through alternative credential providers. For example, a few large school districts run their own certification programs in order to promote talented people working as teacher aides or substitutes into full teaching roles.

Having a strong pool of teaching candidates is a persistent 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. The training pipeline ran dry in 2013, perhaps largely because candidates understood the job market. Why would they enroll to become a teacher if attractive teaching jobs weren't going to be there at the end of the program?

When schools need teachers and districts have funds to hire them, they don’t sit around and wait. If fully-credentialed teachers aren't available, school districts resort to using emergency credentials. This is legal as long as the candidate can meet standards set by the state board. The Learning Policy Institute keeps an eye out for looming teacher shortages across the USA.

California collects prompt and accurate data about the future "supply" of teachers — a rare success story when it comes to education data in this state.

In 2022, EdSource released a district-by-district analysis of available data related to teacher shortages. The headline finding: “While 83% of K-12 classes in the 2020-21 school year were taught by teachers credentialed to teach that course, 17% were taught by teachers who were not.”

Are teachers in your district fully certified? An interactive map from the Learning Policy Center is worth a look — when updated, it makes the conditions clear.

Are teacher shortages overblown?

Some have argued that California has a habit of crying wolf about teacher shortages. There may be a shortage of teachers willing to work in certain districts, or in specific subjects — especially special education, math, and science — but not (they argue) across the board.

There is some truth to this argument, but it kind of misses the point. From the perspective of students, it would certainly be better for there to be a surplus of qualified, motivated teachers eager and proud to teach in California schools. It's better to have a choice of candidates.

Faster certification options

Because the main paths for certifying teachers are fairly complex, they serve as an obstacle to recruiting people into the teaching profession.

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

Can districts certify their own teachers?

Communities want teachers who understand their children, including the strengths, challenges, and cultures 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 teacher credentials matter so much?

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 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requirement that every teacher must be certified as highly qualified. It takes several years to obtain a teaching credential through normal channels, and candidates must pass multiple tests as part of the process.

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 or changing course assignments to teach where they are needed. In this view, detailed credential requirements waste time, protect incumbent teachers from competition, and impose bureaucratic barriers on principals' ability to manage their school.

Speed waiver
For Bill Gates to teach computer science in a California high school, he would need to earn a college degree and a credential. Seriously? One recommendation adopted unanimously by the Education Excellence committee: County superintendents should have some authority to vouch for individual teacher candidates and waive credential requirements for them. This recommendation has not been proposed as legislation. Waivers remain complex. (Disclosure: Jeff Camp was a member of this committee.)

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, which teacher candidates are required to pass. Most find the tests depressingly easy and pass them on the first try. Others don't, but argue that the tests are irrelevant to the job. Governor Newsom proposed to waive the tests for teacher candidates that earn good marks in university-based prep programs. As of this writing in 2023, the matter is very much in play. Follow EdSource for news about developments. (Here's a sample of questions on the CBEST math test. What do you think?)

How useful are teacher credential programs?

It's pretty difficult to find people who are enthusiastic about the way that teachers are prepared in California. In 2013, the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) evaluated teacher preparation programs in each state. California 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. In 2014, a scathing report by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education concluded that many teacher preparation programs "lack rigor".

Partly in response to this public shaming, 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 rather than examining the quality of their preparation. Maybe the programs have improved, but who can tell? The state of California stopped providing data to NCTQ for evaluation.

This lesson was updated in October, 2023


Which ONE of the following is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder December 14, 2023 at 11:53 am
California's teacher standards were updated in 2016. In 2023, facing shortages, there were proposals to dump the standards.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 9, 2023 at 8:46 am
in 2023, NCTQ reviewed and graded hundreds of college programs all over the USA that prepare elementary educators, with a focus on reading instruction. Many of California's largest institutions (public and private) received very low marks because the future educators receive few hours of instruction learning how to teach phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 9, 2023 at 5:42 pm
The number of teacher credentials issued in California declined by 16% from 2021 to 2022.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 3, 2022 at 8:42 pm
To increase the pipeline of teachers and school counselors, the state 2023-23 Budget provides $250 million to expand residency slots for teachers and school counselors. The Budget also enables school counselor, social worker, and psychologist candidates to be eligible for the Golden State Teacher Grant Program, which provides incentives to individuals to consider earning a credential and serving at a priority school in California for four years, within eight years after completing a preparation program.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 5, 2022 at 1:00 pm
According to a 2020 report by the California Department of education, 83% of teachers had appropriate teaching credentials. How was your district doing at the time? Search the EdSource teacher qualifications database.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 23, 2022 at 11:29 pm
Troubling new data: Most California teacher preparation programs flunk at teaching math.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 15, 2022 at 3:51 pm
The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) presents data and analysis on how all 50 states and D.C. have responded to the federal law’s requirement that they collect and report the necessary data documenting the equitable distribution of teacher talent among their schools.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 23, 2021 at 9:40 pm
New bill by Senator Rubio and signed by governor Newsome regarding TPAS in reading and literacy aimed at strengthening reading instruction.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 25, 2021 at 9:43 pm
Thanks. We included this in our blog on new laws for 2021: Teacher credentialing literacy SB 488 (Rubio) requires the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) to ensure competence in literacy instruction, strengthens literacy requirements in teacher preparation programs and requires the CTC to ensure that its standards for program quality and effectiveness are implemented
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
Selisa Loeza October 22, 2021 at 10:56 pm
As a TFA alumni, I can say there are people there to pad there resumes but not all. I can say the article states the program is only two months. The initial summer training is a rigorous two months, then continued education and credential courses (classes and homework) after teaching full time. This lasts for a year in which one then officially receives there credential. A second year Masters under the same circumstances is optional. This kind of programming is helpful to those who cannot afford the full cost of receiving a credential then living on teachers wages.
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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