California Credentials Questioned

, Rachel Chaney, Leave a comment

SACRAMENTO, CA – In his recent State of the State Address, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pinpointed education as one of five areas requiring more investment. Though California’s public education system needs reform, the governor did not lay out a concrete plan for improving the system.  He called for new facilities and greater accountability and transparency, but he missed a fundamental element in the improvement of public education – qualified teachers.

To teach in a public or charter school in California, the state requires that each teacher possess state certification. No one questions the need for prepared and qualified teachers but, clearly, state certificates do not translate into qualified teachers.  Most teachers currently possess credentials, yet we face an education crisis.

In my two years of teaching at a charter school in Oakland, I encountered firsthand the obstacles to becoming a public-school teacher.  In order to obtain an emergency credential, I enrolled in a credentialing course designed to teach future teachers how to teach. I did not complete the course because I could gain an emergency credential by passing the California Basic Education Skills Test, a much quicker process. I attended all but the last class of the semester, but in the entire program, with countless hours of instruction, only one session proved instructive and helped me in my classroom.

One entire class was devoted to adolescent development of students with learning disabilities. Though the subject was important, the class consisted of reading together from a packet of materials printed from internet information we could have accessed on our own without spending time and money to attend a class.

I do not suggest that teaching is an art that cannot be learned. Certainly I would have benefited from strategies on classroom management or gradebook organization.  Indeed the most beneficial experience I had as a teacher came from collaborating with other more experienced teachers at my school, learning what had worked or failed for them in the same environment. Skills can be taught that can help train our teachers.  But the current system that requires up to two years of coursework and student teaching prohibits potentially great teachers from entering the field.

Many teachers agree that the credentialing system does not teach people how to teach, that the coursework is a waste of time, and that most of the material could be covered in one or two weekend workshops. In addition, the process is expensive and time consuming. 

An introduction to basic strategies for organization, classroom management, and curriculum development should be given on a local level where the training can fit the specific environment.  Many of the tips offered in my credentialing course aimed at a middle- or upper-class student body and proved impossible to implement in the inner-city school where I taught.

I still have much to learn after only three years of experience.  But I agree with my colleague, a veteran of almost thirty years, that teaching is "part art and part science. You can teach the science, but the art you learn by doing." Now, despite my three years’ experience and the success of my students on standardized tests, I am no longer qualified to teach unless I enroll in a credentialing program.

California’s education system needs many improvements.  The governor is right that facilities and accountability are important.  Nothing will change, however, no matter how much money we spend, unless we can find a way to attract more talented, intelligent, and passionate people into the profession. Some such people already teach, but many are discouraged from doing so because of the credentialing process.

We should streamline our credentialing system so that every child has access to teachers highly qualified not because they hold a paper credential but because they demonstrate subject-matter competence, classroom performance, and passion for their job. Teachers, bureaucrats, politicians and unions who oppose such moves do so with their own selfish interest and job security in mind, and our students suffer as a result.

What the governor should be suggesting, and what all Californians all need to consider, is the modification of the credentialing process to encourage qualified people to choose teaching as a career or to facilitate the transition into teaching from other careers.

Rachel Chaney is a public policy fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. The article was originally a Capital Ideas column published by PRI.