California’s Highly Qualified But Not ‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers

The NYT highlights a California magnet school with highly skilled faculty and students achieving top scores on their standardized exams where several veteran teachers are quitting rather than comply with demeaning credentialism requirements the state has implemented to comply with the No Child Left Behind law.

Under California law, a teacher must successfully complete a certification program to fulfill the mandate of No Child Left Behind that there be a “highly qualified” instructor in every classroom. Marilyn Errett, an administrator with the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said California did offer a fast-track route for experienced teachers in the core subjects of English, science and math, as well as a path that combined a teaching internship with 100 hours of college course work.

She was not sympathetic, however, to the notion that teachers with doctorates and instructional experience at college get some kind of waiver. “Certainly, no one is questioning their grasp of the subject matter,” she said. But she added that they need to learn how to work with children in immigrant families who have limited English skills and students being moved from special education classes to regular ones. “Those are skills we think they need to have,” she said.

I would agree that a subject matter doctorate does not guarantee that its possessor has any teaching skills, let alone training in how to cope with problem children. Requiring aspiring teachers to complete additional training in those areas is perfectly reasonable.

Unfortunately, the implementation goes well beyond that:

Mr. Huyck had watched his wife, Sarah Whittier, also a faculty member at Pacific Collegiate, plod through a certification course. At the age of 53, after receiving a doctorate in English literature and winning a statewide award for excellence in teaching — both at the University of California, Santa Cruz — she was racing most afternoons straight from Pacific Collegiate to teacher-certification classes 90 minutes away in the Monterey area. There, seated among classmates in their early 20’s, some of them headed for positions in elementary school, she received lessons in such topics as writing a lesson plan and maintaining classroom order. “To me, it’s a badge of shame,” she said of the teaching certification. “It’s an embarrassment. It’s infantilizing.”

Having witnessed his wife’s humiliation, Mr. Huyck decided to leave Pacific Collegiate rather than comply with California’s requirements under the federal law. Going against his characteristic modesty, he also made certain that people around the school knew what he was doing and why he was doing it. “I wanted my position to be known,” he said in an interview. “I think knowledge in this case inspires indignation.”

The irony is that the type of person who would not be insulted by such a program is precisely the kind of person we do not want teaching, especially at the high school level.

Unfortunately, the education establishment has been dominated for decades by the teachers’ colleges and their emphasis on pedagogy rather than subject matter expertise. Indeed, one suspects that people on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing have degrees in Education and actually resent people like Huyck and Whittier for proving that people who actually know their subjects are more effective teachers.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. madmatt says:

    Just the bushies screwing with competent people once again, like scientists or justice department lawyers….

  2. James Joyner says:

    matt: This is a California program in response to NCLB. While NCLB may have its own issues, this isn’t one of them. It’s the Educrats using a federal law as an excuse to weed out those who didn’t take the College of Education path.

  3. Steve says:

    Indeed, one suspects that people on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing have degrees in Education and actually resent people like Huyck and Whittier for proving that people who actually know their subjects are more effective teachers.

    Why don’t you give the people on the CCTC credit for knowing what makes a good teacher? They may actually know their subject (what makes a good teacher) better than Huyck and Whittier.

  4. Wayne says:

    My daughter in high school uses her grandmother notes in one of her classes. The teacher still teaches from the same lesson plan of 40 some years ago. Fortunately he is retiring after this year.

    I see no problem with teachers getting refresher courses on how to teach or testing their knowledge of their subject area. I have done it in many of my jobs including the military and IT field. Often the students put in more information than the instructors.

    The teachers need to get off their high horse. After all isn’t it supposed to be about the children or is the teachers’ ego more important?

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Steve, results speak loudly. In California schools the results scream. If the students are not learning, it must be the teachers. There must be some standard by which teachers are held accountable for instructing their students or lack thereof. The idea of having remedial math and English at the college level is ridiculous.

  6. Patrick McGuire says:

    I’t about damn time! One of the teachers I had in Jr. High was a prince of a man, someone who everyone would want as an uncle or maybe grandfather because he loved kids so much. But he was one of the worst teachers I ever had. The man couldn’t teach worth spit.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there’s a little more to this story than meets the eye, James. I don’t know what the requirements have been recently but back in the 1970’s and 1980’s California waived basic requirements for obtaining a teaching certificate to applicants who had degrees in various “interest studies” areas e.g. African American studies, Hispanic studies, women’s studies, and so on.

    And in some schools these areas were notoriously easy to graduate with if you had the appropriate, uh, credentials.

    The intended reason for California’s policy was laudable: attract more blacks, Hispanics, etc. into teaching. It had the unfortunate secondary effect of letting people without basic qualification for teaching in, too.

    Could some of these “veteran teachers” have been initially granted their credentials under that rubric?

  8. I would think a simple compromise would be to use exam results to provide waivers. Your classes have had a x% pass rate, you are hereby exempted and deemed certified. Your classes are below x%, then despite three doctorates, a state wide award and a coupon for a free Starbucks given by grateful parents, you are required to take the additional classes.

    My understanding is they started giving out the NCLB tests before getting all the kids certified, so surely the results from the first test should be included. And if a certified teacher sees their pass rate fall below x%, perhaps they should go back for further training or be encouraged to look for another job.

  9. Based on my wife’s recent experience is trying to obtain reciprocity in Alabama for her Texas credential, I am not so sure that this is simply a California-specific response to NCLB.

    I discuss some of that experience here (in the context of the NYT piece).

    Further, my wife is currently working in a non-teaching capacity at a local elementary school and has gleaned some anecdotal evidence that her experience is not unique.