Amy Sullivan has a bizarre tale:

Under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, my dad — who taught social studies at an inner-city high school for twenty-seven years and was nationally recognized as an innovative educator — is considered unqualified to teach history courses in the state of Michigan. Yes, he was an award-winning teacher. Yes, he could teach world history/U.S. history/African history in his sleep. Yes, he has spent the past five years as a college instructor, teaching other social studies teachers how to teach. But his undergraduate major was in English, not history. So, according to the high standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, Dad is not allowed in the classroom as a social studies teacher.

What I’d like to know, is who let this man teach history in the first place?! Presumably, if he’s a bright, motivated fellow, he’s taught himself enough history over the years to more than adequately teach high school kids. But history has to be one of the harder subjects to teach, simply because of the vast scope of questions one could receive. By way of contrast, subjects like chemistry and physics, while perhaps “harder” at an advanced level, aren’t naturally going to lead to a whole lot of questions beyond the immediate scope of the assigned problems.

Letting someone without college training in history teach the subject is madness–and would explain why so many kids get to college knowing squat about the subject. What’s especially ironic is that social studies teachers are nigh unemployable unless they can get hired on as an athletic coach and “fill in” as a history teacher. Which is another reason kids get to college not knowing squat about history.

(Hat tip: Kevin Drum)

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave says:

    No Child Left Behind is one of those mixed blessings in its current implementation: Completely understandable – and GOOD – requirements when applied to incoming or wet-behind-the-ears teachers, but it’s going to wreak havoc on some of the (rare) Good But Not Technically Qualified teachers who have been around long enough to be self-taught knowledgeable.

    Overall, I believe it’s better to put the standards in place than to leave them out, because you cannot make exceptions that do the kids any good except on a teacher by teacher basis. Keep all of them over a certain number of years? You’ll keep a significant proportion of the ‘bad ones’. And wouldn’t THAT raise a squall.

  2. Noel says:

    I’d say letting someone WITH credentials teach history is madness. The PC experts have bastardized the field. It’s obviously a labor of love for this man. Give him a quiz and let him share his sense of wonder with the children.

  3. James Joyner says:


    Well, all we have to go on is his daughter saying he’s a great teacher and that he teaches an education class as a college adjunct. That’s hardly definitive proof that he’s knowledgable about his subject; he could well just be entertaining. I suspect that he has indeed made himself competent through self-study, but one can’t design a blanket rule that handles all the exceptions. How hard is it to take a couple history classes to get certified? And, indeed, why hasn’t he taken any before now?

  4. Paul says:

    While I gotta agree with you in the larger scope
    James, my “inner jackass” would not rest if I did not point something out.

    Well, all we have to go on is his daughter saying he’s a great teacher and that he teaches an education class as a college adjunct. That’s hardly definitive proof that he’s knowledgable about his subject;

    To be frank, neither does that piece of paper you advocate.

  5. James Joyner says:


    To be sure. But, all things equal, I’d think someone with a college degree in history would know more history than someone with a degree in English. And, for that matter, vice versa.

  6. As a former English major I’d like to say a lot of us can learn–and therefore teach–just about anything. Because when it’s done well, a course of studies in English lit doesn’t merely teach one how to write: it teaches one how to think.

    But you’d be surpised how many people I’ve run into with English degrees who are simply illiterate.

    On the whole, I’d prefer that we not tie the hands of principals and school districts any more than we have to: the important things are command of the subject and an ability to teach it. Why, after all, are private schools able to do more with less?–they don’t bother as much with credentialing and “educational” nonsense, and simply hire the best person for the job.

    Who may or may not have the correct piece of paper.

  7. James Joyner says:


    But this is about subject matter competence. The argument isn’t that the man doesn’t have an Ed degree but that he didn’t have any hours in history, the subject he’s teaching, nor did he meet any alternative certification requirement to demonstrate that he knew the material. So, how do we know he had command of the subject, let alone the ability to teach it?

  8. melvin toast says:

    What you guys are really arguing about is whether government should be centralized or not. Should we
    have a set of general regulations that will be rendered absurd in special cases or should we give local departments freedom to decide what is right in their particular situation. The latter case of course would be shown to be ineffective because some district would hire a moron to teach because they’re desparate.

    If you ask me, the no child left behind act isn’t the reason why we can’t attract teachers. The answer isn’t money. Teachers in private schools often get paid significantly less that public schools. We can’t attract good teachers because teaching a pack of wild animals isn’t fun. And when parents don’t care about school, their kids don’t care and they’re not interested in learning. Who wants to deal with that?

    I have a friend who teaches a 1st grader who shows up to school with dirty fingernails. If his parents don’t care enough to bathe him do you think they care about his school progress or homework?

  9. RG says:

    In many states, I am not qualified to teach anything because my degree(s) is (are) in Engineering (from a top tier research Univeristy), which is not a high school subject. Forget that my math, physics, and chemistry are well beyond that of anything taught in any high school in the country, and beyond that of many state colleges.

    Calculas is second nature to me, but I’m not a math major. Scratch teaching geometry, or even remedial math (basically how to make change). The University I went to didn’t give credit for anything below Calculas (algebra is a high school subject). In some colleges, you can get a BS in math and never take Calculas. But where does that matter if you never teach Calculas? I can do Bessel functions, but they are pretty much useless unless you are working in nuclear physics.

    But the biggest strike against me is that I have actual applied math and the sciences experiences with real world applications. I have worked in power plants, where chemistry is all important, otherwise you risk a great explosion. The Laws of Thermodynamics likewise are ingrained in me. I usually don’t have to look up the answer, I often be able to easily calculate the answer in my mind and know the answer (within 10%), and it will be correct, just like my better professors did (No, I don’t have the Mollier diagram memorized, but I know how to approximate it).

    But actual experience threatens those that only teach. This isn’t only in the high schools, but also in the colleges. It exists in Engineering too, where it is OK for a professor to “consult,” but has prolems getting tenue if he/she has ever actually worked in the industry.

    As for history and English, well, this engineer did the proofreading on his wife’s English literature PhD thesis. But I still have no idea who those authors were, nor do I care. But I don’t think a degree automaticaly connotates ability to teach the subject, nor is it a union card to keep other knowledgable folks from teaching the subject.