Alarming Trend: Kids Are Taught By Teachers Without Credentials

Teaching without the proper credentials is a problem in America.

This is especially true in California, according to new data reported initially by California Watch. The state Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s data showed that from 2007 to 2011, 1 in 10 teachers or certificated personnel didn’t have credentials or authorization for their positions, or about 32,000 school employees.

What does that mean exactly? Teachers who are qualified for biology may have been teaching history. Or English teachers may have been teaching math. In some cases, unqualified teachers teach special needs classes.

While this is a problem now, according to Anne L. Padilla, a consultant with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, it used to be worse.

“As the California Watch article points out,” Padilla told TakePart in an email, “the number of misassignments has dropped dramatically since the 2005-06 school year; from 29 percent to 12 percent when the state began giving greater attention to teacher assignments at low-performing schools. The Commission continues to work with COEs to decrease the number of misassignments in their schools.”

According to Padilla, “misassignment” is the placement of a certified employee in a teaching or services position for which the employee does not hold an appropriate authorization for the assignment.

The reasons for misassignment varies, according to the report, which states “staffing turnover and shortages, insufficient resources, poor planning and mismanagement contribute to assigning teachers to classes for which they lack specialized training.”

When this happens, it is the students who suffer.

Teachers need knowledge of the content to create engaging, authentic and academically rigorous learning opportunities.

“It seems reasonable to assume that teachers need knowledge of the content to create engaging, authentic and academically rigorous learning opportunities for students,” Steve D'Agustino, director of Fordham University’s Regional Educational Technology Center told TakePart. “It's unlikely that a teacher who may be one or two chapters ahead of the students can help them meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive and complex global society.”

California, however, is far from alone with dealing with the misassignment problem.

The National Education Association has reported that “each year some out-of-field teaching takes place in more than half of all U.S. secondary schools, and each year over one fifth of the public 7th-12th grade teaching force engages in this practice.”

In 2008, The Education Trust reported that low-income students and minority students are about “twice as likely as other students to be enrolled in core academic classes taught by out-of-field teachers.”

In 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that about 30 percent of chemistry and physics teachers in public high schools didn’t major in these fields and didn’t have a certificate to teach the subjects. These are the subjects President Barack Obama has deemed critical to America’s future in a global economy.

In some cases, misassignments may actually be a misnomer.

“Imagine a school district that cannot identify a licensed algebra teacher but they have a science teacher who has some mathematics expertise,” D'Agustino told TakePart. “Not offering algebra is not an option so they often have no choice but to place the science teacher in that class until a certified teacher can be identified.”

He says to imagine teaching as a competitive market like any other business. In that way, licensed teachers in any subject—math, science, English—is a competitive game.

“So it may be that math teachers can pick and choose where to teach and as a result may elect to teach in more ‘desirable’ districts—better paying, higher performing,” he said. “This results in a lack of certified teachers in under-performing areas, exacerbating the poor performance in mathematics.”

Solutions to this problem are controversial and complex.

“Districts cannot pay math teachers more than physical education teachers (for example) even though math teachers might be in greater demand,” he said. “All teachers, regardless of subject area, are on the same salary scale.”

He suggests that perhaps schools should adopt the university model and use adjuncts as universities do. But that comes with a problem as there are no real mechanisms that allow most schools in the United States this option.

Still, an unqualified teacher in a certain subject is better than no teacher at all.

“This is not to suggest that these misassigned teachers (and the schools for which they work) are operating in bad faith,” D'Agustino adds. “Rather, they present the best solution to a persistent teacher shortage.”

Related Stories on TakePart:

• 7 Dramatic Trends Shaping the Teaching Profession

• Education Activist to Watch Says There Needs to Be a ‘Real Gate’ Into the Teaching Profession

• Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Why I See Teaching Differently Now

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker |