Unpacking Secondary Certification: State Certification Discontinuity

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This is the second of a four part series exploring secondary certifications, state licensing tests, and the subject matter preparation that teacher prep programs provide future high school teachers. In part one, we examined the two types of certifications and the courses that can be taught with each. This second installment focuses on the available science and social studies certifications across the country.

There are nearly as many arrangements of science and social studies certifications as there are states, which is somewhat astonishing considering almost all high school students take the same core courses (biology, history, government, etc.) regardless of where they live.

Seemingly every state offers a unique collection of certifications. At the extremes, Tennessee offers only single-subject certifications (a biology certification that can only teach biology, an economics certification that can only teach economics, etc.), while Colorado offers just the "teach everything" General Science and Social Studies certifications. To see how these disparate designs affect teacher training and certification, let's consider a teacher candidate deeply passionate about physics. 

As can be seen above, if our young physicist lived in Tennessee, she would complete a major in physics, earn Physics certification, and then could only be assigned to teach physics. However, if she were to live in Colorado, General Science certification would be her only option. She would most likely have to complete a mixed-subject major that attempts to cover all of the sciences and subsequently could be assigned to teach any of biology, chemistry, earth science, or physics.

Between the extremes of the Tennessee and Colorado certification structures, the national variation can be seen when looking at just a handful of states along the Atlantic coast:

If the "teach everything" social studies certification appears nearly ubiquitous in the figure above, it is because it is found in all but four states (Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, and Tennessee). In fact, this certification is the only option for teaching any of the social studies in 27 states and the District of Columbia. By contrast, single-subject certification in history is found in just 23 states. This is in spite of high school graduation requirements across the country that most often require three years of the social studies, including two years devoted to U.S. and world history.

General science certification, which permits instruction in all of the sciences, can be found in 30 states. Four additional states (Arizona, California, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) and Missouri offer a general science certification that restricts teachers to teach only foundational science courses that are limited to lower grade levels or focus on topics such as the scientific process, use of lab equipment, etc. The map below illustrates the availability of general science certification across the country:

Note: As mentioned in part one of this series, Illinois offers five seemingly single-subject science certifications, but because each allows teachers to teach all of the sciences, they are categorized as general science certifications. Missouri offers General Science certification that limits instruction to foundational science courses and additionally offers four Unified Science certifications, which allow teachers to teach all of the high school science subjects. However, unlike all other states offering a "teach everything" certification, Missouri requires teacher candidates to pass individual licensing tests in each of the sciences – more about this in part three of this series.

There is a case to be made for multiple-subject certifications. What cannot be ignored, though, is the burden general science and social studies certifications put on teacher prep programs, which must prepare teacher candidates in four or more subjects over the course of just four years. Further, with aspiring teachers required to master content in multiple subjects, there is the critical issue of how states can reasonably verify content knowledge before aspiring teachers enter the classroom. This will be addressed in part three, where we'll explore state licensing tests.