Secondary Teacher Preparation: California

2011 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


The state should ensure that secondary teachers are sufficiently prepared to teach appropriate grade-level content.

Does not meet
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Secondary Teacher Preparation: California results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from:

Analysis of California's policies

California does not ensure that its secondary teachers are adequately prepared to teach grade-level content. 

The state requires its secondary teacher candidates to verify subject-matter competence in one of two ways: earn a passing score on the appropriate subject-matter exam (CSET) or complete a commission-approved subject-matter program. 

Regrettably, California also allows a general social studies license—and does not require subject-matter testing for each subject area within this discipline (see Goal 1-H).

Secondary teachers in California may add endorsements to their licenses through similar options as outlined above.


Recommendations for California

Require subject-matter testing for secondary teacher candidates.
As a condition of licensure, California should require its secondary teacher candidates to pass a content test in each subject area they plan to teach to ensure that they possess adequate subject-matter knowledge and are prepared to teach grade-level content. 

Require subject-matter testing when adding subject-area endorsements.
California should require passing scores on subject-specific content tests, regardless of other coursework or degree requirements, for teachers who are licensed in core secondary subjects and wish to add another subject area, or endorsement, to their licenses. While coursework may be generally indicative of background in a particular subject area, only a subject-matter test ensures that teachers know the specific content they will need to teach.

State response to our analysis

California was helpful in providing NCTQ with facts that enhanced this analysis. The state asserted that when it developed subject-matter program standards and its own subject-matter examinations in the early 1990s, the two routes for verification of subject-matter knowledge were brought into alignment by using one set of subject-matter requirements. As part of the program standards, it included some standards that addressed program qualities beyond the subject-matter content that were recommended by the subject-matter advisory panels. Later, both the examination and the program routes were aligned to the K-12 student academic content standards.

California added that subject-matter preparation typically occurs during a candidate's undergraduate coursework. To satisfy the subject-matter requirement, an individual may elect to complete a course of study as part of the bachelor's degree that meets subject-matter requirements, or an individual may complete a bachelor's degree in any subject and then pass the appropriate subject-matter examination.

The state added: "Most would argue that completing an approved subject-matter program as compared to passing the subject-matter examination ensures a greater level of knowledge and understanding in that subject matter for an individual who wishes to become a teacher. A rationale for this point of view stems from concerns that it might be possible that an individual who is good at taking tests could pass the appropriate subject-matter examination but not have a rich and deep understanding of the particular subject matter."

California explained that to meet the adopted subject-matter standards, colleges and universities submit a subject-matter program document for review by expert subject-matter panels, which review all program documentation and make an informed determination as to whether the program meets the standards common to all subject-matter programs and the subject-specific subject-matter standards. Subject-matter programs are typically housed in Colleges of Arts and Sciences, not in the Schools or Colleges of Education.

Last word

California is showing unjustified faith in coursework. A rigorous test ensures that teachers know the material the state expects them to know. If it doesn't ensure that, it isn't a good test, and that is a problem that should be fixed. Relying on coursework as a guarantee of content knowledge, however, can be risky. For example, a teacher candidate could be a history major who studied nearly all European history or ancient history but knows very little about the American history that he or she is expected to teach in the classroom. 

How we graded

Completion of coursework provides no assurance that prospective teachers know the specific content they will teach. 

Secondary teachers must be experts in the subject matter they teach, and only a rigorous test ensures that teacher candidates are sufficiently and appropriately knowledgeable in their content area. Coursework is generally only indicative of background in a subject area; even a major offers no certainty of what content has been covered.  A history major, for example, could have studied relatively little American history or almost exclusively American history. To assume that the major has adequately prepared the candidate to teach American history, European history or ancient civilizations is an unwarranted leap of faith.  

Requirements should be just as rigorous when adding an endorsement to an existing license.

Many states will allow teachers to add a content area endorsement to their license simply on the basis of having completed coursework. As described above, the completion of coursework does not offer assurance of specific content knowledge. Some states require a content test for initial licensure but not for adding an endorsement, even if the endorsement is in a completely unrelated subject.  

Research rationale

Research studies have demonstrated the positive impact of teacher content knowledge on student achievement.  For example, see D. Goldhaber, "Everyone's Doing It, But What Does Teacher Testing Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness?" Journal of Human Resources, vol. XLII no.4 (2007).  See also Harris, D., and Sass, T., "Teacher Training, Teacher Quality and Student Achievement." Teacher Quality Research (2007).Evidence can also be found in White, Pressely, DeAngelis "Leveling up: Narrowing the teacher academic capital gap in Illinois" Illinois Education Research Council (2008); D. Goldhaber and D. Brewer, "Does teacher certification matter? High School Certification Status and Student Achievement." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 22: 129-145. (2000); and D. Goldhaber and D. Brewer, "Why Don't Schools and Teachers Seem to Matter? Assessing the impact of Unobservables on Educational Productivity." Journal of Human Resources (1998).