Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science and
Social Studies: Illinois

2015 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


The state should ensure that secondary science and social studies teachers know all the subject matter they are licensed to teach.

Meets in part

Analysis of Illinois's policies

Although Illinois requires that its secondary teacher candidates pass a content test to teach any core secondary subjects, the state permits a significant loophole to this important policy by allowing both broad field science and general social studies licenses, without requiring subject-matter testing for each subject area within these disciplines.

Illinois requires secondary science teacher candidates to earn a specific subject-area designation (e.g., biology, physics) as part of the broad-field science endorsement. In addition to completing 32 semester hours of coursework, candidates must also pass the state's subject-specific content test. Regrettably, Illinois allows these candidates to teach all areas of science at the general level, regardless of the specific designation. However, to teach honors or AP classes, science teachers must have the designation in that particular area. 

Illinois has similar requirements for secondary social science certifications.


Recommendations for Illinois

Require secondary teachers with umbrella certifications to pass a content test for each discipline they are licensed to teach.
By allowing general social studies and general science certifications—and only requiring general knowledge exams for each—Illinois is not ensuring that these secondary teachers possess adequate subject-specific content knowledge. Although Illinois's policy ensures that science and social science teachers who teach upper-level courses possess adequate subject-matter knowledge, it falls short when it comes to general-level courses. A biology teacher, having only passed the state's biology content test, could go on to teach chemistry and physics—just not at the honors or AP level.  Or an economics teacher, having passed only the state's economics content test, could go on to teach political science or anthropology, only not at the honors or AP level. The state should ensure that all students, not only those in advanced classes, have teachers with sufficient and appropriate content knowledge.

State response to our analysis

Illinois stated that each science and social science content test has sections that cover the other areas of the sciences or social sciences (e.g., the biology content test has sections on physics and chemistry).

How we graded

Research rationale

Specialized science teachers are not interchangeable.
Based on their high school science licensure requirements, many states seem to presume that it is all the same to teach anatomy, electrical currents and Newtonian physics. Most states allow teachers to obtain general science or combination licenses across multiple science disciplines, and, in most cases, these teachers need only pass a general knowledge science exam that does not ensure subject-specific content knowledge.  This means that a teacher with a background in biology could be fully certified to teach advanced chemistry or physics having passed only a general science test—and perhaps answering most of the chemistry or physics questions incorrectly. 

There is no doubt that districts appreciate the flexibility that these broad field licenses offer, especially given the very real shortage of teachers of many science disciplines.  But the all-purpose science teacher not only masks but perpetuates the STEM crisis—and does so at the expense of students.  States need either to make sure that general science teachers are indeed prepared to teach any of the subjects covered under that license or allow only single subject science certifications.  In either case states need to consider strategies to improve the pipeline of science teachers, including the use of technology, distance learning and alternate routes into STEM fields. 

Is a social studies teacher prepared to teach history?
Most states offer a general social studies license at the secondary level. For this certification, teachers can have a background in a wide variety of fields, ranging from history and political science to anthropology or psychology and are usually only required to pass a general social studies test. Under such a license a teacher who majored in psychology could be licensed to teach secondary history having passed only a general knowledge test and answering most—and perhaps all—history questions incorrectly.

Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science: Supporting Research

For an examination of how science teacher preparation positively impacts student achievement, see D. Goldhaber and D. Brewer, "Does Teacher Certification Matter? High School Teacher Certification Status and Student Achievement", Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Volume 22, No. 2, June 20, 2000, pp. 129-145; D. Monk, "Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement", Economics of Education Review, Volume 13, No. 2, June 1994, pp.125-145; A. Rothman, "Teacher characteristics and student learning". Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Volume 6, No. 4, December 1969, pp. 340-348. 
See also, NCTQ "The All-Purpose Science Teacher: An Analysis of Loopholes in State Requirements for High School Science Teachers." (2010).

In addition, 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,Volume 42, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 765-794.  See also D. Harris and T. Sass, "Teacher Training, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement". Calder Institute,March 2007, Working Paper 3. Evidence can also be found in B. White, J. Presely, and K. DeAngelis, "Leveling up: Narrowing the Teacher Academic Capital Gap in Illinois", Illinois Education Research Council, Policy Research Report: IERC 2008-1, 44 p.; 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, Volume 32, No. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 505-523.