Bay Area

Many California Teachers Lack Correct Credentials

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In California, thousands of teachers are instructing in subjects outside their areas of expertise -- and beyond their credentials. The problem is especially prominent in low-performing schools, which lack the resources to attract needed teachers.
Host Stephanie Martin talks with California Watch reporter Joanna Lin, who has been covering the problem.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: Whether it's history, biology, German or gym, if you work in California public schools, you're required by law to have the correct credentials for each subject you teach. Still,every year thousands of the state's teachers are assigned to classes outside their area of expertise. California Watch reporter Joanna Lin took an in-depth look at the problem which is most pronounced at low-performing schools. Joanna, first, how common is it to have, say, a credentialed high school English teacher suddenly told they have to teach something that's not in their area of expertise, like economics?
JOANNA LIN: Well, we know at all California schools, which are monitored on a four year basis, we know that that about 1 in 10 teachers or staff, about 32,000 school employees in total did not have the right credentials from 2007 through 2011. But at low-performing schools, which we have more regular, annual data on, we know that more than 12,000 teachers were in the wrong position. And in the Bay Area, there were more than 400 teachers at more than 100 low-performing schools that were in positions they should not have held.
MARTIN: How are teachers getting into this predicament to being with? 
LIN: Teachers are assigned by their school principals, typically, or by another member of the administrative staff at a school. That's how teachers often find out they're perhaps in the wrong position. This happened with a teacher I spoke with in Los Angeles who for over 20 years had been teaching biology and math and one day got assigned to teach history and other courses in social studies, which he had never studied before. The last time he had taken a history course was when he was in high school. Jimmy Carter was president at the time so that spoke to just how long ago it was since he had really studied this issue himself. 
MARTIN: When we talk about low-performing schools we're talking here, in this case, primarily about schools that are prominently Latino or have low-income students. Why are these schools struggling with this issue?
LIN: These are schools that tend to have fewer resources. They have fewer dollars per student and fewer dollars to spend on their teachers. And that makes it harder to compete to get that talent. You know, I spoke with one school administrator in Oakland, a school principal, who said schools like his were often accused of trying to hire these cheap teachers just because it was easier, but he says these more experienced, qualified teachers don't take interviews at his school. 
MARTIN: What are teachers saying to you about this? Is there any pushback among teachers who are forced into courses that they don't really have the credentials to teach?
LIN: This is actually very common -- that's what some teachers have told me since the story came out. But teachers don't like this, either. The teacher I spoke with in Los Angeles who I mentioned earlier -- he had been teaching history, though he was credentialed to teach biology. He said that he was doing homework, just like his students, every day, and that the experience he accumulated over decades of having taught biology where he would understand there were certain sections of his lesson plan that he knew students tended to struggle with, that he would say, "Okay, I know I need to spend more time on this lesson," or, "Here's how I need to frame it in a different way so students understand it." All of that experience went out the door when he was assigned to social studies because he himself didn't know the material, either.
MARTIN: Now there was a class-action lawsuit that was settled back in 2004, almost 10 years ago, Williams versus the State of California, which was supposed to address this problem. Why hasn't that fixed it?
LIN: It's done a really good job. So, to give schools credit and to give counties credit that monitor their districts every year, they have made a lot of progress over the years. Before Williams, there wasn't annual monitoring of low-performing schools, so the problem wasn't as well understood. But because of the Williams settlement, the state started asking its counties to look at low-performing schools, in particular, every single year, and the rate went from 29 percent seven years ago to about 13 percent in the most recent year. So, there has been a lot of progress. But I know that advocates and critics of the system are saying, "Even though you've made a lot of progress, you still have a lot of work to do, so how are you going to get over that last remaining 12 or 13 percent of teachers at these low-performing schools? How can we get that down to zero or very, very rare?" 
MARTIN: Joanna Lin, thank you.
LIN: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Joanna Lin is a reporter with California Watch. And I'm Stephanie Martin. More news online at
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