Do teachers need education degrees?

Give it up for Celine Coggins and her merry band of bad-ass teachers, everyone.  Lots of ideas in this space about sustaining teachers in Years 3 to 10.  

For the next 2 weeks, this guest blogger is mostly talking rookies. Teachers in Year 1.  

Let’s start here.  Do teachers need education degrees?  The New York Times offers 9 opinions (including mine).  

Pat Welsh suggests “Stop filtering candidates through personnel offices obsessed with education courses and ‘certification,’ and allow individual schools to advertise for the positions they need, and then allow principals along with panels of teachers to” choose the right fit.   (Sounds like: charter schools?  Oh wait.  Can’t be.  They’re not innovative.*  

Columbia’s Margaret Crocco trashes the parents who “may think that the best teacher their child could get would be a Teach for America recruit…As far as these parents are concerned, teaching boils down to talking.”   Wow, I’m glad someone has analyzed the attitudes of some 300,000 parents across 35 high-poverty geographies….hmm….actually…I can’t quite find her research on the topic…maybe someone can provide linky help in the comments?  Oh well, we all know that single moms living in poverty believe teaching boils down to talking, and therefore that TFA is bad.  

What’s your take, folks, on ed degrees?  

- Guestblogger Mike Goldstein

*Why is it that if a charter does an obvious thing that traditional schools nonetheless don’t do, it doesn’t count as an innovation; but if a charter school does something unusual, it’s too weird to be replicable?

13 Responses to “Do teachers need education degrees?”

  1. James Salsman Says:

    Isn’t this the sort of thing which is easy to decide from the data? Find somewhere which doesn’t require a special teaching certification, and compare the performance outcomes of their certified with certified teachers. I can’t believe there aren’t already a bunch of peer-reviewed secondary sources on this subject.

    I predict that people with degrees only in the specific subject matter they love will perform just as well on the job as generally credentialed teachers, except maybe in K-2.

  2. James Salsman Says:

    I meant to write, “…certified with NON-certified teachers.” Sorry

  3. Chris Smyr Says:

    Since TFA teachers produce similar results to non-TFA teacher, it would seem her omniscient knowledge of all parents’ opinions would also be misinformed.

    Education degrees may provide useful theory, but it is the on-going practice of those theories that makes a better teacher. Learning how to teach requires the *students* to test your ability to manage a classroom and direct instruction, and education degrees, not a university teacher. Just by this nature of our profession, an education degree means a completely different thing than other specialized degrees, like a PhD would mean to a scientist or an MD would mean to a doctor. Both of those latter degrees are directly related to successful theoretical AND practical work those professions do, which is not the case in education.

  4. Chris Smyr Says:

    Minus the extraneous “and education degrees”.

  5. Dan Himes Says:

    It’s a mistake to lump all of K-12 together for this debate. One thing that’s clear is that a teacher needs to know the subject more deeply than s/he is teaching it in order to clear up students’ ambiguities and misconceptions as they (inevitably) arise, and to do so correctly. Often this comes down to organizing the ideas conceptually for the students.

    Consider the following: A fourth grade math teacher has (presumably) at least 8 years of math beyond what s/he is teaching (through HS + maybe some in college), even without being a math major. A HS physics teacher, however, may have barely covered the material at the level s/he is teaching (2 semesters of non-calculus physics in college). It is far more important that the physics teacher have a degree in physics than a degree in education.

    I have heard of colleges offering summer workshops (at least in the sciences) to help teachers understand their subject matter in more detail. At the HS level, I would rather have a teacher with a degree in the subject matter who has taken a summer workshop in teaching theory/strategy than a teacher with a degree in education who has taken a summer workshop in the subject matter.

  6. Linda/Retired Teacher Says:

    I agree with Dan Himes. K-12 teachers should not be lumped together in answering this question.

    I was an elementary school teacher on an emergency credential for about five years before I studied for a graduate degree in Early and Middle Childhood Education. Before starting my graduate coursework, I thought that education classes were “Mickey Mouse” and a waste of time. However, after teaching very poor children in Cleveland, I became open to the possibility that there was much to be learned.

    With experience behind me, my classes in theory and methodology became very relevant. I had many “aha” experiences. I learned techniques for teaching reading to slow-learning students. I read many books written for children and learned how to get my students “hooked” on them. In psychology I discovered Piaget and in sociology I learned how to be sensitive to children from different cultures. I found out that standardized tests are designed to compare different populations of students and are not designed to measure what a teacher has taught during a school year. Most important of all, I think that I became more open-minded and lost that “know it all” attitude I had as a new teacher.

    Of course, teachers need to know their subject matter, but there is much about pedagogy that needs to be mastered also, especially for teachers of young children.

  7. GGW Says:

    Linda, where did you learn that standardized tests are not designed to measure what a teacher has taught during a school year?

  8. Linda/Retired Teacher Says:

    I learned that in my class on Testing and Evaluation. The purpose of a norm-referenced standardized test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, is to compare the educational levels of student populations. Other tests (criterion-referenced) are designed to measure what an individual student has learned during an academic year. However, some of these tests are not designed to measure the progress of students who are significantly below or above grade level.

  9. Linda/Retired Teacher Says:

    Sometimes it is easier to understand these theoretical issues when looking at specific examples. Let’s take “James,” a gifted child. James is ten years old and scores at the 99th percentile at the beginning of Fifth Grade on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. An interpretation shows that he knows more than 99% of other children his age. Practically he got 100% on the test. At the end of the school year he takes another form of the test. This time he made a careless error on computation and accidentally skipped a question in reading so he scored at the 98th percentile. Does this say anything about classroom instruction for James?

    Another child, “Maria” is new to the United States. She is very limited in English but has been in American schools for two years so she must take the test. Although she is in the fifth grade, she reads at a high first-grade level at the beginning of the year and scores at the 6th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. She has an excellent teacher who brings her up two grade levels by May, as evidenced by tests designed to measure wide-range reading achievement. However, the ITBS has almost no items at Maria’s level. Therefore she again scores at the 6th percentile at the end of the year. Is this a reflection of the teacher’s instruction? In my opinion this is the primary reason teachers do not want to be judged according to standardized test scores.

    Criterion-referenced tests will not demonstrate what these two children have learned either. James already knows everything on the test and Maria is too far below grade level to answer any of the questions correctly.

    I hope I’ve explained this well. I’m a retired teacher and not an expert so I’ve explained it as I understand it. A good source for better information on testing is James Popham of UCLA.

  10. Candice Says:

    At the highschool and middle school levels, where subject matter mastery is necessary as in the physics example referenced by Dan, an education degree is not as important as the command of one’s content. An education degree, perhaps, misdirects this conversation.

    Another question, that points more towards the issue of aheiving high student outcomes based on quality teaching is: Is a teacher willing to continuously improve? As a former TFA Corps Member, I took graduate courses in Early Childhood Education that spanned teaching methods, pedagogy, and classroom culture. Along with a co-investigation cycle with a mentor that reviewed my progress every few months, I counted my classroom a success. Every student grew over a year in reading and math in eight months. I could not have experienced this level of achievement had I not been studying my classroom and studying in a classroom.

    Quality professional development through the academics and a mentor more than made up for an undergraduate degree in business and communications.

  11. Candice Says:

    Pardon my error in paragraph two, line two: achieving

  12. Ryan Says:

    If Pat Welsh thinks that the obsession with degrees comes from the Personnel/Human Resources offices, she’s way off. Look to the state legislatures and the Highly Qualified requirements–that’s where the damage has been done.

  13. Paul Friedmann Says:

    The obsession with degrees was there way before Highly Qualified ever crossed the lips of GWB.

Leave a Reply


four − = 0