The Problem with State Certification

There is an odd trend among private Christian schools to require their teachers to possess state certification. This practice sounds entirely self-contradictory, for the very purpose of a private school is to be independent of the state. A private school is free from government regulation and thus has the freedom to educate as it sees fit, not as some secular ruling body demands.

The oddity may be demonstrated by a recent job posting I came across for the position of Athletic Director/PE/Bible teacher, with the school website saying, “Education must include a Bachelor’s in education with a state teaching certificate.” It is uncertain why anyone would need a degree in education or even a state teaching certificate to fulfill any of these roles.

Accreditation itself is not the problem, as private schools may desire to use private accrediting agencies to certify their teachers. These accrediting organizations usually look at an individual’s transcripts and certify the teacher based on his or her educational background. Accreditation only becomes a problem when private accrediting agencies require state certification for private school teachers. Here is why the practice should be avoided:

(1)  State certification means your school is subject to government control. Required state certification means a school is requiring its teachers to be trained to teach by the state. This is particularly problematic for Christian schools, which ought to be teaching their curriculum from a Christian worldview, not the secular worldview of the state. How can teachers be expected to teach a Christian worldview when they have been trained to teach a secular worldview? This could mean even worse, as teachers have to meet certain standards for initial certification and its renewal over the years. What happens when the state places further requirements to obtain or retain a teaching certificate, such as affirming a particular state doctrine? State certification always subjects one to state control and is thus inconsistent for the private school. If a private school is truly private, it will free itself of all the government regulations possible.

(2)  State certification has unreasonable standards. Many state certification programs require teachers to major in an education program in college and then participate in a lengthy time of unpaid “student teaching.” The government touts such standards as improving education, but this guarantees no such thing. In fact, such requirements mean a person with a Masters (or even a PhD!) in history is unqualified to teach history in high school. The individual is qualified to teach history at the university level, but he or she needs further courses in “education” in order to be qualified to teach high school! Furthermore, a teacher may be highly skilled in a subject through self-study and may have even previously taught a subject at another private school, yet still be considered unqualified to teach by the state. For example, a private school may seek to hire someone to teach an American history class. A man who is a history buff and taught American history for two years at another school—but only majored in economics—would not be eligible for the position at a school requiring a state certificate. This ridiculous scenario is why the school administration should make judgments on qualification, not the government.  

(3)  State certification focuses on training teachers in “education” rather than in the subject to be taught. State teaching certificates often require a person to major in some sort of educational program in college. J. Gresham Machen referred to this as “the absurd overemphasis upon methodology in the sphere of education at the expense of content” (“The Necessity of the Christian School”). It can be helpful to study educational methodology, but this is not nearly as important as studying the subject one will be teaching. Some of the best teachers have never taken a course in methodology, and this is because teaching is a natural gift. It is a gift that can and should be honed, but this can be done through on-the-job training and experience. You can sit in a classroom and talk about methodology all you want, but most of your adjustments in methodology will come as you teach. In other words, a high school science teacher should focus on studying science, not on studying how to teach.

(4)  State certification is a hindrance to the best and brightest teachers. State teaching certification is a guild—a guild with unnecessary and burdensome standards. Many got in the guild because they chose an easy major in college. Yet some of the best teachers available for hire do not meet the requirements of the guild. There are loads of history, science, math, and English majors out there who would otherwise make great teachers, but they do not meet the standards of state certification. And they are certainly not going spend time and money on college courses in “education” just to work at a low-paying private school. A private school will thus only hurt itself by requiring its teachers to join such a guild. Such a school limits its pool of applicants to state-trained education majors, excluding teachers who know their subject and would be more qualified for the job.  

Most private schools that require state certification for teachers probably do so because they want to hold their teachers to high standards. This is a praiseworthy goal, but it is misdirected. State certification does not guarantee a high standard—it only guarantees someone is part of the guild. That guild is run by the state, has unreasonable standards, and turns away qualified teachers. As Douglas Wilson says, “Excellence is not guaranteed by a piece of paper. Excellence in education is the result of vision, hard work, parental love, and a clear sense of mission. It does not depend upon bureaucratic accreditation” (The Case for Classical Christian Education, p. 43). Let private schools do away with such bureaucracy.