Anyone Can Teach Adult School? The Fate of Credential Requirements for Adult School Teachers

In 2012, in a report entitled “Restructuring California’s Adult Education System”, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) recommended that the State of California no longer require adult school teachers to hold a credential. While it is strange to see a recommendation to actually relax standards in a document devoted to suggesting ways to improve adult education in California, it’s right there on page 21 of the report. The reason given is that teachers could move more easily between adult school and community college jobs without the adult school credential requirement.

AB 104, the law that creates the Adult Education Block Grant (AEBG) provides, in section 84906, that in order to receive AEBG funding,  the  regional consortia between community colleges and adult schools must approve a plan that addresses, among other things,  “Qualifications of instructors, including common standards across entities that provide education and workforce services to adults.”  However, certain instructor qualifications are set by law, and cannot be changed unless the laws are changed.

By July of this year, the California Department of Education and Community College Chancellor’s Office are required to make recommendations regarding credentials for adult education teachers. Their recommendations will come out in the midst of a statewide teacher shortage that is affecting adult education as much as it affects K-12, so the need for credentialing  reform is keenly felt.  But while the credentialing system for adult education in California is byzantine and in need of reform, the abolition of the adult school credential risks a deprofessionalization and deskilling of the adult school teaching force that would be a step backward for adult education in California, not an improvement. The state needs to reform adult education credentialing in a way that assures that quality instruction for adult students will continue.

The teacher shortage has led to some lively discussion about the need to reform adult school teacher credentialing on the Adult Education Matters blog.  Several participants mentioned a contradiction that may primarily affect English as a Second Language (ESL) programs: teachers with a Masters in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and even experience teaching ESL at a community college cannot teach in an adult school without earning an adult school credential.

It is both costly and time consuming to attain an adult school credential.  The teacher must pay for and pass the CBEST test, plus take an expensive class in adult pedagogy.  For a teacher who has already put in the time and money to get a master’s degree in the field, the requirements are certainly burdensome, especially when the job at the end of the process is likely to be part-time and poorly paid.

This is not the only credentialing anomaly in the ESL field. There is an ESL Certificate available which is also expensive and takes about a year and a half of coursework.  It is excellent preparation for teaching ESL to adults, but it is completely separate from the adult school credential one must earn to actually teach.

Even if the issue of credentialing affected ESL alone, it would be no small matter for adult schools.  ESL is the largest program in most adult schools, and adult schools do the heavy lifting when it comes to teaching English to California’s large immigrant population.  Adult schools provide more ESL instruction than community college credit and noncredit programs combined.

Certainly the requirement that teachers with a master’s in TESOL get an adult school credential is illogical and needs to be addressed.  This could be done by including the master’s in TESOL as an alternate qualification to teach ESL in an adult school.  The same could be done for the ESL certificate.

But this is not the type of reform the LAO had in mind.  The recommendation in the 2012 LAO report was to “No longer require instructors at adult schools to hold a teaching credential so that adult education faculty can teach at both adult schools and community colleges.” (“Restructuring California’s Adult Education System,” page 21.)

The LAO recommendation oversimplifies the actual effect of abolishing the credentialing requirement for adult school teachers.  Abolition of the adult school credential would certainly eliminate the problem of community college teachers with master’s degrees having to do additional coursework to teach adult school.  In addition,  noncredit community college teachers, who only need a bachelor’s degree, would  be able to teach adult school classes, as would anyone else with a bachelor’s degree, whether they had community college noncredit experience of not. Adult school teachers would be able to teach noncredit community college classes, as they can now, since teachers cannot earn an adult school credential without a bachelor’s degree.  But unless they hold master’s degrees, adult school teachers would not be able to teach in community college for credit classes.

In other words, the movement between the two programs is one way.  All community college teachers , indeed, anyone with a bachelor’s degree, would gain access to adult school teaching jobs. But adult school teachers would have no more access to community college jobs than they have now.

What the LAO is really after is an equivalency between non-credit community college and adult school programs.  While state policy makers generally complain about adult school and community college systems being too similar (duplication), here they seem to take issue with the fact that the two systems are different. Community college noncredit teachers are only required to have a bachelor’s degree, they reason, so the qualifications for adult school teachers should be the same.  Perhaps the LAO is a bit embarrassed, too, to find that non-credit community college teachers make more than adult school teachers, even though adult school teachers have to have the additional qualification of a credential.  However, abolition of the credential will do nothing to raise adult school teachers pay to the level of a non-credit community college teacher. It doesn’t ever seem to work that way.

The LAO does not seem to  have thought about abolition of the adult school credential in terms of the number of jobs that would suddenly require less in the way of qualifications, but it is worthwhile to do so.  A chart on page 11 of the LAO report shows that community college non-credit classes are by far the smallest part of the adult education pie, accounting for only 14% of all adult education.  Community college credit classes, which are really a very different animal from both adult school and community college noncredit classes, make up 52%; to teach those classes, you need a master’s degree. Adult schools make up 34%.

Abolition of the adult school credential would take the number of adult education classes that could be taught by anyone with a bachelor’s degree from 14% to 48%,or almost half.  Could this really be done without affecting the quality of instruction for adults?

There are other complications, too.  Adult schools offer High School Diploma programs, in which adults can take high school subjects to complete their secondary degrees.  K-12 high school classes are taught by credentialed teachers; how could a high school subject taught by an adult school teacher who lacks a credential be truly equivalent?

Adult Basic Education (ABE), another adult school subject, is the equivalent of an elementary school education for adults.  Again, elementary school subjects in K-12 are taught by credentialed teachers. Adults in ABE classes may be there because they had trouble grasping the material the first time, in elementary school.  They need more skillful instruction, not less. Why would we want them to  be taught by a teacher with fewer qualifications than an elementary school teacher?

Coming back to ESL, this is a field that has had to fight its way up from the assumption that anyone who can speak English can teach it. Anyone who has actually taught ESL knows how wrong this is.  A good grounding in how language learning works, and in how adult language learning is different from language learning in children, is essential. ESL teachers manage classrooms full of students from different cultures that may come in conflict with each other, or with the teacher’s own cultural expectations and assumptions; these teachers need training in cross-cultural communication.  As an ESL teacher, I use what I learned in the Linguistics class I feared but came to love every day.  I have a BA, and an MA, too – both in English Literature. And I use Shakespeare – well, I love Shakespeare, but I use Shakespeare not so much.

No doubt the LAO meant well when it made its recommendation to abolish the adult school credential. But in the context of the execrable treatment the state has meted out to adult schools over the past eight years, it feels like yet another dismissive gesture, another failure to recognize that what adult school teachers do is important.  You can almost hear someone at the LAO saying, “Adult school credential? Anyone can teach adult school! What do they need a credential for?”

And once the adult school credential is gone, the state will have another excuse to further devalue the work of adult school teachers.  “They aren’t even real teachers,” policymakers will say, “They don’t even have credentials.”  Further reductions in funding, pay cuts and worsening working conditions to follow.

Will it matter that we have the same qualifications as community college noncredit teachers? Probably not.  They have the word “college” in their job titles, which gives them instant prestige. Plus the state seems to be committed to funding community colleges adequately, just as it seems to be committed to underfunding adult schools and perpetually looking for excuses to cut corners for them.

In general, the new regional consortia between adult schools and community colleges have a strong mandate to improve adult education in California.  We are tasked with creating pathways for every student, getting all students college and career ready.  We need to provide wrap-around services, collect more data, and be more accountable.  A recommendation to relax standards for teachers looks completely out of place amidst all this aspiration. Hopefully the Department of Education and the Community College Chancellor’s Office will recognize this and suggest some reasonable reforms of adult education credentialing that don’t include simply dropping the adult education credential.


2 Responses

  1. First, thank you, Kristen for your comprehensive and thought-provoking article. There is so much that can be said–I will offer a few observations and leave it to others to comment and develop these ideas further:
    1. Irrelevant credentialing requirements are nothing new. I am dating myself here, but in 1969 a teaching candidate sued the school of education at CSULB for, in her words, teaching her “nothing but how to thread a 16mm projector.” The application is outdated but there are many more current examples which could be provided.
    2. The history of teacher recruitment in California has been one of feast or famine. In times of great need, standards are relaxed, then tightened after a time, requiring those who are teaching to once again prove they are qualified to teach. Surely, there are more reasonable, moderate requirements which could serve to get teachers in at the entry level, with professional development proceeding from there.
    3. This leads me to point 3: the most valuable teacher training I have received was in collaboration with other teachers, observing their classrooms, methods and materials. Credentialing classes, with some exceptions, are a pale comparison to this more vigorous model. Let the formation of teaching excellence proceed in the educational setting (still allowing for probationary periods to insure that high-quality candidates are tenured). Oddly enough, the CTC no longer requires documentation of professional development despite the continuing set of byzantine rules governing the credentialing process itself. This is backwards and counterproductive and, most important, discourages many excellent candidates who would benefit students and a credit to the profession.
    4. Yes, it is ludicrous that, in the ESL field, a candidate with an M.A. in TESOL would need to pass the CBEST and undergo an additional 1-2 years of credentialing work to repeat what he or she has already learned. What is wrong with accepting the M.A. TESOL, as well as the ESL Certificate in lieu of the additional credential work? Again, let professional development take over from there, as it should.
    5. Yes, the LAO oversimplifies the solution, despite the good intentions of allowing reciprocity between the CC non-credit and the Adult School programs. This will only lead to degradation of the status of AE teachers. Again, reasonable credentialing requirements (or the acceptance of M.A. TESOL or ESL Certificate completion for the issuance of an AE credential.
    6. As Adult Education recovers, more part-time teachers will be needed to fill classroom needs, especially during evening hours. Some of the slack can be taken up by recruiting K-12 teachers whose credentials trump the AE and will therefore qualify, but more reasonable credential requirements would also allow additional enrichment of the teaching cadre by attracting those from non-teaching professions whose desire to help students and wealth of life experience would make them an asset in the classroom.
    7. Another unintended consequence of “decredentialing” is its possible effect on accreditation, which is essential to retain, especially if the school offers a High School Diploma (but of course is not limited to this).

    I am sure that there are more observations which could be made by others, in addition to comments on those contained here. I have mentioned to Jack Carroll, Chair of the CFT Adult Education Commission, that I will be prepared to comment on credentialing issues at our May 14 meeting.

    Tom Lawson
    ESL Program Specialist
    Salinas Adult School

  2. Thanks for this very thoughtful and informative comment. I agree with everything you say here. I was shocked when the CTC dropped the requirement that teachers document ongoing professional development. On the other hand, as you say, there are lots of bureaucratic rules that prevent potential good teachers from getting started. Thanks for mentioning this to Jack Carroll.

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