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Indicator I-9 Qualifications of Humanities Teachers
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Updated (12/11/09) with data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) 2003–2004 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS). Also the trend line for the percentage of high school students instructed by a teacher with a postsecondary degree in the subject being taught has been extended back to 1988.

The most current SASS data, those from the 2007–2008 round of the survey, are not available to the general public in the form necessary to further update this indicator. A detailed analysis of the SASS microdata (i.e., “raw” or untabulated data) is required in order to determine how the qualifications of precollegiate humanities teachers have changed over time. While NCES makes some microdata available in “public-use” format (one in which the data have been processed to ensure the confidentiality of survey respondents), the 2007–2008 SASS data are available to researchers only on a “restricted-use” basis. The Academy has recently obtained permission to analyze these data and hopes to be able to present the findings by early 2011.

An important measure of the condition of humanities education at the precollege level is the preparedness of teachers who teach humanities classes. Such preparedness can be partly assessed through information provided by the National Center for Education Statistics' (NCES) Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), which asks a sample of public school teachers about the fields in which they have received teaching certificates, as well as their undergraduate and graduate majors. Of course, teacher certification and subject-area education do not ensure quality teaching. Some gifted teachers have not obtained certification, and subject-matter specialization is no guarantee of effectiveness in the classroom. However, certification and education are two factors that research suggests have at least some bearing on student outcomes.1 They are also central to the public policy debate about teaching.

The data presented here describing humanities teacher qualifications are limited in two respects. For 2003–2004, the most recent academic year for which SASS results are publicly accessible, data for both measures are available for high school level teachers only. Because middle school encompasses different grades in different states, NCES did not produce estimates of teacher qualifications for teachers at this level. Additionally, an improvement made in 2003–2004 in the way NCES collects data on teacher certification means that data for this academic year are not comparable with those collected in previous years.2 Thus, the trend analysis presented here for both high school and middle school teachers focuses exclusively on their educational backgrounds.

According to SASS data, public high school students in French classes were likeliest among those taking humanities courses to be exposed to a teacher who was both certified and possessed a degree in the subject matter being taught. In 2003–2004, 75% of all high school students taking French were taught by such a teacher (Figure I-9a). For the other languages the proportion ranged from 60% to approximately 70%, with English in the lead at 70.4%, a rate similar to those for the natural sciences (69.8%) and mathematics (65.0%). In the case of history, however, the rate was markedly lower. Although greater than 65% of students were taught by history teachers with degrees in the subject, low certification rates among history teachers meant that only 27% of history students found themselves in classes led by teachers meeting both preparedness criteria.

Figure 1-9a, Full Size
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Figure 1-9b, Full Size
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As Figure I-9b reveals, the most striking gains between 1988 and 2004 in exposure of high school students to degreed teachers have been achieved in history. Having remained in the 40–50% range for over a decade, the percentage of students taught history by someone with a degree in the subject jumped more than 20 percentage points between 2000 and 2004. A similarly sharp rise occurred in the level of student exposure to degreed instructors in the modern languages (other than English), although changes in the way NCES reports the qualifications of teachers of foreign languages makes gauging the precise magnitude of the increase difficult. The percentage of high schoolers learning English language and literature from an individual with a postsecondary degree in the subject increased steadily, if more incrementally, rising from 70% in 1988 to 83% in 2004, a trend similar to that observed in the natural sciences.

The most recent analysis of middle school teachers’ qualifications published by NCES, that for the 1999–2000 school year, reveal that in every subject besides arts and music the percentage of middle school students taught by degreed teachers was substantially smaller than the percentage of high schoolers taught by such teachers (Figure I-9c). This disparity has existed since data on teacher qualifications were first collected as part of the SASS in 1988. Despite this persistent gap, notably different trends were observed among middle school humanities subjects. The proportion of middle school students taught English by a degreed teacher increased modestly over the last decade of the 20th century, from 41% to 46%, mirroring, as at the high school level, developments in the natural sciences. In contrast, the percentage of middle schoolers taught history by a degreed teacher declined by roughly the same increment, so that by 1999–2000, 31% of middle schoolers were learning history from a teacher with an academic background in the subject, a percentage similar to that for mathematics. In the most striking development at the middle school level during this time period, the percentage of students exposed to degreed foreign language teachers jumped 17 percentage points between 1991 and 1994, only to fall by a nearly identical amount over the next six years.

Figure 1-9c, Full Size
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1 For a succinct review of the most recent literature, see Beth A. Morton et al., Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects: Evidence from the 2003–04 Schools and Staffing Survey, Statistical Analysis Report NCES 2008-338 (Washington, DC: NCES, 2008), 5–7.

2 “The structure of the items concerning certification was revised in the 2003–2004 questionnaire. In 1999–2000, respondents reported whether or not they were certified in their main teaching assignment . . . . This method relied on teachers’ self-reports of the match between their main assignment (and other assignments) and their certification(s) held. There was evidence that allowing teachers to self-report their certification status led to the over-reporting of in-field certifications. As a result, the certification items were changed on the 2003–2004 Teacher Questionnaire. In an effort to improve the reliability of the items, separate questions were used to ask about main teaching assignment and certification. Respondents were first asked to identify the subject code for their main assignment and then, in a later section of the survey, to identify subject codes for all subjects covered by the certification(s) they held. A determination of whether or not teachers were certified in their main assignment is up to the analyst; the analyst is able to match the course taught with certification areas, rather than rely on teacher self-reports.” Morton et al., Education and Certification Qualifications, 57–58.

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