Teaching Certification

Teaching certification is changing quickly. There are many different approaches to teacher training as well as a number of different types of certification programs. This resource provides information about teacher training, certification programs, and education to help anyone considering a career in K-12 education.

Nowadays, it is particularly important to understand all of the options available and to be able to evaluate them through a nonbiased source, crucial both for planning a future in education and preparing for any tests that may be required along the way.

Understanding requirements and regulations in the teaching certification area helps you understand some of the general principles behind the teaching certification system in the United States.

  • Who has control over the guidelines affecting your education?
  • What laws will affect your education the most?
  • What kind of education reforms may affect your career in the future?
  • These are all important questions to answer.

Once you understand what forces are at work behind the scenes of the current certification system, you will want to understand know how to navigate the system. Choosing the right program, deciding how to finance your education, and other similar decisions will need to be made. Other details to understand include the difference between traditional and alternative routes and the current political debates regarding teacher training.

One of the fundamental steps to receiving certification is the test everyone must pass after their academic preparation. These tests often vary in general format , and you must prepare for each. A number of resources are available in this section for everything from test anxiety to how to take practice tests.

Motivation is an important part of the process. There are many benefits to getting a teaching certification, such as promotion opportunities, higher pay scales, and many more. If you take advantage of all the opportunities available to you, you will be able to live quite well and serve the higher purpose of educating youth.

Requirements and Regulations for Teaching Certification

This section provides an overview of the requirements and regulations governing teaching certification. It also includes tips for navigating the process and making some of the difficult decisions future educators face.

The most important thing you need to know is that each state creates and maintains its own regulations and laws concerning teaching certification requirements. One of the first things to decide when pursuing teacher certification is not when, why, how, or what, but rather where.

While each state has its own teaching certification requirements, there are also a number of district programs that prepare teachers to practice their trade in a particular city or district. Many of these district programs have been successful in preparing teachers because they join district-specific cultural knowledge to general teaching best practices.

Teaching Certification Introduction

Before you begin to look through the other resources in this section regarding state requirements and regulations, and reasons for teacher certification, try to narrow your search to a single state. If you are interested in a particular district, look up teaching certification requirements within that district. Pursuing a district-specific certification does not mean that you will be “stuck” teaching in that district for life. District-specific programs also provide graduates with a certification for teaching throughout the state; after completing a district program, you can still pursue out-of-district teaching opportunities.

Obtaining a Teaching Certification

Now more than any other time, the individual teacher may choose his or her own path to teacher certification. For example, there are a host of undergraduate- and graduate-level programs involving between four and six years of preparation before entrance to the classroom. If you have yet to pursue an undergraduate degree or are in the midst of obtaining one, this may be a great option for you. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of alternate-route programs, which place individuals in a classroom after a summer of course work.

The steps required for each of these paths vary considerably. Once you throw in the facts that each state is different in its requirements and that each program is different, the information might be difficult to sort out. This guide aims to provide some helpful advice, real-world examples, and information on the current certification system.

After reading the guide, you will know how state regulations differ, depending on the subject you would like to teach. You will also see how your chosen subject will likely affect the steps you will take toward certification. In addition, you will understand some general rules of thumb regarding the prerequisites for obtaining teacher certification. Though there is a large variance between states, subjects, and programs, there are some basic similarities. The last section differentiates employer-paid from paid programs. Do not pay for your professional education if you do not need to!

All of this information should help you begin to plot your own path to your professional certification.

  • State Regulations

The process of training for a certificate and the regulations that govern that process differ depending on the state, as well as on a number of other factors.

Requirements and Regulations for Teaching Certification

There is now a membership of states that have joined together to adhere to similar principles set forth by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF), but even among the participating states, there are significant differences. For this reason, it is important to start your research by narrowing your teacher certification search to a single state. Once you have narrowed your search, then you will be better able to use the information that follows.

  • District

One of the problems with the last stage of teacher certification in the U.S. was that it failed to address particular districts’ needs in terms of training and subject area. Nowadays, particularly if you are a professional with experience related to a given secondary school subject area, it can be extremely helpful to check district-led programs for what kind of teachers they need.

  • Program

In addition to subject and district, there are currently a number of countrywide programs that also provide alternate routes to obtaining teacher certification. Teach For America is one of the better-known programs of this variety; it places college graduates in the classroom in a very short period of time.

  • Other Requirements for Certification

    No matter what certification program you attend, whether a college-sponsored program, an alternative route such as Teach for America, or a state-run program, you will need to receive your undergraduate degree at some point in the process.

Teacher Certification State Requirements

If you are thinking about pursuing a teaching certification then probably the most important thing to know is that each state has its own teaching certification requirements. So, you should first figure out where you will be living after graduation. Immediately focusing on a particular state will make it much easier to research state-specific certification regulations and requirements.

After you have narrowed your search down to a particular state, you will then want to consider the subject area in which you would like to teach. This decision has a dramatic impact on the various paths that may become available to you. For instance, a teacher in mathematics, special education, and sometimes (depending on the state) sciences will usually have more options in paths toward certification because of teacher shortages in these areas.

These shortages can force the states to bend the rules a bit and provide for alternate routes toward certification. In some instances, it is possible for teachers to prepare for teaching over a single summer and enter their first classroom at the start of the new academic year, only a few months after they enter a certification program! In contrast, the usual path toward certification, involving either an undergraduate or a master’s program, requires years rather than months.

One might think, reasoning that more preparation leads to greater success, that these different paths would produce very different qualities of teaching, the quicker routes yielding poor-quality teachers and the longer routes producing generally better teachers. However, studies conducted by teacher associations, private organizations, and federal grant programs have not yet found any concrete results. If you are interested in learning more about particular programs, see the section of this guide entitled “What to Look for in a Certification Program,” which has a lot of information about what makes some programs work and what makes some fail.

Many of these alternative certification programs become available to teachers who want to teach special education because of the recent rise in special education students in the United States. In the last thirty years, in fact, the number of students placed into special education programs has more than tripled, which means that the number of teachers required for special education has also tripled. As a result, there is a general shortage across the country of teachers certified to teach students who have been classified as learning disabled.

In other subject areas, there is also a difference between supply and demand. For instance, many argue that professionals who are gifted in mathematics or science and graduate with a degree in a quantitative field can more easily find higher-paying occupations in which to use their skills. Therefore, the teaching profession has a number of other career tracks to compete against. However, many of these individuals who try out a given field for a few years are now turning to teaching as a career. Alternate-route programs connect these individuals to their career in teaching effectively and quickly.


Regulations for teacher certification requirements differ from state to state, and these regulations will directly impact the certification route a future teacher will take, from the testing requirements to the classroom assessments. Knowing what the regulations concerning teacher certification are in the state in which you want to teach is absolutely necessary to the pursuit of your career.

There are some general principles for certification, created by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF), that hold true for a number of states in the U.S. In 1996, the NCTAF released a report entitled What Matters Most, which detailed the general principles that it concluded teacher certification programs should strive for. Since then, the NCTAF has assisted a large number of states and districts in adhering to those principles, and it has had a tremendous influence on the regulations and policies across the country.

Currently, 22 states — including Alabama, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — are members of this network. More states, regardless of their membership, are currently working to adapt their programs in accordance with some of the NCTAF principles.

Illinois is an example of a member-state that has come up with a number of certification initiatives. Its Illinois Framework for Restructuring the Recruitment, Preparation, Licensure, and Continuing Professional Development of Teachers offers standards that include the following:

  1. Redesign certification programs around standards of practice. Illinois wants to place more emphasis on its teachers’ ability to teach, rather than on rote memorization and standard knowledge.
  2. Develop new assessments for teacher certification. This corresponds with the first standard but aims more specifically for developing new ways to assess classroom teaching skills.
  3. Restructure the state certification system. The process of certification is likely to change as a result, and particular routes to certification will open, close, and adjust to these changes.
  4. Increase the number and quality of teacher certification programs. Illinois wants to give teachers more and better options for becoming certified.
  5. Improve ongoing teacher professional development. More resources will become available for teachers who have been in the field for a number of years. Previously, advanced certificates have been given little weight, and this may change, leading to additional incentives for teachers to demonstrate improvements in their teaching expertise.
  6. Promote school learning communities for teachers. This ties in with the fifth principle, supporting professional development by providing a real opportunity for teachers to interact in a community designed to facilitate improvement in the classroom.
  7. Develop new incentives, alternate routes to certification, and processes for recruiting a) high-quality teachers and b) teachers in high-demand areas/subjects. This aligns with the fourth principle, offering a specific way to increase the number of teacher certification programs.

Reasons for Certification

The idea of teaching certification is not new. In fact, it has been around since the mid-nineteenth century so, as an institution, it is probably here to stay. Why does the United States have teacher certification? If many private schools do not require it, how do teaching certification requirements help ensure that students receive quality education?

Well, just imagine, if you do not already have children, that you are paying taxes and thinking about sending your kids to public school. At a public school, your kids would receive instruction from teachers that your taxes pay for. Even if you send your kids to private school, your taxes still pay for public-school teachers. Teacher certification offers society some control over who is teaching kids.

Increasingly, America has turned to its education system as a scapegoat for many of its problems. Education spending has increased without any noticeable results, and citizens seem determined to place blame somewhere. There are two easy targets: the students, who are apparently not learning enough, and the teachers, who are apparently not teaching effectively. The certification of teachers has thus also come under increased scrutiny.

Over the last century, a number of changes have been enacted in the certification process. The certification system of the nineteenth century gave a lot of control to the particular districts where teachers were going to teach. Many of these districts had their own programs, and teachers would graduate and then teach kids in the same area.

Under this system, some districts were slipping through the cracks and providing poor education. So people wanted more control and more standardization of the education their kids’ teachers received. As a result, teacher certification became centralized, under state, rather than district, control. States turned from district-specific programs to colleges and universities as the source of teacher education and certification. Instead of individuals being chosen by districts, groups of teachers were sent through state-led programs in either undergraduate- or graduate-level courses and certified to teach anywhere in the state. Between 1960 and 1990, undergraduate institutions formed a monopoly on teacher education.

More recently, the flaws of this system have also come under scrutiny, leading to even more changes. Now, though many undergraduate and graduate programs are state run, there are an increasing number of alternate routes, which allow more people with diverse ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds to enter and graduate from teacher training. Many of these alternate-route programs also target experienced professionals, giving them a more efficient way to switch their careers.

General Rules of Thumb

Generally speaking, most of the available teaching certification programs have cumulative GPA requirements for entrance, which normally range from 2.5 to 3.0. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, so if your undergraduate GPA is below that range, do not hesitate to research the programs you are interested in and contact them directly to find out about obtaining teaching certification. If you want to teach, there are students out there who need you, and you will find a way. For instance, Milwaukee’s Metropolitan Multicultural Teacher Education Program does not have GPA prerequisites. Instead, they require one year of experience as either a paraprofessional or teacher’s aide.

Another fairly common requirement, which also has exceptions, is that your undergraduate major be closely aligned to what you want to teach. This requirement is particularly true for the liberal arts, less so for mathematics and the sciences.

Passing the Praxis II exam can be a requirement, as it is for New Jersey’s Provisional Teacher Program, though this is not usually the case. The Praxis series of tests is designed and implemented by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), one of the two major testing companies in the U.S.

Alternate routes are becoming more popular with professionals who have hands-on experience. As a result, some programs require direct experience in a field that is related to the subject the individual will eventually teach. Such experience can substitute for GPA requirements in some cases.

While these are the general requirements, each program will have its own specifications.

Financial Costs

One of the enormous benefits of seeking a teacher certification is that the government can be quite willing to help pay for your education. This aid may come in the form of scholarships, fellowships, and grant money from either an institution or a particular program, to pay your expenses on the path to obtaining a teaching certification. Check all your options before paying for your own teaching education.

There are a few places you can start. Not-for-profit teachers’ organizations, such as Teach for America, offer training and placement, completely free of charge. Additionally, there are many calls, in specific districts or states, for particular types of teachers. Many programs will advertise with either the term employer-paid or paid personally. If a program advertises that it is paid personally, then you can expect to make a financial contribution toward the teaching certification process. If the program is employer-paid, then you will not have to pay for your education and certification.

In general, it is easier to find employer-paid opportunities in mathematics, special education, and sciences certifications; however, due to the quickly changing state of the country and of the teaching profession, checking and double-checking for opportunities for free certification is highly recommended. Opportunities for teachers of any kind to become certified are abundant in today’s teaching education marketplace.

When financing your education, it may be misleading to say, “You get what you pay for.” While many people associate private funding with a better product, there are many exceptions to this rule, not only in terms of school, but also in terms of teacher certification programs. Try, instead, to think more about what the training program offers you personally. Does it place teachers where you want to teach? Does it place teachers in the subject area you are passionate about?

Subject Area

Ideally, the requirements for obtaining teaching certification in all subject areas would be the same. But, due to shortages in some areas, this is often not the case. In fact, the current teacher certification system, which has been evolving over the last thirty years, is in large part a reaction to teacher shortages in specific areas such as special education and mathematics.

Teacher shortages such as these have forced states to allow emergency certification on a need basis. Emergency certification has typically been a shorter process, recruiting, training, and placing prospective teachers into classrooms within a period of a few months. Many of these emergency certification programs are now known as alternate routes to teaching certification.

Currently, there are many alternate routes to teaching certification. The areas of shortage differ, depending upon the state. However, most states have shortages in:

  1. Special Education. The number of students that are currently in special education programs is triple what it was thirty years ago. Some explanations for this steep increase center around the possibility that we are merely labeling more of our youth as special education students. This increase has changed the regulations surrounding special education teachers and is also changing the dynamic of the special education classroom.
  2. Mathematics. Mathematics teachers are usually in short supply. As a result, most states and districts are currently looking for individuals to fill math positions. Many alternate-route programs recruit professionals with some experience in a job that requires some use of mathematics, though this is not always the case.
  3. Science. To a lesser extent than the above two areas, some states and districts also have a shortage of science teachers.

The Right Program for You

Over 3% of the people in the U.S. are teachers. In 2006, over 146,000 teachers who were completely new to the profession were hired. This makes teacher certification programs, traditional and otherwise, quite prevalent today. The good news is that you will have plenty of programs to choose from that will most likely help you obtain a teaching certification. The bad news is that selecting the right program may take a bit of research and time.

Deciding which teacher certification programs to apply to will be a different process for everybody. Those who already know the state or district in which they want to teach may already be aware of a few of the better-known teacher programs in the state or district. However, even these teaching candidates should consider all of their options prior to making a decision. In today’s teaching world, certification programs tend to specialize in recruitment and placement. As a result, choosing a program is less about the quality of the teaching methods and more about what subjects and where a program’s graduates teach.

The below list of steps can help you determine your preferred programs and locations. Keep in mind that this is a starting point and that there are many different activities associated with each of the steps. This process is not something you can complete in a single day. In fact, most will find it difficult to choose their list of programs within less than a week’s time. The process will be shorter for those who have already selected the precise district in which they would like to teach

  • Step 1: Choose your preferred state of residence.
  • Step 2: Identify what you would like to teach (subject, grade level).
  • Step 3: Research what to look for in certification programs.
  • Step 4: Create a list of acceptable programs that certify teachers in your chosen state.
  • Step 5: Identify prerequisites of chosen programs.
  • Step 6: Identify key attributes of programs.
  • Step 7: Identify preferred district.
  • Step 8: Clarify selectivity of programs for your chosen subject area, grade level, and district.
  • Step 9: Consolidate list.

Last Updated: 05/05/2014

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