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Indicator I-9 Qualifications of Humanities Teachers
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
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Figures I-9a and b have been updated (11/28/2011) with data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) 2007–2008 Schools and Staffing Survey. The NCES reports based on data collected after academic year 1999–2000 do not include an analysis of middle school teachers’ qualifications. Hence, Figure I-9c cannot be updated at this time.

An important measure of the condition of humanities education at the precollegiate 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 teacher quality.

The data presented here describing humanities teachers’ qualifications are limited in two respects. Because middle school encompasses different grades in different states, NCES did not produce estimates of teacher qualifications for teachers at this level for academic years 2003–2004 or 2007–2008, the two most recent academic years for which data was collected via the SASS. 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 analyses presented here focus solely on teachers’ educational backgrounds. (From here on, academic years will be referred to using the calendar year in which the academic term ended.)

According to the SASS data, public high school students in music and art classes were the likeliest to be exposed to a teacher who was both certified in and possessed a degree in the subject matter being taught (Figure I-9a). In 2008, 85% of students taking music and 82% of those taking art were taught by such teachers. For students taking language classes, the proportion ranged from 58% of those taking Spanish to approximately 72% of those in English classes. The rate for English was similar to that for students taking natural science courses (73%). The percentage of students taking math who were taught by a certified teacher with a degree in the subject was 64%, similar to that for German.

In the case of another key humanities subject, history, the degree of teacher preparedness was markedly lower. A smaller share of students taking history classes was taught by a certified and degreed teacher than in any other subject area. Although 62% of students taking history were learning from teachers with degrees in the subject, low certification rates among history teachers meant that only 29% of history students found themselves in classes led by teachers meeting both preparedness criteria. Close to a third (32%) of public high schoolers, the largest share found in any subject area, took history in 2008 with a teacher who was neither certified nor degreed. This proportion was more than five times as great as that for students in natural science classes.

Figure I-9a, Full Size
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Figure I-9b, Full Size
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As Figure I-9b reveals, the most striking gains between 1988 and 2008 in exposure of high school students to degreed teachers were 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 almost 25 percentage points from 2000 to 2004 and then remained at approximately the same level through 2008. A similarly sharp rise occurred in the level of student exposure to degreed instructors in languages other than English (LOTE), although changes in the way NCES reports the qualifications of these teachers 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 modestly, rising from 70% in 1988 to 82% in 2008, a trend similar to that observed in the natural sciences. From 2004 to 2008, the two years for which NCES published data on students in specific types of LOTE classes, Latin was the only LOTE subject in which high schoolers experienced increased exposure to degreed instructors (an 11 percentage point rise). The other LOTE classes for which NCES reports data—French, German and Spanish—all declined in terms of the share of students taught by degreed teachers.

The most recent analysis of middle school teachers’ qualifications published by NCES, that for the 2000 school year, reveals 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 as English increased, so that by 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 (34%). 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 approximately 18 percentage points between 1991 and 1994, only to fall by a nearly identical amount over the next six years.

Figure I-9c, Full Size
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1 For a succinct review of recent research in this area, see: Hill, Jason G., Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects: Evidence from the 2007–08 Schools and Staffing Survey, Statistical Analysis Report NCES 2011–317 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2011), 4–6.

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, Beth A., 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: National Center for Education Statistics, 2008), 57–58.)

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