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How Many Degrees Do You Need to Teach Middle School?

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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To understand why the U.S. education system is mired in mediocrity, start by listening to Scott McKim’s story.

McKim can claim a master's degree in watershed science, an undergraduate degree in meteorology, with minors in math and physics, and statewide teacher of the year honors for his work as a math and science teacher at a middle school in Alaska. In his free time, he led a student club that installed a wind turbine, started a cafeteria composting program, and built a greenhouse. He also helped develop a charter school devoted to outdoor education and STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math -- and managed to get a second master's in teaching, with a focus on science and math instruction.  

As STEM subjects become increasingly important, McKim is exactly the kind of teacher the U.S. needs more of. Yet now, at least in New York state, he can’t get a job teaching at a public school.

McKim and his wife wanted to move from Alaska to the Adirondacks in upstate New York. But it was easier to get certified in Vermont than New York, so McKim moved to Vermont figuring he would teach for a year there, then transfer his certification to New York. Initially, the plan worked -- he got his teaching certification from Vermont and taught middle school science and math. But when he tried to get certified in New York state, he was told, in effect: Go back to school.

In New York, McKim could have taken exams to become certified to teach Earth science -- but nothing else. That presented two problems. First, there were no Earth science openings where he wanted to live. Second, in rural areas, schools often don't have enough students to employ a full-time Earth science teacher, so getting a job can require teaching multiple subjects.

But to teach math and physics in New York, McKim needed 10 more credits in physics and eight more credits in math -- even though he has a minor in each and experience teaching both. For McKim, investing the time and money necessary to prove his academic credentials -- after all he had already achieved inside and outside the classroom -- “wasn’t too appealing.”

Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state education department, declined to comment on McKim’s case, but said that certification requires coursework equivalent to an undergraduate major: “Strong content preparation in undergraduate coursework is an essential element in teacher preparation and certification.”

Helpful, beneficial, useful -- sure. But essential? The author Jonathan Franzen, who received a B.A. in German with an English minor and once taught fiction writing at Swarthmore College and Columbia University, wouldn't be eligible to teach American literature to middle school students in New York. Similarly, New York state is working to recruit computer science teachers, yet if Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg applied for jobs, New York state would tell the Harvard dropouts to finish college first -- and after that, they would need to complete a master's degree to obtain a permanent certification.

Of course, a successful career does not a great teacher make, and it’s reasonable to require professional development work for those without traditional qualifications. But rather than ruling them categorically unqualified, if they can’t cut it as teachers, allow them to be fired, as would happen in any other profession. But rather than making it easier to fire bad teachers, states are making it harder to hire good ones.

McKim supports high standards for teacher certification: “Much of what is wrong with our educational system can be traced back to colleges/universities not adequately preparing teachers,” he wrote in an e-mail. That's a problem that New York and other states are tackling. But there is a world of difference between a certification system that is intellectually rigorous and one that is bureaucratically rigid.

As states move toward a set of common standards for students through Common Core, they ought to do the same for teachers, allowing them to move from state to state without difficulty. At the same time, principals ought to have the flexibility to hire teachers based on their ability and experience, not their academic credits.  

The problem can also run in the opposite direction: In some states, teachers can actually be penalized for having too many credits. In Vermont, for instance, a master’s degree isn't required, and since union contracts usually mandate higher salaries for teachers with advanced degrees, “instead of hiring based on merit,” McKim says, “districts are forced to hire based on cost.”

Despite being deemed unqualified, McKim decided to move to New York anyway, where he eventually found a teaching job -- as an adjunct college professor. That's a loss for the local middle school students, and a troubling sign for the future of education in the U.S. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net