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Kindergarten through 12th grade education is a job that takes a lot of heart along with a lot of knowledge. Not only to teachers have to have the education to be a step ahead of their students in every subject they teach, but they also have to have the empathy and skills to connect with those kids and make that education stick.
That’s what you get out of a degree in K-12 education.
But becoming a teacher means getting a license from the state. That makes earning a degree in K-12 education unique. Choosing the right one means understanding how your decisions affect the license you will earn. When you’re looking at affordable K-12 education degrees, you will first have to take a dive into how teacher training works at the college level.
Unlike pretty much every other kind of bachelor’s degree, K-12 teacher training degree programs have unique, state-mandated coursework requirements baked into them. In fact, even early childhood education licensure is handled in a completely different way, with its own state requirements, and often through a different state licensing authority.
In all states, K-12 teachers are licensed by the state department of education. If you get a degree that doesn’t meet the state minimums, you’re not getting a license to teach in that state. It’s that simple.
But university education departments are well aware of these requirements, and they offer special types of K-12 bachelor’s degrees that are guaranteed to meet those standards. You’ll often find these called Initial Teacher Preparation (ITP) programs, but sometimes they are just referred to as licensure track or teacher certification programs.
This differentiates them from degrees that may be offered at the same schools and in the same majors, but without the state-required courses included.
The additional teaching certificate courses usually include subjects like:
There are also field training requirements, also called student teaching, that set a standard for the number of hours you have to practice teaching in an actual classroom as part of the program.
Not only are there general educational training courses required, but often additional courses specific to the type of teaching you will be taking on.
States use a system that refers to those special subject areas as concentrations or endorsements to your teaching license. You will usually have at least one endorsement area coming out of college, but by the end of your career you could accumulate half a dozen as you get additional training in different subjects.
You’ll also find master’s degrees that offer teacher certification options. These are aimed at individuals coming to teaching later in life, usually after earning a degree in another specialty field and spending a few years in that career. But because state licensing endorsements remain the same for any degree level, you’ll find they have the same concentration areas.
Every once in a while you will find a college that only offers a few concentration subjects, but most well-known teacher training universities cover the same spectrum of common, in-demand subject areas available to earn an endorsement in. Many schools also offer additional endorsement areas outside of these, but there’s no telling when you’re coming across a program that offers a Lakota Studies or marine sciences concentration.
Many states have a unique spin on these subjects, so you may find that the degree title doesn’t exactly match the subjects we have listed. Colleges tend to adopt the state licensing language for clarity, but make no mistake, they all have coverage in these subjects.
Endorsements vary not only by subject but also by grade level. Most states have some separate designations for licenses for teachers working in high schools versus middle schools versus elementary grades. They may draw those lines differently from state to state, however. And the peculiarities of licensing in some states means it sometimes makes sense to combine or stack two levels of endorsement. In New York, for instance, you’ll find a lot of schools that combine programs for elementary and middle level grades.
Because the experience of teaching usually becomes more specialized as you get to higher grade levels, you’ll find more program endorsements for high school subjects than the others. You also will find that some similar subjects get bundled together for the lower grade levels. Science, for instance, might be a single endorsement area at the elementary level, but when you look at high school training it will be separated out into biology, chemistry, physics, and so on.
In some states, those differences might not show up at all until you get to middle level or higher. In some cases a single endorsement in a blanket area called elementary education might be all that is necessary to teach any subject in elementary grade levels.
On the flip side, you’ll also find endorsements that cover the entire span, K-12, in certain subjects like art, music, or physical education.
Endorsements in special education, multicultural education, instructional technology or TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) may be offered separately or stacked on top of these more mainstream endorsements.
You’ll also find that different schools approach these degrees differently, depending both on state requirements and the particular scholastic theory in play in that college’s education department. The degree itself is sometimes offered as a bachelor of education, with a concentration in the endorsement area. But at other schools, it may be offered as a bachelor in the subject area itself, with a concentration in education or teaching. For example, you might come across a bachelor of science in education program with a concentration in teaching chemistry at one college; at another, you could get the same qualification by earning a bachelor of science in chemistry with a concentration in education.
Usually, the difference is in the department that owns the major. If the chemistry department is responsible for issuing the degree, you’ll basically go through the same program as every other chemistry major. But you’ll also take what amounts to a minor in education, which will include all the required teacher certificate courses. At the college where your major is education, your program will be structured around those certification courses, while you also get a side helping of chemistry training.
Although these approaches might matter to you in terms of what kind of education you get in your subject area, both are perfectly acceptable for earning a state-level teaching license.
There are two answers to this question.
One is, duh, of course. Regional accreditation is one of the hallmarks of the American education system. You’ll actually have trouble finding a school that isn’t regionally accredited offering education degrees. The basic standards of the profession are evaluated and registered through this process and no employer looks twice at degrees that don’t come from fully generally accredited schools, which basically make them non-existent.
The other answer is, maybe. That’s when you look at it in terms of a specialty accreditation, one offered by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).
As a specialty accreditor, CAEP puts more focus on the specifics of training programs to the profession of teaching. They look at instructor qualifications, student teaching placements, and other factors that underline the quality a graduate from these programs will absorb.
But unlike some professions, CAEP accreditation does not factor into state licensure. Consequently, a lot of schools that have perfectly good programs have not pursued it. You can always take CAEP accreditation as a sign of quality, but shouldn’t write off programs that don’t have it without a closer look.
The real goal of these endorsement-focused programs is to enable you to pass the PRAXIS or state-required tests in those subjects. There are over 90 different PRAXIS tests offered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Most states rely on those exams for their teacher certification and licensure requirements. Some states might have their own tests for subjects that PRAXIS does not directly cover.
PRAXIS tests content knowledge, so certification-specific degrees will include coursework that the test is expected to cover. Some of the most common subject areas offered in teaching certificate programs, and the kind of topics you can expect to learn in them, are:
Many states bundle their endorsements for all subjects in lower grade levels into a singular elementary education certification. Since elementary classrooms often cover all subjects at a basic level, there is no subject specialization. Most such endorsements can be had with a major in any liberal arts program, from history to science to philosophy. Preparation focuses on teaching principles and curriculum development across the spectrum of standard elementary subjects. You learn how to present a well-rounded education that sets a foundation for future learning.
In some states, a separate endorsement is offered for preschool through kindergarten, or even up into lower elementary grade levels. This is similar to elementary endorsements in combining many different subjects and focusing on the developmental aspects of teaching to younger students.
Also sometimes called communication arts, reading, or language arts, this covers the nuts and bolts of English communication and reading comprehension. Some states offer a special K-12 endorsement for reading and supplemental language instruction.
· Middle School – Middle school English endorsements may be called language arts or literacy, and stack on top of Elementary Education certification in some states. There’s a stronger focus on basic training in grammar, comprehension, and spotting learning disabilities such as dyslexia for referral to specialists.
· Secondary Education – English at the high school level may be broken out into subjects like literature or creative writing. Teachers at this level work on teaching an appreciation for the classics and giving students a ground-level instruction in critical analysis. Writing teachers expand on different types of writing for both communication and creativity.
Math endorsements cover basic math and advanced subjects like geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. The fundamentals of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are covered under the general elementary endorsement in most states.
Middle School – General math education at this level starts trending toward more complicated subjects like pre-algebra and algebra. Geometry may be taught at an introductory level. The focus is on building up core skills in interpreting formulas and introducing concepts that will be used for more advanced studies at the high-school level.
Secondary Education – High-school level endorsements require more advanced college mathematics courses. Secondary math courses include algebra, geometry, calculus, and statistics. These classes qualify students for college entrance and instruct them in symbolic logic and high-level equations.
Chemistry endorsements cover both biochemistry and organic chemistry and may require coursework in other physical sciences. At the middle school level, chemistry, like other specific sciences, is usually included in a general science endorsement. Chemistry teachers get training in math and physics along with specific chemistry concepts. They take that knowledge and teach students through the introduction of both theory and experimentation. Rigorous laboratory skills are also part of chemistry coursework.
Sometimes also called biological science, biology is also grouped in a general science category at elementary and middle school levels. For a secondary endorsement in biology, you will be expected to study coursework in the field at the junior or senior level. Biology endorsements cover courses taught in not only biological science, but also anatomy, physiology, botany, zoology, and other related disciplines. And appreciation for biological systems and processes such as evolution are taught, along with classification and categorization of organisms.
Physics, despite the name, is also commonly used as the endorsement to qualify teachers to teach in environmental and general science programs as well. It is usually unavailable as an elementary or middle school level certification. At the secondary level, instructors with this endorsement may teach courses not only in physics itself, but in electronics and engineering. Teachers begin with introductory concepts in the composition of matter and the forces that hold the universe together, while explaining many everyday uses of physics ranging from electricity to building construction.
Also called technology education, this endorsement is becoming increasingly important in a world where STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is emphasized at earlier and earlier grade levels. Because of this, it’s often offered as a K-12 endorsement. Teachers at early grade levels focus on teaching basic symbolic logic and data structures, using simple languages like BASIC. At higher grade levels, more complicated projects and more advanced languages and concepts are introduced. They prepare students for both college-level courses in compsci as well as a general preparation for life in the digital era.
Earth sciences are typically only offered at the secondary levels, with geology and geography falling into a more general endorsement in science or elementary education at the lower grade levels. Depending on the state, this endorsement can also include the teaching of subjects such as astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, and space science.
History and society studies cover everything from political science to anthropology. That means there is a broad range of subjects you can study to qualify for this endorsement. The basic purpose of social studies courses at all levels is an introduction to the structures of culture and society, including how they came to be.
· Middle School – Middle school social studies endorsements compress the history and societal subjects into a general level that will cover American and European history and basic government studies into a single package. Social studies here focuses on the broad course of historical events and the basic role and function of governments. Students learn about laws and culture and the origins of modern society. They also are introduced to news and ways to evaluate information about the world around them.
· Secondary Education – Different states offer different types of endorsements in this category, with some using a broad social studies endorsement to qualify teacher for world history, government, political science, geography, or economic teaching. Other states will split those subjects out into their own endorsements. In general, high school level social studies becomes more specific, with courses offered in subjects like Asian or European history, civics, or specific periods of American history. Political science and the law are treated in greater depth, and history teachers use historical events as a tool to introduce students to current events and controversies in modern society.
PE certification most commonly covers the entire span of K-12 grade levels. In some states, this is called health, or health and physical education. The coursework required includes classes from both those subjects, with studies in health science and team or individual sports. PE teachers at lower grade levels focus on building habits of physical activity and focus on making exercise fun. At higher grade levels, PE can also show up as classes in nutrition or personal well-being. PE teachers often also serve as coaches for organized sports at every grade level.
The once feared shop class has given way at many schools to the more advanced technical training that gives graduates a boost in the modern job market. These endorsements are only offered at the secondary level. They may involve specializations, such as vocational agriculture, or be offered at a more general work education level.
Vocational programs give students the kind of skills they need to engage in practical, hands-on trades, ranging from woodworking to automotive repair. Many vocational programs are run based on local industry, so you are more likely to find specific classes like vocational agriculture in rural areas, while metalworking and mechanics might be more common in urban areas. In all cases, voc teachers work to build skills that will last a lifetime and give students confidence.
Both of these endorsements are usually offered at K-12 grades. The primary qualification is usually a degree in either art or music, with the technical and theoretical training in those subjects that any student in the major goes through. Endorsements also may be available in related areas such as dance, theater, and drama depending on your state.
Art and music teachers focus on getting students to express themselves creatively. They teach the forms and techniques used in their subjects, but also encourage students to explore and engage in their own original works. They are taught how to appreciate art and music as well as to create.
Home Ec has fallen out of favor as a label, but schools still teach kids the basics of managing a checkbook, cooking a meal, and sewing on a button. Endorsements in this area require the study of food preparation, apparel design, interior designs, and personal and family finances.
Family and consumer science teachers teach students the basics of economics and budgets and explain concepts like credit, debt, and insurance. Baking and nutrition may be taught through hands-on cooking classes. Finance and economic subjects are often handled through mock transactions and simulated markets. These teachers often also serve as advisors to clubs and projects that focus on commercial education.
Foreign language education is unique in that most states require some demonstration of proficiency in the language itself in addition to a certain number of credits in related classes. So it’s possible to acquire the language through formal or informal education as long as you fulfill the coursework requirements. Some states differentiate grade level certification while others offer languages as a K-12 endorsement. Some training in general language acquisition theory is also necessary.
Language classes offer a chance for students to expand their world. They usually learn not just new communication skills, but also about the different cultures and societies where those languages are spoken. Field trips and watching foreign language media are some techniques used in these subjects.
· Middle School – Middle school language endorsements usually have an intermediate level standard of proficiency required of teachers. At this level, students are taught a very basic vocabulary and introduced to language concepts that may not exist in English but are present in their chosen language, like gender and various special conjugations.
· Secondary Education – States that have separate secondary endorsements for foreign languages have much higher standards for both proficiency and coursework for teachers. That’s because students are taught at levels that can approach fluency in high school language courses. They may be expected to use that language exclusively in class, and interact with native speakers to practice their skills.
Sometimes also called students with disabilities, this endorsement is often only available as a secondary endorsement. In other words, you become special education capable in your area of primary endorsement, such as elementary education or middle school math.
The preparations required include training in communication theory, behavioral studies, and often special classroom management courses. Because it’s a stackable endorsement, the grade levels from your primary endorsement will apply. Some schools offer the concentration in combination with a specific grade levels, however, depending on your primary focus. Related endorsements are sometimes found in speech and language.
Special education offers tools and techniques for educating differently abled students in the same subjects and to as close a level as possible to their peers. Many of the challenges are unique and special education teachers learn to work to the specification of state-mandated Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs. They are tailored to each student’s specific needs and are a legal requirement that help special ed teachers make the most of their time.
Some states offer a specific endorsement in teaching in multicultural settings. Like a special education endorsement, this is a stackable certification that goes on top of your primary endorsement area. You will be expected to take courses in cultural competency and communication, which may focus on some of the more common community cultures in your region.
Similar to special education, multicultural education offers a set of tools and techniques that can be used to reach students with backgrounds outside the cultural norm. Teachers use their knowledge of other cultures and outreach to make educational concepts from any subject more accessible to students, and to help those students adapt to American school systems.