Teacher Certification and Credentialing in Adult Education - Terms - Adult Literacy Professional Development Discussion List

Teacher Certification and Credentialing in Adult Education
June 20-24, 2011

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Terms

The following terms are provided for the purpose of this discussion and are excerpted from the CAAL report, Certifying Adult Education Staff and Faculty. Some of the terms are used in multiple ways in different areas. This short list is not intended to suggest parameters to our discussion; but rather to provide a beginning place or common point of reference.

Adult Education: “Adult education” includes the broad field of “traditional” adult basic education instruction (adult basic education literacy and numeracy, GED or secondary education equivalency preparation, and English to Speakers of Other Languages as defined by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Reporting System for Adult Education). The term also encompasses other skills that are often integrated into classrooms for adults, such as the “soft skills” (as defined by SCANS ) required for employability and everyday life, the knowledge and skills required for transition to postsecondary education or occupational training, and/or computer literacy skills. Adult education services also include counseling and support to help adults access educational services, increase their educational gains, overcome barriers to learning, and establish both educational and career plans.

Teacher Quality: The term “teacher quality” can often be read simply as “effective teacher.” Most exploration on this topic is done in K-12 contexts, where teacher quality is often defined as “the ability to positively impact students’ achievements, usually measured by a type of standardized test. Researchers tend to use this definition because results can easily be quantified, compared, and analyzed. An effective teacher is most often defined as teachers who raise their students standardized test scores more than their peers.” In adult education, definitions should probably go beyond judging teachers by adult students’ performance on standardized tests. They should include such things as helping students persist in reaching their education goals (in or out of the classroom) and helping them advance in meeting life goals—e.g., getting a better job, reading to children, reading for personal pleasure, searching the web, getting into college, navigating the health care system, or even learning how to send a text message on a mobile phone. Moreover, in adult education an effective teacher is necessary but not sufficient for high student achievement, since other factors—such as program leadership, class size, intensity of instruction, time on task, and student characteristics—also play a role in student learning.

Teacher Qualifications: Teacher qualifications (not the same as “teacher quality”) have to do with key characteristics of the teacher, and generally refer to formal degree level attained, certification status, teaching experience, and performance on tests of pedagogical and subject matter knowledge or cognitive ability, including verbal ability. [A “highly-qualified teacher” is a specific term generated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It stipulates that to be highly qualified, “teachers must meet three general requirements: have a bachelor’s degree, be licensed or certified by the state, and demonstrate subject matter competence in each academic subject they teach.” It also stipulates that K-12 school districts must hire “highly qualified” teachers. This requirement has led states to design “alternative certification” processes for desperately needed teachers, particularly in urban areas, where not enough highly qualified teachers can be found.]

Alternative Certification Process: In the K-12 system, an “alternative certification process” allows someone with a bachelor’s degree to be hired without certification, following a 2-3 week orientation to teaching. Usually, such teachers are then required to participate in formal education courses to build their pedagogical skills, pass state subject matter or cognitive tests, and work with a mentor within their school. There is also usually a cut-off point (2-3 years) within which uncertified teachers can complete the alternative certification process and receive their official teaching certificate from the state.

Standards or Competencies: In most systems that validate current knowledge, skills, and qualifications to teach, teachers must demonstrate certain competencies and meet certain standards to show their preparedness. “Standards” are the particular set of knowledge and skills (what teachers need to know and be able to do) to be minimally qualified to teach in a certain area, while “competencies” are general descriptions of the knowledge and skills needed to perform a specific role. Teacher standards usually include competencies related to subject matter knowledge related to adult education (e.g., math, ESL), to pedagogical skills (class management, curriculum design), theoretical knowledge (who is the adult learner, what are learning disabilities), technical knowledge (how to teach reading, writing, critical thinking skills, applied numeracy skills, test taking skills), and reflective thinking skills (how to learn from one’s mistake, how to analyze whether and how well students are learning), to name a few. (Appendix 3 gives examples of state and national adult education teaching standards and competencies.)

Credentialing, Licensure, Endorsement, and Certification: Where standards are in place, in either a state or a discipline, some mechanism is needed for judging and documenting how well the teacher meets those standards for knowledge and skills, either before or after the teacher starts teaching.

  • Credentialing is a mechanism for recognizing and validating “the experiences and expertise of teachers, focusing on what teachers have learned and are able to do because of their experience rather than on a specific course they have taken and degrees they have earned.” Using this definition, an adult teaching credential would be awarded based on passing a knowledge test, documenting years of experience teaching, or presenting a portfolio with evidence of one’s knowledge and skills in practice, and the credential could be awarded either before or after one begins teaching in an adult education classroom.
  • Licensure is a form of documentation “used to identify those teacher candidates with the knowledge and skills deemed important for a beginning practitioner.” That is the definition most commonly used in K-12, and it expresses the connotation of legal right, sanctioned by the state, to begin teaching. However, the term licensure in some states, such as Massachusetts, is used for either pre-service or in-service validation of adult education teacher competence.
  • Endorsement, in general, means the act of sanctioning or giving approval to something or someone. In K-12 education, endorsement means the specific area (elementary, special education, social sciences, math, etc.) of a teacher’s license that identifies the subject in which that individual is specialized. However, in many states with an adult education endorsement, the term refers to the validation that a teacher seeking re-certification may be awarded after demonstrating competence and/or experience specifically teaching adults. An endorsement usually refers to something that is an “add-on.”
  • Certification is “a process by which professional associations, states, or others identify a set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that a teacher must demonstrate, usually through participation in university coursework and teaching practice.” In other words, certification is the larger process or system which includes standards, teacher preparation, and a mechanism or criteria for determining when a teacher is competent to teach, whether before or after starting to teach.

It is important to note that the use of these four terms—credentialing, licensure, endorsement, and certification—varies depending on the state or validating agency. The very same process that is called an endorsement in one state is called licensure in another and credential in yet another, and states vigorously defend their particular terminology choices. However, as a convenience, this paper will use the term certification to refer to all validation processes in any part of the adult education system.

Professionalization and Professionalism: Two other terms frequently arise in adult education certification discussions: “professionalization” and “professionalism.” National researchers JoAnn Crandall (1993) and Ronald Cervero (1992) provide these definitions, respectively:

  • Professionalization is a product, such as the expertise or credibility symbolized by a credential, while professionalism is a process, for example, ongoing participation in staff development or program planning.
  • Professionalism describes a person, professionalization an occupation. [It is obvious that although the adult education field is not professionalized, many adult education instructors often display professionalism.]

These two terms are also often used interchangeably in adult education literature and discourse and are thus tied to certification issues. Many practitioners believe that certification and professionalization of the field are intimately connected, and that the field and its workforce are not seen as professionalized because its teachers are not universally certified in teaching adults. These practitioners argue that one way—perhaps the surest way—to increase professionalization in adult education is to mandate that its teachers be certified specifically in teaching adults.


  1. SCANS stands for Secretary's (of Labor) Commission on Achieving Necessary Skill, which in 1992 produced a document outlining the skills young people need to succeed in the world of work, including five competencies relating to using resources, interpersonal skills, information, systems and technology, and a strong foundation of basic skills, thinking skills, and personal qualities such as responsibility and integrity (see Skills And Tasks For Jobs: A Scans Report For America 2000.

  2. Durr, A. J. (2008) "Teacher Education’s Critical Issues with Teacher Quality" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the MWERA Annual Meeting, Westin Great Southern Hotel, Columbus, Ohio ., p. 1.

  3. Educational Testing Service (ETS). (2004).Where We Stand on Teacher Quality: An Issue Paper from ETS. Teacher Quality Series. Princeton, New Jersey: ETS.

  4. U.S. Department of Education. (2004). No Child Left Behind: A Toolkit for Teachers. Washington, D.C.: author.

  5. Crandall, Ingersoll and Lopez, 2008, op cit.

  6. Crandall, Ingersoll and Lopez, 2008, op cit.

  7. Educational Testing Service (ETS). (2004). Where We Stand on Teacher Quality: An Issue Paper from the ETS Teacher Quality Series. Princeton, New Jersey: ETS, p. 7.

  8. Crandall, Ingersoll and Lopez, 2008, op cit.



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