California Teacher Professional Licensing Guide
The California education system
California has both public and private schools, but the majority of children attend public school starting by the age of 5. Schools are usually grouped by grade into elementary schools (Kindergarten through 5th grade), middle schools (6th to 8th grade), and high schools (9th to 12th grade). They can also be combined such as K-8 schools.
There is no single, standard education model in the US, although some national laws exist that affect education at the state level. The state of California sets education content standards for each grade level and subject area, but in most cases there is flexibility at the local level regarding the choice of books, teaching methodology, and order of study of these concepts. Local-level public education is administered by a school district - a grouping of several public schools in a community. Each district usually has administrative offices that serve all of its schools, including a Human Resource department to help hire teachers and other school staff. As a jobseeker, it is important that you build relationships at this local level - with both the district Human Resource Department and the individual schools where you are interested in teaching.
The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) licenses teachers to work anywhere in the state. This license is officially called a "teaching credential" but you may also hear it called a "teaching license" or "teaching certificate."
Teachers must take continuing education classes and renew their credentials regularly.
Your California teaching license may not automatically qualify you for a license in another state, but it may help advance your application. If you plan to move in the future, you will need to research licensing requirements in other states.
Types of California Teaching Certificates
In California, two types of teaching credentials dominate:
- Single Subject Teaching Credential (most often used in middle and high schools)
- Multiple Subject Teaching Credential (used in self-contained classrooms, as seen in most elementary schools)
Each of these Credentials has two levels: the Level I credential is a preliminary credential you qualify for after meeting basic requirements, including transcript evaluation and testing; it is valid for a maximum of five years. The Level II credential, called a permanent or "clear" credential, is what you earn once you have completed all credential requirements. A clear credential must be renewed every 5 years. However, additional coursework or service requirements are not necessary to renew a clear credential.
California also offers other teaching credentials, including an Education Specialist Instruction Credential, which qualifies teachers to work with students with physical and other disabilities and in special educational settings.
This article will discuss only the Level I Single Subject and Multiple Subject preliminary credentials as they relate to foreign-educated teachers. The section Other Credentials and Careers briefly describes some other options for working in the field of K-12 education, including substitute teaching.
Market for teachers in California
The job market for teachers in the state of California is competitive, especially considering public funding problems that have resulted in many certified teachers losing their jobs. There may be more demand for teachers in science and math, for special education (working with children with disabilities) and also for teachers bilingual in Spanish or other languages that are commonly spoken in your community.
If you are seeking classroom teaching opportunities, you can research opportunities in both public and private schools. Private schools and special public schools called charter schools do not necessarily require you to have a California teaching credential. However, many of these schools have lower pay and benefits (insurance, retirement) than traditional public schools.
You should also consider volunteering in schools as a transitional step in your job search. Volunteering will not only help you become familiar with individual schools and the US education system in general, it will also help you demonstrate skills and develop a professional network that may lead to employment. You must research volunteer opportunities on your own. Usually the best way to do this is to contact the Human Resources Department at your local school district or the Head Secretary of a local school and inquire about volunteer opportunities.
Networking is especially important. A good way to establish contact is visiting schools you want to work at and giving your resume by hand and talking to administrators personally. In many instances, administrators can override hiring decisions made by Human Resources.
There are four steps foreign-educated teachers must take in order to earn single or multiple-subject teacher credentials in the state of California:
i. Evaluate your foreign transcripts and credentials through an approved credentialing organization
You will need to choose one of the 8 credentialing organizations approved by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing for foreign transcript evaluation. The organization will create documents in English describing your degree and comparing your program to its US equivalent.
The quality of your foreign transcript and credential evaluation is extremely important to your California credentialing process. To meet California standards, your evaluation must serve as proof of the following facts about your professional training:
- Your foreign degree is equivalent to a US bachelor's degree or higher
- Your college or university is equivalent to accredited US institutions
- Your teacher preparation program included either elementary education (if you are applying for a Multiple Subject credential) or secondary education (if Single Subject credential)
- Your training included student teaching
- This training qualified you for a teaching credential or license in the country where you studied (it does not matter if you never received the credential, or if you have one but it is not valid any more)
In some countries, the university transcript alone will not show all of this information - for example, you may have separate documents showing you were a student teacher or that you earned a teaching certification. If this is true in your case, take the time to locate other official records to prove you meet these standards.
If your foreign education did not include a student teaching component, you may need to complete a California Internship Teacher Preparation Program. A link to more information about the internship programs and requirements can be found in the Important Links section.
Choosing a credential evaluation organization
To help you choose the organization you will use, you may wish to contact several organizations to ask questions like:
- What are your prices for a course-by-course evaluation for use in teacher credentialing? -- (a range between $200 and $400 is common)
- Can I send you original documents, or do you need to request them directly from my university?
- Do I need to have my documents translated?
- Will you accept other official records and include information from them in the evaluation?
- How long will you keep my information in your system? -- (this is useful if you will need extra reports in the future)
- What is your process if I disagree with parts of the evaluation?
- How many transcripts do you evaluate each year from my country? From my profession? -- (more volume can equal a more accurate database)
You should expect your evaluation to take from one to two months once the organization has received all of your documents. Review your evaluation carefully to see if it is correct and if it has all the information required by the state of California. If you believe your evaluation is inaccurate, contact the organization as soon as possible to discuss your options. Having your records reviewed may require that you send additional information or pay additional fees.
ii. Meet the Basic Skills requirement
Note: you can work on Steps 2, 3, and 4 at the same time
The Basic Skills requirement ensures that California teachers are competent in fundamental reading, writing, and mathematics. It is not a test of your skill in teaching these subjects.
As a foreign-educated teacher, you are eligible for a preliminary teaching credential before you pass the Basic Skills requirement. However, you may decide it is better to meet the Basic Skills requirement first. This is because:
- Passing the Basic Skills requirement is often a condition of employment - even in private schools that don't require you to have a teaching credential
- If you are unable to pass the Basic Skills requirement in the first year after you earn your preliminary credential, you will not be able to continue teaching (the preliminary credential will expire after that first year, instead of lasting up to five years)
There is more than one way to meet the Basic Skills requirement, and a link to a document explaining all possible options is listed in theImportant Links section. However, your fastest path to a preliminary credential is to pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test or CBEST, a 3-part test available in paper-based or computer-based versions.
The CBEST will be discussed in detail in the Tests section.
iii. Fingerprints for Criminal Background Check
Note: you can work on Steps 2, 3 and 4 at the same time
Teacher credentialing in California requires applicants to go through a criminal background check. This includes sending your fingerprints to government agencies. There are two ways to get your fingerprints taken:
- LiveScan - a digital service that requires you to go to one of many centers available throughout the US for fingerprinting; costs vary ($20-50)
- Paper fingerprint cards - this option is only available if you are not in the United States while you are preparing your application for credentialing; you will need to email or call (1-888-921-2682) the Commission to request the cards, and will need to pay them directly for the service (cost as of June 2012: $49)
LiveScan is a much faster and more efficient way to have your record checked. Make sure you save your LiveScan receipt as it is required as apart of your credentialing application.
The Important Links section includes links that you can follow to request either of these fingerprinting options.
iv. Apply for credentials through the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC)
Note: you can work on Steps 2, 3 and 4 at the same time
Once you receive your course-by-course evaluation from the credentialing organization, you should prepare your application. You can fill out an application online, or you can download and print a paper application. Note: You must have a current US address and Visa or MasterCard debit or credit card to complete the online application. If you do not meet both of these requirements, print a paper application.
For foreign-educated teachers, the application requirements are the same for the Single and Multiple Subject teaching credentials. The application includes:
- Application form 41-4
- Your LiveScan fingerprinting receipt
- Foreign transcript evaluation
- Photocopy of your foreign teacher credential or license, if applicable (it does not have to be current)
- Fees: as of June 2012, the initial application cost $55 (add the fingerprint fee if you are using cards instead of LiveScan)
Note: It is a very good idea to keep in contact with the CTC for information on the credentialing process. Have a contact person whom you can communicate with via phone or email to help you keep track of your progress and timeline. It is very important to stay informed and always ask for clarification if you are unsure.
Also, The CTC tends to be inundated with applications during the summer time, which might slow down the process. Look into applying at a different time of the year.
The Commission may reject your application if your criminal background check is unacceptable (you do not have to have a perfect criminal record; it is the type of offense that matters).
They also commonly reject applications when your foreign education and credentials do not meet California standards. If this is the case for you, you have another option: a formal recommendation for credentialing by a California-accredited teacher education program.
To receive a formal recommendation, you must have your transcript and credential evaluation reviewed by the school (there are many private and public colleges and university programs accredited for teacher education in the state). If the school considers you qualified, it can make a direct recommendation to the Commission. If it believes that you need more coursework first, you should verify if they will make a formal recommendation for your preliminary credential once you have met these requirements.
The California Commission will approve your application for a preliminary teaching credential if your background check is acceptable and your foreign education and transcript evaluation meet the standards described in Step 1.
If the Commission accepts your application or a formal recommendation, you will be given your preliminary credential and are eligible for employment. While the preliminary credential is valid for up to five years, you will lose it after just one year if you do not meet the Basic Skills Requirement - that is, if you do not pass the CBEST.
CBEST test administration and registration
The California Basic Educational Skills Test, or CBEST, is administered by Pearson Vue under contract by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. You can take the CBEST in one of two ways:
- Offered every two months
- Includes all three sections of the CBEST in one session
- Cost: $41 per session as of June 2012
- If you fail one or more sections: you must register again and pay the full fee, but you only have to take the section(s) you failed
- Offered monthly over a six-day period at Pearson Vue testing centers
- Appointments are filled on a first-come, first-serve basis
- You can schedule the three CBEST sections over different testing days
- Cost: $102 per session as of June 2012 (includes a $61 registration processing fee)
- If you fail one or more sections: you must register again and pay the full fee, but you only have to take the section(s) you failed
CBEST test content
The test includes three sections:
1. Reading section (50 multiple-choice questions)
This section includes reading passages with questions focusing on two areas:
- Critical analysis and evaluation (about 40% of questions)
- Comprehension and research skills (60% questions)
2. Mathematics section (50 multiple-choice questions)
This section uses mostly word problems and focuses on three areas:
- Estimation, measurement, and statistical principles (about 30% of questions)
- Computation and problem solving (35% of questions)
- Numerical and graphic relationships (35% of questions)
3. Writing section (2 essays)
- Analytical essay
- Personal experience essay
See the Important Links section for links to CBEST Test Specifications (descriptions of test goals) and a free practice test on the CBEST web site. There are also numerous commercial study guides prepared by private test preparation companies that are available online and in bookstores.
Practice tests, test preparation classes, and study groups can be great tools to help you pass your tests.
The time and cost of evaluating your foreign degree and being eligible for teacher certification depends on many factors, including:
- The service you choose to evaluate your degree
- The completeness of your educational records (more detail, such as your school s official descriptions of classes you took, is helpful)
- The speed of your foreign educational institution's process and foreign mail system
- The cost and speed of services in the state of California
We provide two hypothetical scenarios to show some of the variety of results that immigrant professionals may find when they seek to become teachers in California. Please consider these scenarios as two examples out of many possibilities. Your experience will vary.
|Step||More Efficient Scenario|
Approximate Time and Cost
|Less Efficient Scenario
Approximate Time and Cost
Evaluate your foreign transcripts and degree
Meet the Basic Skills requirement (pass the CBEST)
Apply for your preliminary credential with the Commission for Teacher Credentialing
|More Efficient Total
About 6 months + $450
|Less Efficient Total
About 2 years + $1,600
The field of education employs people in a wide variety of positions. Some of these do not require teacher certification and may be worth considering as a first job as you return to your field in the US. Other positions may require other skills and credentials, including advanced degrees.
Teacher's Aide: Paraprofessional Training
Paraprofessionals, or Teacher's Aides and Assistants, help a classroom teacher with administrative work in the classroom. They also may provide teaching and other support for small groups or individual students with specific needs. Usually, paraprofessionals do not plan lessons or manage the classroom alone. Paraprofessionals have a certification process that a foreign-educated Teacher shouldqualify for with no difficulty. This could be an interesting transitional job for professionals who want to work in a US classroom while they finish the teacher certification process. It is also an excellent way to network, to learn about a particular school and district, and to demonstrate your teaching abilities. Once you are working within a district, your chances of getting a permanent teaching position within that district increase greatly.
Some substitute teachers are also certified teachers who work full time as substitutes. However, you do not need a Preliminary Teaching Credential to apply to become a substitute teacher. You will need to pass the CBEST and meet other requirements described in the application.
Substitute teaching opportunities are also available at some private schools. In particular, larger private schools may offer regular substitute positions. However, opportunities vary by school and area, so it is best to contact the Head Secretary at each school you are interested in and inquire about substitute positions. You will likely not have to take the CBEST to substitute at a private school.
Working as a substitute teacher can help you experience the differences within the US school system. Again, networking is important: if you find a district you enjoy, getting to know teachers and administrators can lead to steady work as a substitute and permanent job offers once you have your Initial Teacher Certification.
Public schools have professional jobs in school administration that you may qualify for. They usually require advanced degrees, experience as a classroom teacher, and some management experience.
Earn a US Education Degree
If your foreign degree is in teaching, you should be able to transition to teaching in the US without going back to school for a degree program in the US. However, some people choose to apply for Masters or Doctoral programs in education in the US for career advancement opportunities or to access special government funding to fill high-demand teaching positions. You will need to research these opportunities independently.
Here are a few more things to think about if you are considering teaching certification:
Earning the "Clear Credential"
Once you have your Preliminary Teaching Credential, as a foreign-educated teacher you will have five years to meet all of the remaining requirements for a Clear Teaching Credential. These include:
- Knowledge of Developing English Language Skills including Reading: you can show this by taking a course or a test
- Knowledge of the US Constitution: you can show this by taking a course or a test
- Demonstration of Subject Matter Competence: for Multiple Subject teachers, this means passing required subject examinations from the California Subject Examinations for Teachers or CSET; for Single-Subject teachers, you can take CSET subjects or qualify through participation in special programs
- Complete a Professional Teacher Induction Program or an SB 2042 fifth year of study at a California-approved teacher preparation program, leading to a formal recommendation for the clear credential
- Proof of CPR training
Joining a professional association
Professional Associations are a resource for working teachers and provide opportunities for professional development and networking with others in your field. They also help set acceptable working conditions for teachers and give information and opinions on education policy in California and across the US They do not help individuals with the certification process or with getting a job. Once you are certified you may want to join a professional association.
- State: California Teachers Association
- National: National Education Association
There are many other professional associations that bring together teachers based on different characteristics like subject or grades taught, ethnicity, gender, and religion.
Licensing mobility (reciprocity)
Reciprocity occurs when some states agree to accept the certifications of other states. However, California does not participate in a reciprocity program at this time. This means that if you get a California teaching certificate and later you want to work in another state, you will have to contact the other state's education department to learn if you can work as a teacher while you become certified in that state.
Common Words used in this article
- The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing regulates public school teachers and other education professionals for the state of California. The Commission's information number is (888) 921-2682; you can listen to options on its voice system, or speak to an operator if you have specific questions. All other aspects of education (administration, student performance, etc.) are managed by the California Department of Education
Foreign degree evaluation:
- Foreign Transcript Evaluation Organizations accepted by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing for evaluating your foreign teaching degree
The teacher credentialing application process:
- Single Subject Credential instructions for foreign-educated teachers specialized in a specific subject area
- Multiple Subject Credential instructions for foreign-educated teachers with experience teaching all major subjects in a self-contained classroom
- Printable application for teaching credentials
- Fingerprint request forms: LiveScan form and a make a fingerprint card email request to email@example.com (you will need to write the Commission asking for cards)
- Description of the various testing and coursework options to meet the Basic Skills requirement
- Homepage of California Internship Teacher Preparation Programs, needed for those who did not complete a student teaching component as a part of their foreign education.
- CBEST Test Specifications Download a computer-based CBEST Practice Test
- Registration Bulletin table of contents
- Pearson Vue CBEST testing website
- The California Department of Education County Offices of Education are regional office for school administration. You may want to contact them to learn which school districts are hiring teachers. Once you are employed, it can also be a source of information for professional development or other resources.
- Information about substitute teaching (also requires passing the CBEST)
- The California Teachers Association is the largest professional membership organization in California; it represents 325,000 education professionals