Midwestern Teacher Certification and Re-Certification Practices of the Early 20th Century

Pamela Stover, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale


How did music teachers obtain and renew their teaching licenses during the first half of the 20th century? This research question was answered by examining primary source documents from university, state and historical archives in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Federal and State Departments of Education reports, MSNC/MENC reports and a review of state certification laws extends the study throughout the United States.

Prior to 1900, teacher certification qualifications were rather weak and were strengthened as the century progressed. Teachers had to take an exam or have training to obtain certification and had to undergo further training to renew their license. This training could consist of college courses taken during the regular semester, summer session, or through an extension course. Other venues included county or local school district teacher institutes, correspondence courses, reading circles and even self-study. Some teachers obtained, renewed or improved their certificate by simply taking an exam. This paper gives an overview of the professional growth opportunities available in certifying music teachers from 1900-1950.

Earning college credit was accepted by nearly all the states for initial and re-certification. County and state normal schools and colleges, conservatories and universities offered courses during their regular sessions or during the summer. Music teachers could also take short-term courses at summer institutes, normal schools and colleges or through music publisher’s summer workshops. Rural state normal schools and universities also ran extension programs where university personnel would go to off-campus locations to teach a course. In the days of county certification, teachers could obtain or renew their license by taking a test, and often they had the required passing percentage lowered if they attended the county institute. These institutes were two- or three-day meetings, similar to today’s in-services. This exam practice was phased out as the century progressed and county licensure was replaced by state licensure.

Early distance education opportunities such as correspondence courses, reading circles, and self-study were weaker forms of professional growth that appealed to teachers in remote locations. Frances Clark taught several music correspondence courses through the Sigel-Myers Company, including one for music teaching. Students would read a series of pamphlets and then answer the questions on a tear-off form and mail their answers in for grading. A reading circle was similar to a book club, and consisted of local teachers who met to discuss professional texts required for recertification. Some teachers were allowed to count their own independent study for recertification. Primary source documents reveal that these forms of early distance education were not well thought of and lively discussions ensued as school officials and music administrators debated stronger alternatives.

The study found that licensure problems of 100 years ago mirror those we have today. Distance education and self-study are seen as less effective means for initial certification or professional growth. Standards were increased throughout the first half of the twentieth century, as they continue to do today. College credit still appears to be the most popular method of professional growth for recertification, along with workshops and short-term courses.