Where Did Abraham Lincoln Go to Law School?

Before coming to Washington as our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln practiced law in Illinois for 17 years, reaching the pinnacle of the profession as one of the most sought-after trial attorneys in the state. So, where’d he go to law school? University of Chicago? Northwestern? 

It’s actually a trick question: he didn’t go to law school, and not just because these prestigious schools hadn’t yet been founded. You didn’t need a law degree to practice law in the early 19th century. The former railsplitter borrowed legal treatises from a colleague in the Illinois legislature, took an oral exam, and was admitted to practice law in 1836. 

Today, of course, there’s almost no way around earning a law degree if you want to be a lawyer. The legal profession revolves around the notion that attending an accredited law school is the only way to learn ideas and skills that are essential to being a good lawyer.

Teaching is structured in much the same way. In nearly every state, prospective teachers have to complete a university-based or alternative certification program before they can be considered for a permanent teaching license. These programs often require a years-long commitment and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.

This would be fine if preparation programs consistently made their participants better teachers. But there’s mounting evidence they don’t. At the same time, many preparation programs have been slow to adapt to the changing demographics of the schools they work with, which have created a surge in demand for special education and bilingual teachers. That’s on top of the still-chronic inability of programs to produce enough teachers in subjects that require specialized content knowledge—especially secondary STEM subjects. 

The result is a serious supply and demand problem in teacher hiring that hurts tens of thousands of students every year, especially in underserved communities—students who will start school with a substitute or out-of-license teacher in algebra or computer science, or who won’t have the opportunity to take AP calculus because nobody’s available to teach the course.

And why is nobody available? Let’s say you work in an accounting department at a big insurance company but always wanted to teach in high school. Your local high school is desperate for math teachers, the subject you majored in.

Then you speak to the principal, who tells you that you can’t teach unless you do one of two things. You could enroll in a local university education school and take two years of courses at a cost of $20,000 (full time, so you’d have to give up your job). Or, you could enter an alternative certification program that would let you start teaching in the fall—at which point you’d have to take and pay for the same courses at night as you’re trying to learn the very complex, demanding job of teaching.

Chances are you can’t afford the first option and don’t like the second option. You’ve lost an opportunity to pursue your passion, and lots of kids have lost the opportunity to learn math from someone who knows and loves the subject.

Fortunately, some states are trying to make the barriers to entering the teaching profession less self-defeating, by creating an easier path into the profession for prospective teachers in shortage areas. In Utah, for example, candidates with experience in areas like computer science and math can start teaching as long as they have a bachelor’s degree and pass a teacher certification exam and a background check. They will be eligible for a full license after receiving three years of mentoring from a veteran teacher. This change triggered a great hue and cry from local teachers’ unions and Democratic officials, one of whom criticized the concept of teachers without education degrees as “demoralizing and insulting.” 

While I respect the principled opposition of some practicing teachers, I hope they’ll give the new policies a chance. Our current system of teacher preparation may provide some benefits, like identifying candidates with the commitment to invest huge amounts of time and money in a program, or offering opportunities to learn about education theory. But on the questions that matter most—whether they are consistently keeping up with the demands of schools and kids, and whether they are making a difference in teachers’ ability to help their kids learn—most preparation programs are failing. Changing that will be slow, difficult work even for organizations that are working to make it happen. I say that with great humility as CEO of one of those organizations

It’s long past time to consider what would happen if we lowered the barriers to entering the teaching profession, while obviously keeping—and even strengthening—requirements around proven effectiveness in the classroom to earn a permanent license. We should test whether innovative new approaches can open up new pipelines of excellent teachers with great content knowledge. If they don’t, we can go back to the drawing board. But if they do, those of us in the business of training new teachers should rethink our own approach. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

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