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Alternative-Certification Routes Praised

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Programs designed to bring non-education majors into teaching through so-called "alternative routes'' appear to be attracting well-educated candidates with a sincere interest in the profession, a study commissioned by the U.S. Education Department has found.

Such programs also offer aspiring teachers more classroom experience and more intense supervision than do traditional preparation programs, according to the study, which was released last week.

In addition, it reports, the supervisors of alternative-route candidates characterized the instructional skills of program participants as at least as good, if not better, than those of traditionally prepared beginning teachers. Furthermore, supervisors rated alternative-route candidates as well prepared in their subject fields.

In essence, those involved in the study noted, alternative programs may offer some lessons regarding problems for which traditional teacher-education programs have been criticized in the past few years.

The survey by Policy Studies Associates Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm, reviewed written descriptions of 12 alternative-certification programs and 8 programs that retrain current teachers to become certified in a new field, usually mathematics or science.

Researchers also conducted in-depth telephone interviews with a total of 76 administrators, supervisors, participants, and other teachers in seven alternative-route programs and three retraining programs.

The study concluded that, in general, alternative-certification programs are "responsible and innovative approaches to addressing local and state issues of teacher supply and quality.''

It rated retraining programs as less successful overall. In general, the survey found, retrainees received little classroom supervision as they began their new assignments, and many did not appear to seek or find immediate teaching jobs in their new fields.

'Drop in the Bucket'

The current enthusiasm for retraining and alternative-route programs stems from actual or anticipated teacher shortages at the state and local levels, and from concerns about the quality of the teaching force, according to the study, "An Exploratory Study of Teacher Alternative-Certification and Retraining Programs.''

Of the 20 programs studied, 18 began in the 1980's, and 9 were established in 1985 or 1986.

"Whether you believe that there is or is not going to be a major teacher shortage,'' said Nancy E. Adelman, the project's director, "the fact is that at the local level, people believe there will be, and they're taking steps to deal with that problem in fairly creative ways.''

"They're not just thinking of it as a quantitative problem,'' she said. "They're thinking of it as a quality problem.''

But, according to the report, alternative-certification programs are "clearly not the whole answer'' to the problem of teacher shortages.

"Assuming that all the participants who enrolled in the seven programs [studied in depth] in 1985-86 completed the requirements and found teaching positions,'' it states, "nearly 700 new teachers would have entered the workforce, over 60 percent of them in urban areas where shortages are reported to be highest.''

Although this is a "significant contribution to maintaining the balance between teacher supply and demand,'' the study notes, "put in the national context, 700 additional teachers represents 2 percent of the estimated need for 29,000 teachers beyond the estimated supply of new teacher graduates in 1987--the proverbial drop in the bucket.''


The survey's findings "provide an important initial examination of an area that has not been studied,'' according to the report.

Both alternative-certification and retraining programs can serve as "laboratories'' for exploring new methods of recruiting, training, and selecting competent teachers for American schools, the study notes.

At least 18 states now allow alternative routes to teacher certification. But, according to the report, the total number of retraining and alternative-route programs nationwide is unknown.

Because the number of programs studied was relatively small, Ms. Adelman cautioned against making generalizations based on the data.

"There's a lot of concern about the quality of people entering the teaching profession, and particularly those entering in math and science,'' said Alan Ginsburg, director of planning and evaluation for the Education Department.

"What we wanted to do was to look at some of the newer approaches to getting good people into teaching,'' he said, "and one of the ways was alternative certification.''

The department's office for planning, budget, and evaluation commissioned the $51,000 survey with funds from Title 2 of the Education for Economic Security Act.

Profile of Participants

According to the report, recent college graduates, persons seeking mid-career changes, former instructors in other kinds of educational enterprises, and homemakers are among the participants in alternative-route programs.

The majority had previously engaged in some type of instructional activity, such as tutoring, substitute teaching, or the Peace Corps, the survey found.

All seven of the programs studied in depth were selective, and based admission on such criteria as undergraduate grade-point averages, essays, and previous job experience.

Once admitted to the programs, participants generally received a compressed version of the coursework covered in a traditional undergraduate teacher-education program, including instruction in methodology, human growth and development, and the philosophy and history of American education.

Participants' field experiences ranged from an extended version of student teaching to full-time, paid responsibility for a classroom.

Candidates rated their internships as the "highlight'' of their training.

Many of the alternative-route candidates said they were motivated to enter the programs, in part, because of the "short time frame, the limited amount of 'Mickey Mouse' coursework, and/or the attractiveness of on-the-job training (often for pay),'' the survey found. They also cited peer support as critical to their ability to finish the programs.

All of the alternative-route candidates interviewed intended to pursue a teaching career, although placements for the current school year were not yet assured at the time of the survey, between May and October of last year.

Teachers interviewed in schools where alternative-route candidates were placed, either during their training or as employees, were generally supportive of such programs.

However, several program participants reported negative responses from colleagues in their schools or in the schools where their peers were teaching. Supervisors also described hostile or cynical reactions to the programs among some of their colleagues.

'Not Impressed'

The study reported that, like alternate-route programs, retraining programs have certain application and admissions procedures, usually involving undergraduate transcripts and recommendations from local school districts.

But it found that such programs "draw on a more limited applicant pool than alternative-certification programs and appear to be somewhat less selective.''

The study found that retraining programs generally attract veteran teachers with 10 to 15 years' experience who characterize themselves as "stagnating'' in their current fields, or who view their jobs as insecure.

Coursework for such programs generally is at the undergraduate level, the study found, most often in special sections of regularly offered classes or as special curricula adapted for adult learners. The amount of required coursework varied, depending on state and local certification requirements and on the participants' prior education.

The opinions of college and university instructors on the capability of retrainees to master the content in their new fields also differed. In one program, the study found, instructors' opinions were so negative that a significant number of students dropped out of the program.

Because retrainees received little classroom supervision, information on their competence to teach in their new subject areas was unavailable.

Ms. Adelman said that, overall, "I was not impressed with the retraining programs.''

"It just seems to me that they're not very well thought out, and they're not as linked as they ought to be to the needs of individual school systems,'' she said.

Among the study's other findings:

  • More than half of the 20 alternative-certification and retraining programs studied were specifically dedicated to the preparation of math or science teachers.
  • Program enrollments vary greatly, ranging from 8 to 5,000 during the 1985-86 school year. About half admit fewer than 30 participants to each cycle.
  • Nine of the 20 programs were initiated at the state level, either by the legislature or by the department of education; 8 were begun by colleges or universities; and 3 originated with a local education agency.

Copies of the report are available by writing Alan Ginsburg, U.S. Education Department, Federal Office Building #6, Room 3127, Washington, D.C. 20202.

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