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Study Finds Alternative Teachers Less Qualified, But Meeting Needs

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Men and women who enter teaching through other than traditional teacher education programs are less academically qualified and less likely to consider teaching their lifelong occupation than those who obtained their credentials through customary paths, a new report concludes.

Alternatively certified teachers are also more likely to be minorities, specialize in science and mathematics, and teach in hard-to-staff inner-city districts than traditionally certified teachers, according to the study.

Published in the fall issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a journal of the American Educational Research Association, the study offers ammunition for both sides of the vociferous debate over how best to prepare teachers for the nation's toughest schools.

"Alternative certification ultimately downgrades the quality of teaching," Jianpeng Shen, an assistant professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and the author of the study, contended in an interview last week. "We are taking a shortcut by staffing inner-city schools with less-qualified teachers."

But some advocates of alternate routes into teaching questioned some of the interpretations of the data. One gauge of a teacher's qualifications, for instance, was whether he or she had earned a master's degree.

Academic degrees alone do not prove whether a teacher is qualified to be in the classroom, said Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Education Information, a Washington-based private education research firm.

"The implication is that alternative certification is inferior, and that's not always the case," Ms. Feistritzer said. "There are some alternative programs that are far superior to the traditional ones."

The fact that alternatively certified teachers had earned fewer master's degrees than did traditionally prepared teachers may also illustrate the hiring preferences of districts on tight budgets, Ms. Feistritzer added. "Recent college graduates cost a lot less than a 50-year-old former engineer with a master's degree."

Fresh Faces

The study pulled its data from a subsample of respondents to the U.S. Department of Education's Schools and Staffing Survey, 1993-1994, a national survey of teachers conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. Of the teachers included in the subsample, 13,602 received their certification through traditional means, and 1,119 did so through alternative methods.

By last year, 41 states had followed the lead set by New Jersey in 1983 and adopted some type of alternative licensing policy to help staff their schools. Because it is a somewhat recent phenomenon, however, the study included only those teachers who had been certified in the past 10 years. The data did not distinguish among the wide-ranging methods of alternative certification.

Alternative certification often has been cited as a way to draw older, more experienced professionals into the classroom. One of the biggest surprises of the study, then, was the finding that more than half of the alternatively certified teachers reported that they went into teaching fresh out of college. In addition, only 4.5 percent of the nontraditional-route teachers were older than 50, about half the percentage for those who went into teaching by the more orthodox route.

Teachers who took alternative routes to certification did not climb to as high an academic rung, the study found. Nearly 32 percent of the traditionally certified teachers who were surveyed had obtained a master's degree, while only 22 percent of the alternatively certified teachers reported earning that degree.

Moreover, 2.4 percent of the alternatively certified teachers reported that they had never earned any type of college degree.

Effects on Schools

When viewed alongside the study's finding that alternatively certified teachers tend to be somewhat less committed to teaching as a career, the lower academic qualifications may ultimately be harmful to the inner-city schools where many of them serve, some experts said last week.

Twenty-six percent of the alternatively certified teachers said they were undecided about staying in teaching, while 22 percent of traditionally certified teachers reported the same indecision.

The percentage of teachers who said they planned to stick with teaching until eligible for retirement was 3 percentage points higher among traditionally certified teachers.

The potential of higher turnover is also troublesome, since twice as many alternatively certified teachers are in large, urban districts, where teacher attrition rates are already high, experts said.

"Lower qualifications can be overcome after years of experience," said Willis D. Hawley, the dean of the college of education at the University of Maryland College Park. "But if what you're doing is rotating less-qualified people into and out of the job, the problem is compounded."

David Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers, a Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit organization which works to promote teaching as a profession, said that the study does not dispute other evidence that the least-qualified teachers often teach in the most challenging districts.

"We've got to stop sending people, unprepared, into these school districts and hoping for the best," Mr. Haselkorn said.

Filling a Void

Proponents of alternative certification have often praised the approach as a means of supplementing a limited pool of teachers who are qualified to teach science and math and as a way to help diversify the teaching force.

The study's findings suggest that alternative certification has worked to achieve those goals, as 19.2 percent of the alternatively certified teachers surveyed taught science or math, and nearly 21 percent of the teachers were members of minorities, compared with 13.5 percent and 12.8 percent, respectively, for traditionally certified teachers.

But using alternative--sometimes emergency--certification ultimately does nothing to address the root causes for teacher shortages in these areas, Mr. Hawley argued.

"Very few alternatively certified teachers get hired when there are well-qualified certified teachers," he said. "When positions are filled with alternatively certified teachers, it doesn't answer the question of why we can't fill the jobs with more-qualified people."

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