Alternative Teacher Certification
An increasing urgency exists for states and school districts to get a skilled teacher into every classroom. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 stipulates that by the end of the 2005-06 school year, all public school teachers of those subjects must be "highly qualified." That means all teachers of those subjects must meet a set of standards that include demonstrated competency in each subject they teach.
In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics forecasts that if the pupil-teacher ratio remains steady, at least 2 million new public school teachers will be needed by 2008 (Hussar, 1999). Research conducted by Richard Ingersoll, an associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, attests to a looming teacher shortage, but attributes it less to pending retirements than to the fact that the profession is a "revolving door" in which teachers are constantly leaving for reasons largely related to job dissatisfaction (2001). Meanwhile, other researchers suggest that teachers leave the field in no higher proportions than do workers in other professions (Henke, Zahn, and Carroll, 2001).
"Alternative routes" into the teaching profession are becoming more and more attractive to policymakers and teacher-educators as strategies for recruiting potential teachers and tackling teacher shortages. Instead of enrolling in a four-year undergraduate teacher education program, alternative-route participants usually earn their teaching certificates in an abbreviated time frame. They also often teach while completing the program requirements for such alternative certification.
In 1983, only eight states reported that they had any way of certifying teachers other than through a regular teacher education program. Now, all but a handful of states offer some type of alternative-certification program for teachers, and an estimated 200,000 people have been certified to teach through alternative routes (Feistritzer et al., 2004). But some experts argue that certain alternative routes are little more than emergency teaching certificates, by which participants are thrust into the classroom before they are adequately prepared. Such observers contend that those underprepared teachers can hinder student learning (Darling-Hammond, 2002; Laczko-Kerr and Berliner, 2002). Proponents of alternative routes counter that well-designed alternative programs can increase workforce diversity and attract candidates with subject-matter expertise (Roach and Cohen, 2002; Hess, 2001).
Perhaps taking any such stance is oversimplifying the issue because alternative routes dramatically vary. While almost every state now offers some type of alternative certification for teachers, Education Week's Quality Counts 2005: No Small Change reports that 32 states and the District of Columbia require participants in all alternative routes to demonstrate subject-matter expertise, either by taking coursework or passing a test, before teaching. Fifteen states and the District finance or regulate alternative-route programs that include a student teaching or fieldwork component. Forty-three states and D.C. have alternative routes that provide mentoring support to participants.
At the national level, Teach For America and Troops to Teachers are two well-known alternative routes that seek to place recent college graduates and military personnel in high-need schools. The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence offers an alternative route made up of two tests and professional development. The first tests were administered in the summer of 2003 and five states have now approved the route. In addition, a myriad of school districts are coming up with programs to meet highly specific local needs. In light of all the variation among alternative routes, some experts suggest that the best are those that provide significant support and mentoring (Feistritzer et al., 2004; National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 2003). Federal guidance for the No Child Left Behind Act states that in order for teachers certified through alternative routes to be considered “highly qualified,” the routes must consist of sustained, intensive, and classroom-focused professional development before and while teaching as well as structured support such as a teacher mentoring program.
Since alternative certification is a relatively recent phenomenon, a dearth of research is available about its effectiveness. Some studies have found little difference in both subject-area expertise and pedagogical knowledge in comparisons of alternative-route participants and traditional education program graduates (Ball and Wilson, 1990). Other studies have demonstrated that alternatively certified teachers generally have higher educational attainment levels than those of their traditionally certified peers (Shen, 1999). A review of 92 studies on teacher preparation by the Education Commission of the States suggests that research provides limited support for the conclusion that alternative-route programs can produce teachers who become as effective as traditionally trained teachers (Allen, 2003).
Evaluations of Teach For America recruits—typically, new graduates of college or university liberal-arts programs—have yielded mixed results. A recent study released by the Mathematica policy research group showed that Teacher For America teachers had a positive impact on their student’s mathematics achievement. Their students demonstrated progress equivalent to one month of additional math instruction compared with the students of control teachers at the same grade levels and schools. But the study also found that Teacher For America teachers had a similar impact on the reading achievement of their students compared with the control teachers. It should be noted that the control teachers in the study had substantially lower rates of certification and formal education training compared with a nationally representative sample of teachers (Decker, Mayer, and Glazerman, 2004). In contrast, a study of five school districts in Arizona concluded that students of TFA teachers did not perform much differently from students of other undercertified teachers, and that students of certified teachers performed better than students of teachers who were undercertified (Laczko-Kerr and Berliner, 2002).
One study found that alternative routes did not diversify the teaching force, by bringing in significant numbers of male or minority teachers, as had been hoped (Shen, 1999). But the same study concluded that alternative routes can be effective in recruiting teachers for shortage subject areas, such as mathematics and science. Other reports on specific programs cite much higher minority-teacher-participation rates than the overall state averages (Hughes and Sianjina, 2001; Shepherd, 1999).
Reports about the success of particular alternative-route programs range from glowingly positive to decidedly pessimistic. A study on New Jersey's alternative route to teacher certification by one of its creators says that the program has improved the quality, diversity, and size of the state's teaching force (Klagholz, 2000). Conversely, a critical look at the Massachusetts Signing Bonus Program for New Teachers, a prominent program that initially received wide attention and has since been revamped, was less optimistic. The study said that the program was plagued with high attrition rates and produced low numbers of urban teachers, all at a very high cost to the state (Fowler, 2003).