Looking For A Short Cut

By Daniel Gursky — December 01, 1989 19 min read
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Cathy Memmott always wanted to be a teacher. But all through school, family and friends discouraged her from following that dream. She studied history and political science in college, moved to New York to work for a prestigious law firm, and planned to attend law school and pursue a career as a lawyer.

Memmott wasn’t unhappy dealing with torts, trusts, and contracts, but she realized she would rather be surrounded by schoolchildren. “Finally, my head won out over all their advice,’' Memmott says. She abandoned her plans to become a lawyer and became a teacher instead. She was able to make the transition thanks to New Jersey’s alternativecertification program, which has opened teaching to people who have completed college but lack traditional undergraduate education backgrounds.

Memmott completed the program during the 1988-89 school year and is now a fully certified social studies teacher in Holmdel, N.J. She clearly loves her new career. “You’d have to drag me out of here with a crane,’' she says. “This is the best thing I ever did.’'

But not everyone is so upbeat about alternate paths to teacher certification. Critics charge that these alternate routes are simply a glorified form of emergency certification--often adopted in response to teacher shortages--that basically turn loose ill-prepared teachers on unsuspecting students. They contend that the creation of alternate routes undermines the current push to professionalize teaching, and that it tends to worsen existing inequities in the way schools are staffed.

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that a firm grasp of a particular subject--mathematics, biology, or history, for example--is the most important prerequisite for teaching. They say that the art of teaching is something an individual develops in the classroom over time. A detailed knowledge of the subject matter, they contend, more than makes up for the lack of formal teacher training.

Despite the mixed reviews, thousands of classrooms throughout the country are staffed by alternate-route teachers like Memmott; some are even being hired ahead of traditionally trained teachers. More than 20 states have adopted some sort of program, and if President Bush has his way, many more will join that group. Bush’s education package, currently being debated in Congress, includes $25 million for grants to help states develop alternative-certification programs.

In outlining his initiative, the President remarked: “Alternative certification is a way to expand the pool of talented teachers and administrators. Not all people who can teach are teachers by training. Whether you’re an acclaimed author like Alex Haley or John Updike--who aren’t certified to teach the literature classes in which their books are read--or a businessman from Odessa, Texas, anxious to go into the classroom to share what you know, our schools ought to offer that opportunity.’'

Haley and Updike probably were far from the minds of educators when New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean unveiled the New Jersey Provisional Teaching Program, the nation’s first statewide alternativecertification program, six years ago. “Dogs, drunks, and derelicts’’ was a more common prediction about the type of candidate the program would attract if teaching were potentially open to anyone with a college degree, recalls Saul Cooperman, the state’s education commissioner.

In reality, most alternate-route teaching candidates today fall somewhere between the extremes of best-selling authors and unemployed alcoholics. Memmott is more typical--young, well-educated, and willing to work for the relatively low salary of a teacher. The academic qualifications of alternateroute teachers are not the source of controversy; many of them can boast of college grades and subject-matter exam scores well above the average for teachers who follow the conventional route to the classroom.

Rather, it is their lack of professional preparation that troubles critics. Opponents might not use the dogs, drunks, and derelicts analogy anymore to characterize the alternate-routers, but they question whether someone with only the barest knowledge of pedagogical theory can step into the classroom and do an effective job.

Undergraduate education majors spend four years studying classroom management, student motivation, learning theories, child psychology, and the latest research on countless other topics. By contrast, some alternate-route teachers in New Jersey have no formal training before assuming full responsibility for their classes.

New Jersey’s program, which has attracted the most attention, provides a model that many states and districts have emulated. During the first year on the job, alternate-route candidates take a few basic courses on teaching and learning, but the bulk of their training comes from their work in the classroom. Provisional teachers assume full responsibility for classes almost from the first day, just like any other teacher. At the end of a year that includes regular meetings with an experienced mentor teacher and evaluation by the principal, candidates are eligible for regular certification.

Although New Jersey’s program calls for trainees to take 80 hours of instruction before the school year begins, teachers are often hired too late in the summer to accomplish this. Thus, their “survival’’ courses take place early in the school year when they are grappling with all the other pressures of first-year teaching. By the end of the year, the provisional teachers have sat through 200 hours of education classes after school and on weekends. Such a heavy physical and emotional load can exhaust even the most energetic teacher. Memmott puts it bluntly: “If you are not a strong person and you do not possess endurance, you will not make it.’'

In the alternative-certification program run by the Los Angeles public schools, participants receive only three weeks of teaching instruction before the school year begins. And Carla Smotherman, who coordinates the Los Angeles District Intern Program, admits that the three-week class there can cover only such basics as lesson plans, classroom management, and administrative paperwork. The program relies on mentor teachers to provide the advice and instruction that can’t be covered in the theory classes the district interns attend one afternoon a week throughout the year.

Although existing programs tend to be alike in many respects, the rationale behind them differs from place to place. Many--the Los Angeles program and the Houston Alternative Certification Program are two prominent examples--were developed strictly in response to critical shortages of fully qualified teachers. District officials are quick to praise the high quality of their participants, but they acknowledge that the programs were needed to fill vacancies. The programs are one way to cut down on the number of emergency certificates, which in some cases allow people without a college degree to teach a class when certified teachers cannot be found.

In New Jersey, on the other hand, the alternate route was proposed as a way to improve the quality of the state’s teaching force. Cooperman, the state’s education commissioner and one of the nation’s leading proponents of alternative certification, believes the program has worked. Before the Provisional Teacher Program started, he contends, New Jersey’s teachers were coming from the bottom half of their high school classes, and their professional training lacked both rigor and relevance.

Today, he says, the quality of the state’s teaching force is higher, and shortages have been eliminated in almost all areas. He attributes this success to widespread hiring of alternate-route teachers, along with changes in undergraduate education programs. Students are now required to take more non-education classes, and the bulk of the professional course work is clinical in nature.

About one-third of New Jersey’s new teachers came via the alternate route in 1989-90. All told, more than 1,500 alternate-route teachers have been hired since the program’s inception in the fall of 1985.

“Right now, I’d say that the great majority of this state is with us simply because they’ve seen the product,’' Cooperman says. “We’re not saying that this is a finished product, but we’re saying that it’s an extremely thoughtful, carefully implemented program. And so far it has had tremendous results.’'

Others in the education community, however, do not share Cooperman’s enthusiasm, and many are fighting the spread of such programs. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, is one formidable opponent. “It really is in the kids’ best interest to have a teacher who understands how to teach,’' says Shari Francis, a senior staff member in the union’s division for instruction and professional development. “But the kids who need good teaching the most often get the 90-day wonders. These people have not been prepared and haven’t earned the title of teacher.’'

“There really is a body of knowledge that undergirds the teaching profession,’' she adds. “That’s what makes teaching science different from being a scientist.’' The NEA is planning a year-long study on the issue of alternative certification.

When it comes to alternate programs, Francis says, the NEA favors those that are universitybased and rigorous. These typically offer extensive course work and supervised student-teaching internships before participants take over full teaching responsibilities. Harvard University, for instance, offers the MidCareer Math and Science Program, which includes nine months of full-time course work and field experience. But the cost is more than $10,000, and the enrollment is only about 20 students per year.

The American Federation of Teachers has generally been more accepting of the alternateroute concept than its larger rival. The AFT has even started several small pilot programs of its own. One in San Francisco is for paraprofessionals--primarily teachers’ aides--who want to become full-fledged teachers. Another in Atlanta serves more recent college graduates and career changers.

The AFT has focused much of its attention on the programs’ mentoring component. “Many programs just take good teachers, put them with the new teachers, and say, ‘Help them out,’' without offering the mentors any training, says Carolyn Trice, an associate director in the union’s educational issues department.

But both the mentor and the teacher candidate, Trice says, need release time for regular observation and meetings. “When you do it right, it will require some extra resources,’' possibly even more teachers, she notes.

Not surprisingly, teacher educators have been another strong, consistent source of opposition to alternative certification. Its growing popularity calls into question the validity of traditional preparation, and challenges the teacher-education community’s control over teacher training.

Doyle Watts, head of the department of curriculum and instruction at Lamar University in Beaumont, Tex., voices a common criticism. “Most alternate routes produce people who are not well-prepared,’' he says. “In the end, the children are the losers.’' He points out that New Jersey’s program provides less preservice training for teachers than is required for cosmetologists, manicurists, barbers, private detectives, or funeral directors.

David Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, calls alternative-certification programs “essentially anti-professional and anti-quality.’'

He predicts that political pressures, from the President on down, will lead to the proliferation of such programs. It seems to be politically popular, he says, for legislators to argue that people with arts and sciences backgrounds automatically make better teachers than traditional education students.

“But most teachers and teacher educators still think it takes more than [a short training program] to become even a seasoned beginner,’' Imig says. “The thing we fear is what happens to the student who has one of the teachers who isn’t successful. Do they lose a whole year? How are these deficiencies overcome?’'

Although the 5,000-member Association of Teacher Educators also condemns the hiring of untrained teachers, it recognizes that in some areas alternate routes may be a necessary antidote to shortages. But the group believes among other things that education schools should have a greater role in the development of such programs; beginning teachers should not be required to take more than one three-hour credit course per semester; teaching candidates should have recent, direct experience working with children; and a panel of master teachers should recommend permanent certification for alternateroute teachers.

Other skeptics are concerned that alternateroute teachers tend to land jobs in poor, inner-city districts that have a tough time finding qualified teachers. Such districts have to take what they can get, while their wealthier, higher-paying counterparts can be much more selective. As urban superintendents and principals scramble to hire teachers in September, alternate-route candidates with strong academic credentials may look particularly attractive. The result is that provisional teachers often end up teaching disadvantaged students.

In New Jersey, however, many educators in wealthy and poor districts alike agree that the Provisional Teacher Program has basically lived up to its promise.

One of them is Arnold Webster, superintendent of the Camden city schools, which are full of the poor, minority students that critics fear will suffer at the hands of unprepared alternate-route teachers. Webster, whose schools employ more than 30 of the nontraditional teachers, believes those fears are groundless. “We haven’t had an iota of a problem,’' he says. “For the most part, it has worked very well for us.’'

And Ruth Green-Brown, the principal at Camden High School, has nothing but praise for her provisional teachers, calling them “top-notch, highquality individuals.’' But she faces a common situation with her young teachers--once they are certified or have one or two years of experience, many leave for the greener pastures of the suburbs.

The Holmdel School District near New York City is one of those greener pastures. With its affluent parents and small number of minority students, Holmdel offers a stark contrast to Camden. It is a place where scores of teachers want to work; some job announcements bring in 100 resumes a day, according to superintendent Timothy Brennan.

“We never set out to hire a traditionally trained teacher or an alternateroute teacher,’' Brennan says. “We just look for the best person in the pool.’'

Despite the stiff competition in Holmdel, the district hires a few alternate-route teachers every year, even when fully certified candidates are offering their services. This is happening throughout New Jersey, but mostly in the Holmdels rather than the Camdens. Once an alternate-route teacher with an appropriate degree passes the state’s subject-matter exam, he or she can seek work at any school. The school and the candidate simply enter a contract whereby the district provides the training and instruction required for certification.

Brennan says the alternate-route teachers in his district “have a totally different approach and slant’’ to the subjects they teach. “We wouldn’t want them throughout the program,’' he says, “but they do add spice.’' A former newscaster, for example, teaches language arts and public speaking, and a woman who has lived in France and worked as a translator has been hired to teach French and Latin. Brennan does not hire provisional teachers for elementary school positions, where their specialized backgrounds are less appropriate.

Along with attracting candidates from diverse educational and professional backgrounds, the New Jersey program has had success recruiting large numbers of minority candidates. Since the program began, 22 percent of the participants have been minorities, which is double the percentage of the state’s teaching force that is minority, according to Ellen Schechter, the state’s director of teacher education. She attributes this to two factors--easier access to teaching for college graduates with non-education degrees and aggressive recruitment of minority candidates.

The growth in alternative-certification programs comes at a time when educators, policymakers, and other observers are calling for more rigorous training programs and tougher certification standards for teachers. On the surface, these appear to be contradictory trends.

One person with an idea for resolving this apparent contradiction is Arthur Wise, director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession. But his solution, like alternate routes, poses a challenge to traditional undergraduate programs. Wise says he would “move teacher education to the graduate level and contain it within the boundaries of, say, a one-year master’s degree program. That way, people interested in a teaching career would have access to teacher preparation.’' He also proposes that all beginning teachers undergo a year-long teaching internship where they are closely supervised by senior personnel.

The idea is similar to proposals put forward by the Holmes Group, a consortium of reform-minded research universities, and the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. Both have advocated shifting teacher training from the undergraduate to the graduate level, a move that would put it more in line with the type of preparation associated with the other more established professions. Wise cautions that expansion of alternative certification could slow the movement to professionalize teaching. “If we unleash large numbers of unqualified persons into the schools and call them teachers, we will end up redoubling our efforts to compensate for the low quality of the teaching force,’' he says.

A 1989 RAND study on alternative certification gives the programs decidedly mixed reviews. “Our research suggests that the quickie programs, in the minds of people who undergo them, do not adequately prepare them for teaching,’' Wise says.

The study, Redesigning Teacher Education, focuses on programs for math and science teachers, ranging from two-year master’s degree options to on-the-job training programs. Programs in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas were surveyed for the report.

“These programs appear to be successful at meeting their basic goal: preparing nontraditional recruits to enter the classroom quickly,’' the study concludes. But it finds inadequate supervision of novice teachers to be a major weakness of the shorter programs. “Shockingly, given the emphasis these programs place on on-the-job training in lieu of much generally required course work,’' the report notes, “they in fact offered the least supervision of any program type, with many recruits receiving assistance only a few times during an entire year.’'

RAND researchers, like NEA leaders and many teacher educators, reserve their approval for the more “traditional’’ alternatives. Programs that provide “substantial pedagogical course work before recruits enter the classroom and provide supervision and graduated assumption of responsibility during a practicum are more effective in the eyes of their participants and graduates,’' the report states. “Programs that severely truncate course work and place candidates in teaching positions without adequate preparation or supervision are less wellrated by recruits.’'

As Wise points out, proper supervision is an expensive proposition, costing about $4,000 per candidate each year, mostly in the form of stipends for the mentor teachers. As a result, he says, “some alternative-certification programs promise careful supervision, but fail to deliver.’'

Francois Bereaud, who entered the New Jersey program after receiving a B.A. in mathematics from Cornell University, offers an example of mentoring that worked. During his first year as a math teacher at Camden High School, Bereaud found his on-thejob supervision invaluable because of a mentor teacher who was available for informal daily meetings that focused on everything from teaching materials to discipline problems. Other teachers were not as fortunate, he says, because they had less contact with their mentors, typically in more formal sessions.

In theory, New Jersey’s alternateroute teachers are supposed to work closely in class with a mentor for the first month of school, gradually assuming full responsibility. “In practice,’' Bereaud says, “I walked into the classroom on the first day as a teacher. I don’t think I was super wellprepared. I learned a lot on the job.’'

At the other extreme, shared responsibility can also be tough on a new teacher. Bereaud tells of a fellow provisional teacher who started the year as an observer while the mentor taught the class. When it came time to take over, the new teacher found it difficult to live up to the performance of her popular mentor.

The RAND study estimates that about 20,000 new math and science teachers will be needed annually for the next decade; schools of education will probably prepare less than half that number. Shortages also exist or are expected in such areas as elementary, bilingual, and special education.

Although created in many places to help remedy shortages, alternate routes are limited in their ability to supply large numbers of teachers, observers say, because they only focus on one aspect of the teacher labor market--ease of entry into the field. Other unrelated factors can be at least as important in the decision to enter teaching.

“We’re entering a period of rising teacher demand,’' says the RAND Corporation’s Wise. “Clearly, we’re going to be scrambling to find people to staff our schools. Two of the most important things we must do are to make teaching a more attractive career and pay proper salaries. That will be the only way to avert the problem in the long run.’'

Schools of education are attracting more students--enrollments have risen 30 to 35 percent nationwide over the last few years. And Imig, AACTE’s executive director, believes the schools can produce enough certified teachers to meet the demand, but only if they receive significantly more financial and other support from their universities.

Many more faculty members will be needed to do the job, he says, especially with preparation programs moving to smaller classes and employing such instructional innovations as computer simulations. Moreover, schools of education are responding to the growth of alternate routes by developing their own alternate programs and by stepping up student recruitment. Those efforts, he says, can be costly.

Meanwhile, the number of alternative-certification programs nationwide will almost certainly increase as districts and states, struggling to meet the demand for teachers, are forced to turn to individuals who lack traditional preparation. Many educators cringe at the prospect, and argue that colleges of education, school districts, unions, and policymakers should work together to devise acceptable and effective ways to open more widely the gates to the teaching profession.

Says Francis of the NEA: “We all want good education for America’s schoolchildren. We just disagree on the best way to get there. We need to come together to figure out how we’re going to address supply and demand and keep the standards high. That’s the challenge.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Looking For A Short Cut

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