Education Commentary

Alternate Certification ‘Places Children at Risk’

By Doyle Watts — December 17, 1986 4 min read

As consumers of professional services, we usually lack the expertise to judge whether or not a practitioner’s formal preparation has adequately prepared him to deliver such services in an effective and safe fashion. How many of us, for example, could determine for ourselves whether an engineer, physician, or dentist had bene properly prepared? Few, I would guess. Thus, we depend on the process of professional licensure for our assurance.

But unlike most other professional licensing authorities, state departments of education permit people with substandard licenses to practice as though they were fully qualified.

Although issuing these licenses to unqualified teachers is undesirable, at least the credentials are acknowledged as being inferior. States have traditionally placed limits on the length of time teachers can practice with substandard licenses, and have required them to complete standard licensing requirements in order to remain in the profession.

Now, however, a number of states have begun to provide alternate, substandard routes to standard teacher licensure. The result, I fear, will be increasing numbers of children facing a greater risk of becoming part of illiterate America.

In designing these substandard alternate-preparation programs, departments of education have not performed carefully controlled research to evaluate the effectiveness of their new training procedures. Therefore, parents and students in “alternate route” states can no longer depend on a license as evidence that a teacher has received the appropriate training and developed the proper skills to practice in an effective fashion. Judging from the components constituting most alternate programs and the lack of quality-control measures, the alternate routes are inferior.

For example, a measure passed in Texas in 1984 specifically exempted prospective teachers in alternate programs from being required to take the examination in pedagogical knowledge that is compulsory for candidates prepared through standard programs. Yet, the same license is issued to teacher applicants with either type of preparation. Houston’s alternate program, which has the blessing of the Texas Education Agency, provides only two weeks of preparation in pedagogical knowledge and skills before the candidate assumes charge of schoolchildren as their teacher of record.

New Jersey’s alternate plan allows a teacher trainee to practice as a fully responsible, paid teacher with only 100 hours of preservice practice. As Martin Haberman noted in the Phi Delta Kappan (October 1985), New Jersey requires twice as much training for a manicurist, 12 times as much for a cosmetologist, and more than 30 times more for a barber.

Because alternate programs tend to be shorter and have fewer quality-control measures than standard programs, they will almost certainly attract persons seeking easy access into the teaching profession-- individuals lacking the talent and initiative to meet standard-program requirements. Until we can ensure that this is not occurring, we must do all we can to protect children from incompetent practice. To do otherwise would place children at risk.

As I see it, there are three basic ways in which states can provide a measure of “consumer protection” in their alternate-certification programs.

One is to insist that the license granted to teachers prepared through alternate plans be distinctly different from the one awarded teachers who complete standard programs. And teachers, like doctors, should be legally required to display their licenses publicly. Parents and students would then be able to determine the type of professional preparation teachers had completed.

Another step is to insist that state legislatures limit the number of teachers practicing who have undergone alternate preparation. This can be achieved by restricting the total number of licenses issued each year through alternate-preparation programs. In addition, individual school districts can be limited in the number or percentage of teaching positions they are allowed to staff with persons prepared through alternate programs.

My final prescription would be that teachers prepared through alternate programs not be assigned the same professional authority and responsibility or receive the same salary and benefits as those who completed standard preparation. Only after research indicates that such teachers have the appropriate professional knowledge and skills should they be treated as full members of the profession. Until such evidence becomes available, a paraprofessional role would be more appropriate to protect children from the potentially detrimental effects of incompetent pedagogical practice.

State legislatures and departments of education have a duty to ensure that every child is taught by a teacher who has the best professional preparation possible. State authorities behave in an irresponsible fashion when they approve alternate-preparation plans that are shorter and less demanding than existing programs. If we can no longer depend on the present licensing process to ensure that teachers are properly prepared, we must take forceful action to ensure that parents are properly notified by school districts when their children are assigned to teachers prepared through an alternate plan.

A version of this article appeared in the December 17, 1986 edition of Education Week