Education Opinion

Alternate Routes Into Teaching: Promises and Pitfalls

By Jack Schneider — May 13, 2014 6 min read
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This week Michelle and Jack look at teacher preparation, beginning with a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of alternate routes.

Rhee: I’ve long been a believer in casting a wide net to try and recruit candidates to become teachers in our public schools. Not because I believe that anyone can teach, quite the opposite. I think teaching is one of the most difficult professions there is. As such, we need to ensure we can bring talented, committed people in to the classroom, even if they didn’t know they wanted to be a teacher at age 18.

I founded an organization called The New Teacher Project in 1997, with the goal of recruiting more talented people into the profession, whether it be through traditional or alternate routes. What we found in working with school districts across the country was that there were significant barriers that existed to great potential teachers getting hired, particularly in high-need urban districts.

What are your thoughts on teacher recruitment? Are you in favor of using a mix of both traditional and alternate route programs?

Schneider: I have no problem with alternate routes. Nor do I think most teachers do.

But there are two issues that we need to consider when talking about alternate routes. The first of those is training. Because training matters, and rushing novices into classrooms isn’t going to help students, and it isn’t going to help teachers. Even Teach For America has learned this over the years, jamming more and more into their five week “summer institute,” and developing a training model that in many ways looks surprisingly like traditional teacher education, though they would never publicly admit it.

The second issue is messaging. And again I’m thinking of TFA. Because if the message being sent is that novices are somehow preferable to experienced teachers, or that the untrained are somehow preferable to those with training, you’re going to de-professionalize the work. And, of course, nothing de-professionalizes the work like treating it as a two-year service commitment.

Rhee: I agree on both. Training is critical and programs like TFA and others have tried to improve significantly in this arena. They’ve also partnered with traditional schools of education and others to create credentialing programs to meet the unique needs of the program participants. While they’re not perfect, they are getting better and better.

I agree with the messaging aspect as well. I welcomed TFA corps members and Teaching Fellows into classrooms in Washington, DC, but it was critical to understand that each of these teachers had to prove themselves effective. There certainly wasn’t a belief that just because they were affiliated with TFA or the Teaching Fellows that such status automatically made them effective. I think too often people assume that when you are in favor of allowing programs like this to exist you believe that participants are somehow all superior when I don’t think that’s the case.

Schneider: You’re right to say that being a TFA corps member shouldn’t confer any special status. But unfortunately there’s a common perception that TFA has figured out teacher recruitment and training. And that just isn’t the case.

I’m open to alternate pathways like Urban Teacher Residencies, which take training seriously and which frame teaching as a career. But any program that does training in five weeks and frames teaching as a two-year service project is detrimental to the profession. I’m further troubled by the impact on kids in classrooms. However smart you are, and however prestigious your alma mater, you’re not ready to teach after just a few weeks of training—not in high-needs schools.

Now, it’s worth noting here that schools of education have a lot to work on. To be clear: they certainly don’t deserve to be trashed, as they often are. Groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality do a lot of damage in this respect, deepening divisions between traditional and alternative preparation programs. But there is a great deal that college- and university-based programs can do to improve.

So, from my perspective, I think we need to talk a lot less about boutique programs that come with a lot of baggage, and talk more about how to improve rigorous teacher training. How can we increase the flexibility of such programs? How can we better integrate coursework with practice? How can we reduce the cost of training borne by future teachers?

Rhee: There are big differences among teacher prep programs, traditional or otherwise. The interesting thing is that studies have shown that there are bigger differences within routes than between routes (including TFA and Teaching Fellows). So does that mean we should focus more on what happens once a teacher is in the classroom? Or talk about how we improve all teacher training programs?

Schneider: Yes, some research does show bigger differences within routes than between them. Although there is also a body of research that tries to disaggregate the data, and which reveals high quality teacher education programs to be the most effective of all. And it’s worth noting here that effectiveness is often measured by student standardized test scores, which of course only measure a slice of what great teachers do in the classroom. So while I think that it’s possible for teachers with varying levels of training and experience to produce equal gains in test scores, I find it significantly less likely that those teachers are truly making the same kind of impact on students.

None of this, however, should lead to us throwing up our hands around the matter of teacher training.

Opponents of teacher education—those who are ideologically opposed to what they perceive as bureaucratic governance, who don’t value the socio-cultural aspects of college- and university-run pre-service programs, are who are predisposed toward the quantifiable—like to say that teacher training is broken because teachers can’t be trained in the classroom. Instead, they suggest that we should move to an apprenticeship model where teachers are learning on the job. Or they point to models like the Relay Graduate School of Education, which emphasize the practical over the theoretical.

Of course, they don’t begin by laying out their values and assumptions. Instead, they make the argument that teacher education is inconsistently effective and that we should therefore give up on it. But that’s such a false choice. Leaders in the world of teacher education—people like Deborah Ball at the University of Michigan, for instance—will readily admit that college- and university-based programs can improve. And some of my own research suggests that our many different pathways might learn a great deal from each other.

But when policy rhetoric frames teacher education as frivolous and unnecessary, we get nowhere. What teacher preparation program, in that policy climate, is going to suggest that it has weaknesses? None.

The other factor creating a strangling policy climate is the fact that policy leaders want simple solutions. They want a silver bullet like TFA, or the Department of Education’s proposed accountability system for teacher prep programs. And that just isn’t going to work.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.