Special Report

Skirting Tradition

By Julie Blair — January 09, 2003 15 min read
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Carla Jones-Tucker isn’t a music teacher, yet her 4th grade classroom resonates with the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, rap, and jazz. She integrates hits from legends like Carlos Santana into her poetry lessons to make them fun and relevant for her Houston students. The idea came naturally to the 38-year-old teacher, as she once did hitches as a radio producer and journalist, experiences she draws on heavily now in her teaching practice.

“I go and find very popular songs and have [students] convert the lyrics and let them see that it is poetry,” says Jones-Tucker. “After doing that, it isn’t so foreign. It gets them to be reflective and elaborate.”

The educator, who graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern University in Houston, has been teaching for only 1½ years. Yet she is already recognized as one of the most effective teachers in the building, says her principal, Roslyn Stiles Vaughn.

Jones-Tucker’s efforts--which also include starting a yearbook and tracking down free school supplies--exemplify the work of an eight-person cohort that matriculated through the district’s alternative-certification program and into the 875-pupil Anderson Elementary School. Since 1985, the initiative has provided on-the-job training to more than 5,000 individuals who hold bachelor’s degrees and want to work in the city’s hard-to-staff schools.

“The program itself prepares them so well, you wouldn’t even realize they don’t have traditional degrees,” Vaughn says. ''They come in and take over as lead teachers.”

In an era of increased accountability, states and school districts must find ways to recruit, train, and retain highly qualified teachers, particularly for students in high-poverty, high-minority, and low-achieving schools.

Proponents argue that alternative-certification programs, such as Houston’s and hundreds of others around the country, are one way to do just that. Such programs, they maintain, can develop new pools of instructors who are willing to work in those settings, quickly fill vacancies with highly qualified individuals, launch more minorities and men into a field dominated by white women, and simultaneously improve teacher retention and instruction.

School administrators and lawmakers are also eager to try new models of teacher preparation as an antidote to criticisms of traditional undergraduate education programs. But whether such streamlined routes will benefit the nation’s neediest students, or further disadvantage them, is a subject of fierce debate.

“The best-designed ones are pretty good,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University and a former executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. “Some of them are not so well-designed. They give you a little bit of windup in the summer and then throw you in.”

To date, 44 states and the District of Columbia have created such opportunities, most often to ease teacher shortages, says C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Education Information, a private, nonpartisan research organization in Washington and a leading researcher on the trend.

She estimates that the initiatives produce one-third of the 75,000 teachers needed annually and will yield even more as the programs continue to grow.

Of the 25 state-enacted or -regulated programs with preservice and mentoring components identified by Quality Counts (including the District of Columbia), only those in Massachusetts, Missouri, and Texas target potential teachers willing to work in high-poverty, high-minority, or low-achieving schools. Teachers in these states, however, can opt out of such schools if they teach in subjects with shortages.

In a survey of 30 large districts, six of 21 “structured” alternative routes were designed specifically to recruit candidates for high-need schools.

The stakes are higher than ever before. Under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, all teachers in the core academic subjects must be “highly qualified” by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Schools receiving federal Title I money, primarily those serving students from low-income families, can no longer hire teachers who don’t meet the law’s requirements. No penalties are connected with the requirements, although the U.S. Department of Education could levy some if it chooses to do so.

Under federal law, “highly qualified” educators are fully licensed through traditional or alternative routes and demonstrate competency in the subjects they teach. Alternative routes have the blessing of some prominent leaders.

“At a time when we desperately need strong teachers in our classrooms, we should be doing all we can to attract and keep the best and brightest candidates,” U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has said. “A good place to start is by drawing from nontraditional sources.”

Critics, however, worry that alternative-certification programs lack adequate instruction in pedagogy, and they point to shoddy induction programs they say do little more than provide novices with a free lunch now and again. They’re also concerned that those who are trained in that fashion won’t stay on the job--or worse yet, will be such poor practitioners that students will be harmed. What’s more, the detractors contend, such routes undermine the push to professionalize the field, making it easier to become a teacher than a truck driver in many communities.

“I think we have a potential to do a lot of damage to children,” says Rodney A. Lane, the dean of the school of education at Southern Connecticut State University, in New Haven. Still, his school, which produces 500 teachers annually, prepares 130 of them the nontraditional way.

“What is the alternative? We have classrooms that do not have teachers in them now,” Lane says. “Do you just want to hire people off the streets, or do you want to run them through alternative routes? If the choice is warm bodies, I’ll take the alternative route. The better trained they are, the more a child will learn.”

Wide Variations

Many experts even disagree on the definition of alternative certification. Some argue that programs requiring prospective educators to spend months or weeks on a college campus before becoming teachers of record should not be lumped together with programs that immediately place teachers in classrooms.

“This is one of the more contentious battles I’ve seen,” says Lee S. Shulman, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, based in Menlo Park, Calif., which is studying teacher preparation. “There is essentially no systematic attempt to assess the quality and depth and flexibility... of any of these programs--traditional or alternative.”

Alternative-certification programs are all similar in one way: They must first be authorized by the state. Beyond that step, they differ greatly.

The goals of each program vary. Some initiatives aim to increase the pool of educators statewide, while others want to establish a larger or more diverse workforce in specific communities. Some programs recruit candidates for such high-demand fields as high school mathematics or special education. Others simply desire to road-test a new model of teacher education.

The architects of such programs also differ. California and Texas, for example, give districts much of the responsibility for putting together such initiatives, while Indiana and Illinois ask colleges with teacher-preparation programs to partner with nonprofit groups to do the work.

Despite such variations, three distinct types of alternative routes appear to have evolved: Some offer prospective teachers no training prior to their first day of school, or only a few days of preparation; some require several weeks or months of preservice training, usually in the summer; and some help paraprofessionals and other workers already in the schools upgrade their skills and earn licenses to teach.

A majority of the models include such components as:

  • A standard for admission. High school or college grades are assessed in conjunction with previous work experience and an interview. In some cases, candidates also must pass subject-matter, pedagogical, or basic-skills tests required for licensure to be admitted to the program.
  • Preservice sessions covering pedagogy and giving students exposure to a school classroom, whether for a few days, for weeks, or for months.
  • An induction program that includes mentoring and requires ongoing classwork.
  • An educator-assessment system, either conducted by program administrators or school district officials.

Experts agree that such elements are crucial to producing a well-trained teacher workforce, though they furiously debate admissions standards as well as the minimum length of preservice training.

The New York City Teaching Fellows Program is extremely competitive: This school year, administrators accepted 2,000 of the 15,000 applicants, says Nicholas M. Michelli, the dean of teacher education for the City University of New York, which runs the program.

Every person chosen had a bachelor’s degree and a grade point average of at least 3.0, he says. Before the candidates can enter the classroom, they must also pass pedagogical-knowledge and subject-matter exams. In addition, the prospective educators must be endorsed by their colleges and by program coordinators who observe them teaching preservice K-12 summer school courses.

Others perceive such requirements as roadblocks that will keep talented people out of the field.

“The only two hoops I can justify in my mind are a criminal-background check... and some evidence of subject-matter competence,” says Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham ham Foundation. “We need an open door with as few upfront barriers as possible to people who are willing to try teaching,” says Finn. “Let’s judge them by their effectiveness.”

Teaching is intuitive and can be learned, he says. Preservice training then, in his opinion, can be fairly limited.

On the other end of the spectrum are people like the Carnegie Foundation’s Shulman.

“Teaching is so complex that you need time and practice and supervision, and an opportunity to look at the consequences of your actions,” he says. “I just cannot believe, even without firm data to the contrary, that we don’t need at least two or three years of preparation.”

The amount of time needed in preservice training depends on the teacher-educator and her students, adds Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor who is looking at the structure of alternative-certification programs in California, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Massachusetts alongside Harvard doctoral students Sarah Birkeland and Heather Peske. Adequate training can be accomplished in six or seven weeks, she says, but only if it meets the specific needs of prospective teachers.

“If you could hire a specialist to teach a methods class [in specific subject areas], you could accomplish a lot,” Johnson says, “but most of these programs don’t for the most part have very strong funding to do that.”

Instead, aspiring high school math teachers and kindergarten teachers are provided the same information, even though their jobs are radically different, she says. Many finish their programs without strategies applicable to their own classrooms.

Prospective teachers also need time to master the basics, says Virginia Roach, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“They need to talk about the psychometric properties of assessment, the developmental stages of child development, classroom management, learning styles, and [strategies] for those with special needs,” says Roach.

Add to that list strategies to teach reading to students of all ages, says Dennis E. Hinkle, the dean of the school of education at Towson University in suburban Baltimore. His university produces about 525 educators annually, 100 or so of whom are enrolled in the institution’s alternative route. Many end up in schools where even teenagers can’t read well, Hinkle says.

The best models include instruction on the culture of the communities in which prospective educators will be teaching, Feistritzer adds. Those equipped with skills to teach students living in the inner city, for example, are more successful, she says.

Initiatives that help participants lock in jobs in needy schools and districts are also superior, Johnson adds. Often, prospective teachers feel pressure to secure employment and thus apply to suburban districts in addition to schools in urban communities.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of alternative- certification programs is the teacher-induction phase. During induction, novices are usually required to take college courses and to work with professional-development trainers. Many rookies are also assigned mentors, who can help provide teaching techniques and act as sounding boards.

Ideally, the newcomers are paired with two mentors who then work together as teacher-educators to provide an intensive tutorial, says Rachel Boechler, who runs teacher certification for Cardinal Stritch University. The Milwaukee institution offers one of the nation’s only training programs for teacher-mentors.

The first mentor should be a site-based, midcareer professional with five to 10 years’ experience who has a good understanding of both the grade level and content taught by the newcomer, Boechler says. The second mentor should be provided by the training program and help the novice make the transition from the life of a student to one of a professional, she says.

The beginners “need a couple of people to lean on, so that if one person falls down or gets too busy, we’ve not left the new teacher floating,” she adds.

Johnson of Harvard suggests that new teachers have the support of a team of veterans at the school.

‘A Pretty Good Product’

Studies conflict about whether alternative-route candidates stay in their jobs longer than other fledgling teachers do, and on the nontraditional teachers’ effects on student achievement.

But data suggest such programs do yield some benefits: Some research shows they produce teachers who take jobs in hard-to-staff urban and rural schools, and serve as pipelines to bring a greater number of minority and male candidates into the profession.

Consider these statistics collected by Feistritzer of the National Center for Education Information:

  • Nearly all educators trained in alternative-certification programs in New York state and Michigan teach in inner-city schools, while 67 percent of those enrolled in California’s choose to do so. In New Mexico, 95 percent of those enrolled in such efforts teach in small towns, communities that are often rural and considered difficult to staff.
  • Between 25 percent and 40 percent of those enrolled in alternative programs in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina are African-American; in California and Texas, about one-quarter are Hispanic.
  • About half of those who take part in such programs in Colorado, Delaware, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Dakota are men. In Utah, 75 percent are men.
  • Those who go through programs in California, New Jersey, and Texas have an 85 percent retention rate after five years in the field. Nationwide, about half of teachers remain in their jobs after five years, a study released by Richard M. Ingersoll last year shows.

Many superintendents and principals say they are happy to have these novices, though few administrators have enough data on the recruits to know whether they’re making a difference in their schools.

“It’s been a big plus,” says John O’Sullivan, the superintendent of the Savannah-Chatham County district in Georgia. This school year, 25 of the district’s 224 teacher vacancies were filled with graduates of the Georgia Teacher Alternative-Preparation Program.

“They come with maturity, a degree, and a solid 10-week program to at least get them grounded in the fundamentals,” O’Sullivan says. “You tend to get a pretty good product.”

He says that faculty members from the nontraditional program are at least as competent as their colleagues who came directly from four-year programs, and that retention rates are similar for both groups: About 5 percent leave within the first few years of practice.

A majority of the students who attend school in the 36,000-student district are minority members. Half of the school’s students are considered poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches from the federal government.

The success of the alternative program, O’Sullivan believes, hinges on the induction process. “If you don’t have the mentoring support or professional development or a site leader or principal working with these folks, they do fail, and they fail fairly rapidly.”

Even schools of education, meanwhile, are embracing some of these nontraditional efforts.

At first, colleges were wary of alternative-certification programs, says David G. Imig, the chief executive officer of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a Washington-based organization representing more than 700 institutions. They worried such initiatives would sacrifice quality in exchange for quantity, he says.

Today, though, 75 percent of institutions of higher education with teacher-preparation programs run or collaborate on alternative models, Imig says, and “when deans get together, they brag about the wonderful qualities of these programs.”

That’s not to say he endorses all alternative-certification programs; some he labels “quick and dirty” approaches.

“What makes them successful is that they’re school-based and have [college] faculty and [K-12] teachers working together to provide very rich programs in the schools,” Imig says. “There’s also got to be an opportunity to... analyze what they’ve done.”

In fact, colleges are integrating lessons learned from alternative routes into their traditional programs. Many are increasing the length of school placements and asking K- 12 educators to teach college courses in an attempt to ensure prospective teachers receive meaningful instruction.

In just a few years, Feistritzer believes, the lines between “alternative” and “traditional” routes will blur. They’ll all be hybrids of today’s models, she predicts.

“We’re going to have alternative certification. The question is: Are we smart enough to develop some methods and models that work?” adds Mark D. Musick, the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board. “I trust the answer to that will be yes.”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2003 edition of Education Week


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