Study of Nontraditional Routes to Teaching Finds Ranks Boosted, Questions on Quality

By Lynn Olson — April 26, 1989 5 min read

A new breed of postgraduate training programs is helping make a dent in the shortage of mathematics and science teachers by attracting more minorities, recent college graduates, and career switchers to teaching, a national study has found.

But the study by the rand Corporation cautions that the perceived quality of such programs varies widely, with alternative-certification programs receiving the lowest ratings from participants.

“Programs that severely truncate coursework and place candidates in teaching positions without adequate preparation or supervision are less well-rated by recruits,” the authors warn.

“Unfortunately,” they add, “these in6clude the alternative-certification programs that, in our sample, trained a sizable number of new entrants to teaching.”

According to the study, the nation will need about 20,000 new math and science teachers each year during the next decade. Traditional teacher-training programs, which focus on the undergraduate years, will supply less than half that number by 1992.

The 64 nontraditional programs surveyed by the study enrolled over 2,000 candidates, or about 10 percent of those needed. Thus, they could make a significant contribution to easing the teacher shortage.

These programs include standard graduate-level programs of one or two years’ duration; alternative-certification programs that place recruits in the classroom after a few months of coursework; and retraining programs that help teachers to switch their field of concentration while remaining on the job.

The researchers examined nine such programs in depth and surveyed 481 of their participants. In general, they found, the programs were successful at meeting their basic goal: to prepare recruits to enter the classroom quickly.

Compared with traditional undergraduate programs, the authors note, the 64 programs surveyed tailor coursework more closely to recruits’ certification needs. And they require less time and money.

But the researchers caution that such programs vary widely in their duration, intensity, and content.

Program lengths vary from as little as 16 weeks to two or more years. Required coursework ranges from 9 credits to as many as 45.

In general, the authors found, those programs that follow a more “traditional” approach were rated as most effective by program participants. Such programs provide substantial coursework before recruits enter the classroom and a gradual assumption of teaching duties under the supervision of an experienced mentor.

In contrast, alternative-certification programs that give minimal amounts of time to education coursework, and expect recruits to learn most of their skills on the job, received the lowest ratings.

“The most shocking finding to me was that the great majority of alternative-certification recruits got almost no supervision,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the study’s authors. “They were left to sink or swim with almost no evaluation.”

According to the study, most alternative-route candidates were supervised less than one hour a week, with many receiving assistance only a few times a year.

In addition, these recruits received most of their supervision from school principals or district-level personnel, whose advice was rated as less valuable than that of practicing teachers.

All of the program participants were asked how they would improve their teacher education. Among other things, they recommended more rigorous and practical courses; longer, more varied, and more closely supervised teaching experiences, with opportunities to observe teachers at work; better help with placement in student teaching and in initial jobs; and more aid once in the classroom.

Although nontraditional programs tend to provide their recruits with either subject-matter training or pedagogy, depending on their students’ backgrounds, most recruits expressed a desire for more coursework in both areas.

In particular, candidates said they wanted more information on how to teach a particular subject well, or “subject-specific pedagogy.”

Program participants came from a variety of backgrounds, including retirees, homemakers, career changers, recent college graduates who had majored in math or science, and teachers interested in switching fields.

One of the “clearest strengths” of the programs, the authors argue, is their ability to draw women and minorities into science and math teaching, where they have not been well represented.

Over all, 20 percent of the nontraditional recruits were members of a minority group, and 10 percent were black. These percentages are significantly higher than those for other teacher-preparation programs.

Compared with the total teaching force, the study found, nontraditional recruits were also older and more likely to be male. But they were more likely to be female than the current pool of math and science teachers.

About half the participants were former teachers. Many had been teaching math or science without certification. Of the retrainees, for exam8ple, one-third were teaching math or science before they entered a program to “retrain” them for that task.

The largest pools of nontraditional candidates appear to be recent college graduates who have majored in math or science, and experienced teachers who want to change teaching fields.

Older individuals who want to change occupations also appear to be a smaller but viable source of candidates, the authors found. However, programs have more difficulty recruiting retirees and homemakers.

Those surveyed appear to enter and remain in teaching at rates comparable to the graduates of more traditional teacher-education programs.

Excluding those who were already teachers before they began such programs, 86 percent of graduates entered teaching and about 75 percent were still teaching an average of two years later.

About 70 percent of those surveyed said they plan to remain in teaching for “a while.” But only half planned to make teaching a career.

Ms. Hammond cautioned that policymakers “shouldn’t rely on these programs alone to solve the teacher shortage.”’

“They treat one-half of the puzzle,” she said. Although they reduce the barriers to entering the profession, she noted, they do not necessarily make teaching more attractive.

To do that, she suggested, would require higher wages, better working conditions, and more support during the first few years of teaching.

The study also found that nontraditional teacher-training programs can be vulnerable because of their reliance on outside funding and the vicissitudes of the labor market. Eight of the 64 programs surveyed had been discontinued by the time the study was completed, and several others were unsure they could continue.

Those that appeared most viable had expanded their recruitment pools, become more general in scope, and become institutionalized by affiliating with a university.

Copies of the report, “Redesigning Teacher Education: Opening the Door for New Recruits to Science and Mathematics Teaching,” are available for $10 each from rand’s publication department, P.O. Box 2138, 1700 Main Street, Santa Monica, Calif. 90406-2138.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 1989 edition of Education Week as Study of Nontraditional Routes to Teaching Finds Ranks Boosted, Questions on Quality