Special Report

Taking a Different Road to Teaching

By Lynn Olson — January 13, 2000 5 min read
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When New Jersey launched a program in 1985 to give nontraditional teacher-candidates an accelerated route into the profession, alarm bells went off across the country. Critics charged that the program would use children as guinea pigs while adults learned to teach.

“It was the equivalent to World War III,” recalls Ellen M. Schechter, the assistant state commissioner of education in New Jersey.

Yet the program weathered the criticism. Now in its 14th year, it has had almost 9,000 graduates, and it produces about 25 percent of the state’s new teachers annually.

State officials say the program has helped eliminate emergency licenses, except in the high-demand fields of bilingual education and special education. “The alternate route has become accepted as the norm in New Jersey,” Schechter says.

Much the same can be said of similar efforts across the country. Although alternative routes remain controversial, 40 states now have them for people who have college degrees in something other than education. Many are geared to midcareer job-switchers, military retirees, and others who did not originally plan to teach. An estimated 80,000 people have been licensed through such pathways.

“It’s become part of the mainstream,” says Penelope M. Earley, a senior director at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. She estimates that as many as half the organization’s member colleges and universities offer at least one alternate route.

In part, states and schools of education are simply responding to market demands. A survey by C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Education Information, a private research group based in Washington, estimates that almost a third of the people who completed teacher-preparation programs in 1998 already had bachelor’s degrees.

But in many states, the number of teachers prepared through alternative routes remains minuscule. New Jersey, California, and Texas produce the bulk of the nation’s alternate-route candidates.

‘Where the Jobs Are’

Still, acceptance of such programs is growing, and one reason is the evidence that they work.

In general, alternative routes attract a significantly higher proportion of minority candidates and math and science teachers--highly prized recruits for many districts--than traditional programs do. Studies also have found that teachers coming through alternative routes perform at least as well, if not better, on state licensing exams than traditional graduates. Often, such candidates are older and more mature. They’re more willing to teach in urban environments, and they’re more likely to stay in the districts where they’ve been trained.

After six years, for example, 87 percent of the graduates of California’s “teacher internship” programs are still teaching--83 percent in the schools where they began. “The huge advantage is that the programs are designed to prepare teachers to teach where the jobs are,” Feistritzer says.

But few studies have examined whether alternative-route teacher ' perform better in the classroom or produce higher student achievement. Although test scores from Dallas and Houston suggest that students with such teachers perform at least as well as those taught by traditionally certified teachers, research has largely been limited to case studies, with little empirical data.

One problem is that such widely diverse programs have been labeled “alternate routes” that the term has become virtually meaningless.

Some may be no more than shortcuts into the classroom, what the Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond describes as the equivalent of “educational malpractice.” Others are highly structured and intensive programs leading to a master’s degree.

The devil, experts agree, is in the details.

A good alternative program, they say, should require candidates to meet the same performance standards for admission into the profession as traditional programs, even though the length of training and how, when, and where it takes place may differ. Typically, the initial training is confined to a summer before candidates assume primary responsibility for a classroom, under the supervision of a mentor teacher. Additional knowledge and skills are acquired while teaching, and most training is more practically oriented.

Good alternative routes can be both time-consuming and costly to administer, which is one reason so few districts offer them. In California, only nine internship programs are run by districts, and two of those involve groups of districts working together. “The reality is that it’s the big districts that are able to mount these kinds of efforts and are pretty successful at it,” says Michael D. McKibbin, the project officer for alternative certification in the state.

Circumventing Traditional Programs?

But Darling-Hammond warns that reducing the coursework required of future teachers, eliminating student teaching, and allowing candidates to fulfill many licensing requirements on the job could be detrimental to students.

“The really unfortunate thing is that the backdoor routes are and will continue to be used almost exclusively for kids of color and low-income kids in poor rural and urban schools,” she says. “If this was really such a good idea, to have people come into teaching who don’t really know about teaching, then why aren’t those affluent schools beating down the door to get teachers like that?”

Jianping Shen, an associate professor of educational leadership at Michigan State University, argues that at least some college graduates are using alternate routes to circumvent traditional teacher-preparation programs.

Based on his analysis of data from the 1993-94 federal School and Staffing Survey, he found that about a third of alternative-route candidates were younger than 30.

Some researchers, however, have questioned the accuracy of the self-reported information used in the SASS database.

And others suggest that many talented young college graduates would go into teaching but are deterred by the extensive preservice requirements, so alternate routes might not be such a bad idea.

One sign of such sentiment among young graduates is Teach For America, a program launched in 1989 that enlists liberal arts graduates to teach in poor urban and rural schools. Recruits are trained during the summer and sign on for at least two years.

In the past four years, the number of applicants has increased 37 percent, to about 3,100 in 1998-99. Nearly 90 percent of the 1997 cohort completed the two-year commitment, and 54 percent of the program’s 4,000 alumni remain in the public schools.

At Dr. William H. Horton School in Newark, N.J., Principal Roger Leon, who was himself a graduate of the alternative-route program, likes the alternative-route approach so much that he has hired about 20 of his 80 teachers through that nontraditional avenue in the past two years.

“It has been my experience that the alternate-route teachers provide strong content knowledge as a result of their majors,” he says

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2000 edition of Education Week


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