School & District Management

‘Fast Track’ Teacher-Certification Efforts Are Examined

By Debra Viadero — April 19, 2005 3 min read
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A new study looking at “fast track” teacher-certification programs in four states highlights some of the trade-offs states face as they seek quicker ways to stem teacher shortages and get qualified teachers into classrooms.

The study, produced by researchers at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, examines alternative-route programs for certifying teachers in California, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Massachusetts.

Researchers presented some of their findings from the project here last week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. The Washington-based AERA’s April 11-15 gathering drew more than 12,000 researchers from the United States and 52 other countries.

Such certification programs now operate in at least 46 states as an alternative to traditional, university-based programs for preparing teachers. But the idea of alternative routes covers a wide range of approaches, not all of which are considered fast-track. The gamut includes, for instance, homegrown programs run by districts, condensed university programs for career-switchers, stand-alone state-run programs, and private efforts such as Teach for America, which recruits high-achieving college graduates for teaching stints in hard-to-staff schools.

Susan Moore Johnson, the lead researcher on the Harvard project, said the fast-track programs her research group studied attracted prospective teachers because they offered quick, convenient training—usually no more than five to eight weeks over the summer—and because they charged low or no tuition.

“It basically does not interrupt your capacity to earn income before you begin teaching,” said Ms. Johnson, a professor of teaching and learning at Harvard. “But when you have lots of incentives, it’s much harder to ensure the quality that you would like.”

Contrasting Approaches

Within the limited span of time that program operators have for training, for instance, they have to grapple with whether to prepare teachers broadly for a wide range of teaching assignments or tailor training to specific high-need areas, such as special education. Program designers also have to decide how best to ensure quality control.

For their study, the Harvard researchers visited a total of 14 program sites, reviewed documents and course syllabuses for the programs, and interviewed program directors, state officials, program faculty members, and 65 participating teacher-candidates. Program graduates were also interviewed a second time, six to eight months after starting their classroom jobs.

To illustrate the kinds of trade-offs the programs faced, the researchers compared two types of programs operating, respectively, in Louisiana and Massachusetts: “locally grounded” efforts and “all purpose” programs.

The Louisiana program is a small effort developed by a local district seeking to produce its own special education teachers. According to Heather G. Peske, a co-investigator for the study, the seven participants in that program were recruited from the community, were taught by local teachers, and received some of their training in the schools where they would eventually work.

“While some of the skills taught might be less marketable outside the district,” Ms. Peske said, “the teachers in the locally grown program … were more invested in the candidates’ success in the classroom.”

In contrast, the focus of Massachusetts’ all-purpose approach is to inculcate teachers with generic skills, such as lesson planning or classroom management, that they could put to use in a variety of settings. Paid for by the state, the training is provided by universities or nonprofit groups, and 15 to 70 teachers were enrolled at each of the seven Massachusetts sites studied. Teachers could earn certification in 10 different areas, but content-specific training was limited, usually consisting of one day in seven weeks of training.

Operators of several of the programs examined for the study, most of which had no ties to specific districts, also had a hard time placing teachers in practice-teaching jobs in schools where they might one day end up working.

Part of an ongoing effort at Harvard called the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, the paper on alternative certification will be published in late May or early June on the project’s Web site at www.gse.harvard.edu/~ngt.

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