Alternative-certification programs are bringing in scores more teachers of color, male teachers, and teachers who attended selective colleges than traditional programs. But teachers who enter the profession through such programs also appear to leave it at higher rates—and that gap has been growing since 1999, a provocative new study concludes.
As of 2007-08, teachers who enter the profession through alternative-certification programs were two and a half times more likely to leave it than those who came in via traditional routes, says the study, which is forthcoming in the American Educational Research Journal.
The study is sure to add more fodder to the longstanding policy debates about alternative programs’ strengths and weaknesses. It comes as enrollment declines across all types of teaching programs, and more and more districts are setting up their own certification regimes to meet the demand for teachers.
The researchers hypothesize that many of the alternative programs need to do more to improve teachers’ feelings of preparedness.
“Alternative certification might be a really good way to break in some types of teachers,” said Christopher Redding, a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and one of the study’s authors. “But I think there needs to be more emphasis on supports in the first few years in the classroom.”
Alternative Certification: A National Look
Alternative certification is a term that tends to conceal more than it reveals.
The main difference from traditional programs is that alternative-certification programs allow individuals to teach right away or after only minimal training, typically assigning them a mentor to guide them. By contrast, traditional certification programs usually require aspiring teachers to complete some pedagogy coursework and several months of student-teaching before they assume control of their own classrooms.
Beyond that, alternative certification programs vary tremendously in type. Some are housed at universities, and candidates enrolled in them even take the same as coursework as traditionally certified teachers. Others have much more minimal standards and requirements.
Critics argue that the programs leave teachers unprepared for the classrooms, despite evidence that alternatively certified teachers are, on average, not much different in performance from traditionally prepared teachers.
(Teacher Beat aside: This study has a very dispassionate review of the research on alternative certification programs. If you’re looking for a rundown free of ideology, this is the one.)
The researchers’ study draws on data from the nationally representative federal Schools and Staffing Survey and its supplement, the Teacher Follow-Up Survey. They looked at data in four different waves; 1999-2000, 2003-2004, 2007-2008, and 2011-12 school years, limiting the sample to teachers with five or fewer years’ experience.
One of the challenges of studying alternative certification is that graduates from these programs tend to work in hard-to-staff schools and schools with larger concentrations of students of color. Both of those factors are associated with higher teacher turnover, irrespective of training. So researchers have to use controls to separate them out from the effect of the teaching route.
Here, they controlled for working conditions via the teachers’ reports of principal effectiveness, availability of materials, and class size, among other things. The also looked at the number of supports (like common planning time and induction) the new teachers received and whether they were assigned a formal mentor.
There weren’t any major differences in turnover rates by teaching route in 1999-2000, but by 2007-2008, AC teachers were 83 percent likely to turn over than TC teachers, and the gap didn’t disappear after applying the various controls.
In addition, when breaking out the data further, the researchers found that the turnover gap between AC and TC teachers seems to be mostly attributable to the AC teachers who are leaving teaching altogether, not to those who are merely changing schools.
As is often the case with research of this type, what’s less clear is just why the turnover gap between alternative and traditional certification programs has grown so much in just 15 years.
One hypothesis: The researchers found that, in 1999-2000, there were virtually no differences in how prepared teachers reported feeling. But by 2003-04, alternative-certification teachers reported feeling less prepared than their colleagues in traditional programs.
Kate Walsh, the president of the advocacy group National Council on Teacher Quality, which has been critical of both traditional and alternative programs, said it’s not surprising that teachers who feel less well prepared would leave at higher rates.
She hypothesized that the boom in alternative programs—some of questionable quality—after the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, might have had an effect. The law’s “highly qualified” teacher provisions prevented states from employing teachers with emergency certification, she noted.
“What states did was to simply take those same [emergency] teachers and claim they were in a certification program of some kind, an AC program,” she said. “We looked at many of those AC programs—they were a joke.”
Indeed, the researchers found that the percentage of teachers reporting that they held emergency credentials shrank considerably during this time period.
For the researchers, the bottom-line finding is that alternative certification teachers may need more supports if the gap in turnover rates is to shrink. Otherwise, alternative certification may be fueling instability in schools serving low-income students and students of color, even if those teachers are taking hard-to-fill jobs.
“I think the study does raise questions about the instructional continuity you might need in these types of schools,” Redding said.
The study found that having a mentor didn’t seem to impact teacher retention. But other kinds of supports did; receiving additional support led to lower turnover rates.
For more on alternative routes to certification:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.