Teacher Preparation

Alternative Certification Programs Are Booming. But Candidates Aren’t Finishing

By Madeline Will — June 07, 2022 7 min read
In this photo taken Sept. 1, 2011, Michael Darmas "high fives" a student at Holmes Elementary School in Miami. In a distressed neighborhood north of Miami's gleaming downtown, a group of enthusiastic but inexperienced instructors from Teach for America is trying to make progress where more veteran teachers have had difficulty: raising students' reading and math scores.
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Alternative-certification programs have long been thought of as one solution to teacher shortages, but a new analysis shows that the number of candidates completing those programs has declined over the past decade, despite a boom in enrollments and new offerings.

The findings underscore the complex and changing nature of the teacher hiring pipeline: Alternative programs are typically cheaper and faster than traditional teacher-preparation programs based at colleges and universities. They are bringing in new and more diverse talent to the teaching workforce. But as the authors of the new report warn, their candidates don’t always finish, and quality control remains an issue.

The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents traditional teacher-preparation programs, partnered to conduct an analysis of alternative-certification programs that are based outside colleges and universities. The researchers analyzed nearly 10 years of federal data, from the 2010-11 to 2018-19 academic years.

In 2018-19, there were 224 alternative-certification programs that aren’t based at colleges or universities, comprising about 10 percent of all preparation programs. It’s a small but growing slice of the preparation landscape. These programs are run by school districts, for-profit companies, or nonprofits like Teach For America.

“There is so much variety here,” said Jessica Yin, a former policy analyst at CAP and an author of the report. “It’s really important to pay attention to what’s going on in here and seeing what we can learn from some of the innovation that’s happening. ... [But] the huge variety potentially means a variety in quality as well.”

Alternative-certification programs allow candidates to earn their teaching credential while being the teacher of record—and earning a paycheck. But requirements for these programs can vary widely. For example, some of the for-profit programs—like the for-profit, Houston-based Teachers of Tomorrow—don’t require candidates to go through any supervised student-teaching experience.

Alternative programs still saw a decline in completions

Enrollment has been steadily declining in teacher-preparation programs as a whole over the past decade, but alternative programs not based at a college or a university have bucked the trend. They were the only type of programs to see an increase in enrollment—76 percent—from 2010 to 2019.

However, the sector ended up contributing fewer teachers to the workforce in 2019 than it did nearly a decade ago: The number of completions declined over that same time period by 10 percent.

The mismatch is a reminder to “not get over-excited about enrollment,” Yin said. “If your completion [rate] isn’t matching, then you’re not getting the outcome we’re all hoping for, which is well-prepared teachers.”

In the 2018-19 school year, alternative programs outside of higher education operated in 33 states and Washington, D.C. Texas has 41 programs, the most in the country.

The Lone Star State is the only one in the country in which alternative-certification programs based outside colleges and universities account for the majority of enrollment, at 68 percent. Texas Teachers of Tomorrow is the largest teacher-preparation program in the state—and the country, when measured by enrollment.

Report notes quality concerns for the largest preparation program

Teachers of Tomorrow operates in eight additional states, aside from Texas. This report noted some concerns about the program, including the mismatch between the enrollment numbers and the numbers of students who actually complete their certification.

Prospective teachers who have a bachelor’s degree and pass an interview with Teachers of Tomorrow can enroll for $295 and go through a self-directed online program at their own pace. The program does not offer any direct instruction, said Jacqueline King, a senior consultant for AACTE and an author of the report.

Candidates observe teachers in the classroom but do not have to do any student-teaching. When candidates complete the online program, they become the teacher of record. After a year of teaching with support from a district-provided mentor and a Teachers of Tomorrow field supervisor, candidates can become fully certified.

Texas Teachers of Tomorrow costs $4,350, in addition to the enrollment fee, but candidates don’t have to pay until they are hired by a school district.

In a statement provided to Education Week, Ignacio Garcia, the company’s CEO, said Teachers of Tomorrow provides a flexible pathway for those who are interested in changing careers and becoming a teacher. Being able to attract these candidates, he added, is critical to solving teacher shortages.

“While the personal circumstances of some candidates may slow the pace of completion, the vast majority of candidates who complete the program do so in three years or less,” Garcia said. “We remain committed to driving process and service improvements that increase the pace and rate of completion with an uncompromising focus on quality.”

Last year, the Texas Education Agency found the program out of compliance with several state standards, including admission criteria, curricula, and ongoing support. (The company has since changed ownership after being acquired by a private equity firm.) State education officials have been working with Texas Teachers of Tomorrow to address these issues, the Dallas Morning News has reported, and the Texas State Board for Educator Certification will consider in July whether to accept those fixes or recommend the company be shut down, which would have significant effects on the state’s supply of teachers.

Meanwhile, the national Teachers of Tomorrow has indicated its intent to expand into more states. The Texas program was recently accredited—with a note of concern—by the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation, one of two national bodies that evaluate teacher-prep programs.

“If you drive around Texas, you see billboards for Teachers of Tomorrow,” King said, adding that those billboards often advertise the speed in which applicants can enter the classroom. But she worries that prospective teachers who take such an accelerated path into the profession won’t be prepared to be successful—and ultimately might not stay in teaching for long.

“If we’re assuming that it’s not a growing pool of people interested in teaching, then they’re siphoning out people who would have otherwise gone to a university program or an alternative program run by a local nonprofit,” King said. “What will that mean for the workforce?”

A bright spot in diversity

One of the hallmarks of alternative-certification programs is that they have consistently enrolled a higher percentage of prospective teachers of color than traditional programs. The teaching workforce as a whole is 80 percent white.

In 2018-19, the non-university-based alternative programs enrolled a higher percentage of students of color than students who identified as white—the first time any teacher-preparation program sector reached that milestone in the past decade. Forty-four percent of these students were students of color, with 20 percent identifying as Black or African American. (Some students did not report their race.)

However, the majority of students who completed these programs were white, at 55 percent, the report found. Among those who finished their programs, Hispanic or Latino students made up the largest group of students of color, at 20 percent.

Alternative programs are typically cheaper, shorter in length, and more flexible than traditional programs, which could be appealing to candidates of color, Yin said.

“I think this is just adding to the conversation: college, and teacher preparation in college, is very expensive, and it’s prohibitive—especially for students of color,” she said. “You’re going to see an impact on enrollment if you continue to leave that problem unaddressed.”

But it’s still critical for alternative programs to focus on supporting their students of color so they can successfully complete the programs and make it to the classroom, she said.

Also, past research has found that teachers who enter the profession through alternative-certification programs are more likely to leave than those who came in via traditional routes, adding to the question of how to alleviate teacher shortages in the long term.

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