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Teaching Profession Opinion

Alternative Certification Is an Oxymoron

By Arthur E. Wise & Linda Darling-Hammond — September 04, 1991 10 min read
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Alternate routes to teacher certification have spread across the country like dandelions in a suburban yard. The idea is popular at both the federal and state levels. President Bush’s education plan encourages states to pursue alternative certification, while noting that “we must have well-prepared teachers.” More than 30 states have already introduced initiatives under this rubric, although these initiatives are as different from one another as they are from any state’s “regular” certification route.

Some alternate routes to certification are master’s-degree programs designed to recruit nontraditional entrants into rigorous, graduate-level programs that lead to full teacher certification. These are “alternatives” in the sense that they provide an option to the traditional undergraduate teacher-education program, which is designed primarily for 18- to 21-year-olds.

Others are alternative certification procedures, which diverge substantially from regular standards of preparation and entry. Many of these require that candidates spend a few weeks taking coursework during the summer (ranging from 90 to 200 “clock hours”), followed by full employment in the classroom, where candidates are supposed to be supervised. Some allow immediate entry into the classroom without even this modest orientation. A few require additional study on the side; others do not. In some cases, training is provided by colleges; in others, local school districts may provide the training. In either event, the total amount of preparation is less than that required of traditional teacher trainees--generally the equivalent of two to four college courses rather than the 10 or more required for a regular certificate in most states--and it does not include supervised student teaching.

As a point of comparison illustrating the differences between these two types of alternate routes, one master’s-degree program requires 45 credit hours of professional education courses (including a supervised teaching internship), whereas another requires only nine credits beyond the bachelor’s degree.

A few states, like New Jersey and California, have transferred so much authority for training and certifying candidates to local school districts that their initiatives might actually be viewed as alternatives to state certification itself. In these cases, both the conduct of teacher preparation (which consists largely of on-the-job supervision)and the final decisions about candidate competence (made by school principals after recruits have been full-time teachers for a year or more) have been removed from the state’s purview and placed in the hands of local employers.

This creates a variety of problems, as recent studies of New Jersey’s alternative-certification program show. First, although candidates are supposed to receive a 20-day training program during the summer, they cannot be admitted to the program until they have been hired by a local school district, and many of them are not hired until late in August when the training program is already over. So the first component of preparation is missed by many recruits.

The second component of preparation is supposed to be on-the-job supervision for these first-year teachers. According to a study by Trenton State University’s Joe Smith, a professor of education, alternate-route candidates, who were supposed to be supervised 100 percent of the time during the first four weeks, were actually supervised only 15 percent of the time. Pre-observation conferences between supervisors and recruits were actually held only 25 percent of the time, and post-observation critiques of teaching were held less than half the time. In most cases, required opportunities for recruits to observe other teachers were not provided. The required weekly meetings with support teams were held only 7 percent of the time. In this kind of program, a great divide between policy and practice can occur.

Alternative teacher certification, then, is a term that can have many different meanings. But fundamentally, it might best be understood as an oxymoron. The Random House Dictionary defines an oxymoron as “a figure of speech by which a locution produces an effect by a seeming self-contradiction, as in ‘cruel kindness’ or ‘to make haste slowly.’” Some say that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron. If certification is the means by which a state government ascertains that a person is ready to teach prior to allowing him to do so, then “alternative certification"--where it means that the state government awards a person a certificate to teach prior to ascertaining that he is ready to do so--is an oxymoron.

In order to understand this quizzical idea, it is important to identify the problems which those who advocate alternative certification are attempting to solve. The popularity of these various programs can be attributed primarily to the emergence of teacher shortages in a number of states and secondarily to disenchantments with traditional teacher-preparation programs. More than 40 states have reported shortages in fields like mathematics, science, foreign languages, bilingual education, and special education, particularly in their central cities and poor rural communities. As in the 1960’s, when teacher shortages were widespread, alternative-certification programs are promoted as a means for getting many kinds of people into teaching quickly and, in the view of some, without the “hassle” of taking teacher-education courses.

In the long run, will alternative certification solve these problems? We think not. Here are some of the variously perceived problems that alternative certification is supposed to be addressing and what we feel are their real solutions:

    Problem 1. Alternative-certification proponents may want to open up teaching to anyone who wants to teach, or--as is the case with the much-touted Teach For America program they may see teaching as an employment program for liberal-arts graduates en route to securing a “real” job. This rationale is so irresponsible that it is almost not worth commenting on. It affords no protection to the helpless student clientele, who are most often the most disadvantaged students in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. This is where most alternative-certificate holders are assigned and where students are frequently subjected to a steady stream of substitute teachers alternating with the revolving-door parade of inexperienced, underprepared, and unsupported recruits, many of whom cannot survive even a year in the classroom.

That students in high-minority schools are four times more likely to encounter underprepared teachers than their peers in affluent, white schools does not seem to spur these proponents to search for other solutions. The proper solution, however, is to provide subsidies to underwrite high-quality teacher education for the teachers who will enter shortage fields and teach in shortage locations.

Problem 2. Alternative-certification advocates may not like the teacher education they know or think they know. Many suggest that learning on the job is preferable to taking “Mickey Mouse” courses in schools of education. Yet, the weight of research indicates that fully prepared and certified teachers are more effective in producing student learning than teachers without this training. Furthermore, this research shows that, beyond basic subject-matter knowledge, it is the extent of pedagogical training that makes the difference in teacher effectiveness.

Though much of teacher education can be improved, in many universities, teacher education is quite strong and getting better. Unfortunately, most colleges spend less on teacher education than they do on the education of students in any other field. As John Goodlad’s recent study of teacher education points out, the only other enterprise in our society with lower status than teaching is the enterprise of teacher education. Investments are needed if more widespread reforms are to occur. If policymakers do not like all that they see in teacher education, the correct solution is not to avoid teacher preparation, but to help make it better.

Problem 3. Alternative-certification advocates may not like traditional teacher education because it is embedded in the undergraduate curriculum and is thus inaccessible to nontraditional students. They are right. Teaching should be a viable career option for 22-year-old college graduates, 35-year-old computer programmers, 40-year-old homemakers, and 50-year-old engineers as well as traditional undergraduate students. The solution is to encourage colleges to create rigorous post-baccalaureate programs for entry into teaching. This strategy holds great promise, as existing master’s-degree programs have experienced dramatic enrollment surges in recent years and now account for nearly 20 percent of entering teachers (up from about 3 percent a decade ago). For a variety of reasons, including availability of financial aid and flexible scheduling, they also attract much larger proportions of minority candidates and candidates in shortage fields than traditional undergraduate programs.

Problem 4. Alternative-certification advocates may be meaning to solve the teacher-quality problem by allowing bright college graduates to teach. But this objective should not be viewed as an either/or situation. Bright college graduates need to acquire knowledge about the learners they will teach, about learning patterns and learning problems, and about a wide array of teaching strategies if they are to be effective--and if they are to remain in teaching. The solution is to invest in their preparation for a long-term career in teaching, not to skirt it and consign them to the high attrition rates that accompany lack of preparation.

Problem 5. Alternative-certification advocates may not like states’ existing certification processes. Well, neither do we. Most of them rely too much on course-counting, and they lack meaningful examinations of teaching knowledge.

They also frequently impede education schools’ efforts to innovate and to improve their offerings. The correct solution is to revamp certification processes (the more accurate term would be “licensing” processes) so that they set meaningful standards for preparation and use more legitimate and authentic assessments to determine readiness to teach. States like Minnesota, New York, California, and Connecticut are already launched on this course.

Problem 6. Alternative-certification advocates may be meaning to solve the teacher-shortage problem by loosening standards for entry to teaching. In the long run, however, this is exactly the wrong policy response. In all other occupations, firms respond to shortages by improving wages and working conditions, rather than dropping standards. In occupations that serve a critical national interest, governments help out by subsidizing training. (This is what the federal government has done to solve shortages of physicians, for example, over the last 25 years.)

Teachers’ salaries--currently about 25 percent below those of all other college graduates--must be allowed to rise to the market level if we are to solve the cycle of teacher shortages that has plagued our schools for most of the last century. They must reach the level at which supply and demand are in balance at the desired level of standards. Otherwise, the quality of teaching will continue to be uneven, contributing to inequality in schooling, and the overall quality of the teaching force will be inadequate, compromising the success of current school reforms and the future of education in this nation.

Connecticut’s experience proves the point. The passage of the Connecticut Excellence in Education Act in 1986, which raised and helped equalize teacher salaries statewide while strengthening certification standards, has created surpluses of teachers in a region where surrounding states are struggling with shortages. There are alternatives to alternative certification that bode better for the future of our schools. We should pursue them rather than struggling to make sense of an oxymoron.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1991 edition of Education Week as Alternative Certification Is an Oxymoron

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