Teacher-preparation programs today come in many shapes and sizes. Traditional and alternative programs have morphed into one another, making broad comparisons between them useless. What matters instead is how particular programs work. Do they attract candidates to teaching? Do they provide what they promise? Do they give new teachers what they need to get started and grow on the job? Do participants report that they’re prepared to teach their students?
With such questions in mind, we studied 13 fast-track, alternative-certification programs in four states, observing the training and interviewing directors, faculty members, and participants. We interviewed the participants again after they had spent six to eight months as classroom teachers. Most participants were midcareer entrants to teaching in search of more meaningful work, such as the man who described his former job in a petrochemical plant as “steady, well paid, and very unfulfilling.” Others were recent college graduates who had not studied to be teachers, and another group was made up of full-time teachers or substitutes who lacked licenses.
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All were attracted to fast-track programs by the incentives they offered: brief, inexpensive, convenient, and practical training. Candidates wanted to move quickly into the classroom, avoiding the tuition and opportunity costs of longer preservice training. Most programs were structured to be as convenient as possible, condensing preservice coursework and student-teaching into a four- to eight-week summer experience. Candidates liked the programs’ practical orientation, believing that they needed no-nonsense tools, such as strategies for classroom management, rather than theories and research about teaching. Many said they would not have entered teaching if the fast-track option were not available.
We found, though, that the very incentives that attracted new candidates to these programs also reduced the resources available to provide the training and support they expected. Many programs were run by newly formed organizations, assembled just in time to train the first cohort. Directors had a wide range of responsibilities and little funding to work with. Charging little or no tuition, for example, meant that programs offering licenses in several subjects often lacked funds to hire a specialist in each. Scheduling student-teaching during the summer limited the classrooms and mentors that were available. Fast-track preparation is a deceptively simple idea. In fact, surprising capacity is required to train teachers both quickly and well.
Learning How to Teach a Subject
Our study highlights the difficult balance that must be achieved in fast-track programs between effective incentives and worthwhile learning experiences for aspiring teachers.
All the programs we studied offered the practical training that candidates expected: how to manage a classroom, teach students with different learning styles, plan lessons. Far fewer provided training in subject-based pedagogy—how to teach science or social studies—largely because they lacked sufficient faculty. Although most candidates had majored in the subject they hoped to teach, and some had used the content in their previous career, few were confident about how to teach it. Knowing a great deal about cell biology did not lead automatically to a well-organized lab class. Experience as a journalist did not translate neatly into a writing curriculum for middle school students.
Some programs were successful in training candidates in their subjects. A district-run program in Louisiana licensed only special education teachers, and therefore could provide the focused training candidates expected. Relying on economies of scale, a statewide program in Connecticut grouped candidates by subject and offered daily content-based instruction in 10 subjects. At the other extreme, however, participants at several Massachusetts sites attended only one day of subject-based workshops during their entire program. This lack of assistance in how to teach their subjects received the most criticism from teachers once they entered the classroom.
Practice-Teaching in Summer School
Student-teaching, often viewed as an essential experience in preservice preparation, is especially hard to arrange in fast-track programs, which usually occur in July and August. They must rely on district-based summer schools, which rarely resemble “real” school and offer a limited array of courses. The candidates we studied frequently did their practice-teaching outside their fields or grade levels. In one program where the district offered only math and English in summer school, the program still licensed teachers in nine different subjects. A prospective chemistry teacher was assigned to student-teach algebra, and a candidate for high school history taught middle school language arts.
Sometimes the summer school instructors who served as mentors were unlicensed in the subjects they were teaching. Rarely were they selected for their mentoring skills or trained to supervise new teachers. Mentors ranged from terrific to terrible. One candidate said he was perfectly matched with a veteran mentor in his field and that they “took off like a house on fire,” but more often candidates described their mentors with phrases such as “barely competent” or “inexperienced.”
It wouldn’t be so important to have training in subject-based pedagogy and a well-matched student-teaching experience if candidates could count on substantial support during the first year of teaching. The programs we studied were not equipped to provide such support, counting on schools and districts to pick up where they left off. Some candidates found themselves in schools that offered rich, sustained support, and they flourished. But many entered schools that have a sink-or-swim approach to induction. One said, “I really felt lost in September when somebody handed me the keys. I walked into my room and had no clue what to do once the door closed behind me.” The logic of providing minimal training is grounded in the expectation that candidates will find what they need in their schools. However, schools that offer no guidance or collegial support, or, in extreme cases, are hostile and alienating, can prove to be the downfall of candidates who otherwise might succeed.
Our study does not provide generalizations about the relative merits of alternative and traditional programs, but it does yield many specific recommendations for those who would authorize, direct, or enroll in fast-track programs. For example, we recommend that program sponsors and directors:
• Offer licenses only in subjects for which you can deliver methods training. Providing good preparation for six teachers in disparate subjects proved to be far more costly than providing solid training for six teachers in one.
• Don’t try to create a traditional student-teaching experience in summer schools that cannot handle it. Instead, devise the best possible clinical experience given the timing and duration of the training. For example, arranging for candidates to observe and discuss the instructional strategies of several expert teachers would be likely to contribute more to their preparation than teaching out of field in the presence of an unskilled mentor.
• Build partnerships to increase capacity. Fast-track programs are not self-contained, mobile service units. Because they have large demands and limited resources, they must rely on others—external vendors, nonprofit agencies, university faculty, and school districts—if they are to give new teachers what they need.
• Consider the potential of new pedagogies, such as distance learning, to provide support and continued learning for candidates as they work on the job.
Our study highlights the difficult balance that must be achieved in fast-track programs between effective incentives and worthwhile learning experiences for aspiring teachers. Ultimately, understanding how best to attract and prepare teachers means moving beyond the debate about alternative certification to examine a range of approaches and identify the promising elements that each might offer.