Teacher Preparation

Reports Renew Debate Over Alternative Preparation

By Vaishali Honawar — December 18, 2007 5 min read
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A new report is again raising concerns that teacher-candidates who come through alternative routes are not adequately prepared when they begin teaching.

Only half the teachers in high-needs schools trained via such routes said they were prepared for the first year of teaching, compared with 80 percent of teachers prepared in traditional programs, according to survey findings in the report released last week.

In addition, 54 percent of teachers prepared in alternative programs said they could have used more time working with a classroom teacher during the preservice period, and 16 percent say they spent no time with a teacher before their first jobs.

What makes the report by Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality notable is that the alternative routes it covers—Teach For America, Troops to Teachers, and the New Teacher Project—are considered to be more rigorous than many others.

In another report, released earlier this fall, the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, both known for their advocacy of alternative programs, slammed a majority of the 49 programs surveyed as providing “woefully inadequate training and support” to their candidates.

That report, which did not include the three programs featured in the new study, found that fewer than half the programs provide candidates a teaching experience in the summer before they start their jobs.

More than 480 alternative-route programs are now in operation nationwide.

Alternative-route supporters sought to underplay the findings of both reports. “The biggest problem with [the reports] is that they really are making sweeping generalizations about alternate-route programs and candidates, and they are based on very limited populations,” said C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the Washington-based National Center for Alternative Certification.

“I just don’t think the [survey] questions get at the issue of whether the programs are good or not,” Ms. Feistritzer said.

Results Questioned

The study by Public Agenda, a New York City-based public-opinion research group, was based on surveys of 865 teachers, including 224 from the three alternative-route programs. The margin of error was 3.8 percentage points.

Getting Ready for the Classroom

Teachers trained via Teach For America, Troops to Teachers, and the New Teacher Project were asked numerous questions about their preparation, including:

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Public Agenda and National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality

In addition to criticizing the size of the sample, supporters of alternative routes pointed out that the survey questions did not take into account the differences both between and within the three programs.

Officials from the programs surveyed also said their own data, based on larger sample sizes, show very different results.

Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, said his group surveyed 156 first-year teachers in Baltimore last year. Eighty-three percent said they felt prepared to teach. Public Agenda surveyed teachers from the New Teacher Project’s Baltimore partnership as well.

“To us, this suggests that the small sample of teachers captured by the [Public Agenda] survey just released may not be representative of the full experience of the cohort,” Mr. Daly said.

The NCTQ-Fordham study did not include the three programs covered by Public Agenda. In fact, in a foreword to that report, Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of Fordham, described TFA and the New Teacher Project as representing the “ideal” for alternative programs.

“You talk to any first-year teacher, and they are struggling,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the NCTQ and a co-author of the report.

In that study, her criticism centered on the fact that colleges of education operate most of the nation’s alternative programs for aspiring teachers. Most alternative-route programs, the NCTQ-Fordham report says, “have become mirror images of traditional programs.” They require excessive coursework, are least selective about whom they admit, and cost more, it adds.

Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which accredits more than half the nation’s 1,200 teacher-preparation programs, agreed that many teacher programs, and most accredited by his group, now offer alternative routes. And although NCATE requires the alternative programs in its colleges to meet its standards, Mr. Wise said quality can be uneven.

“Some are excellent and meet all of our standards. Others, of course, provide much less in the way of preparation and supervision,” he said.

The Washington-based accrediting body demands up to a whole semester of supervised clinical experience in both kinds of programs.

Idealism Dashed

The Public Agenda report, which focuses on the concerns of first-year teachers when they are on the job, shows alternative-route teachers tend to have high expectations and strong idealism when they enter teaching. Seventy-one said they wanted to become teachers to help underprivileged children.

Yet they also may bring more negative attitudes than their traditionally trained peers. For instance, the survey shows that more alternative-route teachers are likely to believe that they have been assigned to teach the hardest-to-reach students, and that they do not receive adequate support and mentoring from administrators.

Fifty-four percent of the alternative-route teachers in high-needs schools said their lack of support from administrators is a major drawback to teaching, compared with just 20 percent of the traditionally trained teachers surveyed.

According to the authors, the negative attitudes may be the result of alternative-route teachers’ working in high-needs urban schools.

Jean Johnson, the director of education insights for Public Agenda, said she hopes the report will draw attention to the plight of all new teachers who wrestle with assignments in high-needs schools without enough guidance and mentoring.

“If you have a group of people telling you they need support and advice, that warrants some attention,” she said, pointing out that even traditionally trained teachers, although in smaller numbers, believe they are not getting enough support.

Retention Rates

The report also indicates that alternatively certified teachers could have lower retention rates. For instance, it says, 34 percent of such teachers in high-needs schools plan to leave teaching in the next year or two, compared with just 4 percent of traditionally prepared teachers.

The report adds, however, that the finding could simply reflect that half the survey respondents who came from alternative routes were products of Teach For America, which asks for a two-year commitment from recruits.

Steven Farr, a vice president of TFA, said many of its recruits continue in education for much longer. More than two-thirds of Teach For America alumni are currently working or studying full time in the field of education, he said, and around half are still teaching.

“Our aim and goal is that those teachers—whether they work from within or outside the classroom—continue working to close the achievement gap,” Mr. Farr said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week as Reports Renew Debate Over Alternative Preparation

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