Renewing Education’s Promise

Improving alternate teacher certification programs can help attract young, motivated college graduates into tough schools around the country.

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“The quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers,” said Robin Chait, senior education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, at a CAP event Friday. The panel discussed alternative teacher certification programs that have been instrumental in spurring innovation and growth in underperforming schools around the United States. The event also showcased a new CAP report that outlines policy steps that state and local authorities can take to improve alternative certification programs. These programs generally provide a streamlined approach to state licensing requirements—allowing for new teachers to get into the classroom quickly and easily.

Panelist Michele McLaughlin, vice president of Teach for America and co-author of the CAP report, said that TFA’s on-the-ground research provided inspiration for the paper. In recent years, TFA has been a major force in moving recent college graduates into schools hard-pressed for motivated teachers. McLaughlin acknowledged the partiality that exists against alternative teacher certification programs, such as TFA. “If we can move toward a more performance based system […] isn’t it about what we can really do with kids in the classroom?” she said. While many alternative teacher certification programs use performance-based results tracking, many require years of classes and additional credits on top of a bachelor’s degree.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have alternative certification programs in place, yet some school districts feel that these programs do not truly prepare teachers for the difficulties they face in tough schools. Richelle Patterson, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, echoed concerns about the readiness of many alternatively certified teachers. She called traditional teacher training programs “career-starters,” and said that many alternative certification programs lead to a “revolving door.” Patterson agreed that the conditions of both urban and rural schools that attract many of these teachers are often terrible. “We can’t change standards instead of the environment,” she noted. “If we change just part of the [door] frame by inviting temporary teachers, we’re not changing the door. It just keeps revolving.”

Patterson also conceded that the real goal of every education administrator was to get dedicated teachers into the classroom. “Of course, the ultimate goal for all teachers is a license to teach,” she added.

Alex Johnston, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, or ConnCAN, countered the assertion that the two-year stint of some alternative teacher certification programs is damaging to the education of children. “We should not always assume the ‘revolving door’ is negative,” Johnston said. “Research in Connecticut has shown that while schools have a 75 percent core of veteran teachers, they are often excited by the youth ‘tour of duty.’”

On a practical basis, the panel agreed that many alternative preparation programs made it significantly easier to find young, motivated teachers ready to go to task in difficult schools. Scott Cartland, principal of Webb/Wheatley Elementary School in Northeast Washington, DC, cited his personal difficulty with finding qualified teachers to work at the school. “Of the 11 new teachers hired this year,” Cartland remarked, “nine of them are from the Teach for America program. No one else would do it.”

Ultimately, alternative teacher certification programs provide an excellent opportunity for new teachers to commit themselves to changing difficult school environments. “On the whole,” Johnston concluded, “these programs are fairly non-controversial. The question is why aren’t more schools taking advantage of them?”

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