Thinking Outside the University

Innovation in Alternative Teacher Certification

New report on alternative certification delves into the history and current research about these techniques and profiles innovative programs around the country.

New Teach for America teachers sit in a training session before beginning their two-year stints in disadvantaged schools. (AP/David J. Phillip)
New Teach for America teachers sit in a training session before beginning their two-year stints in disadvantaged schools. (AP/David J. Phillip)

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Teacher quality is critical to the success of all other education reform efforts, which is why forward-thinking education reformers are so focused on reforming teacher certification standards to boost quality. Adding urgency to the effort is a growing consensus that the supply of new teachers isn’t meeting the demand, particularly for subject shortage areas and hard-to-staff schools.

One approach to meeting the challenges of teacher quality and supply are alternative routes to teacher certification. These routes have been proliferating over the past decade, and they currently supply about one-fifth of new hires nationally. Teachers prepared through these programs have been found to be just as effective as those prepared through traditional routes within a short period of time. These routes can also increase diversity in the teaching pool.

Yet many alternative certification programs are no longer all that different from the traditional routes they have replaced. A recent study by Kate Walsh and Sandi Jacobs from the National Council on Teacher Quality found that many of the “alternative” programs are very similar to traditional preparation programs. The researchers found that the programs are only as selective, or even less selective, than education schools. What’s more, most alternative programs are not flexible enough to support non-traditional applicants and provide inadequate training and support for teacher candidates.

Minimizing the differences between standard and alternative programs still further, approximately 50 percent of alternative programs are operated by colleges and universities, and they often closely resemble traditional teacher preparation programs in terms of required professional coursework. Since traditional, university-based programs are not adequately preparing high quality teachers, particularly for hard-to-staff schools and subjects such as math and science, alternative programs are needed that try new and innovative approaches, rather than mimic traditional approaches.

A guide to duplicating successful alternative certification programs by Urban Institute researchers Beatriz Chu Clewell and Ana Maria Villegas noted four factors that are particularly important to a program’s success:

  • Strong partnerships between preparation programs and school districts.
  • A rigorous but flexible selection process using traditional and non-traditional criteria.
  • Teacher education that meets the ƒ needs of non-traditional participants.
  • A strong support system. ƒ

Studies conducted by other education researchers also emphasize providing a lengthy and comprehensive pre-service component involving practice teaching. In their study, Clewell and Villegas assume that alternative teacher preparation programs are housed in university schools of education, but none of the elements that they noted is dependent upon that relationship.

Indeed, non-profit organizations such as Teach For America and The New Teacher Project, community colleges, private entities, individual schools, and others can, with support and funding, develop innovative teacher preparation programs that can incorporate all of these elements and prepare prospective teachers for certification and a career in teaching. And those efforts are increasing apace.

Some states are adopting these alternatives to traditional teacher education schools.

Innovative programs operated by a diversity of providers can provide solutions to the unique challenges faced by charter schools, high-poverty or high-needs schools, reconstituted schools, and schools in rural areas, by preparing teachers who are specifically trained to meet those challenges. In contrast, teachers who have been prepared by university schools of education are typically prepared to seek employment in the general market and may lack skills that are necessary in high-needs schools.

What many of these innovative programs have in common is an emphasis on competencies rather than course credits for preparing new educators. Ideally, the programs or the districts that they partner with provide prospective teachers with opportunities to build these competencies through pre-service clinical experience, mentoring, induction, and ongoing professional development.

Finally, innovative programs create competition with education schools and other alternative certification programs. Their creative solutions for preparing teachers for challenging teaching placements could help to spur sorely needed change across the board. Education schools have been able to circumvent much of the competition by operating the majority of alternative certification programs themselves with the support of state policy. A true market-based approach to teacher preparation would encourage innovation in program development and delivery as programs compete to produce effective teachers.

Innovative Programs

The innovative preparation programs profiled in this report include the following:

Teacher Intern Programs ƒtrain teacher interns specifically for the school or type of school in which they will be working once they are certified. In most programs, an intern is expected to already demonstrate subject-area competency, usually through undergraduate coursework, and teaches as a full-time teacher of record while completing training in pedagogy.

Teach for America and the New ƒ Teacher Project are nationally recognized non-profit organizations that selectively recruit non-traditional teacher candidates to teach in high-needs schools with the mission of closing the achievement gap.

Online Programs ƒenable teachers to take courses and become certified on the Internet. They provide an economical option for teacher candidates who need more flexibility as they prepare for certification, who live in geographically remote areas, or who feel that they can meet certification requirements with little formal instruction.

Community Colleges ƒoffer certification to prospective teachers who already hold a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than education.

Teacher Residency Programs ƒprovide teacher residents, like novice doc- tors, with intensive support throughout their residency year. They do not teach as full-time teachers of record. Instead, they typically teach in a classroom alongside a mentor teacher and are given increasing levels of responsibility throughout the school year.

Implications for Policy

There is no empirical evidence that education schools do a better job of preparing teachers or that required professional education coursework increases student achievement. In many states, licensure requirements call for excessive amounts of coursework for new teachers, often virtually equivalent to earning a master’s degree and as Chester Finn and Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation state, “have merely re-ordered the traditional teacher-prep sequence without altering its substance.”

In order to allow innovative programs to develop, the following steps must be taken:

Revise Licensure Requirements ƒ to Reflect Teaching Competencies. State licensure requirements should be revised to reflect a framework of teaching competencies that new teachers will be expected to master.

Revise Policies to Allow a Diversity of Providers. States should revise their policies to allow non-profit and private organizations, community colleges, districts, regional service centers, individual schools, and others to develop and implement their own teacher preparation programs.

Strengthen Evaluation and Accountability of Teacher Preparation Programs. All programs, traditional and alternative, should be held to the same high standard of quality, determined by the ability to prepare participants to meet state standards for certification and by the effectiveness of their graduates in the classroom.

Provide Federal Funding to Support Innovative Alternative Certification Programs. The federal government should create financial incentives for states to expand their definition of alternate route programs to include a diversity of providers. Public funds should be made available to those programs that prove their effectiveness in recruiting and preparing competent teachers, especially those in high-needs areas.

The requirement that all teachers be “highly qualified”—established by Title II of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965—has helped to keep teacher certification at the forefront of the national education reform agenda. In the current climate of support for educational entrepreneurship, one might expect that the creation of alternate routes to certification would have opened the floodgates for innovative supply-side solutions. Unless the barriers to innovation are removed, however, a marketplace of options cannot operate properly, and innovative programs cannot flourish or grow to scale.

Given the prevailing negative attitude about the current state of teacher preparation programs, both traditional and alternative, it seems appropriate to consider a new paradigm for teacher preparation in the 21st century. In the pages that follow, this report will briefly describe the evolution of alternative certification programs, define them and explain what we know from research about their efficacy, and profile innovative programs in several categories.

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