Magazine Feature

Against the Current

Alternative certification gives educators a different route to the classroom. Does it make them fish out of water once they get there?
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Illustration by Eleanor Grosch

Abena Osei was on track to attend law school after earning her degree in political science and psychology from Southern Methodist University. The 2001 grad dreamed of a career in social justice.

But something happened on the way to her bar exam. Osei heard about Teach for America, the alternative teacher certification program. The more she learned about TFA , the more the idea appealed to her. Social justice was still her mission, but now she considered a different setting to practice those values. She took the leap, took the TFA training, made the two-year commitment and that fall walked into her 4th-grade classroom in Houston.

“I didn’t have to wait to have enough money or build enough contacts and influence to make a difference,” Osei says of her smooth introduction to a Houston classroom. “Before that, I hadn’t thought about going into education as a way to impact poverty or disparity in the country.”

Schools of education at colleges and universities are still the primary source of new teachers in U.S. schools. For the last generation, however, a small but growing stream of people has been taking a different path to the front of the classroom. These new teachers are the fruit of alternative teacher certification programs, programs that quickly train and place thousands of new teachers each year, often in under-resourced districts scrambling to fill teaching vacancies.

Today, about 1 in 5 newly placed teachers have come through one of these programs. Many bring unique life experiences, passion for their content area and a strong sense of commitment to community and young people.

But their entry into teaching has also come with great controversy. Critics contend that idealism can only carry new teachers so far. They raise valid concerns about the inconsistent practices and standards of the various alternative certification programs. They question the readiness and effectiveness of what they see as raw recruits in a demanding profession, recruits who are walking into some of the most challenging educational settings in the country.

So is alternative certification good for U.S. schools? Teaching Tolerance decided to find out where the debate over that question stands today.


From Stopgap to Pipeline

Alternative teacher certification programs were established in the early 1980s. They emerged as part of emergency state reforms to attract nontraditional teaching candidates to fill needs in high-poverty, mostly urban or rural school districts experiencing teacher shortages. The intention was to streamline the coursework and training to get teachers into the classroom sooner. The programs held special appeal to socially conscious college grads whose majors had been outside the education department, as well as career-changers who felt drawn to the educational mission.

Currently, about 600 alternative certification programs are offered in 48 states plus the District of Columbia. (Only Alaska and Oregon offer no alternative route to teacher certification.) Programs vary widely in course requirements, mentoring practices, professional support and classroom exposure. Some are offered as training programs through school districts. Others operate through colleges and universities, including for-profit institutions like University of Phoenix and Rasmussen College. Then there is the non-profit Teach for America model.

While alternative certification was initially conceived as a stopgap to plug teacher shortages, its scale has changed with growing demand. Today, it supplies a significant number of teachers in schools across the United States and has become integrated into district planning.

In 1991, for example, North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools teamed with a brand new Teach for America as part of the district’s strategic staffing plan. Two decades later, the partnership is still a valuable asset to the district, says Ann Clark, the district’s chief academic officer.

“We’ve had some reductions to our budget over the years, but our need is constant,” says Clark, echoing the realities of administrators nationwide. “We want an effective teacher in every classroom. TFA helps us do that faster.” For the 2011–2012 school year, Clark anticipates using 300 Teach for America members.


Diversity Engine?

Edward Moore is a classic example of a career-changer who used alternative certification to enter the classroom. As a college student, Moore considered education as a career but was put off by teacher salaries. He detoured to the corporate world, working as a pension specialist.

The idea of teaching never left him, though, and he pursued alternative teacher certification through a districtsponsored program. While many of his cohort took two years to complete the program, Moore jumped on the fast track. He took a year to complete the classroom observations, required tasks, coursework and portfolio, then passed the Florida state certification exam. No student teaching was required. When his corporate position moved to Asia, Moore declined to relocate and instead put his certification to work.

“Honestly, I turned to education as a Band-Aid,” Moore, now 40, admits. “By the winter break that first year, I knew it was the career for me. The reward system is different in teaching. I’m paid every time the light bulb comes on in a child.”

What is most important is that there is a healthy student-teaching component. Some programs include no student teaching. Those teachers with more student teaching have far more durability once they are in the classroom.

In those terms, he has been paid well at Northwestern Middle School in Jacksonville, Fla. He developed a program for his inner-city male students, Brothers Accountable Driven and Determined (BADD). He took his students on college visits and saw grades increase from D’s to B’s and A’s. Last year, he was a runner-up for his district’s Teacher of the Year prize. Moore credits part of his success to twice-aweek classroom visits from his mentor during his first year. This fall marks his seventh.

Moore is one of 377 male teachers of color employed by Duval County Public Schools, according to the district. Most of those 377 are alternatively certified, and alternative certification has been an effective method for attracting more diversity into the teaching ranks, notably more men of color.


The Critics

Critics of alternative teacher certification are measured in their doubts about the programs. They recognize the utility of bringing in educators by multiple means but remain wary of too-rosy views of what these teachers can accomplish after limited training. They are especially distrustful of programs that lack a robust student-teaching component, like the training Edward Moore received. The U.S. Education Department reported that in 2009 schools serving mostly African- American students were twice as likely as schools serving white students to have teachers with only one or two years experience. That lack of experience, and the turnover it implies, is seen as a major stumbling block in closing the achievement gap between most students of color and white students.

“Real exposure to real classroom situations for extended periods helps to fully prepare an effective teacher, not three weeks in the summertime,” says Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality for the National Education Association. Still, Eubanks acknowledges that there are “important advantages to alternative routes” to teaching, including an ability to attract more diverse teachers who want to serve in high-needs schools.

Richard Ingersoll concurs. Ingersoll is a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He says three factors determine whether a program will produce wellprepared teachers. Content knowledge is highly valued, he says, and pedagogy is important. He contends, however, that “what is most important is that there is a healthy student-teaching component. Some programs include no student teaching. Those teachers with more student teaching have far more durability once they are in the classroom.”

At least one study indicates that, when it comes to preparedness and teacher quality, alternative certification programs hold their own. In a study published in ERS Spectrum in 2009, educational researchers Eric J. Follo and James J. Rivard examined the relative effectiveness of traditionally trained versus alternatively certified teachers in Michigan elementary schools. They concluded, “Teacher candidates from the truncated alternative teacher certification program scored as well as or better than teacher candidates in the traditional teacher certification program in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and the total overall score. As measured by the Michigan Elementary Education Test, teacher candidates in the alternative certification program were as well prepared ...”

Critics reply that studies like this are helpful, but they hardly paint the full picture. A teacher’s effectiveness can’t be measured by how students score on tests, but only by how well they actually learn.

Another concern about alternatively certified teachers has been the limited commitment to schools and the teaching profession. Teach for America teachers, for example, commit to a two-year stint, and they have at times been characterized as dilettantes. However, most TFA alumni, 67 percent according to a Harvard study, remain in some field of education after fulfilling their obligations. Critics point out that many of them go into education policy jobs, which is not the same as classroom teaching. Proponents counter that it’s not such a bad thing for education policy makers to have classroom experience.


The Best Thing

The TFA teachers who remained in education include Abena Osei. The daughter of immigrants from Ghana, Osei fulfilled her two years at the original elementary school in Houston, then another three at a private school. She also earned her masters degree in education. Osei also became the executive director of Breakthrough Fort Lauderdale, an academic program that promotes education among underserved middle school kids, guiding them toward higher education. She now trains Teach for America teachers in Houston.

Osei recalls the stress of being a new teacher, arriving early and staying after school to tutor students before heading home to grade papers. She remembers the moments of fretting and selfdoubt offset by watching her students grow into their potential.

“It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says.