Alternative certification ends shortage

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In 1985, New Jersey became the first state to create an alternative route to teacher certification for people with a bachelor’s degree but no education courses. Since then, 8,347 career-changers have received teaching certificates this way, all but eliminating teacher vacancies and out-of-field teaching in the state.

“We don’t have unstaffed classrooms,” observes Edward Richardson, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association. “We have very few people teaching outside their content area expertise, which is unusual among the states. … The provisional teacher program and some of the other certificate reforms have helped that.”

In the last seven years, about a fourth of all new hires by New Jersey schools have come through the alternative route.

In addition, the success of the program prompted changes in regular teacher certification.

Under the alternate route, school districts must assign support teams to work with novice teachers for most of their first year on the job; at the end of the year, the teams recommend whether they get regular teaching certificates. The teams “are comprised minimally of a building-level principal, a mentor teacher and one other person,” explains Ellen Schechter, assistant commissioner of education. During the novice’s first four weeks, the mentor teacher works full-time with the teacher-in-training, as in student teaching.

In 1992, the legislature decided to require school districts to provide team supports to all new teachers, including those coming out of teachers colleges.

The legislature was spurred by research showing that the alternative-route teachers had greater staying power than traditionally prepared teachers. The first year of the program, the dropout rate for “alternate” teachers was 10.6 percent, compared with 18 percent for first-year “traditional” teachers; by 1990-91, the rate for alternate teachers had dropped to 3 percent.

However, across-the-board mentoring hasn’t significantly reduced the first-year attrition rate, which was 17 percent in 1986. For budgetary reasons, New Jersey no longer compares the rates of alternate-route teachers and traditionally prepared teachers.

School district superintendents praise the alternate-route program for bringing them high-quality candidates for hard-to-fill slots. “We have received some outstanding people,” raves Barry Galasso, superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional High School District. “Most of the people I’ve seen come in at the secondary level with a strong math or science background.”

He adds that thanks to his district’s relationship with the teachers union, he is free to choose the mentor teachers. “Here, it’s not a negotiations issue. … We can pick regardless of seniority.”

However, the mentoring requirement has made some districts more reluctant to hire rookies when they can avoid it.

“Most places don’t want to go through the hassle of the mentorship,” says Brian McAndrew, superintendent of Monmouth County’s vocational-technical school district, which runs 14 career academies in such areas as marine studies and high technology. McAndrew suspects that more traditional schools feel more comfortable with conventionally trained teachers. “Typically, your straight academic institution relates to an academic product.”

Because his academies regularly work with business and industry, they are more open to career-changers, he says. “These people are going to bring us something; their experiences come into the classroom and into the building.”

In the alternate program, the cost of the required mentoring and academic work is $2,000 per person; some districts pick up all or part of the tab. In the traditional program, new teachers pay the $500 cost of mentoring, which is less intense than in the alternate program.

Confounding the early critics, the career-changers are fairly evenly spread among districts with different socioeconomic levels. “Our critics said either the poorest or the wealthiest districts would get the most,” Schechter recalls.

The New Jersey Education Association has moved from concerned criticism to acceptance of the program, says spokesman Richardson. “The state addressed much of our concerns by requiring [alternative-route teachers] to complete pedagogical training either before or during their first year.”

The union also sees the across-the-board mentoring as a step in the right direction. “NJEA is still pushing for a greater emphasis on pedagogical training for new teachers, ” he says. Specifically, it would like to see teachers go through a five-year program that combines subject-area work and pedagogical training and results in a master’s degree.

“We think our plan for the five-year master’s, with a lot more classroom exposure, would cut down on the attrition rate,” says Richardson.

Illinois recently revised its certification rules for traditionally prepared teachers, requiring professional development work to renew a license but no mentoring. This year, the Chicago Public Schools is offering a new-teacher mentoring program to all schools; next year, it may become mandatory. Unlike New Jersey’s program, Chicago’s includes all teachers new to the district, not just those new to teaching, and mentors do not formally evaluate mentees.