No consensus on pros, cons

Print More

Chicago and other school districts are increasingly relying on fast-track alternative certification programs as a source for new teachers.

Research on whether teachers from alternative programs help or hurt student achievement is inconclusive. But some educators charge that such programs often put under-prepared novices in the most challenging schools.

“They end up teaching the most diverse children, who have the most dramatic learning needs,” contends Barnett Berry, president of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “They are not the teachers who are landing in front of the easy-to-teach children.”

Still, the number of teachers from alternative programs continues to climb. Nationally, the number of alternative teaching certificates jumped from 15,000 in 2000 to 30,000 in 2003.

In Illinois, teachers from alternative programs are a small but growing part of the teaching force. In 2002-03, the state issued 491 licenses to teachers trained in alternative programs, up from 24 in 1998-99.

Only One summer in classroom

Alternative programs typically offer only a summer’s worth of training before sending teachers into the classroom. Once on the job, teachers are mentored by an experienced colleague while continuing work toward their education degree during evenings or weekends.

Skeptics say that a summer’s worth of in-classroom training is not enough. Advocates, however, dismiss the value of traditional preparation through colleges of education, which usually require a semester of student teaching.

Student teachers usually end up “teaching 5, 10, 15-minute lessons under the supervision of another teacher,” says F.D. Toth of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. Alternative training is a better experience, he adds, because novices “have full responsibility for a classroom and a master teacher [observing].”

Achievement, retention in question

One point on which experts agree is that research hasn’t resolved the debate, because most of it isn’t very good. For example, some studies measure the academic performance of students whose teachers were trained in alternative programs without considering the impact of students’ backgrounds, even though most alternative-certification teachers are in high-poverty schools.

“Good studies are really expensive, and it’s difficult to get the amount of money you need to design and carry out good studies,” remarks Michael Allen, program director of the Teaching Quality Policy Center of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. Allen researches alternative certification programs.

Research has also not answered the question of retention. Some studies say teachers from alternative programs are more likely to quit than teachers from traditional programs. Other studies conclude that they leave at comparable rates.

But some studies suggest that programs that help teacher aides earn a teaching credential produce teachers who are less likely to leave, according to Daniel Humphrey, associate director of the Center for Education Policy at SRI International, a nonprofit research institute based in Menlo Park, Calif. Aides are often from the same community as the children they work with and have a stronger commitment to the job, he explains.

Another challenge to researchers is to account for the wide variation in programs. Some alternative programs are more intensive than most traditional ones. In Chicago, the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership offers career-changers a $30,000 stipend to spend 10 months in classroom training under a master teacher.

Programs run by the Massachusetts Department of Education and the New York City Teaching Fellows now provide some student-teaching experience, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University.

“Serious programs eventually figure out that it’s important to give people more support in learning to teach.”

But researchers also note a countervailing trend toward more streamlining. Earlier this year, Georgia dropped the requirement that teacher candidates train in a classroom. Texas did the same for grades 8 to 12. As a result, alternate-route teachers in those two states can now begin their careers with passing grades on standardized tests and a bachelor’s degree in their subject area.

Test preparation only?

Florida and Idaho, have signed on with a federal program that would replace advanced preparation with a battery of tests and requires prospective teachers to have only a bachelor’s degree in a related subject area. The initiative is run by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence.

“It’s not unlike any rigorous tests that an accountant would take to become a CPA or an attorney would take for the bar exams,” argues the American Board’s Randy Thompson, vice president of marketing and government relations. He acknowledges that the group has no research to show that their tests predict teacher success.

Allen of the Education Commission of the States argues that policies governing teacher certification should be grounded in more rigorous research. “Our culture is cavalier when it comes to results,” he says. “We tend to rely on perceptions rather than hard data.”

Meanwhile, says Emily Feistritzer of the National Center for Alternative Certification in Washington, D.C., “[We’re] way past, ‘Is it a good idea or not?’ It’s the way states are producing a large number of teachers.”

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.