Greater freedom, new standards for alternative certification programs

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For years, alternative teacher and principal certification programs
have been legally tethered to universities and dependent on
state-accredited schools to provide the coursework required for teacher
certification.

For years, alternative teacher and principal certification programs have been legally tethered to universities and dependent on state-accredited schools to provide the coursework required for teacher certification.

But two new Illinois laws, both passed during the state’s bid for federal Race to the Top funds, are poised to set the programs free from university supervision. Teach For America – Chicago has already notified the state that it will apply for recognition on its own, says Josh Anderson, the group’s executive director.

Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, which runs alternative certification programs in six states, says many states loosened restrictions on alternative programs in the run-up to Race to the Top.

His organization was the first non-university teacher certifier in Louisiana, one of the earliest states to give non-profit programs independence from universities.

Maryland, Texas and Rhode Island have taken similar steps, Daly notes. About 29 states pledged to allow independent programs to certify teachers in their Race to the Top applications. The reason: Race to the Top defined alternative certification programs as those that could be offered entirely by non-universities. However, many of the states that didn’t win are no longer bound to follow through, Daly says.

“I don’t think it’s rooted in an assumption that the universities are bad (but) that there’s a broader array of approaches to preparing and supporting teachers than exists only in universities,” says Daley.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, a total of 10 Illinois universities are currently involved in programs that offer alternative routes to certification.

Jackson Potter, staff coordinator at the Chicago Teachers Union, says he is concerned that the move will weaken alternative programs and “open the floodgates” to more teachers who are unprepared for the classroom.

“When I became a teacher, I had tons of veteran teachers at Englewood High School to help me learn how to teach,” Potter says. “By virtue of their experience and qualification, I was able to scale back the learning curve. (But) by avoiding the student-teaching process, you are throwing somebody in cold who has had virtually no contact or connection with children.”

At a Sept. 22 meeting, the Illinois State Board of Education issued draft rules outlining the specific standards that alternative certification programs will now have to meet. Public comment on the rules is due Dec. 6.

For the most part, the rules just extend the current university standards to alternative programs. (The same is true for principal preparation programs.)

Like universities, non-profit organizations that are seeking state approval will have to outline how candidates will acquire content and skills in educational theory, instructional methods and teaching practice.

They will also have to show that candidates are “knowledgeable about specific subject matter and strategies for teaching that subject matter to students with differing needs; and skilled in managing and monitoring students’ learning.”

But there is one unique requirement: Brochures and ads for alternative programs must “display prominently” the fact that they don’t offer college credit, and that graduates might not be allowed to teach in other states.

Anderson thinks the new rules are fair “because they focus on the things that any program needs to be able to do and demonstrate, without making infrastructure and staffing requirements,” he wrote in an email.

He says Teach for America could potentially begin offering certifying classes for teachers as early as fall 2011. “The advantage would be real coherence,” he says.

Teach for America’s desire to go it alone is not a negative reflection on its current university and college partners, he adds. But the organization uses a particular approach to train teachers, he notes, and once they begin teaching they are sent to graduate classrooms where their coursework may not line up with what they have just learned.

What’s more, Anderson says, in-house classes will help the program ensure that its staff members are in touch with the teachers at least once a week.


Jan Fitzsimmons, director of the Center for Success in High-Need Schools at the Associated Colleges of Illinois, worries that universities will lose resources if they have to compete against programs that do not charge tuition.

In addition, she fears program quality could plummet without university assets like ties to arts and sciences faculty. Fitzsimmons raises the specter of a “two-tiered system” of teacher preparation, where teachers with university backgrounds flock to middle- and higher-income communities.

Still, colleges are relieved to see that “we will all be held to the same set of standards.”

Anderson, for his part, hopes that independence will allow Teach for America to capitalize on the qualities that make it unique.

“We came into this work with no dogmas, and no ideological or philosophical commitments when it comes to pedagogy,” Anderson says. “We have collected a ton of evidence over the last decade, and analyzed it… to develop our own set of understandings about what effective teaching looks like in low-income classrooms.