Innovations in Education: Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification
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With both high retirement and high attrition rates among K-12 teachers and a burgeoning student population nationwide, more teachers are needed. Yet if we are to turn around schools in need of improvement, help all students meet rigorous academic standards, and close the achievement gap, simply getting more teachers into the profession will not suffice. As reflected in the No Child Left Behind requirement that all teachers of the academic subjects be highly qualified, new teachers must be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to teach to high standards and to be effective with the increasingly diverse array of students in today's classrooms. Moreover, a good number of these newcomers must commit and be able to teach in hard-to-staff content areas and in our most challenging schools. In short, the challenge to the profession is to prepare and retain greater numbers of high-quality teachers.

Expanding the education workforce at the necessary pace while also ensuring that teachers are effective and motivated to stay on the job requires new ways of recruiting, training, and supporting teacher candidates. We cannot rely exclusively on traditional teacher preparation programs to ratchet up their efforts. We need to develop new routes to teacher certification, giving more candidates more access through high-quality alternative teacher preparation programs designed to meet local needs.

"Alternative" in what ways? Instead of drawing primarily from the traditional pool of teacher preparation candidates which consists mainly of college students and recent graduates, alternative route programs cast a broader net, making efforts to attract older, non-traditional candidates who come to the program already well-versed in the content they want to teach.

This category includes midcareer individuals and middle-aged retirees from other professions. Instead of requiring participants to follow the traditional teacher preparation pattern of academic course work and supervised student teaching before taking over a classroom, alternative programs move candidates into their own classrooms after a short period of training. Candidates continue their studies at night and on weekends and receive structured mentoring and support while they teach.

Because novice educators in these programs can begin teaching-and drawing a salary and benefits-so quickly, the programs are able to attract candidates whose financial obligations might rule out the slower traditional route to teaching. For similar reasons they can appeal to classroom paraprofessionals with degrees who, in addition to needing a salary, may want to teach in the school where they now work, something alternative programs are more likely to facilitate.1 In fact, most alternative route teacher preparation programs are location-specific. Unlike traditional university-based programs, alternative programs tend to be created by a local partnership for the express purpose of preparing teachers to meet the needs of the local school district(s).

This guide looks at these new routes to teacher certification as they play out in six programs in different states, examining how these initiatives go about recruiting strong candidates and ensuring that their teachers are well-equipped to serve today's students. (Basic statistics about these sites appear in figure 1.)

The Movement Toward Alternatives

One impetus for alternative preparation programs has been the teacher shortage experienced in many locales. Along with teacher retirements, high attrition among novice educators, and student enrollment growth, other contributing factors include class-size-reduction policies and a salary schedule that does not provide incentives to teach in hard-to-staff subjects or schools. Shortages are especially acute in urban areas, special education, and in certain content areas such as mathematics and science. And among those candidates who do take teaching jobs, many don't stay long. About 9 percent of new teachers (those in their first three years on the job) left teaching at the end of the 2000-01 school year, a percentage that has been increasing over the last decade.2

Figure 1. Six Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification

Given this situation, many school districts have turned to bringing in uncredentialed teachers on emergency permits. Such individuals may have the potential to be good teachers, but too often they have been left to "sink or swim," with support that is insufficient, inconsistent, or nonexistent. And these least-prepared teachers are most likely to be in schools with concentrations of low-performing students-—the very students most in need of effective teaching.3

Quality concerns have also driven the alternative route movement. States and schools have been frustrated as they watch talented individuals say yes to teaching in private schools and charter schools because of the high cost and other hurdles they would have to overcome to be certified to teach in a traditional public school.

In between traditional programs and emergency permits lies the diverse and growing world of alternative route programs. In 2004, 43 states plus the District of Columbia reported having some type of alternative route for certifying teachers, while only 8 states said they had such routes in 1983 when the National Center for Education Information began collecting such data. In states like California, New Jersey, and Texas that have been pursuing alternative routes since the mid-1980s, 20 percent or more of new teachers enter the profession through alternative routes; Texas offers 52 separate routes.4

The term "alternative route" has been used for everything from unstructured help for individuals on emergency permits to sophisticated, well-designed programs. The National Center for Alternative Certification posts state-by-state listings of alternative route programs and now has a typology of over 10 different kinds.5 Fortunately, the Center reports an emerging consensus on required features that closely resembles critical features identified by researchers 6:

  • The program has been specifically designed to recruit, prepare, and license talented individuals who already have at least a bachelor's degree.
  • Candidates pass a rigorous screening process.
  • The program is field-based.
  • The program includes course work or equivalent experiences while teaching.
  • Candidates work closely with mentor teachers.
  • Candidates must meet high performance standards for completion of the program.

Alternative routes allow people such as career changers and those who have been out of the job market (e.g., stay-at-home mothers) and who hold at least a college degree to transition into teaching without the hardship of leaving the paid workforce or the expense and possible redundancy of traditional teaching programs. The new programs have the potential to attract a range of talented individuals who previously might not have made the shift, including those who want to be in certain urban or rural settings and those who believe traditional programs lack grounding in actual classroom experience. And they can meet the needs of a specific local setting, training people close to home, where they are likely to stay.

This guide profiles what six established alternative programs look like, whom they attract, and how they put into practice features like those listed above. They model commitment, ingenuity, and a variety of practices from which others may learn.

Case Study Sites and Methodology

The six programs highlighted in this guide are: the Alternative Certification Program, Hillsborough County, Fla.; the Educator Certification Program, Region XIII, Austin, Tex.; the Georgia Teacher Alternative Preparation Program, Northwest Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) and Metro RESA, Ga.; the New York City Teaching Fellows program, New York, N.Y.; the Northeastern California Partnership for Special Education, Chico, Calif.; and the Wichita Area Transition to Teaching program, Wichita, Kans. For a narrative summary of each site's context and program, see Part II of this guide.

These programs were selected from a larger pool of possible programs through the benchmarking methodology that underlies this study. Adapted from the four-phase benchmarking process used by the American Productivity & Quality Center, as well as general case study methodology, the study proceeded through several phases (described more fully in Appendix A).

A study scope or conceptual framework (see figure 2 ) was developed at the beginning of the project to guide program selection and analysis. Developed from an examination of relevant research literature, the framework was reviewed and refined by a panel of experts.

Figure 2. Final Study Scope

Program Profile
  • What are the overall goals of the program and its major components?
  • What specific local needs does the program meet?
  • What are the process and requirements for certification?
  • What are the demographics of candidates and faculty in the program?
  • What are the funding sources for the program?
Recruitment and Selection
  • What criteria are used to identify and select candidates?
  • How are the candidates recruited?
  • Does the program control the placement of candidates?
  • What are the elements that make the selection process rigorous?
Teacher Training: Content and Pedagogy
  • What are the program performance standards for teachers and candidates?
  • What content-based and pedagogical course work is required and when?
  • How are content and pedagogy integrated in the program delivery?
  • What specific strategies are taught for working with targeted student populations?
  • In what ways is the program field-based?
  • How is the program designed to meet the individual needs of the candidate?
Mentoring, Supervision, and Support
  • By what methods do mentors support candidates?
  • What are the criteria for mentor/supervisor selection?
  • How are mentors/supervisors recruited and trained?
Program Monitoring and Evaluation
  • How is teacher performance assessed?
  • What program outcomes are monitored (e.g., retention rates)?
  • How are program evaluation data and candidate feedback used to improve recruitment and program strategies?

Programs were sought that met four basic criteria: candidates enter the program with at least a bachelor's degree, candidates are teachers of record during training, the program has an established track record over three or more years, and it uses promising practices such as tailored, field-based programming and strong mentor support. Sixteen programs were screened using a weighted criteria matrix; the six programs highlighted in this publication had higher scores and represented a range of geographic locations and types of programs.

Data collection took place through one-day on-site visits; interviews with program administrators, faculty, current candidates, and graduates; and review of documentation. This guide is synthesized from a more comprehensive research report that includes case descriptions and cross-site analysis of key findings.

This descriptive research process suggests promising practices—ways to do things that others have found helpful, or lessons they have learned about what not to do-and practical "how-to" guidance. This is not the kind of experimental research that can yield valid causal claims about what works, so readers should judge the merits of these suggestions according to their understanding of the reasoning behind them and fit them to their local circumstances.

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Last Modified: 04/18/2008