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Maher: Not Every Alternative Certification Program Is TFA

This is a guest post from NCSU's Michael Maher (@mj_maher):

Check-box-imageIn early 2013 the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) will release it’s National Review of Teacher Preparation Programs.  Few of us in teacher education expect to fare well, regardless of the quality of our programs and candidates.  A quick glance at their website makes clear where they stand. 

Yesterday, Education Week reported on the findings of the Task Force on Educator Excellence in California.  That task force reported a staggering decrease in the number of teaching credentials issued from 2004 to 2010 and the number of students in teacher preparation programs dropping by 50%.  Undoubtedly, statistics such as these and reports written testifying to failing teacher preparation will once again lead to an increasing call for more “alternative certification” programs.  

Before making any such move, however, policymakers should understand that alternative programs are no longer few and far between, don't necessarily differ from traditional programs as much as may be assumed, and aren't all of the same high quality.

Once new and innovative, alternative certification programs have grown much larger than many are aware of. From 1985 to 2007, the number of teachers certified through alternative routes grew from less than 300 to a high of roughly 62,000 per year.  Once limited to a meager handful, today each state has at least one route and it has been reported that nearly 600 total alternate routes exist.

As the alternative certification sector has grown, the differences between traditional  and alternative routes have become blurred.  Despite the assumption that the pathway is either traditional or alternative, alternative programs can look very dissimilar to traditional programs, as in ABCTE, or very similar to a traditional program like NCTEACH, or somewhere in the middle like Teach for America (TFA).  Further muddying the distinction, many candidates are recruited into alternative programs but then trained by traditional providers.

Last but not least, the assumption that alternative pathways are better (or worse) than traditional pathways isn't backed by the research.  There are reports and studies that claim alternative certification graduates are more effective and those that will suggest that they are less effective.  There are no doubt differences in effectiveness among various alternative providers that have not been well documented.

The challenge for schools and school systems is to recruit and retain high quality teachers using the best information available.  Unfortunately, in some cases these systems do not have the option of choosing, they take those who apply regardless of their path to the classroom. 

To identifying potential highly effective teachers it is not enough to look just at whether they were a traditional completer or alternative completer, school systems need to be able to determine the type and quality of the program they completed (or might be enrolled in). 

In North Carolina alone we have more than 5 different pathways into teaching.  Individuals can complete university based programs that are either licensure-only or degree granting, they can complete non-university based programs run by the state (Regional Alternative Licensure Centers) or districts, or enter some districts as a TFA corps member.  In each case the type and amount of coursework and school experiences will differ, the quality of the candidates will differ, and the outcomes will differ. 

Before we dive headlong in calls for more routes into the classroom and the shuttering of teacher preparation programs, we need a better analysis of the impact of teachers from each of the different pathways.  Policymakers and others need to remember that not every traditional teacher preparation program is failing to prepare their candidates for the challenges of today’s classrooms and not every alternative certification program is Teach for America.

Previous post:  Where All The "Alt Certs" Are

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I came into teaching through alternative certification, and I strongly support alternative paths to the classroom.

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