The Failings (and Possibilities) of Alternative Certification

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Entering teaching through an alternative certification program can be a hit or miss proposition. But judging by a study just out by Harvard's Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, it's largely a miss. The authors, Susan Moore Johnson, Sarah Birkeland and Heather Peske provide an articulate, in--depth look at how 13 alternative certification programs in four states (California, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Connecticut) prepare teachers for the classroom. While at times overly cautious in their assessment, they powerfully document the degree to which these programs are--for the most part--just as messy and ineffective as traditional certification. The main difference is that teachers in alternative certification programs haven't laid out a lot of wasted dollars and time pursuing a traditional route.

State--run programs (such as Connecticut and Massachusetts) are especially weak compared with district-run programs (such as those in Louisiana).

--States have a hard time persuading districts to let these teacher candidates student teach in their summer schools since they won?t necessarily need to hire these teachers.

--States are more apt to hire mismatched supervising teachers and mentors with different subject and grade level expertise and who often have no capacity for mentoring.

--Too often these alternative certification programs neglect their responsibility of making sure that a teacher with a chemistry PhD still receives targeted pedagogy training in how to teach chemistry to high school students.

--States are not as successful recruiting teachers to fill shortage areas as district programs.

--States programs tend to abandon these teachers once they are placed, leaving often dysfunctional schools with the responsibility to provide induction services.

And while all programs had trouble providing jobs in a timely fashion, states were found to be less apt to offer teachers a job at the end of the summer training.. Ten of the 13 programs promised to deliver a job, but only one--a tiny program for special education teachers in Louisiana--did so for all their participants. Because too often candidates do not have a job by August, they are forced to accept the first job offered, which often bears little relationship to the training they received in the summer.

As might be expected from a cadre of academics writing out of Harvard's ed school, great pains are taken to balance every negative with a positive and avoid reaching conclusions in quite the stark terms that we are willing to do. For instance, they frequently refer to the problems of states directing broad programs absent any focus on curriculum, school setting or age level compared with the more narrowly focused district--run programs. These district programs, claim the authors, limit a teacher's marketability or repertoire. But training teachers in some curriculum is better than having no curriculum training at all. It is one of the reasons that ed schools, stubborn in their refusal to provide training in any particular curriculum, so frequently disappoint the districts they serve. It's also clear that alt cert programs aren't for everyone, as they require a good deal of self confidence and experience on the part of candidates. The study finds that motivated mid--career switchers are most likely to possess the confidence needed, especially if they have had strong subject matter preparation that they actually used in their previous job. Candidates who had raised children, worked extensively with youth, and become familiar with the school through volunteering or substituting also enjoyed an advantage over other candidates. Here are our two takeaways (which are decidedly different from those of the authors): 1. Districts, instead of states, should run alternative certification programs. 2. Alternative certification programs should only accept candidates who have secured a firm job offer. The study is daunting for its length of 150 pages without a chart or graph to be seen--a sure turnoff for the quick policy read--but its lessons are well worth exploring.