Alternative teaching certification programs
May 12, 2021
What is an alternative teaching certificate program?
As significant teacher shortages began to occur in the 1980s, alternative certification programs (ACPs) proliferated. According to a National Public Radio (NPR) article by education journalist, Anya Kamenetz, 20% of new teachers “become a teacher through means other than a 4-year undergraduate program or a master’s degree. Many are uncertified the first time they stand in front of students as the ‘teacher of record’—the only adult in the room.” (2014)
Many people from other fields have turned to ACPs to equip them with the necessary skills to quickly and smoothly transition into teaching. This raises the question – Are there hidden costs to those ACP graduates and the children they teach?
Critics of ACPs contend that graduates, primarily of for-profit programs, are poorly prepared to take on the role of a teacher. Further, these critics claim that ACP graduates are doing a disservice to America’s schoolchildren.
Proponents of ACPs praise this alternative education track for providing opportunities for students from minority groups and older students with a faster entry into a career in teaching. In response to critics of ACPs, they point to data showing that students with ACP-trained teachers do as well academically as those with traditionally trained teachers.
In this article, we compare traditional certification programs (TCPs) with ACPs. If you are currently considering the options that will lead you to a teaching career, read on for some information that may help you make your decision.
As one of those people with life experience before teaching – otherwise known as a career changer, I became an elementary school teacher through a Texas-based alternative teaching certification program.
When an ACP program provides real-life experience, rigorous coursework, and effective mentoring in the critical first year, I believe it provides an avenue for motivated individuals to enter and succeed in the teaching profession. I also acknowledge that there are problems with alternative certification programs. Some of these problematic issues will be discussed in this article, followed by recommendations to reduce these issues.
With that admission of bias out of the way, let’s begin by defining terms to ensure we’re comparing apples to apples.
Alternative certification program (ACP)
An alternative certification program goes by several names, including alternative teaching route or alternative licensure. An ACP allows you to teach with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than education, such as chemistry or anthropology. You’ll earn your teaching license while teaching.
ACP formats vary wildly. The best-known alternative certification program in the U.S., Teach for America, TFA—see below, takes 2 years to complete. Other programs are much shorter in duration. Many programs are offered entirely online, and students can study at their own pace and even make many of their observations from a video library.
All states offer alternative routes to a teaching credential, and individual states regulate the ACPs that operate within their borders. Various types of organizations or partnerships can administer alternative certification programs. For instance, some school districts partner with institutes of higher education (IHEs) to offer an alternative program. In these programs, participants begin an internship, otherwise known as a probationary teaching position, at the school district. At the same time, they take courses at the IHE to complete their program.
It’s important to note that the majority of ACPs do, in fact, partner with IHEs. According to a 2015 government report, there were 26,589 teacher preparation programs from 2,170 providers. Of those 26,000+ programs, 70% were traditional IHE-based, 20% were IHE-based alternative programs, and 10% were non-IHE-based alternative programs.
When ACP participants complete prescribed prerequisites and locate a job as a teacher of record, they’re eligible for an internship, also known as a probationary certificate. ‘Teachers of record’ are primarily responsible for the education of students in their classrooms. They don’t work directly under a supervising teacher as student teachers do. During this one-year probationary period, participants receive on-campus mentoring under occasional observation by their ACP field supervisors. Due to COVID-19 measures, many ACPs require that candidates record themselves teaching and send the videos to their field supervisors for feedback. Upon satisfactorily completing the probationary period, ACP candidates are fully certified.
Traditional certification program (TCP)
Teachers with standard certifications earn a bachelor’s degree in education from an accredited 4-year college or university. Such programs usually include courses in classroom management and pedagogy, plus a stint of unpaid student teaching. With 80% of teachers arriving at the classroom through this route, traditional certification is considered the gold standard.
In most traditional education degree programs, candidates need to complete 100 hours of supervised clinical experience and 600 hours of student teaching. These practicum hours are completed in the junior and senior years. Critics of TCPs contend that education majors need to experience earlier hands-on teaching practice earlier in their program to ensure that they are making the correct career decision to match their expectations.
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Teach for America (TFA) is a highly selective ACP, admitting fewer than 15% of applicants from top-tier universities. TFA recruits, often called ‘corps members,’ begin the program with a 5- or 8-week intensive summer immersion program consisting of training, teaching practice, networking, and reflection. They are then assigned to high-needs classrooms. During the school year, corps members have weeknight education classes, weekend professional development, and meetings with supervisors—all while learning to teach.
This rigorous program partners with local universities to help corps members become fully certified teachers, usually by receiving a master’s in Education at the end of the 2-year stint. Due to its selectivity, intensity, and final credential of a master’s degree, many people consider TFA as an alternative program that isn’t actually too alternative.
Pros and cons of alternative certification
Alternative certification isn’t for everybody. Here are some positives and negatives of alternative certification.
Pros of alternative certification
You can become a teacher even if this was not your initial goal when deciding on your undergraduate program. Many people who travel the alternative-certification road decide to enter teaching after one or more careers. They’ve already invested time and money in a bachelor’s degree, and they don’t want to pile up significant educational debt or take time off to pursue another degree.
You can earn a living wage while you learn to be a teacher. Lots of ACP candidates are mid-life workers who may have acquired a mortgage, family, and other expenses. It’s more practical for such people to take a fast-track program to minimize downtime and educational expenses.
ACP teachers bring a fresh perspective to the classroom. ACP grads can draw on the knowledge of their undergraduate major and understanding of how things are done in the workplace.
ACP programs allow candidates to learn by doing. This is some people’s preferred way of learning. Although hard-won, lessons learned in this way will be retained.
ACP graduates help alleviate teacher shortages. Teach for America was founded in response to a nationwide teacher shortage. That shortage has persisted in certain specializations, like bilingual and special education, and in some regions of the country.
Cons of alternative certification
It can be hard to land that first job. Since ACP graduates have limited experience, they usually have limited employment options, too. Understandably, principals at top-notch schools will hire experienced teachers with proven track records and glowing recommendations. Breaking through to that first job may require ACP graduates to perform additional, lower-paid work in the educational arena, such as substituting.
You usually start teaching with much less training than TCP graduates have. Even when ACP graduates opt for student teaching, they have not had the opportunity to absorb as much educational knowledge and experience as TCP graduates have. Sure, they have some upfront coursework, but by definition, most of the learning is on-the-job training.
It places the least prepared teachers in the most challenging classrooms. ACP graduates who secure employment often start at less desirable positions in poorly-rated public or charter schools. These schools usually have a high percentage of at-risk students who live in poverty and have dysfunctional families. Veteran teachers—let alone novices trying to learn the craft of teaching on the job—would be stretched under such circumstances.
It’s tough. All new teachers need to climb their own learning curve at the beginning of their teaching careers. This learning curve is steeper when you’re playing ‘catch-up’ on training.
Do ACP teachers negatively impact student success?
Obtaining an alternative certification may benefit the graduates of ACP programs and help them to meet their career goals faster and more economically. However, the bigger question that needs to be addressed is – do ACP-trained teachers benefit students as much as TCP-trained ones do?
Research shows that teachers have a significant effect on student success, usually measured by test scores. A study conducted by Yusuf and Dada (2016) found that teachers are estimated to have 2 to 3 times the impact of any other school factor on student achievement on math and reading tests. Therefore, it’s essential to address this issue.
There’s a heated debate in the education community about whether ACP teachers have a negative impact on student academic performance. A 2016 policy paper labeled non-traditional programs as “substandard” and ACP graduates as the “least well-prepared.” The report cites 3 studies to back up its claim that “the assignment of teachers who have not undergone preparation . . . has been found to harm student achievement.”
That’s not the end of the story, though. A review by Sung and Horn (2017) found that graduates of less selective ACPs were either substantially or slightly less effective than those from traditional programs. However, other studies showed no difference between ACP and TCP graduates in New York and Texas. Teach for America candidates – as you’ll recall, TFA is a highly selective ACP- were found to improve students’ math and science scores compared to graduates of traditional programs.
Newer data found only slight differences in student achievement based on whether teachers held a traditional or alternative certification. According to a meta-analysis by Whitford et al.(2017), ACP teachers were slightly more successful than those from TCPs at producing academic gains.
In reference to comparing the 2 educational pathways to becoming a teacher, Denise Whitford, an assistant professor of education at Purdue University and co-author of the meta-analysis stated, “We found there really wasn’t much difference between the two, but the small difference we did find was in favor of alternative programs.” (2017)
What is the bottom line?
The data on whether ACP or TCP graduates are better for student success is mixed. However, studies that showed TCP graduates were superior to ACP graduates on several measures also demonstrated that those differences tended to decrease with time.
If ACP graduates stay in the system and work hard to overcome any deficits, they’ll get better. Indeed, most teachers, regardless of how they’re trained, seem to hit their stride by years 3-5.
Do ACP teachers stick around long enough to become better teachers? Haj-Broussard et al. (2016) found that ACP graduates stay in the classroom longer than traditionally trained teachers. The NAAC reported that 83% of teachers who entered the profession through an ACP continue teaching after their first 3 years in the classroom. In contrast, traditionally trained teachers only have a 60% retention rate past 3 years.
Why is there such a low retention rate for TCP graduates? Perhaps it’s because practicum experiences don’t take place until the last 2 years of college. One TCP graduate proposed that education majors should obtain classroom experience earlier in their academic careers. This could, perhaps, prevent people from getting a degree in a profession which they decide they don’t like after all.
What to look for in an ACP
While ACPs have generally proven effective, they’re not all created equal. According to the National Education Association (NEA), specific criteria make some ACPs more successful than others. Here are some of those desirable characteristics:
- Robust partnership between the ACP and school districts
- Selective candidate selection process
- Strong supervision and mentoring for participants during their teaching
- Solid curriculum that includes coursework in classroom basics and teaching methods
- Sufficient, relevant training and coursework before participants accept full-time teaching jobs
To the NEA’s list, I would add that candidates, if at all possible, should have experience in the educational setting they want to enter. The tale of 2 ACP participants that follows offers insights into the value of relevant experience.
The secret sauce
Four years ago, Ken Sticklen took an intensive 2-week summer class from a for-profit ACP.
Although Sticklen praises the summer course, he faults the program for not being “. . . more realistic about the learning culture I’d find in a public school. They perpetuated the rose-colored glasses I had . . . I was shocked when I got in the classroom.”
Since he’d taught ESL in private schools in the U.S. and China for a decade before earning his alternative certification, Sticklen didn’t feel he needed to take advantage of the semester-long student teaching option. In retrospect, though, he felt he should have gotten experience in the environment where he planned to teach. “I don’t care where you taught before. If you’re going to teach in a middle school, you need practice teaching in a middle school,” Sticklen insists.
After a year of teaching in one of the roughest middle schools in a high-needs district, Sticklen had had enough. Vowing never to return, he exited public education.
Sticklen’s experience highlights some of the issues with alternative certification programs, including the perilous path of those who lack relevant experience. For people who seek out experience, though, an ACP can provide a smoother, more flexible route to a coveted teacher-of-record position.
Donna Dapkins is the poster child for the value of experience for ACP participants. Dapkins, a current participant in a for-profit ACP, spent 5 years substituting in several schools in her preferred district. Although Dapkins is pleased with the quality of her ACP, she says, “Substitute teaching helped me prepare [for teaching] far better than the alternative certification program.”
Substitute teaching also led to a job offer in the school where Dapkins served as a long-term sub. In her district, it’s customary for long-term subs to receive contracts as soon as they’re eligible for an internship. That process was delayed a few months since Dapkins became internship-eligible at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown. However, she was offered a teacher of record position in July 2020.
It’s worth noting, however, that one of the reasons Dapkins spent so many years substituting was that she couldn’t find a job as a high school teacher despite decades of work experience as a software engineer. That setback worked out for her, though. As she substituted, she realized she preferred teaching elementary students.
So, if I had to do things over again, would I have chosen an alternative certification program? The answer is—that depends. If I could turn back time to my undergraduate days, I would have earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching. All things being equal, I feel that an education degree allows you time to marinate in education and internalize concepts that are easier caught than taught.
But, like many people, I didn’t decide to teach until years after I’d graduated from college, and I needed a living wage to provide for myself and my kids. Under those circumstances, an ACP is the way to go. You don’t shell out much money to get started, and you pay the program fee in monthly installments after you obtain your probationary certificate.
However, I would have chosen a more widely recognized regional program that partnered with an institute of higher education (IHE) and was aligned with a school district. I would have completed a student teaching program instead of my year-long internship. Student teaching would have helped me forge contacts to land a desirable job. The teaching experience would also have significantly increased my confidence and marketability.
I would have been more aggressive about seeking out mentoring and training at my job. As the saying goes, when you know better, you do better.
If you can’t survive without cash flow for a few months while you’re doing student teaching, at least get some education experience as a paraprofessional or a substitute. The pay isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing. Gaining experience with students sets you up to succeed, expands your network, and makes you more attractive to prospective employers.
Today, alternative certification is no longer as alternative as it used to be. It’s now mainstream, and the number of ACP graduates is steadily climbing. Many studies show that ACP-trained teachers are as effective as TCP graduates, at least 2-3 years following certification.
Whether you go the TCP or ACP route, teaching is still challenging. However, hang in there. As you seek out training and mentoring, you’ll grow into the role. Most people acknowledge that it takes 3-5 years to hit your stride as a teacher. Continue to learn, grow, practice, tweak, and question, and you and your students will flourish.