More Districts Rely on Teachers from Alternative Certification, but Can They Teach?

By Joetta Sack-Min

“Pedagogy matters.”

Rod Lucero, a vice president with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, makes a common sense point: Just because someone is a great mathematician doesn’t mean they can teach.

LFA recently reported on recent research on the educator pipeline, which finds that fewer candidates are studying to become teachers, and pending shortages could impact the supply of principals, district administrators and superintendents as well. But the issue of educator shortages is only one factor—the qualifications of the teachers and staff recruited to work in classrooms have some researchers worried.

Literacy researcher Jill Lewis-Spector, a professor at New Jersey City University and a recent president of the International Literacy Association, recently reviewed state policies for allowing candidates to enter the teaching field through alternative certification—programs that allow mid-career professionals to use previous education and work experience toward a certification, traditionally for hard-to-staff fields such as math and science. What Lewis-Spector found is that nearly every state (47) has a program for at least some subjects, and that requirements to become a teacher varied widely in terms of the training and time spent in the classroom. In some states, individuals who met the minimum requirements for a program could become full-fledged teachers within a matter of weeks--sometimes with as much pay as teachers with advanced degrees.

More concerning to Lewis-Spector, most of these teachers are assigned to hard-to-staff schools and are teaching primarily disadvantaged students. 

“It’s possible for more than two-thirds of alternative route teachers have very little or absolutely no preparation to teach literacy, yet most of them are ending up in high-poverty schools where we have the greatest literacy gap,” she said. “I was really disappointed as the alternative route programs were originally designed to address critical shortages.”

Alternative certification certainly has its merits—many individuals with rich work and life experiences have entered the field and become exemplary teachers. What’s concerning is the number of teachers who are entering through these channels—up to 40 percent in some rural areas, Spector said—and the low retention rate of teachers who do not have the needed skills and supports to handle tough assignments.

The fast expansion of alternative certification, and the rising numbers of teachers entering through these channels, also is concerning to Lewis-Spector. In some cases she’s seen, “It’s more about getting a warm body in the classroom than being truly prepared,” she said.

How can we move away from relying on alternative certification? Spector, like many others, wants to see teaching become more professional and well regarded by the public, similar to Scandinavian countries. Some alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, have been criticized because they market teaching as a stepping stone to higher-paying careers, and the resulting turnover has hurt the schools they seek to help.

Overall, she says, state policymakers must understand the importance of literacy and ensure that all elementary teachers, regardless of educational background, have thorough training in how to teach reading and writing.

“There are some assumptions that are being made, one is that if you are an alternative route candidate that you can read—you can teach reading, if you can write, then you can teach writing,” she said. However, “if you aren’t preparing teachers to address students’ literacy needs you can’t expect the U.S. to perform well.”

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