The Pros and Cons of Alternative Teacher Certification

If you feel passionate about the knowledge you have gained through studying or working in an area other than education, and you would like to share that knowledge with the next generation, alternative certification could be your route to the classroom.

Alternative teacher certification programs began to proliferate in the 1980s as a response to critical shortages of teachers in subject areas like math and science in rural and inner-city schools. By combining education coursework with classroom experience, alternative certification allows new teachers to learn the fundamentals of the profession while also earning a salary. Specifics vary from state to state and program to program, but most provide a high level of mentoring, training and support to college-educated applicants who already have thorough knowledge of their subject area and exceptional leadership qualities.

Critics of alternative teacher certification have argued that placing brand-new teachers with little training in particularly challenging classroom situations is a disservice to students. And it is true that some candidates for alternative certification find that they are not up to the challenge and fail to complete their programs. However, as early as 1986 a study by Nancy E. Adelman showed that: “Alternative certification programs produce subject area-proficient teachers who are also rated highly on instructional skills (when compared to traditionally prepared beginning teachers)”. More recently, a comprehensive 800 page review of all available research on the question of alternative certification by the American Education Research Association found “very little difference between alternatively and traditionally certified teachers.”

Over the last two decades, alternative teacher certification has grown rapidly in popularity. According to the National Center for Alternative Certification, 48 states now offer alternative routes to certification, and alternative certification programs produce more than 50,000 teachers a year. This challenging path to the classroom attracts a more diverse group than the traditional route, including teachers of all ages, ethnicities and professional backgrounds. A 2005 study has shown that Florida’s alternative teacher certification programs have attracted many qualified individuals to the profession who would not have chosen it otherwise, and a study by Leo Klagholz showed that New Jersey’s alternative certification program accomplished its goal of increasing the overall quality of the teaching certificate candidate pool in that state.

Alternative teacher certification has contributed to the quality of the American education system, but what makes it so attractive to potential teachers, many of whom have already been successful in other fields? Alternative certification provides a way to enter the field of education without taking time off to go back to school, which would involve a significant opportunity cost in terms of lost income. Alternative certification programs also use a hands-on approach to learning, allowing candidates to immediately apply what they learn in their own coursework to the classroom where they teach. Finally, perhaps the most attractive thing about alternative certification programs is that they provide an opportunity for people to share the passion that has motivated their studies or professional work with the next generation.

What are the downsides of alternative certification? As mentioned above, the largest argument against alternative certification is that it places the least prepared teachers in the most challenging classroom situations. While multiple studies have shown that alternative certification ultimately produces teachers at least as proficient as traditional certification, the training process undeniably involves a learning curve. Some have argued that using classrooms full of the nation’s most under-served children as training grounds for teachers is the wrong way to address teacher-shortages. This scenario also presents candidates for alternative certification with an extremely strenuous training process. Traditionally certified teachers often have greater agency in choosing where they begin working, and have already completed years of coursework and assistant teaching.

While alternative certification programs in general have clearly proven their efficacy, not all alternative certification programs are created equal. According to the National Education Association, certain characteristics make for successful alternative certification programs. Look for a program that meets these criteria:

  • Strong partnership between preparation program and school districts
  • Good participant screening and selection process
  • Strong supervision and mentoring for participants during their teaching
  • Solid curriculum that includes coursework in classroom basics and teaching methods
  • Sufficient and relevant training and coursework prior to the assignment of participants to full-time teaching

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