Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Teacher Preparation: Alternative Teacher Certification Programs

Licensing agencies typically have two separate educational standards for teachers: that they have a degree at at least the bachelor's level and that they have completed an educator preparation program. These two things aren't necessarily done together. If one is a traditional college student, the best option is generally to earn a degree in education, at least if the plan is to teach elementary school. Undergraduate education majors are often a good choice for those planning teaching careers at the secondary level as well.

Degree holders who seek teacher certification have multiple options. They may complete post-baccalaureate or Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degrees that include relatively traditional student teaching experiences. They may opt instead for alternative programs.

States often have their own alternative certification programs. Some programs have wide geographic reach, but they are still subject to approval in the states where they operate.

Alternative teacher certification programs can be less daunting from an economic perspective. However, the experience can be more demanding.

Defining Alternative Programs

States may define alternative programs in slightly different ways. There are alternative certification programs where individuals do not earn college credit and ones where they come away with a master’s. Sometimes alternative programs are classified as district-based or university-based.

An individual who completes an alternative program typically takes on a teaching role sooner. Some candidates complete a relatively short period of in-service training at the onset then complete the program in conjunction with actual teaching.

Alternative Teacher Certification Program Competitiveness

The goal of alternative certification is to help schools meet their staffing needs. School districts may turn to third parties for vetted professionals who haven't yet completed their education programs; they place them in classroom teaching situations when they are having trouble filling positions. Alternative placement is more common at the secondary level than the elementary level and is especially common in areas like math and science. However, there are challenged districts – both rural and urban – that place alternative candidates in elementary or early childhood positions.

Subject matter competence may play a big role in being offered a position. Professional experience, maturity, and experience with youth can be assets. Programs vary in their competitiveness.

The New Teacher Program is free but accepts just 10% of applicants. Similar figures have been reported for the prestigious Teach for America program.

Many programs carry an enrollment fee. They do, however, allow individuals the opportunity to earn their credentials at less cost and draw a pay check sooner.

Alternative Teacher Certification Program Considerations

Individuals who pursue alternative programs may need to do more than the usual amount of application at the onset. If one seeks certification through Teach for America, for example, he or she applies to a program and then applies for positions with partnering schools. Teach for America provides a living stipend, but relocation may be necessary.

An even bigger challenge: Teachers who are accepted typically have to be ready for more responsibility sooner. Classroom management can be a struggle even for career changers who have more than a few years of professional experience. Teachers who seek alternative placement often find themselves in schools that have more than the usual amount of challenges.

The process of moving up to a standard credential may take several years. During this time, the individual will receive evaluation as well as mentorship. The evaluation process may be very formal. Some states require rigorous portfolio-based assessment of all new teacher candidates.

An additional issue: getting certified in another state. This is typically easier if one has completed all requirements for the standard license in the state where he or she worked. In this case, it generally won't be an issue to achieve a similar status in a new state. However, there are limited exceptions. A prospective teacher who is considering an alternative program may want to do a little extra research at the beginning.

Alternative programs clearly have something to offer. Teaching organizations and research organizations have mixed reviews of their long-term success. The level of preparation a person receives before stepping into a teaching role has bearing on whether he or she stays in the profession. The length of the student teaching period matters as does the opportunity to observe other teachers and to receive feedback.

The National Education Association has identified factors that lead to success ( Among them are effective partnerships between school districts and programs, good screening and selection practices, adequate pre-service training, and effective mentoring.

Teacher Residencies

Residencies may represent a special case. The Learning Policy Institute has even referred to them as high-retention pathways.

Unlike many alternative programs, residencies transition teacher slowly to the classroom. A resident typically spends a couple years in the classroom working toward meeting basic requirements. The first year, he or she teams with an experienced teacher; only in the second year does the resident become teacher of record. Residents take courses and participate in trainings while out in the schools.

School districts make significant investments in the residents they select. A resident may incur varying expenses and receive varying levels of support. The resident may be paying part of the cost of his or her master’s degree but also be receiving a stipend to help with living costs. Housing assistance can be part of the package.

Part of what educational units are looking for when they set up residencies is stability. They are looking for an educational commitment – a commitment from someone who has the ability to make a positive impact from the start.

It is important to note that not all residencies have equal success. Programs that work tend to get replicated but not in the same way or to the same effect.

Research into the effects on student achievement is mixed (