Learning on the Job
Is alternative certification for new teachers working?
Is going Alternate Route really working?
Jonathan Halabi's first year as a math teacher was, by his own admission, a nightmare. When he started, Halabi had no student-teaching experience. He had not taken any method classes. "I was absolutely horrendous," he says. "I couldn't run the class. I couldn't even get the kids to attend."
In his first career, Halabi had worked as a transportation analyst for the City of New York, so the math wasn't a problem. Learning how to run a classroom was.
Like thousands of new teachers starting this year, Halabi entered the teaching profession through the alternate certification route. Recruited to teach a high-demand subject in a hard-to-staff urban school, Halabi made it through because he was lucky enough to be "adopted" by a couple of veteran teachers who offered to observe his classes and give him feedback. They encouraged him to sit in on lessons taught by the school's master teachers. It was an informal mentorship that would be hard to replicate-but it worked.
After a tough year of on-the-job training that he calls a trial by fire, Halabi got better and better. He is now teaching at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, and entering his tenth year of teaching. Despite his early difficulties, Halabi believes in alternative certification. He says that if it wasn't for the alternative path available to him, he wouldn't have become a teacher. He worries that the quest to raise the bar on teacher quality may close the door on many talented people who could grow to become great teachers but won't or can't afford to jump through the hoops necessary to receive certification. And with the shortage of math and science teachers, that's a big problem.
Not everyone agrees, calling alternative certification misdirected and stopgap. "While we acknowledge that a shortage of educators exists, we don't believe that we should lower standards for teachers to enter the profession," says Martha Gage, president of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC). "If teachers aren't fully prepared for their assignments, then the children under their care may not learn as well as they should," she says, "and schools might not be able to meet the requirements of adequate yearly progress." Educators at all levels need to work together, Gage says, to encourage more qualified candidates to enter the profession and to put programs in place that will make teachers feel supported and valued enough to stay.
Where are all the teachers?
The truth is many districts are desperate to recruit promising teachers. In the coming decade, it's estimated that the U.S. will need 2 million new teachers, and that means we've got to act fast. Is it possible to train and certify that many newbies via the laborious old way? Is it irresponsible to change certification requirements simply to fill teaching slots? Not even the research seems to point us in a clear direction.
Take the case of Teach for America, a 14-year-old program that recruits graduating seniors at 500 universities, puts them through a training program, and then places them-uncertified-in schools with teaching shortages. The program is known for attracting very high achievers at some of the country's top schools, such as Yale and Harvard. It has been attracting huge numbers of applicants recently, about 19,000 this year.
According to Abigail Smith, vice president for research and policy at Teach for America and an alumnus herself, about a third of the recruits end up staying in teaching in some fashion despite the lack of credentials when they start out, and another third move into educational administration. That's a pretty good retention rate, especially since just 11 percent of applicants indicate that they would have chosen to enter the teaching profession without the Teach for America shortcut.
While she understands the concerns about how fast corps members complete their teacher training, Smith says that the big difference in opinion here is not what is taught but rather how many paths there are to becoming a teacher. "We absolutely welcome the range of entry points into the profession," she says adamantly. "These are high achievers, and they are not going to sit out for a year in order to get their credentials."
Anthony Sapp, the chair of the math department at Charles D. Owen High School in Buncombe County (NC) School System, says he has worked with quite a few Teach for America members, and some have been successful. It's not the training that seems to make the difference, Sapp says. "Teaching is an art, not a science. People who make a commitment to teaching will be successful," he believes. Nevertheless, he feels that it takes time to develop and "find yourself" in teaching, and the background knowledge that comes from certification is critical.
And what's the effect of noncertified teachers on students? Critics of Teach for America worry that the abbreviated training just isn't good enough for these novice teachers, high achievers or no. A recent study by Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, examined student achievement gains of fourth and fifth graders on six reading and mathematics tests over a six-year period. The study found that certified teachers "consistently produce stronger student achievement gains than do uncertified teachers" and that "controlling for teacher experience, degrees, and student characteristics, uncertified Teach for America recruits are less effective than certified teachers and perform about as well as other uncertified teachers."
Of course, efficacy in teaching is hard to measure, even for those with the highest level of certification. In fact, national board certification, the gold standard in teaching, has been under the microscope lately. Earning national board certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is a rigorous process that takes from one to three years, and only teachers with three full years of teaching experience can apply. It's voluntary, although some states offer cash incentives to those who attain it. Only about 50,000 teachers in the U.S-out of about 3.5 million K-12 teachers-have earned this certification.
The idea is that these teachers are the best and the brightest of what U.S. schools have to offer, and the more national board certified teachers your district has, the better the teaching and learning. But a recent study commissioned by NBPTS in an effort to measure the effects of national board certified teachers on the quality of teaching and student achievement in U.S. schools has called all that into question. The study compared year-end mathematics and reading test scores of children in grades 4 through 8 from two large North Carolina school districts, and found that students of national board certified teachers did not have significantly better rates of progress than students of other teachers.
Mary E. Dilworth, vice president of higher education and research at NBPTS says that this may be because national board certification focuses on best practices in teaching, not on test scores. "There is a much greater range of accomplishments that students of national board certified teachers should be gauged upon," Dilworth notes. "We believe students learned more [with these teachers], and the assessments should be broader." That said, Dilworth notes that NBPTS is pulling together a committee of educators, policymakers, and researchers to examine this study and others to understand the importance of all the findings and respond accordingly.
Owen High School's Sapp thinks certification is crucial, but he would also like every new teacher to be paired with a mentor or to team teach, regardless of certification, although he knows the budget simply isn't there.
"Certified doesn't necessarily mean good," reminds Richard Lamb, chair of the computer department at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Lamb has been involved with Michigan's efforts to create a computer-teacher certification program, and has worked with the Computer Science Teachers Association to determine teaching standards across the country. "Certification shows the person has a basic understanding and comprehension of what experts in the field deem to be important," he says. "A teacher is not simply one who imparts knowledge. One needs to impart it well, in a variety of ways. Any good teacher is part actor and comedian."
Anyone who remembers his or her first classroom knows that even hard-won certification is not a guarantee of success. Perhaps in this time of intense ramping up for a new generation of teachers, it would be better to think about what happens once the classroom door shuts behind a teacher-new or old, certified in the traditional way or via an alternative route-instead of closing them before they walk in.
Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.