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May 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 8

Removing the Barriers for Teacher Candidates

The traditional routes to teacher certification may deter potentially gifted teachers from entering the classroom. Streamlined alternative certification programs, teacher compensation plans, and school-level accountability may help open the door.

When Bill Babcock, an engineer with a graduate business degree, retired in 1993, he expected to spend most of his time fishing in Ormond Beach, Florida. But retirement on the beach proved too quiet. At his wife's suggestion, he found his new calling at a local middle school. In spring 2000, Babcock was named teacher of the year in Volusia County, Florida (Keller, 2000). But if it hadn't been for an observant principal, a savvy district administrator, and Babcock's perseverance, the students of Ormond Middle School might never have had this outstanding math instructor.
Babcock began by volunteering as an aide in computer and math classes. The principal was so impressed that he asked Babcock to take a full-time position when the math teacher retired. Babcock jumped at the chance. To get a Florida teaching license, however, he first had to leap through a series of hoops meant to prove that he was qualified to teach—never mind that his principal had already seen ample proof with real students. Luckily, Babcock found a friendly expert in state licensure requirements in the district office. Following her advice, he took seven courses from four different colleges to complete a licensing program in time for the new school year.
In light of Babcock's experience and the principal's endorsement, such courses seemed unnecessary. Besides, Babcock had already devised his own lesson plans and methods. During his year as an aide, he had observed the school's best teachers and queried them about their teaching strategies. He learned the job by watching good teachers teach, not by spending seat-time in courses on pedagogy.

Taking Bold Action

How many eager, able, nontraditional teacher candidates like Bill Babcock do we lose because of our system of hoops and hurdles and red tape? How many gifted teachers do we lose because they throw up their hands in despair at the obstacles, costs, and coursework between them and the classroom?
At a time when public education suffers from a dual crisis of quantity and quality in its teaching ranks, bold action is needed. But what sort? Many experts contend that there's only one solution. Insisting that their goal is quality improvement, they urge tighter regulation of teacher training programs and ever more hurdles to clear on the way to certification. Although well meaning, such proposals are not based on sound research or hard data. In fact, the education profession's conventional wisdom about teacher quality rests mostly atop beliefs and ideologies.
What to do instead? We offer an alternative view, one that welcomes innovation, invites experimentation, tolerates pluralism, and, above all, empowers school leaders to make key personnel decisions at the building level.

Eliminating Obstacles

Today's convergence of teacher shortages, teacher quality concerns, and toughened school-level accountability creates a grand opportunity for commonsense strategies. If, instead of erecting more barriers, we were to eliminate the hoops and hurdles that discourage good candidates from entering the classroom, we would find effective teachers in many places.
Charter schools and private schools point the way. They're generally free to hire both licensed and unlicensed teachers, to set their own terms of employment, and to pay what the market will bear (within budgetary constraints). About 65 percent of teachers at private secular schools are not certified. Yet they're more likely to have graduated from selective colleges and universities and, therefore, to be broadly educated and to know their subject matter. In the first year of Arizona's Phoenix Advantage Charter School, the physical education teacher was a world-class decathlete and the music teacher was a professional musician. Both had college degrees; neither held a teaching license. Both were very successful at teaching their students.
Today's college graduates have many career options and opportunities. If the path into teaching is too burdensome or costly, they won't take it. A recent study found two major reasons for college graduates choosing fields other than teaching: They wanted careers where their salary would keep pace with their performance, and they didn't want to return to school to take education courses that have questionable value (Farkas, Johnson, & Foleno, 2000).
Common sense suggests solutions to both problems. Rather than paying all teachers from the same scale without regard to their effectiveness, some districts are devising innovative compensation schemes. Some offer higher pay for teachers in hard-to-staff schools and in such shortage fields as math, science, and special education (Odden, 2001). Others pay more for good teachers. Such flexible pay scales can reduce one of the major entry barriers for talented people (Ballou & Podgursky, 2001).
Solving the second problem draws us into the quagmire of teacher training and certification. Conventional wisdom holds that to improve teacher preparation and quality, we should increase the time spent in training programs and the number of courses taken by future teachers; mandate that all preparation programs be accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE); and use the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) as the benchmark for outstanding teaching and as the basis for professional knowledge (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996).
These solutions might make sense if teaching possessed an agreed-upon body of professional knowledge resting on a scientific foundation and if NBPTS and NCATE standards were definitely linked to increased student learning. But there is no consensus on effective practices. Worse, much that is known with scientific certainty—about best practices for reading instruction in the primary grades, for instance—is not routinely imparted by teacher preparation programs.
Nor is there any convincing evidence that NCATE–approved schools produce better teachers than unaccredited schools. And the NBPTS has yet to show that the teachers it arduously certifies impart more knowledge and skills to their students than non-Board-certified teachers. Also troubling is the fact that NBPTS and NCATE promote a single constructivist view of instruction and curriculum, one at odds with much of what we know from research about effective practices and rigorous content standards (Wilcox, 1999). For example, NBPTS gives high marks to teachers who open "multiple pathways to knowledge"—code words for learner-centered education. Similar language permeates NCATE standards.

Alternative Certification

If, despite all this, some states want to persevere with conventional remedies for their teacher quality problem, they should by all means do so—provided that their results are carefully monitored. But the conventional wisdom is far too risky to impose on the whole country. Let's also try an alternative approach: lowering the barriers to public-school teaching by creating multiple pathways into the field.
Alternative certification—now flourishing in a few states and communities—is one route. Other places are experimenting with private programs, such as Teach for America, which places liberal arts graduates in public schools in poor rural communities and inner cities. More than 4,000 people apply for 1,000 Teach for America slots each year, suggesting that the prospect of teaching without first having to go through an elaborate program of pedagogical study appeals to able young college graduates. Another program, Troops to Teachers, has placed more than 3,000 military veterans in classrooms since 1994. Using a fast-track program similar to Teach for America and offering the added incentive of signing bonuses, the Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers has gotten off to a fine start in attracting and training people, with 225 individuals entering classrooms (including in such high-needs fields as math) through this route in the program's first two years and with more than 90 percent of their principals satisfied enough to want to hire more teachers from the program (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2000).
The past year has witnessed a surge in alternative-certification programs, now available in at least 40 states (Wolk, 2001). In Texas, school districts have begun to develop their own programs in shortage areas. Virginia's board of education recently approved a program called Career Switchers. Colorado allows districts and counties to offer fast-track programs. More states and districts are working with private companies, such as Sylvan Learning Systems and the New Teacher Project (a Teach for America spin-off), to create alternate routes to certification.
What most of these programs have in common is the requirement that a candidate possess a bachelor's degree, pass a competency examination and a background check, and complete a compressed training program that includes intensive, hands-on experience. After initial training, the new teacher usually receives support from a mentor teacher or supervisor. Although they're criticized by teachers unions and colleges of education, these programs are opening doors for many individuals interested in becoming teachers.
They're effective, too. Several studies suggest that alternatively certified teachers produce results in the classroom that are at least as good as those of teachers with conventional licenses. In a review of about 2000 12th grade math teachers, Dan D. Goldhaber and Dominic J. Brewer (1999) found no significant difference in effectiveness between those with emergency certification and those with standard certification. In New Jersey, which was one of the first states to implement a serious alternative certification program, teachers prepared through the alternative route have a lower attrition rate than conventionally certified teachers (Klagholz, 2000). Moreover, Michael Kwiatkowski (1999) reports that alternative programs attract minority professionals. In Texas, for example, 91 percent of all public school teachers are white, but 43 percent of those teachers who enter through alternative routes are minorities.
Alternative certification programs understandably make schools of education nervous. They crack the cartel and create competition for the monopoly. Schools of education and their supporting organizations—the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the teachers unions—want to shrink these programs, not expand them. They assert that fast-track programs produce individuals without the requisite skills to teach. But no data show that conventional certification programs yield better teachers than those who are alternatively certified or not certified at all, such as private or charter school teachers. Until we have solid evidence that standard certification programs produce teachers who are more effective at imparting skills and knowledge to their students, we shouldn't exclude willing and talented people who haven't spent years on education school campuses.

School-Level Accountability

As we open doors, we should demand more school-level accountability—and make sure that it touches the adults in a school, not just the students. All principals should be accountable for the educational performance of their students and be given the freedom to staff their schools as they think best. This includes decisions about whom to hire, retain, or remove. A principal may select a certified teacher, a former private school teacher, or a career changer with alternative certification. Making such decisions should be a key part of the principal's job. Although it's reasonable for the state to insist on background checks for all new teachers and on solid evidence of subject mastery, the principal is in the best position to assess how well an individual will match the school's vision and meet the students' needs. Analysts generally agree that an effective school needs a cohesive staff with a shared vision and that tying the hands of the school leader with respect to personnel makes it unreasonable to hold the leader accountable for the school's performance (Ballou & Podgursky, 2001; Cawelti, 1999). As we demand higher student performance, we obviously need more effective schools. That means schools with more effective teaching staffs.
The best gauge of teacher quality is whether teachers improve their students' academic performance. The principal can best judge this improvement, preferably with the help of reliable external testing data. William Sanders has developed a system for assessing the value that schools and teachers add by measuring the learning gains of students each year (Stone, 1999). But principals can use other methods—portfolios, pre- and post-tests, and curriculum-based measurement tools. The point is to free—and encourage—the principal to use evidence of value-added academic achievement to make staffing decisions.

Opening Doors

The students at Ormond Beach Middle School were lucky. They had a principal, a district administrator, and a teacher who were willing to plow through the regulatory roadblocks. But we can't count on exceptions to make the rule. While holding schools and teachers accountable for results, common sense tells us to open some windows, to widen the pathways into the profession, to experiment with teacher compensation plans, and to empower principals to make personnel decisions. The conventional wisdom deserves to be tried. But so does common sense.

Ballou, D., & Podgursky, M. (2001). Defining merit: Let the market decide. Education Matters, 1, 16–25.

Cawelti, G. (1999). Portraits of six benchmark schools: Diverse approaches to improving student achievement. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Farkas, S., Johnson, J., & Foleno, T. (2000). A sense of calling: Who teaches and why. New York: Public Agenda.

Goldhaber, D. D., & Brewer, D. J. (1999). Teacher licensing and student achievement. In M. Kanstoroom and C. E. Finn Jr. (Eds.), Better teachers, better schools (pp. 83–102). Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Klagholz, L. (2000, January). Growing better teachers in the Garden State: New Jersey's "alternate route" to teacher certification. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Keller, B. (2000). Rethinking retirement. Education Week, 20(13), 33.

Kwiatkowski, M. (1999). Debating alternative teacher certification: A trial by achievement. In M. Kanstoroom and C. E. Finn Jr. (Eds.), Better teachers, better schools (pp. 215–238). Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Massachusetts Department of Education. (2000). MINT 2000 survey report [Online]. Available: www.doe.mass.edu/tqe/news00/mintreport.pdf

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America's future. New York: Author.

Odden, A. (2001). Defining merit: Rewarding expertise. Education Matters, 1, 16–25.

Stone, J. E. (1999). Value-added assessment: An accountability revolution. In M. Kanstoroom and C. E. Finn Jr. (Eds.), Better teachers, better schools (pp. 239–250). Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Wilcox, D. (1999). The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards: Can it live up to its promise? In M. Kanstoroom and C. E. Finn Jr. (Eds.), Better teachers, better schools (pp. 163–198). Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Wolk, R. (2001, January). Alternative answers. Teacher Magazine, 12, 4.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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