Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Alternative Teaching Certification – Helping or Hurting the U.S. Public Education System?

Washington is on mission to solve the inefficiencies rampant throughout America’s public school systems, and one of the near-term solutions being supported, even by President Obama, is the expansion of alternative teaching certification programs. The goal of the certification programs is to inject motivated, intelligent, dedicated individuals into metropolitan education systems that have a difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers. My perspective, as a recipient of an alternative teaching certification, is biased. However, I have attempted to objectively lay out the arguments of both proponents of the certification programs as well as opponents, and I strongly feel that while not perfect, alternative teaching certifications have proven to be a positive influence on the public education system in America.

In an ideal world, all teaching jobs would be created equal and each school would have high retention rates of intelligent, tenured teachers. Of course, student behavior, dangerous neighborhoods, historic below grade level student performance and underfunding all lead to discrepancies that result in low demand for teaching positions in some public school systems. Gaps left in unattractive teaching locations must be filled and some believe that programs like Teach For America (TFA) and New York City (NYC) Teaching Fellows are the answer. These programs offer intellectual, highly motivated college graduates an opportunity to obtain teaching certificates in a condensed timeframe, without a traditional education degree. “Alternative certification programs are New York City's answer to building a stable teaching workforce,'' says Linda Vereline, academic director for alternative programs at Pace University (Trastor 2007). I think by stable, Linda is not referring to retention rates, but a stable supply of energetic teachers willing to tackle the task of teaching in difficult situations. Teachers who enter the NYC public school system through this route are not teaching at schools in affluent areas or those where there is a high demand for teachers. Areas such as NYC have difficulty attracting and retaining teachers in high crime, high poverty areas. The shortfall of qualified teachers creates demand that led to the creation of “alternative” solutions to the problem.

One of the biggest voids that teachers from alternative certification programs are filling is the lack of qualified teachers in specific subject areas. “Alternative certification graduates account for 30%, or about 2,000, of new hires at the start of every school year,'' says Vicki Bernstein, director of alternative certification for the NYC Department of Education. “When you break it down by subject, they account for 50% of new hires teaching math, science, special education and bilingual language in poor urban districts--the hardest positions to fill'' (Trastor 2007). According to the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, “By 2015 there will be a shortfall of 283,000 qualified math and science teachers nationwide.” This deficit will exist primarily in low-income urban areas. No Child Left Behind is causing even more of a strain, as the requirements for teachers in these subjects have become more stringent and are deterring individuals from perusing teaching careers in these areas (Leech 2008).

There are two arguments at the forefront of opposition for alternative certification programs. First, opponents argue that these alternative programs cannibalize jobs that would go to more qualified candidates, putting teachers in classrooms without the proper training. Without question, it is not the ideal solution; however, the current structure of the American public school system does not offer proper incentives to attract top teaching talent to problem schools in undesirable locations. These individuals who are entering the teaching profession through this route are not just placed into a classroom on the first day of school without any training or support. Most programs require extensive training and the completion of a master’s degree within the first two years of service, a requirement not placed on traditional career teachers. What individuals that remain skeptical of theses programs may not see is the potential to produce highly effective teachers from the outset. This of course requires a receptive environment, where tenured teachers commit themselves to the students’ education by helping expedite the learning process of newly hired teachers – regardless of the path they took to become teachers.

The second argument is that there exists a high attrition rate among teachers from alternative certification programs, and they do not warrant the investment in teacher development by school districts if they only plan to stay for a few years. While some teachers enter the programs with the intent of leaving teaching once their commitment has expired, many of those same participants plan to remain focused on education reform, through careers in school administration, counseling, law, policy, and education-focused non-profit work upon completion of the program. According to Teach For America, “two-thirds of the more than 17,000 TFA alumni across the country remain in education and are committed to closing the achievement gap” (Pettingill & Weaver, 2009).

Some of the most vocal of opponents of alternative certification programs has been teachers’ unions. They tend to prefer lifetime teachers that are loyal to the union, believing that it gives the unions greater leverage. What they tend to overlook is the benefit of having a portion of their workforce with higher turnover. Why? Unvested contributions by school districts to the pension fund on a teacher’s behalf remains the property of the pension fund in the event of an employee moving on before teaching for a predetermined period. This problem has crippled companies and is causing financial strain on many states and municipalities. Is the small amount of help this provides to the pension situation a solution to the problem? Hardly, but it is an alternative way to think about why it is in a union’s best interest to support alternative certification programs. After all, they would like their members to be able to rely on predetermined pension payouts, wouldn’t they?

The education system in America is far from perfect, which is why alternative teaching certifications are so desperately needed today. Until the over-arching systemic problems in U.S. public school systems are addressed and there is an adequate supply of teachers to fill teaching positions in less desirable teaching atmospheres, alternative teaching certification programs, even with their flaws, will continue to offer net positive benefits to America’s students.

Works cited

Leech, Marie. (2008). Needed: Math, science teachers in state shortages send recruiters looking for creative strategies. Birmingham News: n. pag. Retrieved July 11, 2009, from http://www.lexisnexis.com.avoserv.library.fordham.edu/us/

Pettingill, Dick, and Charlie Weaver. (2009). Weaver, Pettingill: How can he call Teach For America ‘disappointing’? St. Paul Pioneer Press: n. pag. Retrieved July 12, 2009, from http://www.lexisnexis.com.avoserv.library.fordham.edu/us/

Traster, Tina. (2007). Fast-track route to teaching teachers; programs solve some problems, but low retention is an issue. Crain’s New York Business: n. pag. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from http://www.lexisnexis.com.avoserv.library.fordham.edu/us/

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