Are Alternative Certification Programs a Solution to the Teacher Shortage?

by Leslie Dahlkemper
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIII, Number 2, October 2001, Teachers - They matter most

Francisca Ramirez-Sorenson says teaching runs in her family. Her mother was a teacher, as was her grandmother. But until a year ago, Ramirez-Sorenson was on a different career path - one that made use of her master's degree in anthropology. "I was not going to be a teacher under any circumstances," she recalls. "But I think I was born with certain talents." In September, Ramirez-Sorenson was certified as a Photo of teacher and student working at a school desk. teacher. The route she took to the front of the classroom, however, is different from the traditional four-year college program. She is a graduate of the Houston Independent School District's Alternative Certification Program - the first district-based program of its kind in the country.

This year-long program prepared her well for the classroom, says Ramirez-Sorenson. "They taught us a great deal about child development, child psychology, strategies for teaching, and how to encourage children to learn. They also taught us how to work with foreign students - and the cultural shock they might go through when they come here - and how to help them."

She took the required 15 hours of university courses in education, received four hours of additional instruction by district staff every week, and worked closely with a mentor during her first year in the classroom.

"You almost feel like a fish in a fishbowl," Ramirez-Sorenson says. "You're watched, scrutinized. You're taken aside and told how you could do it better. My mentor took charge of me. She observed me regularly and gave me pointers."

Ramirez-Sorenson recently completed her first year as a certified bilingual teacher at J. W. Oates Elementary School in Houston.

Her story is a familiar one to others who have completed alternative certification programs. Supporters of these programs say they are a win-win for districts scrambling for teachers and for adults interested in pursuing a more meaningful career.

Why Now?

Faced with severe teacher shortages, states are looking at new ways to certify teachers. Alternative certification programs were introduced in the 1980s as a short-term solution to the problem but are fast becoming a permanent fix. In the past, colleges and universities took the lead on teacher certification. Now, they are competing with alternative certification programs administered by state education agencies and local school districts.

According to the National Center for Education Information in Washington, D.C., public schools will need 2.2 - 2.7 million teachers - both veteran teachers and new teachers * (see footnote) - to fill classroom positions in the next decade. That's at least 220,000 teachers a year for the next 10 years.

Why the shortfall? Fewer traditional college students are enrolling in education courses, while more veteran teachers are retiring from the field. And newer instructors are leaving after only three to five years in the classroom.

"We're producing 200,000 fully qualified teachers per year who are coming out of colleges that prepare teachers," says Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Education Information. "But we know that many of them aren't going into teaching after they graduate."

And those who do pursue a teaching position when they graduate are less likely to teach in the challenging inner-city and rural areas that are in desperate need of qualified teachers. "The perceived crime and violence in inner cities is a real turn off, particularly to young people who are going into their first job," Feistritzer says.

Donna Zornes, who helps coordinate nontraditional licensure for the Arkansas Department of Education, agrees. "We have had a hard time placing teachers in certain geographic areas of the state, especially the Delta region. There's a higher poverty rate there, and it's more difficult for districts to attract highly qualified teachers."

The competition for new teachers is fierce, especially for teachers in high-demand areas such as special education, math, science, and bilingual education. In New Mexico, prospective teachers in these specialized areas are recruited heavily by school districts in Texas and other neighboring states.

"Eastern New Mexico University reported that every bilingual teacher it produced last year went to teach in another state," says Marilyn Scargall, director of professional licensure for the New Mexico Department of Education.

In an effort to recruit more teachers, some states are making their alternative certification programs more attractive by placing heavier emphasis on mentoring, hands-on learning in the classroom, and flexibility in scheduling and requirements for candidates. Some argue that these approaches and other improvements have helped strengthen alternative certification programs.

"When our program was implemented in the late 1980s, the rigor and quality were uneven," Scargall says. "Mentorship wasn't a requirement. Now it is. We're able to attract people into the teaching profession that might not be interested in pursuing a teaching career."

Is Alternative Certification the Answer?

Supporters say alternative certification programs provide a fast track for midcareer professionals and retirees who may be less inclined to return to college and pursue a traditional education degree. Advocates say alternative certification programs offer districts more flexibility to recruit and hire teachers, especially in the urban districts with large minority populations that have been hardest hit by the teacher shortage.

What does an effective alternative teacher certification program look like? Here are some common elements:
Rigorous screening process: Candidates must demonstrate mastery of content, undergo an interview process, and pass tests.
Strong mentor program: Mentors are well-trained and work regularly with teaching interns.
Field-based experience: Prospective teachers receive hands-on training in the classroom before they are expected to teach on their own.
Location, location, location: Programs not only target geographic areas where the demand for teachers is the greatest but also are located in those areas.
Tailor-made: Programs are designed for people who have a bachelor's degree and are keenly interested in pursuing a teaching career.
Collaboration among partners: Districts, local universities, state departments of education, and others work closely to ensure a seamless, high-quality program.

New Jersey was the first state to approve alternative routes to teaching in 1985; Texas followed when the legislature authorized a similar program in the same year. Patrick Shaughnessy is the director of communications for the Texas State Board for Educator Certification. "Our program is geared toward working college graduates," he says. "It could pose a great hardship to them to give up a career and return to college for a year or two. They would have to give up their incomes to become full-time college students in order to become full-time teachers."

Once prospective teachers are enrolled in one of Texas's 35 alternative certification programs, they typically begin teaching within a few months and are paid during their internship. More than 35,000 teachers have been certified through the state's alternative certification programs, many of which are affiliated with the state's Education Service Centers. Although the programs vary, all prospective teachers are required to pass the same certification tests as are students enrolled in a more traditional four-year college or university program.

"We did an analysis of our current cohort, and 60 percent of folks in alternative certification are 35 years or older," Shaughnessy says. "We're talking about true career changers here, not merely people who have been unsuccessful at past careers but people who want to pursue teaching."

Supporters of alternative certification echo Shaughnessy's sentiment. They say older, more mature candidates offer a world view and are more patient - qualities, they contend, that work well in the classroom.

Alternative Certification Programs Vary Widely

As of 2000, 41 states and the District of Columbia had approved alternative certification programs, according to the National Center for Education Information.

Fast Facts
41 states and the District of Columbia have alternative certification programs.
New Jersey was the first state to approve alternative certification, followed by Texas.
Houston was the first district in the country to create its own alternative certification program.
Some states have more than 35 different alternative certification programs.
More than 24,000 teachers were certified through alternative routes in the 28 states that collected such data in 1998-1999.
125,000 prospective teachers graduated from alternative programs in the last five years.
Sources: The Southeast Center for Teaching Quality and the National Center for Education Information

Some states require courses on classroom instruction, trained full-time mentors assigned to prospective teachers, and lots of support during a prospective teacher's internship in the classroom. Other, more lenient, programs offer certification based on a transcript and a resume. Still others require individuals to complete the equivalent of a traditional teacher preparation program.

Critics say that some alternative certification programs are merely a euphemism for emergency certification. The broad inconsistencies in alternative certification programs concern teacher-quality experts like Barnett Berry, managing director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future in Washington, D.C. While Berry supports high-quality alternative certification programs, he says too many programs lack rigor and uniform standards.

"You have folks graduating from these programs with good academic credentials, but they have no training in how to teach literacy, no training in how to assess student work, and no training in how to work with parents and families."

Berry argues that the more uneven the program standards are, the more likely it is that alternative certified programs will produce teachers with varying skills in knowledge and ability. "We know, for example, a whole lot more about how to teach reading. How can we ensure that all these programs offer uniformity in terms of a knowledge base? Guess which teachers are going to know less about literacy? The teachers who are coming out of short-cut alternative certification programs. They are the ones who will be teaching kids who need teachers who need to know a lot more."

Where are the best alternative teacher certification programs?
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas

The National Center for Education Information ( ranked state alternative certification programs using the following criteria:

  • The program has been specifically designed to recruit, prepare and license talented individuals for teaching who already have a bachelor's degree.
  • Candidates pass a rigorous screening process that includes assessments such as entry tests, interviews, and demonstrated mastery of content.
  • The programs are field-based.
  • The programs include coursework or equivalent experiences in professional education studies before and while teaching.
  • Candidates for teaching work closely with trained mentor teachers.
  • Candidates meet high performance standards for completion of programs.
Source: The National Center for Education Information, Alternative Teacher Certification: A State-by-State Analysis, 2000.

Critics also contend that teachers who are certified through nontraditional avenues abandon classroom teaching sooner. "You need a talented, stable staff to turn around a school, not teachers who are going through the revolving door at the speed of light," says Berry. "We know from data we have assembled - and we need more - that those who go through short-cut programs with no mentoring and no support are the first to walk out the door."

More data do need to be collected. Studies on how long teachers stay in the profession seem to vary as much as the alternative certification programs themselves. One study, conducted by the Texas State Board for Educator Certification, shows that nontraditionally licensed teachers stay in the profession for about as long as traditionally licensed teachers - five years. Early data from the National Center for Education Information indicate that individuals entering teaching through alternative routes show a higher retention rate than those graduating from traditional programs.

How Good Is Good Enough?

One of the core issues for supporters and detractors alike is, how good is good enough. Supporters contend that if a prospective teacher has strong content expertise in math, science, or other subject areas, the teaching - with proper training and mentoring - will quickly come. Other say not so fast. Learning how to teach takes time, instruction, and lots of experience.

Joan Snowden, director of the educational issues department for the American Federation of Teachers, says "I do think that there's more than one way to learn this stuff, but I don't think this is something that you'll just pick up because you know the content. I do think there are ways to help you learn it." Snowden and others question whether alternative programs provide enough mentoring, support, and instructional strategies for incoming teachers. Opinions, not surprisingly, vary greatly.

State education agency and district leaders say their backs are up against the wall. When schools fail to recruit new teachers, districts must hire uncertified teachers, assign teachers out-of-field, and increase class sizes. "In the past we had to hire long-term substitute teachers," says Zornes. "I'd rather hire someone who is interested in teaching as a profession and meets the qualifications for the program who has had intensive support than to have a long-term substitute."

A Look into the Future

Supporters and critics agree on one thing - there's more work ahead. They say states have to do a better job of collecting data on alternative certification programs and offer more guidance on what constitutes a high-quality alternative teacher education program.

Some observers, like Berry, recommend a stronger investment in performance assessments for prospective teachers who are enrolled in traditional and nontraditional programs alike.

Feistritzer predicts that more colleges and universities will offer alternative certification programs. She says many of the newer programs are housed on college campuses. "Initially, they were the biggest critics because they saw it as a big threat. Being smart people, they decided not to follow the train but to get on the front end of it."

Others, like Snowden, are less optimistic about the impact of nontraditional licensure on the teaching profession. "I believe that people are going to take the easy way out - and the cheapest way out - as the teacher shortage continues. They will be more willing to hire people with fewer credentials and less experience, and not have to pay for mentoring."

Still others take a wait-and-see approach. "I don't think alternative certification will solve the problem, but it will attract more people into the teaching profession," Scargall says. "It remains to be seen how many of these folks who went through the program stay in teaching."

* See Hussar, William J. (1999). Predicting the Need for Newly Hired Teachers in the United States to 2008-09. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics. Hussar predicted the number of teachers needed based on three scenarios, thus the range of numbers from 2.2 million - 2.7 million. The first scenario held the student/teacher ratio constant throughout the period 1998-2008, and resulted in an estimate of 2.4 million teachers that would need to be hired during the decade. The second scenario held the supply of teachers at a constant number, and resulted in an estimate of 2.2 million teachers to be hired during the decade. The final scenario was based on Projections of Education Statistics to 2008. It resulted in an estimate of 2.7 million teachers to be hired during the decade. The report may be downloaded at


The author of this article, Denver-based writer Lesley Dahlkemper, is a senior consultant with KSA-Plus Communications, a firm based in Arlington, Virginia. KSA-Plus provides specialized expertise in communications strategy, writing, editing, design, and publications management.

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