Alternative Certification: Is it enough?

Alternative Certification: Is it enough?

Is Alternative Certification Enough?

A generation ago, teachers became teachers by the same path that nurses became nurses – they attended colleges, majored in their subject area, received teacher training, and entered the classroom.

Within the past 15 years or so, this landscape changed, largely with the formation and rapid expansion of Teach For America, and today there are more paths to the classroom than ever before. While I am not a “TFA Corps Alum,” I became a teacher through a similar group called teachNOLA, run by the New Teacher Project.

After a infinitely brief summer training and a couple weeks of summer school assistant teaching, I found myself in the second worst performing high school in the district, attempting a reclamation of a classroom two other teachers had walked out of by October. I am still in the classroom 5 years later, but in retrospect realize that I was grossly unprepared to meet the needs of the population I was supposed to serve.

Each year, thousands of well-meaning, enthusiastic college graduates enter TFA, teachNOLA, or a similar “fast track program” and find themselves faced with the worst schools, most deplorable school conditions, and greatest academic deficits. They attend “alternative certification classes” while teaching and receive their teaching certification at the end of the year. We ask them to roll up their sleeves, work hard, have high expectations, and “close the achievement gap.”

And they do roll up their sleeves – they work hard, they do the best they can with the tools they have, and some of them stay… but not nearly enough. Often, the experience of alternative certification routes becomes a “stepping stone” to another career – in education or otherwise.

While Teach For America offers up statistics that more than 60% of their cohorts end up staying in “some form of educational work” after their two year commitment is at an end, many of these promising teachers leave the classroom before they have had a chance to fully develop their craft.

All of this leaves me with several questions. Where should these skills actually be developed? Is a “summer training institute” enough? How are these programs, or colleges for that matter, held accountable for providing high quality training for their cohorts and students? I have a 15-year-old sister – would I trust her education to a 22 year-old Yale grad armed with an English degree and three-months of training? In his recent blog, Doug Clark makes some excellent suggestions, and we as a nation need to begin to consider this as a national, not simply an educational, issue.

How are schools and training programs held accountable to excellence?

I went back to college, while teaching fulltime, and spent three years and thousands of dollars attending the graduate level education courses in order to become certified and – I thought – learn more about becoming a teacher. I was shocked at the lack of attention and rigor brought to these courses. Of all of the classes I attended, only two of them were of any quality.

There is absolutely no alignment between colleges on what it means to prepare a teacher for a classroom. Standards for excellence among teaching programs differ from college to college. Imagine if this were true for doctors and their preparation for the surgery room wildly varied depending on the university they attend!

I strongly believe that standardization for teacher certification is needed to establish consistency, credibility, and a level of accountability for excellence. How can we possibly expect to prepare prospective teachers for the classroom if the curriculum is not vetted and prepared by experts who are in communication and are constantly pushing their programs to be up to date?

Moreover, once teachers have come through these rigorous programs, they need to continue to develop their skills. In the United States, we have barely begun the process of teacher evaluation. In countries that have high performing educational systems, teachers begin excellently and are expected to continue to be so. In Singapore, teachers complete 100 hours of professional development annually. A similar program is true in South Korea, and while high school is not compulsory I that country, 97% of its population finishes.

Preparing teachers for the challenges they will face, demanding that the programs that prepare them are effective, and continuing a teacher’s education throughout their career. These are the qualities of an educational system that works and we will continue spinning our wheels with new initiatives until we truly begin to value the teacher as the integral part of the system, and prepare them effectively for the job.

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