Alternative certification's Pyrrhic victory

At first glance, the explosive growth of "alternative" teacher certification--which is supposed to allow able individuals to teach in public schools without first lingering in a college of education--appears to be one of the great success stories of modern education reform. From negligible numbers twenty years ago, alternatively-prepared candidates now account for almost one in five new teachers nationwide.

As longtime supporters of alternative certification, we should be popping champagne, declaring victory, and plotting our next big win, right? Not so fast. As the cliché says, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Alternative Certification Isn't Alternative, a new report authored by Kate Walsh and Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality and published jointly with Fordham, finds that most alternative certification programs, contrary to their original mission, do not, in fact, provide a true substitute for traditional education schools. In many ways, they represent a setback for education reform and its boosters.

We've suspected as much for years. Just as we came to understand that few charter schools are as estimable as KIPP, so too did we come to wonder whether "typical" alternative certification programs are as strong as the best of their number--"teaching fellows" programs run by The New Teacher Project, for example.

This study confirms our fears and suspicions. Two-thirds of the programs that the analysts surveyed accept half or more of their applicants. One-quarter accept virtually everyone who applies. Only four in ten programs require a college GPA of 2.75 or above--no lofty standard in this age of grade inflation. So much for recruiting the best and brightest.

Meanwhile, about a third of the programs for elementary teachers require at least 30 hours of education school courses--the same amount needed for a master's degree. So much for streamlining the pathway into teaching. As for intensive mentoring by an experienced teacher or administrator--long considered the hallmark of great alternate routes--only one-third of surveyed programs report providing it at least once a week during a rookie teacher's first semester.

In other words, typical alternative certification programs have come to mimic standard-issue pre-service ed-school programs. This shouldn't be a surprise, however: fully 69 percent of the programs in the report's sample are run by education schools, roughly the same proportion as for alternate route programs as a whole.

This is an old story in the world of monopoly power, told and retold in many industries. Consider the organic foods movement. For decades, a small cadre of smallish companies provided organic products for a niche market. But in recent years, Whole Foods and a few other chains demonstrated (and created) growing demand for these goods, at scale, among affluent shoppers. The annual growth rate of organic food and drink is now in the double digits, while the grocery business as a whole stagnates. Mainstream stores, such as Safeway and Wal-Mart, see a threat to their bottom line, but also an opportunity. So do food suppliers like Kraft and General Mills. So they are starting to offer organic products of their own.

That's the way competition is supposed to work, you may say, prodding entities to offer consumers what they want. But there's a downside, too: industry insiders and food experts accuse these big companies of quietly watering down the meaning of "organic." Consider the Aurora Organic Dairy, described in a 2005 New York Times article as "an offshoot of what was once the country's largest conventional dairy company." It resisted a move by the National Organic Standards Board to define "organic" milk as coming from dairy cows that have access to pasture. For good reason. "On a recent visit to Aurora's farm," the Times reported, "thousands of Holsteins were seen confined to grassless, dirt-lined pens." Aurora's "organic" milk, however, sells for twice the price of regular.

On balance, cooptation is easier--and less risky, less expensive, more profitable--than true competition. As in the food industry, so, too, in teacher preparation. It's infinitely simpler, cheaper, and safer for education schools to repackage their regular programs into something called "alternative" than to embrace--much less succumb to--wholesale change. So they offer candidates a choice: either take their regular, cumbersome programs before teaching, or take their "alternative," cumbersome programs while teaching.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Just as "sorta" organic milk at Wal-Mart is finding a market, so too is the "sorta" alternative certification offered by ed schools (and similar programs offered by some districts and non-profits). The thousands of teachers coming through these programs must be finding something they prefer, certainly including the chance to earn a salary while paying tuition instead of paying first and earning later. But here's the difference: Shoppers who want "true" organic foods can still find them at Whole Foods, crunchy co-ops and other stores. Aspiring teachers who want "true" alternative certification are mostly out of luck--because the ed school cartel is working overtime to regulate them out of business.

Consider the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE). Candidates who pass its exacting test of subject matter and professional knowledge gain entry into the public-school classroom, where they receive ongoing mentoring. It's unadulterated alternative certification and, to date, seven states have adopted some version of it.

The ed school cartel, however, has struck back with blistering attacks on ABCTE, keeping it out of most states by lobbing all the usual arguments against the program. (It "trivializes the profession" is the National Education Association's standard line.) To this they've added another talking point: we don't really need ABCTE, because we already have alternative certification.

No, ABCTE isn't the only answer. Plenty of other promising models exist. But policymakers, reform advocates, and philanthropists who think they have "won" the battle in favor of alternative certification should think again. Twenty-five years later, concerns about the quality of education schools remain--as does the need for bona fide alternatives: swifter, better, surer, cheaper ways to address teaching aspirations on the one hand and workforce quality and quantity problems on the other. So put away the champagne and roll up your sleeves. Much heavy lifting lies ahead.

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