Can Teachers Be Found and Certified to Teach Students At Risk?
The Data Is In: What Works in Alternative Teacher Certification Program Design
by Vicky S. Dill, Ph.D. Delia Stafford-Johnson

We Have Charts and Graphs. The data is unequivocal: in 1998-1999, 24,000 new teachers have entered teaching through alternative certification routes; in total, nationwide, since about 1985, about 125,000 individuals have been added alternatively. Unlike graduates of traditional routes, these individuals share characteristics that make them a superior choice to teach all children, especially children at risk. They already have degrees, are more likely to have work experience outside professional education; they tend to be older than traditional graduates, they are more likely to be people of color and more are likely to be male (NCEI-Feistritzer, http: www.ncei.com/NR020300.htm, 2/3/00). This research is not new; findings like these have held consistent for the last fifteen years and can be verified in scholarly journals and refereed articles from many sources (see Dill, "Alternative Teacher Certification, Handbook of Research on Teacher Education-Ed Sikula, John. Chapter 43, pp. 932ff, 1996).

School to Work; Work to School. As older adults with work experience, many alternatively certified teachers are better equipped than traditional graduates to help students prepare for the world of work. Their recent experience in the work place provides a relevant background for the many students who regularly cant, "What do we have to know this for?" More important, their increasingly powerful presence in the public schools creates a voice of accountability to the business community, so eager to find excellent teachers of mathematics and science. As recent public events verify, finding good teachers of mathematics and science is a national mandate high on the agenda of leaders like incumbent President Bush who, January 3, 2000 convened business leaders behind closed doors in Austin (TX) to listen to their workforce needs. These leaders made it clear that the ongoing crisis in the teaching force continues to play a role in the national economy. Bush heard these leaders say, "Business will go anywhere in the world where good workers can be found." (CNN broadcast 1/4/01).

Knowledge workers, mid-career teachers know from firsthand experience, will come from schools where mathematics and science content is well taught. Alternative teacher certification programs smooth the way for high tech workers rich in this knowledge to move from work to school. Because alternative teacher certification programs are vacancy-driven, ie., they require that a school have a vacancy before an individual can apply. Many schools have vacancies in mathematics and science, and a higher proportion of the alternatively certified interns are in shortage areas such as mathematics, science, and special education (<http://www.ncei.com/NR020300.htm)>. Researchers Feistritzer and Chester note, "People from all walks of life are stepping forward to meet the projected demand for teachers. Many of these individuals already have at least a bachelor’s degree, so the old model of training teachers in undergraduate education programs does not work. . ." (ibid).

Not Teach for America. Alternative teacher certification is not Teach for America or Troops to Teachers or certification on-line or any one particular program, although these niche programs may fill a need. Rather, the forty states which have programs have developed a variety of models that are client-friendly for degreed individuals wishing to enter the classroom. Over a hundred such programs exist (ibid), most of them demonstrating the same basic design. That design is flexible, builds on candidates’ strengths, is vacancy-driven, and client-centered. How do these highly successful new programs work?

In most of the programs, individuals wishing to move from business or industry into the classroom begin the process in the early spring, usually February, March, or April. They often garner the support of their employer to visit classrooms while still employed, or they take several vacation days to do so. Early visits are "guided observations" in which candidates are queried about what they observe and their reaction to it. These early field experiences remind potential candidates of the context of school, the nature of children and their concerns, the actual teaching task, and work conditions for teachers. Some candidates may choose, even very early on, to transition to a different midcareer job. However, those who remain interested and committed to the process proceed on several parallel tracks through the interview and selection process. Candidates gather a variety of documents: official transcripts, perhaps portfolios of previous work experience, application documents, course descriptions, grade point average analysis, and other paperwork the program requires. Many candidates go through rigorous screening, interviewing, assessment, performance, and testing procedures, often held on Saturdays for the convenience of those who are fulltime employed. All receive background criminal record checks. More will be said about these important upfront screening processes in a later column. In short, alternative teacher certification program background and screening procedures are as rigorous as if not more rigorous than many undergraduate or traditional programs. Having cleared this process, candidates then start looking for employment.

Driven by and Responding to the Neediest. By late April, May or June, many principals know approximately how many teachers they will need. At that point, program candidates can begin conversations with the potential employing principal. Site-based committees meet and hiring decisions are made. In most cases, a candidate cannot be admitted into a program if s/he has no position because the programs require that an candidate (when fully employed usually called an "intern") be the official or "teacher of record" serving in a classroom which would be, without that person, vacant. As noted in the first column, this vacancy-basing ensures 1) that intern teachers will be hired for specific classrooms, often classrooms that would otherwise be served by long-term substitutes or novices just out of college; 2) that resources are being poured into individuals who will be teaching in actual vacancies such as special education, mathematics, or science, and not into certifications in which there is little or no need; 3) that the neediest students are more likely to experience a more mature, diverse, work-experienced adult.

After the candidate has secured employment and is officially admitted, s/he attends many evening and Saturday classes throughout the summer. Observations increase and intensify, often using summer school settings. "Super Saturdays" are common, focusing on curriculum and management, teaching specific subjects such as mathematics, reading, or science, legal and ethical issues are covered, diversity discussed, how to modify teaching for special education students, and more are all covered as simultaneous observations occur. Students may or may not receive credit at a local college for this work, depending on the nature of the program. In many cases, by the middle or end of July, the candidate terminates employment with the former employer, studies fulltime with the program, joins other new faculty for intern as well as general orientation sessions, and begins teaching fulltime.

Support a Critical Component. All alternative teacher certification programs provide some type of mentoring for interns. The presence of a trained mentor, usually paid and held accountable, is built into the hands-on learning environment. The mentor and the intern set up the room for the first time, go over details of grade or subject-level building work, and share the start of the new year. The mentor is usually matched by the principal to the intern by free period, subject-alike, proximity, or grade-alike. Current public awareness and media attention to the national teacher shortage has focused much attention on mentoring in the last decade; however, few structured mentoring programs have longevity in schools nationwide. In alternative teacher certification programs, however, this aspect is systemically built in. Mentors join the principals, perhaps a college or program level supervisor, and district administrators in providing the intern "another pair of eyes" to reflect and support throughout the crucial first year. Interns progress through the program in cohorts, providing one another support and encouragement. Mentors also train in cohorts and help one another learn how to care for novices to the profession. Mentoring new teachers, when well learned and rewarded, can be one of the most coveted perks in the teaching profession.

Throughout the year, several levels of supervisors cooperate to supervise the intern. The mentor supports and does not evaluate. Throughout the novice year, the intern gathers teaching products, test scores, videos, portfolios, and other evidence of teaching competency. Principal observations are key. Peer review and support are also critical. Self-reflection, written and discussed, helps build the expectation that teaching is a lifelong challenge learned over many years. The intern experience, because it is highly structured and the task of learning to teach is in process and not even the illusion of being "complete" or "ready" is entertained, revolves around discussion of pedagogy and student learning. Interns are less likely to be isolated than are already certified novices; it is "okay" for them not to know everything. Making mistakes is, for the intern, a platform from which to jump to new learning.

Accountability Complete. Because certification is with-held until the intern year is complete and all performance data is in, principals and hiring teams have a whole year to watch a new teacher perform before awarding a contract. It is much easier to "deselect" an uncertified intern or novice than an already certified hire. Principals appreciate this flexibility while remaining invested in the hiring decisions they have already made. Clearly, when the sending teaching institution is systemically related to the receiving institution, accountability dramatically increases. Feedback is also facilitated. Principals and program directors have every incentive in the world to constantly improve their certification program; they have to live with the product! If all goes well, by the end of the year, the principal recommends the intern be certified and rehired. Many programs last more than one year or have multiple extensions available for added endorsements, to improve aspects of performance, or receive certification in multiple subjects.

What could be better for the children and youth of America? Long-term subs? Emergency certified teachers? Post-baccalaureate patched together programs? Certificates by exam? Subs with high school diplomas? Immature teachers whose knowledge base is so weak, it endangers the economic future of our country? Surely new programs, now evidencing greater diversity, superior retention, and systemic advantages over the old approach, will help solve the national problem of placing in front of every child - especially children at risk - an adequate supply of high quality teachers. The children now in kindergarten are tomorrow’s inventors, bankers, and technology workers; they and every child in the public schools deserve nothing less.

Next Time: Why alternative teacher certification is systemically designed to find teachers for gifted, at-risk, and special needs students.

For further information about how your school or university can develop Alternative Teacher Certification programs, please contact The National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information at www.altcert.org or call 713-667-6185.

For many years Dr. Dill worked at The Texas Education Agency reviewing traditional teacher education programs and building alternative program and has many years of experience in teacher education in colleges and university. Dr. Dill authored A Peaceable School: Creating a Culture of Non-Violence published by Phi Delta Kappa (1999). Dr. Dill is currently Associate Director of Special Programs for Round Rock ISD (Round Rock, TX) and Senior Researcher for The Haberman Foundation/NCATCI. Delia Stafford-Johnson is President and CEO of The Haberman Educational Foundation/National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information (NCATCI). For ten years, she was Director of the first alternative teacher certification program in Texas started in the Houston Independent School District and has twice been honored by President Bush at the White House for her work in teacher education.

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