Students Benefit from Alternative Teacher Certification—or None at All

Published June 8, 2013

In “What’s the Alternative to a Well-Prepared Teacher?”—just published by the National Education Policy Center—my friends and colleagues Chris Goering and Bill McComas criticize the Arkansas Teacher Corps.

ATC is a new alternative certification program recruiting and training new teachers and placing them in low-income and rural school districts facing teacher shortages. It is the brainchild of another University of Arkansas colleague, Gary Ritter.  

ATC’s first cohort starts teaching this fall, after six weeks of intensive training by experienced K-12 educators. Since 135 would-be teachers applied for 20-odd slots, ATC has considerable talent, many of whom would not normally seek teaching as a profession, such as college instructors, two recent Ph.D.s, midcareer professionals, and others with topnotch grades in rigorous majors—people who could choose more lucrative careers. All will teach at schools that have trouble getting anyone, much less the best, to teach.

Even Chris and Bill admit alternative certification programs like ATC recruit the most talented into the teaching profession, and that the research on the largest such program, Teach for America “has taught us that these smart individuals may make a difference in student achievement.”

Just Like Nuke Testing?
Yet Chris and Bill oppose ATC. This is not because ATC might someday compete with their own, more traditional teacher training programs (which used to hold a monopoly), but because they believe ATC members will not remain in the classroom.

Chris and Bill also fear the program “experiments” on the most vulnerable kids: “Historically, these types of experiments have not ended well (e.g., Nuclear testing in the Pacific after WWII) and are perpetrated against racially and economically disadvantaged people—those without a voice to speak up against the wrong.”

So Gary Ritter is no different from a general nuking South Sea Islands?

Doing No Harm

Again, I’m sure Bill and Chris are not defending their own program turf, but seek only what is best for children. Fortunately, research shows their concerns are unwarranted. As Mike McShane and I point out in President Obama and Education Reform, in recent years roughly a third of new teachers have come through alternative teacher certification. Such programs are no longer experimental: they have been around for decades, and are backed by President Obama.

There is precious little evidence that these programs hurt kids. In the best research review of such “altcert” programs, Pam Grossman and Susanna Loeb’s Alternative Routes to Teaching, published by Harvard Education Press, the authors find when controlling for the type of school, there is no statistical evidence altcert teachers leave teaching any sooner than traditionally trained ones. Altcert programs target high-poverty schools, where all teachers, whatever their training, often leave for greener pastures.

Moreover, altcert programs exist because schools of education refuse to place teachers in certain schools. I know this from firsthand experience, having spent some time urging education schools to send teachers to majority-black schools. ATC serves communities others have rejected. I would never suggest that redlining certain schools is racist, but others might.

Elites Ignore Certification
Chris and Bill think traditional teacher training trumps altcert. Although Chris and Bill do a great job training future teachers, unfortunately, research by Art Levine and others suggests what they do is not the norm. Most traditional programs underperform at recruiting and educating teachers. For that reason even elites like President Obama do not trust traditional certification programs.

Because of that distrust, we have decades of experiments on the impacts of uncertified teachers (NOcert) on students. The subjects of these experiments were not our most vulnerable children as Chris and Bill fear, but the children of the most powerful. It’s as if the experimenters nuked Wall Street.

As McShane and I point out (p. 61), young “Barry” Obama studied under uncertified teachers at Hawaii’s famed Pinahou School. Pinahou does not even consider certification when hiring new teachers—I called their personnel office and asked.

In Chicago, the Obamas rejected public schools, which are staffed by certified teachers, to send their daughters to the much-storied University of Chicago Laboratory (“Lab”) School founded by John Dewey. When asked whether she hires certified teachers, the Lab School’s personnel director replied, “We do not look at that; it doesn’t make any difference.”

Secretary of State John Kerry attended St. Paul’s in New Hampshire. St. Paul’s personnel director said, “We do not consider teacher certification in hiring. . . . I would estimate that out of our 110 faculty only two or three are certified.”

It’s the same at Sidwell Friends, the alma mater of Al Gore and Chelsea Clinton, now attended by the Obama girls; at Episcopal High School, whose alumni include John McCain; and at Philips Academy (AKA Andover), attended by both presidents Bush.

Benefits of Competition
In short, most of the recent major party presidential nominees studied under uncertified teachers, and seemingly learned enough to succeed. In fairness, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin did study under traditionally certified public school teachers.  

I hope competition from altcert ultimately forces traditional teacher training programs to improve and to stop redlining majority-black schools where teachers are in short supply. Until then, Arkansas needs ATC. 

Learn more
President Obama and Education Reform, Robert Maranto and Michael McShane, 2012:

Image by World Bank Photo Collection.