West Virginia Considers Alternative Certification to Address Teacher Shortage

Published March 6, 2012

West Virginia lawmakers are working to pass bills that address teacher shortages by creating alternative paths to teacher certification.

The House of Delegates recently passed two bills allowing college graduates without degrees in education to work toward a teaching certificate. The bills now face Senate deliberation.

Currently, West Virginia has a shortage of approximately 1,700 teachers, said bill sponsor Del. David Perry (D-Fayette).

“There is a fundamental shortage of math, science, and special education teachers. In counties like McDowell County, though, there is a shortage in all areas,” Perry said.

In the 2011-12 school year, all 55 counties in West Virginia reported a teacher shortage, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Perry said he hopes the bill will give rise to at least 100 more teachers a year.

Certification While Working
House Bills 4122 and 101 would authorize alternative methods of teacher certification for college graduates. These routes allow graduates to start working as teachers while earning certification through classes and mentoring.

To become a certified in West Virginia currently, a prospective teacher must fulfill accreditation requirements before student teaching.

“Traditionally certified teachers complete their coursework and practice teaching before becoming a teacher,” said James Shuls, a Doctoral Academy fellow at the University of Arkansas. “With the alternative route, you begin teaching immediately but you are still required to do some coursework in your first few years of teaching.”

The classes and training alternatively certified teachers must undergo are equivalent to 32 college credit hours, Perry said.

“This allows one year of on-the-job training with a paid stipend,” Perry said.

Limiting the Pool of Teachers
The West Virginia bills, however, will allow schools to hire alternatively certified teachers only if no traditionally certified teachers apply, Perry said.

This, Shuls explains, handicaps school districts by requiring them to take candidates based on how they got their education instead of their quality as a prospective teacher.

“It doesn’t expand the market. Instead, it requires principals to choose whatever candidate comes along with traditional certification. If that traditional candidate doesn’t come around, principals can then hire the alternatively certified candidate,” said Shuls. “A system like that won’t bring about the kind of change they are looking for.”

Alternative vs. Traditional
Some programs that require extensive classwork for alternative certification lose what differentiates them from traditional programs, Shuls said.

Most alternative certification routes mimic typical college requirements, defeating the purpose of the alternative methods, say Chester Finn Jr. and Michael Petrilli in a report for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

“So alternative certification has been co-opted, compromised, and diluted,” they write. “Education schools—brilliantly turning a threat into an opportunity—have themselves come to dominate this enterprise, blurring the distinctions that once made it ‘alternative.'”

Alternative Certification Works
Studies comparing traditionally certified teachers and alternatively certified teachers find  no major differences between the two, Shuls said.

“The two groups are really close in average quality,” he said. “Every study, though, shows a wide variation in both groups. There are some teachers that are great and there are some that are bad in both groups.”

The benefit of alternative certification is that it opens teaching as a career path to those without education degrees, Perry and Shuls agree.

“When we open up other pathways, we are increasing the supply of people that could be teaching. We’re giving principals the power to be pickier with who they’re selecting,” Shuls said. “It gives an ability to improve overall quality of the teaching profession.”

The most successful teacher training programs recruit the highest-performing individuals, Shuls noted. Alternative certification allows administrators to choose from individuals with degrees in a variety of areas, not just education.

“You can attract the top of the class from some of the best schools who want to teach for a few years,” Shuls said. “Alternative certification allows us to draw from that pool of people who might not consider teaching for their entire lives but might consider it for a period. It also reduces barriers to entry for individuals wanting to change professions.”

Learn more:
“Alternative Certification Isn’t Alternative,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, September 2007: http://news.heartland.org/policy-documents/alternative-certification-isnt-alternative-0