Dimensions of Quality In Alternative Certification Programs

Nov 19, 2013 by

The on-going debate between advocates of university based and alternative certification programs regarding the superior quality of their graduates

Dimensions of Quality In Alternative Certification Programs

Martin Haberman
Distinguished Professor Emertius
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
Haberman Educational Foundation
Houston, Texas

Estimates of the number of alternative certification programs preparing teachers in the United States typically hover around 500. This may well be an under estimate. In my own city of Milwaukee there are now over a dozen programs that claim that they are alternative route programs. A pattern has developed in which the graduates of university/college based teacher preparation programs tend to seek positions in small towns and suburbs while major urban school districts secure many of their beginning teachers from alternative routes. In addition to the small town/rural vs. urban split there is the issue of hard-to-fill specializations. Math,science, special needs and bilingual teachers are generally in short supply and alternative certification programs have grown up to fill these needs.

The on-going debate between advocates of university based and alternative certification programs regarding the superior quality of their graduates will continue to be overshadowed by the real demands for teachers with particular specializations to serve in school districts with large numbers of low-income, diverse student populations. In the state of Wisconsin, for example, 32 colleges and universities turn out over 4,000 teachers annually. Yet, there remain “shortages” in hard to staff specializations and in the districts serving low income, diverse student populations– even in a period of economic recession. In Wisconsin there are currently 2,200 teachers working with emergency licenses in public schools despite the fact that 4,000 newly certified ones are turned out each year. The fact that university based teacher education has never been able to provide the number of graduates to teach where they are needed has led even colleges and universities to eschew the debate and start their own alternative certification programs in order to prove their relevance and provide teachers for hard-to-staff schools in need of particular specializations. Most reasonable, informed teacher educators on both sides now agree. There are more effective and less effective university based programs as well as more effective and less effective alternative certification programs.

The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education has had half a century of continually sharpening the dimensions of quality in university based teacher education. The purpose of this paper is to provide a parallel process: to describe the essential dimensions of an alternative certification program and to identify criteria for determining the quality of those dimensions. Following an explanation of the essential dimensions which must be in place before a program should be designated as a legitimate alternative certification program is a draft of a limited number of guidelines which should be used to begin accrediting ACP programs.

What are the Essential Dimensions of an ACP?

I. Selection

The most critical function performed in the operation of an ACP program is the selection of candidates. Teacher candidates need to demonstrate that they have the required proficiency in subject matter content and the predispositions to relate to children and youth before they are hired and placed in schools as teachers of record.

A. Knowledge of subject matter is typically assessed in one of two ways: applicants may submit a college transcript showing they have “majored” in a particular content field, or they may pass a written test. Content test are available in every state. This latter alternative of “testing out” is important since knowledgeable individuals may not have completed a college major in a particular subject but may have the knowledge base to teach it. For example, an engineer without a college major in math should be able to demonstrate proficiency by passing an examination.

B. The predispositions needed to relate to children and youth must also be carefully assessed. Students do not care how much their teachers know if they do not want them as their teachers or if they cannot relate to them. Several systems are available from non-profit and from for-profit entities which assess candidates’ predispositions. Some of these selection systems use computer interviews, some use in-person interviews and some use both methods. ACP programs should be required to show that the particular system they are using to screen candidates has a validated research base; that is, it can reasonably be assumed that those who pass the selection interview have the predispositions to be successful in relating to diverse populations of children and youth, of all income levels, attending schools which may or may not be designated as effective. And, that candidates who have been screened out by the particular selection instruments in use have been failed because there is sufficient data for believing they will not be able to relate to all students– including those in failing schools.

C. The professional skills needed to organize a classroom and offer effective instruction. This the realm of knowledge which most sharply distinguishes ACP from university based teacher education. ACP assumes that the professional skills are best learned on-the-job. These skills are developed while serving as a fully responsible teacher of record with the help of a coach. (The guideline for evaluating coaching will be specified in a subsequent section.) At the same time, teacher candidates must be able to show rapid progress in gaining these skills so that students’ annual achievement in those years in which they have ACP teachers will show solid increases. What this means in practice is that by mid-October experienced observers should not be able to distinguish between beginning secondary teachers from ACP or traditional programs in terms of the professional skills they demonstrate in their classrooms. Similarly, by Thanksgiving experienced observers should not be able to distinguish between beginning elementary teachers trained in ACP or traditional programs. This means that if for any reason an ACP candidate has met the selection criteria in A. and B. above but does not demonstrate the ability to quickly learn the basic skills of teaching they must be dismissed before December. This requirement is needed to protect learners from having a wasted year. (The guideline for terminating ACP candidates is in a subsequent section.

D. Graduates of accredited colleges and universities. Teacher candidates must have a general knowledge base. This is especially true for teachers of kindergarten through eighth grade who are not evaluated for their content knowledge in a particular subject area. All candidates should have graduated from an accredited four year college but many states require an additional examination to assess candidates basic skills and general knowledge, e.g. Praxis I and II.

E. Graduates of foreign institutions must have completed equivalent undergraduate degrees. ACP programs admitting graduates of foreign universities need to have transcripts evaluated to determine whether an applicant from a particular foreign institution is considered to hold the equivalent of a bachelors degree in the United States. University registrars as well as private companies perform this service for a fee.

F. English proficiency at an advanced level is required. Graduates of foreign institutions in which English is not the primary language of instruction will need to be assessed for English proficiency. These assessments can be made by local universities as well as private companies for a fee. The level of passing must be set at a level equivalent to that demonstrated by college graduates.

G. Additional admission criteria. Individual programs will add a variety of criteria to the selection process. These additional criteria may reflect state laws or particular policies of a local school district. Since participants in ACP programs are, by definition, employees of a particular school district it is likely there will be several other selection criteria for admission into a particular ACP program; e.g. a residency requirement, personal/academic references, proof of citizenship, a criminal check, health examinations, etc. These criteria need not be part of the quidelines being developed for accrediting ACP programs nationally. They are local requirements which are in addition to the essential selection elements specified in A. through F. above.

II. Determining the Number of Candidates Who May Selected Into a Particular ACP Program

In university based teacher education the decision to become a teacher of a particular subject matter, or grade level, or for students with special needs is left to the teacher education candidate. Colleges and universities have catalogues with the programs they offer and students choose which program to apply to and pursue. A teacher candidate in most university programs is free to pursue a teacher certification program even in which there is little likelihood that s/he will ever find a teaching position after graduation. In ACP programs the starting point for recruitment is not the preference of a particular teacher candidate but the particular needs of a school district or individual school. School district vacancies not candidates’ preferences determine which type of certification routes will be pursued. This is accomplished not by changing teacher candidates’ minds but by recruiting only those candidates whose preferences match the needs of the district.

By late spring many school districts have an idea of the number of teachers in various specializations they will be hiring in fall. In some cases, school districts do not estimate the number of vacancies they will have until summer. Once a particular school district has made its determination of the number and kind of teachers it will need, it contracts with one or more ACP programs to recruit a specific number of teachers for particular content specializations or grade levels. In many cases the school district merely informs the administrator of its own ACP program regarding vacancies since it does not partner with any outside agency. The obvious reason for this process is that ACP programs prepare teachers on-the-job as they serve as teachers of record. The number and type of teacher candidates a particular ACP program recruits therefore varies from year to year and is a precise reflection of the vacant positions in the district.

At the start of the decade many school districts were in need of elementary teachers and contracted with ACP programs to recruit 50, 100, even several hundred such candidates each year. As the decade progressed and the economy has been in a recession, an increasing number of districts have needs for fewer elementary teachers and have used ACP programs to recruit in the more traditional areas of teacher shortage: i.e. math, science, bilingual and special needs. The determination of vacancies by a school district and the particular annual agreement it reaches with its ACP partners specifies and circumscribes the number and type of teacher candidates to be recruited.

The importance of this distinction between university based and ACP programs is critical in laying out guidelines for accreditation. There are already instances of abuse by self-styled ACP programs which are driven by profit motives and which operate without any partnering school districts. The pattern followed is to first secure approval from their state education department to offer an ACP program and then recruit college graduates interested in becoming teachers. These programs offer some summer coursework to any college graduates who will pay for it. They then inform the candidates they are now free to go out on their own and find a school district willing to hire them. These “ACP” programs profit from individuals who would like to become teachers and are willing to pay for summer courses but then offers them no guarantee of a teacher placement. Since the fundamental assumption of ACP programs is that individuals will learn to teach on the job under the guidance of a coach, selling summer coursework to individuals and then turning them loose to find their own teacher vacancies (and coaches) does not constitute an ACP program and should not be a process that is approved by either state departments of education or accreditation agencies. ACP programs begin each school year with a given number of guaranteed vacancies. School districts also guarantee that if the teacher candidate is successful in their first year they will continue to be employed in the district.

III. Definition and Status of An ACP Teacher

Teacher candidates in ACP programs must be hired as teachers of record by a particular school district. They cannot, by definition, be unpaid or working in the classrooms of other teachers who are responsible. Once hired, they are entitled to all the rights and privileges of teachers and are held responsible for all the obligations of any other teacher of record. This status fulfills the basic assumption of ACP: that candidates best learn to be responsible by actually bearing all the responsibilities of teaching–with the assistance of a coach. In some cases ACP teachers may also be enrolled in coursework at a cooperating university. University partnerships however are not a requirement of being an ACP program, neither is the simultaneous pursuit of university coursework or enrollment in a masters degree. ACP programs may be operated by school districts themselves, or by the regional agencies and service districts that are common in many states. In these cases the school districts and agencies offer ACP teachers orientations, workshops and courses.

IV. Required Continual Progress

It is necessary to recognize that even when valid selection procedures are in place there will be a small number of teacher candidates who are not making adequate progress. Since the candidates are the responsible, accountable teachers of children and youth it is necessary that teacher candidates learn quickly and well. In cases where this is not the case there must be an agreed-upon process for removing the teacher candidate. In those school districts with negotiated teacher contracts this means securing the agreement of the local teachers’ union that first-year ACP teachers will not be part of the usual process for removing teachers since these processes will typically take the full year or longer to implement. In school districts where there is not a negotiated contract the process will be more straightforward. The most effective ACP programs handle this matter by means of an initial contract which every teacher candidate agrees to and signs. Such a contract specifies the process to be followed in removing a teacher candidate and the specific individuals who are the responsible decision makers. In some cases, it is the principal of the school to which the teacher candidate is assigned and the candidate’s coach who make the determination to terminate; in other cases it is the administrator of the ACP program who makes the determination upon the recommendation of the principal and coach. It is critical for the effective functioning of any ACP program that a clear process for termination is in place and that the candidate is aware of and agrees to the process from the outset. In ACP partnerships between a university and a school district, teachers’ poor work in college courses should not be sole the basis for terminating a first year ACP teacher if the teacher is functioning effectively in the classroom. The first year makes a high level of time demands on ACP teachers. Many devoted, effective teachers choose to spend more time planning, meeting with parents and fulfilling the obligations of a first year teacher of record than meeting course requirements in college classes or masters programs. ACP teachers who choose to focus on their students in this first year should be facilitated not penalized. It is important that their rights and the welfare of the children they teach are protected by a carefully planned process of coaching with the possibility that not every candidate will “make it” regardless of his/her performance in the classroom.

Different school districts use different status distinctions and titles for the teacher candidates in ACP programs. Some designate them as provisional,substitute, or emergency licensees. Local school districts in different states use different titles. To continue to receive federal funds and to show their support of ACP programs many states also refer to ACP teachers as “fully qualified” from their first day in the classroom.

V. Need for Clear Administrative Structure, Authority and Accountability

As teachers of record ACP teachers are subject to all the regulations and policies of the school systems in which they are employed. They must also follow the regulations and policies of the particular ACP program which sponsors their employment. Coordination is therefore vital in preventing minor confusions (e.g. the school district calendar conflicts with the ACP program schedule of workshops for its beginning teachers), or major issues (e.g. the principal of a school wants to terminate an ACP teacher and the administrator of the ACP program evaluates her performance as “superior.”) It is vital that every ACP program have an administrator who bears final responsibility and accountability for the effective operation of the program. The recruitment and successful completion of teacher candidates described in II. III. and IV. above will inevitably raise issues and questions which must be resolved. Typically this administrator is an individual employed by the specific school district but this should not be a requirement. There are other capable individuals who can administer an ACP program. Regardless of the particular conditions under which an ACP operates there needs to be a clear set of administrative functions, common understandings of who performs those functions and an established set of criteria for evaluating the program as well as the teacher candidates.

VI. Coaching

In an ACP program the coach serves in lieu of the education faculty in a university based program teaching methods courses. The coach is the translator of theory into practice and helps the novice teacher see the specific behaviors teachers must perform in the daily practice of teaching. The coach must be or have been a star teacher of children or youth and highly effective in working with adults who are beginning teachers. Depending on the particular program, the coach may be released full or part time to serve as a coach. There should also be a reasonable limit on how many teachers s/he is coaching (e.g. coaching loads in which the coach will have less than the equivalent of one-half day a week to observe and conference with an ACP beginning teacher are likely to be providing insufficient services. In addition, coaches need to be available for evening and weekend calls, emails and requests for materials and equipment on an on-going basis. Coaches are not “teacher buddies” who have a full load of teaching themselves and no “free” time to observe and counsel with teacher candidates.
The selection of coaches is a vital matter in determining the success of any ACP program. Since it is the local school districts who pay for these coaches’ services they will have the final determination in selection, however, there should be inputs from the administrator of the ACP program as well as from others. There are research-based criteria available for selecting coaches which can be used to identify prospective coaches.

VII. Initial Training and Required Coursework

In its short history ACP programs have already developed some “traditions.” It has become common to require summer courses, usually in cooperation with a local college or university. This should not be a requirement. Local school districts may offer their own orientations or workshops which may be just as or more effective. It has also become common that ACP programs begin only in fall. This should not become a requirement for the following reason. ACP’s purpose is to meet the needs of school districts for specific types of teachers which cannot be met in traditional ways. Vacancies in the major urban districts occur during the year as well as in the neatly planned annual assessments of vacancies in late spring and early summer. The best ACP programs make agreements with local school districts to admit a certain number of candidates above the number agreed to in the initial contract. In effect, they create a “waiting list” of individuals who may be called upon to begin teaching at any time during the year when as unforeseen vacancies occur. Because individuals on “waiting lists” are in difficult to staff specializations it can be predicted that they will be called upon as replacements during the year as teachers take sick leave, become pregnant, move, quite, fail or new programs are offered in the district.

VIII. Accountability

As teachers of record, the major criteria for evaluating ACP participants is student learning. How well ACP teachers do in workshops or coursework, or in the opinions of college faculty (if there is a partnership between a school district and a university) can never take precedence over an assessment of the teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. The reverse is also true: ineffectiveness in the classroom cannot be compensated for by being a good graduate student. The ultimate value to be preserved is the learning of children and youth. While district, state and federally mandated tests of children and youth are a necessary part of teachers’ evaluations there are methods which can be used in addition. The work samples of students provide coaches, principals and evaluators with an on-going system for evaluating teachers’ effectiveness. Like all others, ACP teachers are also evaluated on the number of their student suspensions, on their ability to manage a classroom, on their professional behavior as cooperative staff members and on the observations of administrators and coaches.

In addition to evaluating the instructional effectiveness of individual teachers, ACP programs should be assessed on criteria of program effectiveness; i.e. the impact of an ACP program on a school’s climate and the total school community. Such assessments are enabled when failing schools reconstitute their faculties or new schools hire a critical mass of beginning teachers from a particular ACP program. Other examples of criteria used to evaluate ACP programs include the diversity of the teaching force they recruit and the number of ACP teachers who choose to remain as teachers after they are fully certified.

Suggested Guidelines for Accrediting ACP programs

The process of selection includes assessing teacher predispositions as well as content knowledge and other criteria.

The teacher is a paid teacher of record employed by a school district or individual school.

There is a program administrator with specified duties who is held accountable on clear criteria for program effectiveness.

Supportive Workshops/coursework
There is a program of supportive instruction which may be offered by the district itself or by a university and which is focused on the day-to-day work of the classroom teacher.

There is a system for selecting and evaluating the work of coaches.

There is a clear agreed-upon procedure for recommending teachers for regular certification upon completion as well as a system for counseling out ineffective teachers at any time during the school year

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