Pre-Teacher Beware: Not All Roads to Certification Are Created Equal

Unlikely players are jumping into the teacher certification game. Who's on the up and up?

The rewards of a teaching career are beyond what money can buy—but only for teachers who are well-certified. (Photo: Blend Images/Getty Images)

In a tight job market characterized by layoff notices and hiring freezes, teaching positions are hard to come by. But as the economy teeters toward recovery, and half of the nation’s 3.2 million educators plan their retirement, certified teachers may soon become a hot commodity.

For-profit and nonprofit organizations nationwide are capitalizing on the growth potential and carving out niches for themselves in the certification arena. Wannabe teachers are confronted by an array of new certification options—sometimes from unexpected places such as the American Museum of Natural History, The New York Times Knowledge Network and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Tim R. Sass is an economics professor at Georgia State University. He recently released a comparison study of alternative certification programs in Florida. He told TakePart that programs vary widely in terms of entrance requirements, structure and overall quality. They are difficult to evaluate as a general group. What do education professionals make of this new glut of teacher training programs?

“Some [alternative certification programs] like Teach for America are quite selective,” Sass explained, “while others are much easier to enter. Some require substantial formal coursework in education and may not be substantially different than traditional teacher preparation programs. Others, like the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) program, require little or no coursework in education. It's a mistake to lump all alternative certification programs together.”

Sass compared the effectiveness of teachers certified by various programs. He was surprised to find that teachers from the less-selective, low-entry-requirement programs produced better student achievement gains than their traditionally educated counterparts. 

Sass cautioned that his study’s results were “very tentative” and “based on a small sample of teachers.” But he concluded that some alternative programs attracted promising candidates with stronger-than-average academic credentials.

“This appears to translate into an enhanced ability to promote student achievement in mathematics, particularly in middle and high school,” he added. “While not the solution to raising teacher quality for all students, it appears that alternative certification can provide an avenue for some effective teachers to enter the profession.”

BUYER BEWARE

Several states recently permitted for-profit organizations to certify teachers. None embraced the idea as much as Texas. Since 2007, two of Texas’s online certification giants trained more teachers than any other traditional or alternative programs in the state. For less than $4,500, these companies offered certification to college graduates in as little as three months.

Since Texas didn’t regulate the quality of private programs until recently, for-profits in general developed a bad rap. Critics accused them of accepting shoddy candidates with the goal of making a quick buck.

Rae Queen is president of the Texas Alternative Certification Association, which also runs the for-profit certification program ACT San Antonio. In a recent interview with TakePart, she referred to programs that “put candidates into the classroom with very little relevant training and support,” and acknowledged that “unfortunately, the reputation of a few damages many.”

Queen explained that the Texas Education Agency recently “put regulations into code to make all programs accountable—not only to their clients, but to students in the classroom.” She recommended that wannabe teachers shop carefully and interview several programs before deciding where to enroll. 

“You want to choose a program where everyone in their system—from top to bottom—is a certified teacher,” she advised.  “Since teaching is a ‘hands-on’ profession, choose a program that is ‘hands-on.’  Make sure that someone will physically be available to sit down with you if you have questions or concerns. When you narrow down your selection, call HR directors. Tell them that you are trying to decide between two or three programs and see who they recommend.” 

As the number of certification programs skyrockets, Ms. Queen’s advice rings particularly true: “When you do your homework and interview a program, you will know which programs are there to help you be successful in the classroom, and which ones are there to make a dollar. You are making a big investment to change careers; so do your homework wisely.”  

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