Comparing alternative and traditional teacher preparation

Diverse Elementary ClassThe U.S. Secretary of Education’s Annual Report on Teacher Quality calls for alternative teacher certification programs, asserting that existing teacher education programs produce academically weak teachers. It claims that research shows that although teachers do matter for student achievement, their teaching-methods coursework and certification are unrelated to their effectiveness. The report contends that verbal ability and subject matter knowledge
are the most important components of teacher effectiveness. According to the report, alternative certification programs attract academically stronger recruits who have majored in an academic subject and are more effective teachers than those trained in teacher education programs.

Stanford University researchers Linda Darling- Hammond and Peter Youngs argue that these conclusions are not supported by strong empirical evidence.
They state that only one of the 44 studies referenced in the report was published in a peer- reviewed journal, and that this study’s findings are misinterpreted in the report. These researchers claim that the secretary’s report fails to meet the Department of Education’s own standard for the use of scientifically based research to formulate policy. Darling-Hammond and Youngs address each of the arguments made in the report, demonstrating that research evidence leads to different conclusions.

Certification and Student Achievement

First, research does show that student achievement gains are influenced more by the teacher than by other factors like class size. Darling-Hammon and Youngs take issue, however, with the report’s contention that the research linking teacher preparation to teacher effectiveness is scientifically inadequate. The relationship between teacher qualifications and student achievement has been reviewed across many studies that used different units of analysis and different measures of preparation while controlling for students’ economic status and prior academic performance.

The secretary’s report, in these researchers’ opinion, arbitrarily excludes some studies while including others with similar characteristics. For example, studies before 1980 were excluded from consideration in the secretary’s report, despite the fact that the 1960s and 1970s — when interest in teacher preparation and effectiveness and funding for studies was available–was the period when the majority of studies on the topic were carried out. In addition, several new studies from the 1990s found a strong relationship between certification and student achievement in states like California and Texas.

These researchers contend that research data aggregated at individual-teacher, school, district and state levels should be included. Darling-Hammond and
Youngs report there are scientifically rigorous studies at all levels suggesting that the effect of teacher certification on student achievement is equal to or larger than the effect of bachelor’s and master’s content-are a degrees.

At the district level, researchers found a significant relationship between teacher’s scores on certificate tests and student performance. Combined measures of teachers’ expertise– scores on licensing tests, advanced degrees, and experience–accounted for more of the variation in students’ reading achievement than students’ race and socioeconomic status. In sum, empirical studies employing different units of analysis often find significant relationships between measure s of teacher expertise and student achievement.

Verbal ability and subject matter knowledge

The secretary’s report asserts that “rigorous research indicates that verbal ability and content knowledge are the most important attributes of highly
qualified teachers.” These researchers agree that there is research indicating that teachers’ verbal or general academic ability appear to be related to student
achievement, but say there is no evidence that these areas of knowledge are more important to student achievement than knowledge of teaching, because
measures of teacher education or certification are not included in these studies.

Darling-Hammond and Youngs state that although there is evidence of theimportance of subject-matter knowledge to teaching, the effects are quite small. A number of studies measure the influences of subject-matter knowledge in conjunction with knowledge about teaching. Teachers’ content preparation, as measured by coursework in the subject area, has a small positive but not statistically significant effect on student achievement in math and science. The coursework in teaching methods has a stronger influence than additional coursework in mathematics.

In other words, a teacher needs both a solid foundation in the subject area and knowledge of teaching. Evidence does not support the claim that verbal ability and subject-matter knowledge are more important for teacher effectiveness than knowledge of how to teach.

Academic Preparation of Education Degree Graduates

Darling-Hammond and Youngs contend that the secretary’s report makes misleading statements regarding the qualifications of the teacher workforce. The report states that “only 38 percent of teachers have an undergraduate or graduate degree in an academic field outside of the school of education.” However, the National Center for Education Statistics data cited in the report show that 95 percent of high school teachers and 66 percent of middle school teachers in 1998 had earned an academic degree in the subject area they were teaching or an education degree with a major in the subject area.

Candidates who complete a degree in science education, for example, generally complete content-area requirements plus additional education coursework. Thirty-eight states now require a content major for teachers. Fewer than half of all teachers now receive a bachelor’s degree in education. Most complete a content-area major and a minor, second major or credential in education.

The secretary’s report also asserts the “research suggests that students enrolled in schools of education are not as academically accomplished as other university students.” It states that “only 14 percent of the top quartile in SAT or ACT scores of 1992-93 college graduates entered some type of teacher- preparation program.” However, these researchers question the meaning of this statement when it’s also true that even smaller percentages entered the fields of medicine, law and engineering. In addition, they assert that only special education and physical education majors had SAT scores below average for all college-bound students.

Alternative Certification Programs

The secretary’s report concludes that alternative programs draw academically stronger recruits, have higher rates of teacher retention and produce
more successful teachers. Again, Darling-Hammond and Youngs take issue with this statement. For example, they write the Massachusetts Institute for New
Teachers found that 56 percent of alternative accreditation recruits failed to pass the state content test.  Traditionally trained teachers outperformed them statewide on every test of content knowledge.

The Educational Testing Service’s Praxis test scores are higher for those who have been enrolled in teacher-preparation programs. Trained teachers perform better on licensure tests. According to Darling-Hammond and Youngs, data also shows a relatively high rate of attrition for graduates of alternative programs that provide only a few weeks of in-service training. For example, the Teaching Fellows program in New York City lost 15 percent of new teachers by Thanksgiving and 30 percent by the end of their first year.

Darling-Hammond and Youngs note that alternative programs that provide more extensive supervision, training and support before and during the first year of teaching, have better retention rates. The inclusion of student teaching is one element that predicts a positive outcome for alternative programs.

These researchers point out that some alternative certification programs bring very unprepared teachers into the classroom. In Houston, about 50 percent
of new teachers hired under Teach for America were uncertified in the 1999-2000 year, and researchers report than 35 percent lacked a bachelor’s degree. A
large majority of these recruits left teaching within three years.

A recent study in five Arizona school districts examined the relative effectiveness of Teach for
America teachers compared to other new teachers. Comparing teachers matched for experience, grade level, level of education, and school or district, the
study found that the students of uncertified teachers, including Teach-for-America recruits, did significantly more poorly on math, reading and language arts tests.


The research on alternative certification programs is very difficult to interpret because the design and quality of programs labeled traditional and alternative
varies greatly both within and across states.  Some alternative programs offer little preparation for teaching while others involve extensive coursework and support during teaching. Therefore, it is understandable that the findings are mixed. Only two controlled studies comparing student achievement outcomes
of alternatively certified teachers and traditionally trained teachers have been reported according to Darling-Hammond and Youngs. One found the students
of traditionally trained teachers show significantly larger gains in language arts. The other found no differences in student achievement by type of teacher

These researchers conclude that the main assertions and policy recommendations in the Secretary of Education’s report are not supported by scientifically based research. Although verbal ability and content knowledge contribute to teacher effectiveness, there is also evidence that teacher preparation, including student teaching and methods coursework, contributes at least as much to teacher effectiveness. Some well-designed, intensive, alternative certification
programs have positive outcomes, but there is evidence that programs that eliminate core features of teacher preparation produce recruits who are under-prepared, are less effective with students, and have high rates of attrition. Darling-Hammond and Youngs recommend that states continue to give teachers training in teaching methods as well as intensive support during their first year of teaching.

“Defining ‘Highly Qualified Teachers’: What Does ‘Scientifically Based Research’ Actually Tell Us?”, Educational Researcher, Volume 31, Number 9, December 2002, pp. 13-25.

Published in ERN March 2003 Volume 16 Number 3

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