Soundings

Candace DeRussy
Some Alternative
The New York Regents’ new alternative-certification program won't give New York more teachers or improve teacher quality.
Autumn 2000

Faced with a teacher shortage in public schools, states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts have recognized that there are a lot of smart, talented people out there who'd love to teach but don't want to go to ed school and get a teaching license, thinking it a waste of time or money. So these states created alternative routes that made it much easier to get a license, provided that you know your subjects well. The New York State Board of Regents' new alternative-certification program purports to do the same thing. It doesn't.

In fact, the Regents' program keeps in place almost all the dysfunctional elements of ed-school teacher training that drive bright and talented people away from the profession. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the ed schools themselves will administer the program instead of the school districts or state agencies that usually have the responsibility in other states.

Unsurprisingly, given who is running the show, the new program is mostly just a watered-down version of the usual certification process. First, prospective teachers will still have to take 18 to 24 hours of ed-school courses. Though some of this coursework is useful—learning how to discipline a rowdy classroom, say, or how to evaluate student performance—much of it focuses on such trendy nonsense as "child-centered" or "constructivist" teaching methods that do nothing to improve teacher quality and probably make student performance worse. The exact breakdown of useful and nonsensical coursework is impossible to know from available information.

Second, program participants, like all public school teachers, will have to get a master's degree within their first four years on the job. But this makes little sense. If a master's is a job requirement, why presume teachers are qualified to teach before they obtain one? If a master's isn't necessary to good teaching, why require it? Given that many teachers get their M.A.'s in education, could this turn out to be just a way of filling up ed-school classes?

Third, as with the traditional teacher-training program, prospective teachers on the alternative path must have two "mentors": an experienced teacher in the school they'll actually work in, which makes sense, but also an ed-school instructor, which doesn't and just makes the certification process unnecessarily cumbersome.

Finally, the new program requires aspiring teachers to take the same tests—one in the liberal arts and sciences and the other in a specialized area—that all new teachers take. They must also take a third test, assessing their teaching skills, within four years of starting to teach. This might mean more if the tests were serious. But they aren't. At most New York ed schools, 95 percent or more of students pass the liberal arts and teaching-skills tests, and about nine out of ten pass the content tests. Exam-preparation materials suggest that those taking New York's liberal arts and sciences test can answer some questions just by reading them carefully. Teachers can also retake these tests as many as five times, which isn't very reassuring.

The new program isn't all bad. It makes it easier for non-traditional candidates—career changers and recent college grads with a degree in the subject they'd like to teach but no ed-school training—to get certified. It also includes recent salutary Regents' reforms of traditional teacher training, like requiring new teachers to pass content exams before they begin teaching, rather than within five years after they start, as had been the case until recently. But to argue, as Teachers College president Arthur Levine argues, that the new program shakes up "the monopoly on training teachers" is simply wrong.

To ease the teacher shortage and get better teachers into the classroom, the Regents should do away with most requirements for teachers' licenses (with the important exception of making sure that teachers know their subject matter inside and out) and should put in place a system for measuring schools' academic performance. Aside from oversight, the state should hand over to school principals the authority to recruit and reward well-qualified people from all fields and to fire teachers who don't measure up.

If the Regents took this course, New Yorkers would solve its teacher-shortage problem—and have better teachers, too.

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