Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Beyond the Traditional/Alternative Certification Debate

vonzastrowc's picture

The battle over traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs is distracting us from a much more important conversation about teacher quality: How do we substantially increase teacher capacity and effectiveness? That's the conclusion Linda Darling-Hammond and David Haselkorn reach in a new Education Week commentary.

To make their case, Darling-Hammond and Haselkorn cite a Mathematica study that found few differences between the impact of traditionally and alternatively certified teachers on student performance in hard-to-staff schools. While this study is bound to "fuel the debate" about traditional vs. alternative routes, they argue, many commentators are missing the more important point:

The real story, however, is that none of the teachers in these high-need schools did well by their students. The students of teachers from what the study called “low coursework” alternative programs actually declined in their reading and math achievement between fall and spring, while those taught by their traditional-route counterparts improved little. Students of teachers in the "high coursework" alternative programs, and those of their traditional-route counterparts, improved by only 1 and 2 percentile points, respectively—not nearly enough, given how far behind these students already were.

Put bluntly, no one who is serious about raising standards and closing achievement gaps can find these outcomes acceptable. It is time to put aside the tired debates over routes into teaching and focus on a clearer destination: substantially higher levels of teacher effectiveness, especially for those teaching the children who have been left farthest behind.

The answer is not to jettison teacher preparation, but to transform it, applying lessons from both traditional and alternative programs in new syntheses that substantially increase teachers' knowledge and skills.

Darling-Hammond and Haselkorn urge us to follow the example of high-performing nations that "invest in a uniformly well-prepared teaching force by recruiting top candidates and paying them to go to school." They call for effective teacher preparation programs that:

build on solid content knowledge with pedagogical training that offers concrete, research-based tools for practice. This coursework is tightly linked to student-teaching with expert practitioners in carefully selected placements that reflect the kinds of settings in which candidates will later teach.

The Darling-Hammond/Haselkorn commentary offers larger lessons about some of the most acrimonious debates in education policy. It is astonishing how often we have to break out our statistical magnifying glasses to discern the effects of reforms that dominate current education policy discussions.

If we do not attend to the capacity of people and systems, our most ingenious reform ideas will disappoint us.