(Guest Post by James Shuls)
Traditionally trained teachers typically enter the profession after completing coursework that is designed to prepare them for the classroom. This training includes a student teaching experience—a hands-on opportunity to practice their craft. Alternatively certified teachers, on the other hand, often enter the classroom with little to no pedagogical training or classroom experience. So, how do alternatively certified teachers compare to traditionally trained teachers in terms of effectiveness? Many scholars have examined this question, but Julie Trivitt and I are the first to do so using Arkansas data. The results from our analysis of elementary and middle school teachers were recently published in Educational Policy. Like many others, we find the difference between the two groups to be negligible.
Here is a quick summary of the findings:
On average, alternatively certified teachers tend to perform slightly lower than traditionally certified teachers, but there is more variation within each group than between groups. Furthermore, the differences between groups tend to be small and marginally significant only when we control for prior academic achievement as measured by teacher licensure exams. Because alternatively certified teachers score significantly higher on licensure exams, on average, including these scores biases the estimates of alternative certification downward. Nevertheless, the coefficient on alternative certification remains negative, but insignificant, when teacher test scores are not included. We conclude that traditionally certified teachers gain some experience through their training program, which translates to close to a year of experience. Alternatively certified teachers seem to make up the difference as they gain from years of experience at a more rapid rate than traditionally certified teachers.
How could it be that teachers who have undergone training are no more effective than teachers who have not? One possible explanation is that the types of individuals who enter the classroom via the two routes are significantly different from one another; at least, that’s what we found. Alternatively certified teachers in our sample scored significantly higher on all sections of the Praxis I and on the Praxis II professional knowledge exams. The biggest difference between the groups was in math, where alternatively certified teachers scored roughly a half of a standard deviation higher than traditionally certified teachers.
Alternative routes to the classroom seem to be attracting individuals who have higher academic capabilities, on average, than the traditional route to the classroom. This finding is not unique to Arkansas. Tim Sass found that alternatively certified teachers in Florida scored significantly higher on the SAT (2011). In New York, a team of researchers found that alternatively certified teachers from more selective programs performed significantly better than traditionally trained teachers, “Only 5 percent of newly hired Teaching Fellows and TFA teachers in 2003 failed the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test (LAST) exam on their first attempt, while 16.2 percent of newly hired traditional teachers failed the LAST exam…”
So what does this say about traditional teacher training programs? Some might argue that they are of no use, but that is not exactly what the data say. What we see in the Arkansas data, and in the results from other states, is that colleges of education take individuals who have lower academic capabilities, on average, and make them equally effective as individuals who are more academically capable.
There is indeed value in teacher training programs, but there is also value in alternative routes to the classroom. Each route has its benefits and its drawbacks. That is why Julie and I conclude that “teachers, and students, would be best served by equipping schools with more authority to hire the individuals they believe are qualified for the job and to certify those individuals who meet the expectations in the classroom.” Expand routes to the classroom and let local school leaders do their job. Let’s let them decide which teacher is the right fit for their school.
James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. He earned his doctorate in education policy from the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform.