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Where Teachers Come From

Half of America’s teachers have taken a non-traditional path to the classroom. And as our schools continue to grow, the race is on to find people who might be able to lead them.
(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

It never felt real until that first bell rang.

I thought I’d already done the hard part: I’d gotten myself hired based on an emailed resume listing little to no experience, done my interview over a payphone from a hostel lobby in Bangkok, flown halfway around the world to a town 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, unpacked my things in the double-wide trailer I’d share with two other guys, and spent a week of in-service pretending I was somewhat qualified to hold a conversation about teaching with folks who’d made it their life’s work. People with degrees (plural!) in the practice of teaching. People with thoughts about pedagogical theory. My thoughts hung up on how long it would take to pass handouts around the classroom. I had worked up a few drafts of a schedule for the first day of school, depending on the length of time paper-passing demanded.

The bell rang and I pointed to the whiteboard where I’d written my last name, saying it out loud the way I’d imagined so many times, with escalating fear, over the past few months. And then I froze. For a moment I just stared at the 20 seventh-graders sizing me up from their desks, dwarfed by the vast emptiness of the period ahead, and the others that would come after it that day, and all the other days before the school year would finally end.

Teaching is so unpopular in Texas today—thanks in part to years of funding cuts and layoffs—as to dissuade college students from undergraduate degrees in education.

I had an undergraduate degree in something close enough to English—journalism—that, thanks to a 2001 state law in response to a perceived teacher shortage, I was legally allowed to teach in Alaska’s schools. After the school year began, I started distance-learning classes to earn my teacher’s certificate, sitting with my textbooks and a phone, conference-calling over a land line with a two-second delay, with impromptu breaks whenever our teacher, who lived alone in a remote cabin on the tundra, excused himself to shoot at a passing moose. Thus qualified, I was assigned to teach a new computer-based reading curriculum, produced by Scholastic, called Read 180. My principal promised me it was “the Cadillac of reading programs,” leading me to question his expertise with the latest classroom technology.

Snapping out of my terrified stupor, I remembered the schedule I’d made and began handing out papers. The class period passed incredibly fast, stressful but fun, like the periods after it and the class days that followed. Every week my students would take reading tests on the computer, and by the end of the year, when most of their scores had improved, I considered it proof that I’d taught them well.

THAT WAS 10 YEARS ago. Back then, surrounded by first-year teachers who seemed infinitely more prepared, armed with teaching degrees, I was in the minority. But—here’s the scary part—today that’s not quite true: half of America’s public school teachers now, arctic and subarctic alike, have taken a non-traditional path to the classroom.

Most are still better prepared than I was at the time, coming from specialized programs with a year of student teaching, or even Teach for America’s five-week summer seminar. (By contrast, I was running a classroom before my own teaching courses began. The closest I came to teaching experience was a couple of years coaching Little League.) But the shift has been dramatic over the last few decades. Prior to 1980, 88 percent of teachers came with undergraduate teaching degrees, compared to 50 percent in 2011. According to the National Center for Education Information’s 2011 "Profile of Teachers in the U.S.," the share of teachers who came from alternative programs grew from almost nothing in 1980 to 39 percent in 2011—and those teachers from alternative paths include a much higher share of black and Hispanic teachers. (Another 11 percent of teachers enter the field with master’s degrees in education.) In its summary of the 2011 report, the NCEI says the switch in where educators come from is finally changing what America’s teaching force looks like:

K-12 public school teachers in the United States are amazingly similar over time. They constitute a unique profession that has self-propagated itself for at least the last half century. But, due to an influx of individuals from non-traditional backgrounds entering teaching through non-traditional preparation programs, the teaching force may be changing.

One-third of the new teachers hired between 2005 and 2011 came from an alternative program, the group found. America’s teachers are still mostly white and female—the share of men in the profession actually fell from 31 to 16 percent over the last 25 years—but they’re getting younger, and more open to politically popular school reforms like eliminating under-performing teachers and tying their pay to students’ test scores.

New Jersey passed the nation’s first alternative teacher certification law in 1984, amid concerns about the quality of teachers traditional programs were producing. Texas and California followed suit soon after, and today all but two states have laws allowing non-traditional teachers into public schools. And thanks to a federal law from 2004, recruits from Teach for America and other alternative programs are considered “highly qualified” teachers even before they’ve earned their certification.

Accelerated teacher academies run by non-profits and charter schools promise they can turn out better-prepared educators in less time than traditional programs. And the for-profit and online teacher prep business is booming.

These trends—all focused on pulling teacher preparation out of the traditional undergraduate environment—are just the latest iteration of a back-and-forth that’s gone on for centuries, in which reforms pull teacher prep in and out of the university setting. Stanford University education researcher David Labaree has written about the “marriage of convenience” that put teacher prep in universities in the first place.

Labaree says teacher prep is poorly understood because teaching is a mass occupation that everyone, as a student, has spent years watching. “It’s an extraordinarily difficult practice to actually carry out effectively,” he says, “but it looks easy.” We’re living in an era when the market is getting more involved in education, and the traditional path to teaching doesn’t match the way private enterprise works. “The whole enterprise looks socialized, you know? You have to go to a state university to get certified with a state stamp of approval on it,” Labaree jokes. “You go and you look for the school district, and you join a union. I mean, it borders on un-American.”

So now teacher prep is being reclaimed from four-year universities. Prestige outfits like Teach for America, and New York Teaching Fellows, or former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s New Teacher Project, are on the cutting edge of this trend. “The idea is, once you select the right people, you don't need a lot of training,” Labaree says. “We can just get the right people in the right classroom and start having a positive impact on the kids right away. It's an appealing argument.” Those programs are growing, but they still account for a small fraction of America’s teachers. Other alternative programs are popping up in their wake.

ITeachTexas, an online training program without a university affiliation, began in 2003, and was, according to a 2011 New York Times piece, the first such program to expand into other states. Penn State University education researcher Ed Fuller found that iTeachTexas and another for-profit called A+ Texas Teachers, trained more new teachers than any other school or program in the state. Most online teacher prep programs are for-profit, like the start-up Teach-Now, which offers certification for as little as $6,000. Other for-profit firms like Dallas-based Academic Partnerships sell their marketing services and online platform to public universities hoping to launch their own accelerated, online education degrees.

Alternative certification is flourishing thanks to new policies based on a popular agreement that there’s a looming shortage of teachers. In Texas, where I live today, we have billboards advertising the high value we place on educator preparation here. They go like this: “Want to be a teacher? When can you start?” The truth isn’t quite so sunny for prospective hires, but soon enough our growing schools are bound to start hiring a lot more teachers.

According to San Antonio Express-News, teaching is so unpopular in Texas today—thanks in part to years of funding cuts and layoffs—as to dissuade college students from undergraduate degrees in education. With the student body growing so fast, the reasoning goes, soon we really will have a teacher shortage. Nationwide, there’s even a new ad campaign, backed by the Gates Foundation, Teach for America, and the U.S. Department of Education, among others, meant to make teaching look cool (again?). Teach for America and other accelerated and online programs will be there to put teachers in these new classrooms quickly. But just how effective can they be?

Teachers from alternative programs were actually more likely to describe themselves as “very competent” when they started teaching, according to NCEI’s 2011 report. (I would not have been one of them.) But that may have more to do with ego than training.

Anyway, the question presumes you’ve got a way to measure a teacher’s quality, which is itself a subject of fierce debate. Megan Hopkins at Penn State University has focused on a more basic question: How well do these programs prepare teachers for students with limited English? Hopkins says that’s an especially important question for Teach for America, given that so many of its recruits are bound for classrooms with lots of English language learners. She says TFA’s five-week program offers far too little in that regard: one 60- or 90-minute session on students with limited English. Hopkins’ research is built on the recognition that teachers from alternative programs are often hired to fill particularly tough teaching assignments—and some programs equip teachers for the challenge better than others.

“I think it's kind of a mixed bag at this point,” Hopkins says. The Boston Teacher Residency, for instance, gives recruits more time to get comfortable in a classroom, to know the community where they’ll be teaching, and connect the theory to the practice. “So if there's a way for an online program to facilitate that, OK,” she says, “but if it's just for the purpose of clicking buttons, I don't know that that's necessarily effective.”

Should new teachers be getting more, less, or just better preparation before they’re thrown into the classroom? It’s hard to say for sure, but with the market for alternative programs growing so fast, the most important question seems to be: How soon can they start?