My Inner City Story: Why Alternative Certification Programs Don’t Work

What would you do if you were the superintendent of schools, and one of your schools had less than half of the positions filled? Or if you looked over the entire city and saw that you were seriously short science teachers? You would likely do whatever it took to fill those spaces because whether or not you have the teachers–kids are coming to school in September.

That’s exactly what inner cities have done. They come up with random criteria like high performance in another area of life. They offer incentives like a paid for Master’s in Education, a monetary bonus to get certified or something else. And then they stick, unprepared teachers who didn’t realize that the reason there is a teacher shortage in the inner city is because it is that difficult to teach here.

So what’s the problem? The city gets teachers who have Master’s degrees, and the wannabe teacher gets a teaching job of his choice. . .as long as it is in the teacher shortage area. It seems like a match made in heaven? Not quite. There are several problems with the inner city and alternative teacher certification.

Alternative teacher certification programs are often controversial, at least while you’re in college studying education. Afterall, many teachers do a four year degree in education. And in case you’re not familiar at all with how teachers get certified it’s not just any four year degree. . .it’s a double major. You have to take education and a content area. Plus practicums. Plus student teaching. Plus several certification tests. (At least in New York there are several to take.) Many teachers in New York State that I know of take at least 4 ½ years just to complete the course work.

Despite my feelings on alternative certification–I don’t believe you have to have a four year degree in education to teach in the inner city in public schools. In fact, many teachers prepared in this manner are just as unprepared as those who are alternatively certified.

However, the fact remains that alternative teacher certification programs produce few actually good teachers who are able to teach effectively in the inner city. They either leave the program when the stressors become to great or they just don’t teach well. So what is a city to do?

Failure to Disclose

One reason that teachers certified alternatively don’t do well as a group is because they were unaware of what they were getting themselves into. Anyone that I’ve ever spoken to who is in this alternative certification program didn’t connect that the reason there is a teacher shortage is because no one wants to teach there. No one ever told them that it would be as difficult as it truly is. One teacher we know who is in this program said he had visions of coming in to “save” the kids and the school and he really believes that this idea was kind of stoked in his program. No one ever says that you may have kids who threaten to stab you, or call you unspeakable names to your face, or can’t read despite being in 7th grade.

The second reason that they don’t do well is that often alternative teacher certification programs pick the wrong criteria. Let me tell you a story about Steve and Paul. Steve was at the top of his class at Columbia University, he had a 4.0 GPA. He studied engineering and went to work for a computer firm after college where he earned a good living. However, he wanted to do something more with his life so he began to look at teaching.

Paul meanwhile, also graduated at the top of his class. He really liked to teach, but his major was in Psychology. Luckily a private inner city school had an opening, and he began to teach gym. He taught gym for four years and then left to teach somewhere that paid higher.

Both applied to the teaching fellows program. Steve was accepted because of his high GPA and strong success in other areas of life. Paul however, got a letter of rejection. Why? He had too many years of teaching experience! Does this make sense? Should we be taking the least experienced people, offering them a Master’s degree and sticking them, unprepared in a classroom? Meanwhile, those with actual teaching experience are turned down and kept from teaching because well, they have too much experience! I should note that Paul can get into the public school system by putting together his requirements piece by piece but it would likely take him a few years.

Steve is working on his Master’s during his first year of teaching and he’s struggling. He is unable to manage the kids and wants to quit the program. He feels cheated because no on mentioned how incredibly difficult it was and he has no support beyond someone to come and observe him and tell him what he’s doing wrong.

Paul is working as a teacher elsewhere. He still tutors inner city kids and they voluntarily flock to his house after school to learn about science, or math. My take on the situation is that in reality, the public schools miss out on a lot of “Pauls”. The turn over rate for teachers that are alternatively certified is reportedly higher than 50% compared to a 30% teacher turn over rate of other teachers. It is a widespread problem because alternative certification programs turn out thousands of teachers for New York City every year.

In An Ideal World:

I am actually not entirely opposed to alternative certification. There are people who have what it takes to teach here who for whatever reason didn’t major in education in college. However, I would like to see several things happen.

First, participants in alternative certification programs need more than a week long orientation before going into the classroom. The program would be more effective if teachers spent the year either as an understudy or as a para professional watching techniques used by veteran teachers. It seems expensive to do it this way but I honestly believe that by doing this you would decrease the amount of teachers leaving the city and in the long run it would pay off. Consider it a year long student teaching experience.

Secondly, alternative teacher certification programs need to focus on taking teachers who have experience with inner city kids. We’ve talked about some of the unique challenges that face teachers here. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that thought they were going to come in and save the day. They would have all their kids reading at or above grade level and not even a low score would hold them back. But it just doesn’t work like that. People who have taught here, have been here and have worked with inner city kids know this. Consequently, they know how to handle themselves in a classroom.

Thirdly, I think a “guest teacher” program in teacher shortage areas would really serve to bolster a program. Teachers could be offered incentives to teach in a teacher shortage area for one year. Some of those teachers may find that they really like teaching in the inner city and choose to stay. However, having an experienced teacher commit to one year in the inner city certainly has to be better than sticking any warm body in a classroom!