Every year, thousands of new teachers pass through hundreds of different teacher preparation programs and are hired to teach in the nation's schools. Most new teachers come from traditional route to certification (TC) programs, in which they complete all their certification requirements before beginning to teach. In recent years, however, as many as a third of new hires have come from alternative route to certification (AC) programs, in which they begin teaching before completing all their certification requirements (Feistritzer and Chester 2002). AC programs have grown in number and size in recent years in response to a variety of factors, including teacher shortages and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which requires that every core class be staffed with a teacher who has obtained full certification or, in the case of alternative routes to certification, is enrolled and making adequate progress toward certification through an approved program.
Despite the expansion of these new routes into teaching, there exists little research to provide guidance as to the effectiveness of different teacher training strategies. The increased variation in teacher preparation approaches created by the existence of various AC and TC programs offers an opportunity to examine the effect of different components of training on teacher performance. For example, some AC programs require less education coursework than TC programs. We can exploit this type of variation to examine whether the form of training is associated with differences in teacher performance.
The potential advantages and disadvantages of the various routes to certification have been debated, and the amount of coursework required by AC and TC programs is critical to issues of certification and teacher effectiveness. Some critics contend that the coursework required by TC (and some AC) programs is excessive and unnecessarily burdensome (Finn 2003; Hess 2001; U.S. Department of Education 2002), providing little benefit while discouraging talented people from entering the teaching profession (Ballou and Podgursky 1997). AC programs have been viewed as a way to eliminate these barriers. However, supporters of TC programs argue that easing requirements degrades quality because AC teachers are insufficiently prepared for the classroom and less effective than TC teachers (Darling-Hammond 1992). Even in cases where the coursework is similar, TC programs require that people complete their requirements prior to becoming a teacher of record, while AC programs allow them to begin teaching first. None of these claims, however, have been rigorously studied in the context of the programs that are most prevalent.
In light of these unresolved issues and the continuing need for highly qualified teachers, NCLB provides support "to ensure that teachers have the necessary subject matter knowledge and teaching skills in the academic subjects that the teachers teach." Specifically, Title II of NCLB allows funds to be used for "carrying out programs that establish, expand, or improve alternative routes for state certification of teachers," as well as for "reforming teacher certification (including recertification) or licensing requirements." This study is intended to inform this effort by rigorously examining the effect of AC teachers on student achievement and classroom practices compared to the effect of TC teachers in their same school and grades. The study also provides suggestive evidence about what training and pretraining characteristics may be related to teacher performance.
Research on the effectiveness of AC teachers is not conclusive. A handful of studies have examined the effects on student achievement of specific AC programs, including Teach For America (TFA) and the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) program, and have reached mixed conclusions (Decker et al. 2004; Kane et al. 2006; Laczko-Kerr and Berliner 2002; Raymond et al. 2001). The more rigorous studies generally showed that students of AC teachers scored the same or higher than students of TC teachers, or that they scored slightly lower during their teacher's first year of teaching, but scored the same by the teacher's second year (Decker et al. 2004; Boyd et al. 2005; Kane et al. 2006). When effects have been found, they have typically been described by the authors as small. Some research—case studies or small-scale, nonexperimental observation and survey-based studies—has examined AC and TC teachers' classroom practices, and also had mixed findings (Lutz and Hutton 1989; Jelmberg 1996; Miller et al. 1998). Finally, because of their limited scope, many of these studies appear to have limited relevance to the broad range of AC programs operating across the country. The TFA and NYCTF programs, for example, recruit graduates from top colleges and are quite selective in admission, whereas the entry requirements of the majority of AC programs are less stringent (Walsh and Jacobs 2007; Mayer et al. 2003). Lacking conclusive evidence, principals may be uncertain of the implications of hiring an AC teacher, and policymakers may wonder about the implications of various characteristics of teacher certification programs.