Teacher shortage forces states to relax rules for educators

Alternative certification opens classrooms to other qualified instructors

Many education reformers have long warned that state teacher certification requirements, instead of ensuring teacher quality, were so rigid and bureaucratic that they actually were keeping the best and the brightest instructors out of America's classrooms.

Now, a severe, nationwide teacher shortage means schools are scrambling to modify those teaching requirements and not necessarily to find better teachers, but just to find teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education says America will need more than a million new teachers by 2010, or almost half the number of teachers currently in America's elementary and secondary schools. And that's teachers who stay and don't leave for other, more rewarding jobs: 20 percent of all new teachers leave the profession within three years. An entire generation of veterans, now in their late 40s and 50s, is expected to retire in the next decade. And the demand for smaller classes means more teachers will be needed per school.

To help solve this problem, many states are adopting alternative teacher certification requirements, to remove what reform experts have long regarded as a "bottleneck" in the acquisition of new teachers. According to School Reform News, in the past two years, 14 states have passed, introduced, or plan to introduce new legislation to establish alternative programs to prepare and certify individuals who already have a bachelor's degree and want to become teachers. Those states are Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The National Center for Education Information (NCEI) says that in 1998, more than 24,000 new teachers were certified through alternative programs. The total number of teachers certified through these programs now totals over 125,000.

"What we are seeing are market forces in action," said Dr. C. Emily Feistritzer, president of NCEI and co-author of a state-by-state analysis of alternative teacher certification programs. "People from all walks of life are stepping forward to meet the projected demand for teachers," she added. "Many of these individuals already have at least a bachelor's degree, so the old model of training teachers in undergraduate education programs does not work. States are aggressively meeting the challenge by creating new training and licensing avenues for people to enter teaching."

Besides helping to solve the teacher supply crisis, these alternatively certified teachers bring diversity and a wealth of experience to the classroom. They come from business, industry, the professions, and the military and can teach students from first-hand experience what they need to know to be successful after leaving school. Other groups strongly represented among alternatively certified teachers are former K-12 teachers who have upgraded their credentials to get back into teaching, and others previously trained as teachers, but who took other jobs instead. Some are even coming into the K-12 system from backgrounds in higher education.

Another twist to the population of alternatively certified teachers is their diversity. "There is a rather stark and troubling mismatch between the diversity of the student population and the relative homogeneity [white, female] of the current teaching force," Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, recently told School Reform News. She says alternative certification is bringing in teachers who are more likely to be older, to be men, and to be people of color.

New Jersey has more than 15 years' experience with its alternative plan. After a state commission report revealed that the states' teacher preparation programs were producing poorly educated teachers, the state came up with a plan that produced teacher applicants boasting higher scores on teacher licensing tests than traditionally prepared teachers, with lower attrition rates.

Perhaps best of all, alternative certification is bringing in individuals who are more likely to accept positions where demand for qualified teachers is greatest: in inner cities, in rural areas, and in subject areas such as math and science.