Alternative Teacher Certification: A Program Theory Analysis

Article excerpt

Alternative teacher certification program (ATCP) is widely used as a term for a variety of programs designed to train and credential teachers in expedited fashion. In practice, however, ATCPs consist of a loose confederation of programs and practices ranging from "emergency certification to very sophisticated and well-designed programs that address the professional preparation needs of the growing population of individuals who already have at least a baccalaureate degree and considerable life experience who want to become teachers" (Feistritzer, 1998, p. 2). The policy rhetoric suggests that these programs address teacher shortages, improve teacher quality, increase diversity of the teacher pool, and increase retention rates.

While these goals are laudable, the underlying assumptions of the policy have been challenged (Cohen-Vogel & Smith, in press; Scribner & Akiba, 2007). These studies question assumptions about the effectiveness of alternative certification policy to attract teachers of higher quality than traditionally trained teachers. However, the antecedent assumption that ATCPs are substantially similar in structure and function remains tacit and under-explored in policy circles, among practitioners, and in large part in extant research.

Analyses of ATCPs have tended to (a) ignore substantive differences of alternative certification at the local level by aggregating data to the national level, thereby eliminating the possibility of understanding outcomes across and within programs (e.g., Shen 1998a, 1998b) or (b) use single-site case-study approaches that limit our ability to generalize findings (e.g., Brennan & Bliss, 1998; Stevens & Dial, 1993; Stoddart, 1990). As a result, researchers and practitioners have called for studies that describe the content and processes of high-quality ATCPs and that rigorously compare alternatively and traditionally certified teachers (Kwiatkowski, 2002; see also, Stoddart, 1993; Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2001).

This article presents findings from the initial phase of a longitudinal research program designed to evaluate alternative teacher certification policy in one state. The study used program theory evaluation (PTE) to investigate policy assumptions, program logics and dilemma points from alternatively certified teacher training to teacher practice. We specifically explored how and why ATCPs differed in form and function by presenting an emergent framework to make sense of these differences. Gaining a better understanding of ATCP variation is critical given national, state, and local pressure to address teacher shortages and improve teacher quality (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). The following questions guided our exploration into ATCP theories: (1) what are the program theories that guide practice in the five largest ATCPs in Missouri? and (2) what factors contribute to formation of these program theories. In our discussion we consider the implications our findings have for the practice of alternative teacher certification. As this study will show, policy makers and ATCP directors must address the external factors that shape program logics and the contradictions these influences can create.

Alternative Teacher Certification Policy and Program Logic

The espoused logic suggests that ATCPs are effective strategies to alleviate teacher shortages and increase teacher quality (e.g., Feistritzer, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Policymakers assume that by providing alternate routes to certification (a) persons with valuable professional experience will be recruited to the profession, (b) professional experience translates into effective teaching, (c) more mature novice teachers will persist in the profession longer than younger, traditionally prepared teachers, (d) teachers of underrepresented groups will be attracted to the profession, and (e) the experiences of students of alternatively and traditionally certified teachers do not differ significantly (Adams & Dial, 1993; Dill, 1996). …