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Liberal Arts Grads And Career Changers Finding More Paths Into Public School Teaching

On February 3, 2000, the National Center for Education Information (NCEI) released a report on the status nationwide of alternative certification programs -- programs that lead individuals to a teaching license besides traditional undergraduate or graduate degrees in education. According to NCEI, states' interest in such programs is escalating, as more career changers and people with noneducation degrees seek entry into public school teaching as a career. This week, Education World writer Kristine M. Conner shares examples of such programs and provides an overview of the debate over alternative certification. Included: On-line resources to help educators find state-specific information on certification requirements and alternative certification options.

After earning her M.A. in American history four years ago, Alicia Freitag immediately went to work in collections management for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This seemed like a natural career choice, given the museum work she had done as a VISTA volunteer and during her graduate studies at the University of Vermont. But when she started teaching U.S. history at an evening school for adults earning their high school diplomas, Freitag was hooked. She decided that, instead of working with objects, she wanted to work with people and spend her days talking about history.

Freitag knew she wanted to teach in a public school, but she dreaded the thought of enrolling in yet another degree program. "I thought I'd have to go through a long, drawn-out graduate program in education," she recalled. "The idea of quitting my job and going to school full-time didn't appeal to me, nor did enrolling in night school and continuing to work full-time for three or more years." And she didn't want to delay her entry into a classroom environment.

Freitag soon discovered The Fairfax Transition to Teaching Partnership, an alternative certification program based at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Students spend one year interning at a Fairfax County (Virginia) public school -- substituting, observing, assisting teachers, and working with students one-on-one and in small groups -- and take summer and evening courses required for certification. At the end of that intensive year, they are certified to teach at the secondary level.

Freitag is now teaching history to 10th and 11th graders at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Virginia, which was also where she completed her internship. She was grateful to find a program that wasn't "too big of an interruption" in her career path and financially feasible as well, offering her a stipend and tuition remission. "I benefited from the combination of learning education theory and being able almost immediately to practice it in the classroom," she told Education World.


More than ever before, aspiring teachers like Freitag are likely to find paths into public school teaching that don't require enrolling in a traditional undergraduate or graduate degree program in education. That's according to a study released on February 3, 2000, by the National Center For Education Information (NCEI), based in Washington, D.C. In a news release on the study Alternative Teacher Certification: A State-by-State Analysis 2000, the NCEI reported that, in the past two years alone, 14 states have either passed or introduced legislation to establish alternative programs that prepare and certify individuals with bachelor's degrees (and often advanced degrees) who want to become teachers.

"States are really stepping up to the bat, with ten new alternate route programs being developed in the last year alone," NCEI president and study author Emily Feistritzer told Education World the day after the study was released. "On-the-job training seems preferable to having candidates with other degrees go back to school for a few years and not even step into the classroom for an extended period of time."

According to Feistritzer, the "old way" of training public school teachers -- putting undergraduates through an education major -- does not suit many of today's candidates, who get interested in the profession only after completing a degree in science or the humanities or spending several years pursuing another career.

That was exactly the point Feistritzer made in The Truth Behind The "Teacher Shortage," an editorial published in The Wall Street Journal (January 28, 1998) in which she questioned conventional wisdom that the United States would face a teacher shortage in the next decade, needing to find 2 million new teachers simply to keep up with demand. The candidates are there, she asserted, but often "locked out" by an "elaborate system" of certification requirements.


The NCEI's recent analysis found that, "compared with recent college graduates who come into teaching from a traditional teacher preparation program, those entering teaching through alternate routes

  • Have degrees in subjects other than education;
  • Are more likely to have work experience in occupations other than education;
  • Tend to be older;
  • Are more likely to be people of color;
  • Are more likely to be men."

That diversity, Feistritzer told Education World, is one of the greatest advantages of alternative certification. Traditionally trained teachers tend to be young, white females who want to teach in the suburbs, but alternative candidates tend to be more diverse and more open to teaching in urban and rural districts.

"Alternate route programs provide opportunities to deal with the reality of supply and demand" on a local level, Feistritzer said. Administrators can target their specific needs: more teachers, more ethnically diverse teachers, or those who can teach math and the hard sciences.

Anita Scovanner Ramsey, director of the Fairfax Transition to Teaching Partnership, agrees that alternative certification programs can help remedy the shortage of teachers in certain disciplines and from certain ethnic groups. They also can attract talented humanities and science graduates who might otherwise pursue other professions.

"There are tremendous economic barriers to going into teaching if it isn't done at the undergraduate level," Ramsey told Education World. "And it's hard to justify taking loans and losing a salary to go to school full-time," especially when most candidates can anticipate making less as a teacher than they did in their previous jobs -- or than they would in another field.

The Transition to Teaching Program generally attracts career changers in their late 20s to early 50s. "We get a lot of attorneys, people from Capitol Hill, lobbyists and speechwriters, people who worked in nonprofits," Ramsey said. Often they are people who "wanted to make a difference" but weren't satisfied in their chosen careers. Programs like this make the change more feasible.

James Morris, a former journalist, editor, and book publisher who now teaches government at West Springfield (Virginia) High School, said that he would not have made the change if it were not for the Transition to Teaching Program. "I could afford neither the money nor the time to go the traditional route," he told Education World. And he appreciated the hands-on nature of the program: "You are put right to work, day one, in a classroom, and by the end of the year, you feel like you are a teacher."


Many states are looking to another group of career changers, former military personnel, to step into teaching vacancies. The Troops To Teachers Program (TTT), established in 1994 as a result of military downsizing, has helped 3,000 service members make the transition from the military into the classroom. About half have gone through traditional certification programs (i.e., degree programs in education), with the other half completing alternative certification programs that typically involved a combination of courses and classroom work.

George Willett, Ph.D., who directs the Washington State Troops to Teachers Program, told Education World that former military personnel have the qualities essential to good teaching: "They have maturity, they are experienced, they're team players, they have skill in crisis management, and they have an expectation of discipline in themselves and others." Pointing to a recent Education Week article about Chicago school districts' plans to recruit teachers from overseas, he stressed that retired service members, most only in their 40s, are a "highly qualified" pool that can be tapped for such hard-to-fill positions. According to a Profile Of Troops To Teachers, on which Willett and Feistritzer collaborated, military personnel are more likely to be willing to teach in urban areas and more likely to specialize in math and science.


A word of caution, though: Alternative is a blanket term applied to any certification program besides a standard undergraduate or graduate degree program, and they are not all created equal.

Marcey Altman, a 12th-grade English teacher at West Springfield High School, recalls an experience she had eight years ago in the Dade County (Florida) school district. Faced with shortages due to new limits on class size, the district offered provisional certification to candidates who promised to take five education courses over three years and participate in a beginning teacher program. Altman had already taken those courses in college, so all she had to do was hand in a portfolio of ten lesson plans at the end of the year and be evaluated by a fellow teacher three times. After three years of teaching, her provisional certification would have become total certification. Based on that experience, she sees real danger in school districts' "hunger" for teachers to fill certain slots, because it presses them to let untrained individuals teach as long as they promise to take a certain number of education courses. Shortages give them the incentive to let standards slide.

Obviously, emergency certification programs like the one Altman describes and an intensive, university-based experience like the Fairfax Transition to Teaching Program are at either end of a vast spectrum. Project director Anita Ramsey is quick to point out that her program represents the best example of what alternative certification can be. But it is certainly not the norm. And it is hard to define exactly what the norm is, since every state determines its own certification requirements. In her words, "Nobody marches to the same drummer."

American Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman voiced her concerns about the quality of alternative certification routes in Ignoring Standards, a column she wrote in August 1998. Feldman expressed support for "good alternative certification programs that bring talented career changers into teaching" but emphasized that alternative certification is a slippery slope. She wrote, "those who think that programs like these will take care of the teacher-quality problem are not looking at the realities of the situation. In districts where attracting new teachers is already a chronic problem, 'alternative' means 'emergency.' It means lowering standards, allowing any warm body to teach. The sad truth is, there aren't enough Einsteins or former military officers -- or even idealistic young graduates -- who want to become public school teachers." Feldman's statement summarizes what many perceive as the central problem with alternative routes to certification: ensuring quality across the board.


In her May 13, 1999, testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Feistritzer acknowledged that the term alternative teacher certification can mean many different things, "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 and want to become teachers." She also defined components that are part of high-quality alternative certification programs:

  • Good programs have a strong academic course work component.
  • Good programs are field-based, meaning that individuals get into classrooms early in their training.
  • Teacher candidates work with qualified mentor teachers.
  • Candidates usually go through their program in cohorts, not as isolated individuals.
  • Most good programs are collaborative efforts among state departments of education, which have responsibility to license teachers; colleges and universities that historically have had the responsibility for educating and training teachers; and school districts, which actually hire teachers.

Feistritzer told Education World that she sees more and more states evolving toward such a university-based model. The earliest programs that emerged in the mid-1980s, she noted, tended to be district-based and run by school personnel. But that's changing. Alternative certification programs are emerging as a trend in higher education. About 250 colleges and universities now offer such programs for students with noneducation bachelor's degrees. Programs such as CalStateTEACH (part of the California State University system), the Military Career Transition Program at Old Dominion University, and Project Promise at Colorado State University generally combine course work, mentoring, and on-the-job experience.

The bottom line, says Feistritzer, is that "school administrators need to take advantage of the alternatives that states are setting up for them." At a time when, according to her research, nearly one-third of people in teacher-preparation programs already have bachelor's degrees, giving them alternative routes to certification "makes a whole lot of sense."


  • National Center For Alternative Teacher Certification Information This not-for-profit organization helps state departments of education, school districts, legislators, and other education-related groups establish alternative certification programs to help remedy teacher shortages. Operating within the Houston-based Haberman Educational Foundation, it focuses on improving the quality of teaching for bilingual, diverse, poor, urban, and rural students in hard-to-staff areas. NCATCI's Alternative Teacher Certification: History Handbook and How To is available for purchase through the Web site.
  • Alternative Routes To Teacher Certification This section of a teacher employment Web site lists various information resources on alternative certification.
  • The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC): Becoming A Teacher This site provides links to alternative certification information as well as individual state education departments nationwide. Through the education department Web sites, you can access state-specific information on requirements for teacher licensing, certification, and testing. ERIC is a comprehensive clearinghouse on teaching and teacher education based in Washington, D.C.
  • National Association For Alternative Certification NAAC seeks to expand public school teaching certification options. Although the Web site is not kept up-to-date, it does include some useful links to alternative certification programs nationwide.
  • I Already Have A Bachelor's Degree, How Can I Obtain A Teaching License?" This 1998 ERIC Digest article provides a general overview of some of the steps involved in pursuing an alternative route to certification. The article includes an extensive bibliography of books and articles on alternative certification.
  • CalState Teach At California State University California State University's alternative certification program is an Internet-based academic program that allows elementary school teachers who are working with "emergency" credentials to obtain full certification in 18 months.

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Article by Kristine M. Conner
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