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New Research Reveals Hard Choices in Fast-Track Alternative Certification Programs

New research from Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project on the Next Generation of Teachers reveals that sponsors of fast-track alternative certification programs face hard choices as they seek to attract new candidates and ensure that they will become well-qualified teachers. The findings suggest that teaching candidates were attracted to alternative certification programs by the prospect of inexpensive and convenient training. However, these very incentives limited the resources available to ensure that teachers would be well prepared. The study finds that some programs used a variety of strategies to overcome this obstacle.

In addition, researchers found the following:

  • Candidates welcomed the opportunity to participate in these fast-track programs, but criticized the programs' shortcomings--mismatched student teaching placements, lack of training in how to teach their subjects, and lack of preparation to work in low-income communities.
  • Programs increased their capacity to serve future teachers well by focusing on a small number of subjects per site, working in partnership with other organizations, and using technology creatively to deliver courses or on-the-job support.
  • Programs relied primarily on recruitment and selection to ensure the quality of the future teachers. Formal assessment during the program was rarely used as a means of quality control.
  • New teachers' readiness for teaching depended not only on what their program offered, but also on the skills and experience they brought to the training and the support they received in their new schools.
  • Programs left responsibility for on-the-job training and quality control to the hiring schools or the state. Often the schools, particularly those in low-income communities, lacked the resources needed to assist the new teachers.

The three-year study of alternative certification programs was conducted by Pforzheimer Professor Susan Moore Johnson and HGSE graduates Sarah Birkeland, Ed.D.'05, and Heather G. Peske, Ed.D.'05. In 2002, they studied fast-track alternative certification programs offered at 13 sites in four states (California, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Massachusetts), interviewing candidates, program directors, and faculty during the training. They subsequently interviewed candidates after they had been teaching for six to eight months. The programs were sponsored by state departments, independent vendors, universities, and local districts

"Alternative preparation is a deceptively simple idea," said Johnson. "In fact, this approach presents large, often unexpected demands for organizational capacity."

The programs studied offered licenses in as many as 10 different subjects, but they rarely had faculty experts in each. In many programs, candidates had little assistance in learning how to teach their subject. For example, a research biologist switching careers started teaching without knowing how to set up a lab for students. Similarly, a journalist was given no advice in how to teach writing. However, programs that limited the number of licenses they offered and had a faculty expert in each provided the subject-based pedagogy that candidates said they needed.

Programs had great difficulty providing productive student-teaching placements, in part because they took place during summer school. Often candidates told of mismatched placements. Many were assigned to practice teach in different subjects or grades than those for which they would be licensed. Some were supervised by teachers who, themselves, were not certified in the field.

Given the program's constraints of time and resources, researchers recommend they increase their capacity by working in partnership with school districts, universities, and nonprofit organizations. The study also noted that the creative use of technology offered promise for programs to extend their training and on-the-job support to new teachers.

The researchers concluded that short, intensive programs are not right for all prospective teachers. Completing the training and having a license does not make one ready to teach. The candidates who seemed most prepared on entering the classroom had solid knowledge of their subject and work experience using it. They had spent time with youth and were comfortable being in schools as they are today.

This in-depth look at a variety of alternative certification programs is a resource for those who are interested in how these programs work. This study offers many insights and recommendations for policy makers, program directors and prospective program participants.

View the Fast-Track Alternative Certification Study