Alternative Preparation Programs and Paths to Teaching

In an effort to recruit more candidates with strong academic backgrounds to teaching, an array of non-profit organizations, states, and local districts introduced alternatives to traditional university-based preparation programs. Many of these were fast-track programs, modeled on Teach for America, which at that time recruited recent college graduates, provided an intensive summer institute with a modest clinical component, and assigned participants to teach for at least two years in a low-income, hard-to-staff school.

We wondered how these new alternative programs would be organized, how participants would experience them, and whether the new teachers would feel well-prepared once they entered the classroom. In 2002 Sarah Birkeland, Heather Peske and I studied 13 such programs located in 4 states. We interviewed program directors, instructors, and diverse samples of participants while their programs were underway. Then after the new teachers had been in the classroom for six months, we interviewed them again.

We found that the quality of the program was only one of three factors that explained the new teachers’ sense of preparedness. Equally important were their prior experiences and knowledge as well as the work environment of the school they entered. Their school site could enhance their initial experience by providing ample resources, an orderly environment, an appropriate assignment, an effective principal, and supportive colleagues. However, it also could thwart their growth and early success when supplies were inadequate, the corridors were chaotic, their principal was unfair, and their colleagues were indifferent. The person, the program, and the school site all contributed to these candidates’ sense of preparedness during their first year.

Given the size and prominence of Teach for America, we also wanted to know how long TFA corps members stayed in teaching. Morgaen Donaldson surveyed over 2000 TFA teachers—three entire cohorts—and found that, contrary to popular beliefs, nearly 2/3 continued to teach in public schools beyond their two-year commitment, although more than half left their initial low-income school after two years. Also Donaldson found that TFA teachers who were at greater risk of leaving their school or resigning from teaching had been assigned split grades, multiple subjects, or classes outside their field of preparation than when they taught a single grade, single subject, or in-field assignment.

New recruits to teaching also included individuals who entered at mid-career from other fields, who some analysts thought might change the composition of the teaching force. Many were licensed through alternative preparaation programs.  Will Marinell analyzed six waves of the national Schools and Staffing Survey from 1988 to 2008 and found that the percentage of mid-career entrants had doubled during that time and comprised nearly one-third of new teachers, but they had not substntially diversified the teaching workforce.