Alternative certification. Alternative routes to certification. Alternative teacher education. Nontraditional teacher preparation. Alternate routes to teaching. As the education field has not even settled on a common name or definition for this phenomenon, it is difficult to characterize what exactly it is, who offers it, and what its outcomes are for teacher licensure, quality, and retention, not to mention student achievement.
Yet despite the diversity in terms, program designs, and outcomes, researchers and policy organizations have attempted to define and study alternative routes to teacher certification since at least the mid-1980’s. In this article, I briefly describe the evolution of alternate route programs and place the High Tech High Teacher Intern Program in this context. Throughout, I use the term “alternative route” program to refer to programs that lead to a state-recognized certification document, but differ from a traditional, university-based student-teaching approach to teacher preparation.
California, New Jersey, Texas and Connecticut were pioneers in the development of alternate route programs, partly in reaction to A Nation at Risk (NCEE, 1983), which recommended bringing recent graduates, retired scientists and others with subject matter expertise into the teaching ranks. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC) administered the state’s first district-based Intern program, called the Teacher Trainee Program, in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1984. In 1985, New Jersey began a Provisional Teacher Program to attract liberal arts graduates into elementary and secondary teaching. Houston Independent School District launched Texas’s first school district-based alternate route program in 1985 (Feistritzer & Haar, 2008; Roach & Cohen, 2002). Connecticut soon followed suit by establishing an alternate route program in 1986.
The early 1990’s witnessed a significant growth in the number of states offering alternative route programs, in response to two main forces: first, the expansion of standards for both student learning and teacher quality and second, real and projected teacher shortages, particularly in areas such as math, science, and special education and in hard-to-staff locales, such as inner cities and rural areas (Roach & Cohen, 2002). In California particularly, the passage of the Class Size Reduction Initiative in 1997 created a sudden and unprecedented need for roughly 18,000 elementary school teachers (McKibbin, 2008), to which intern programs rapidly responded.
One of the first large-scale studies of alternative routes was conducted by Adelman and colleagues in 1986, in which “alternative certification programs” were defined as “those teacher preparation programs that enroll noncertified individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree, offering shortcuts, special assistance, or unique curricula leading to eligibility for a standard teaching credential” (quoted in Feistritzer & Haar, 2008, p. 50). This report was one of the first to characterize alternate route program participants as well educated, interested in teaching (and in many cases, having some prior instructional experience), and possessing a wide range of prior work experiences. Adelman and colleagues described alternate route programs as emphasizing field experience and supervision as well as condensed coursework, often taking place in evenings. This report further described the relatively high levels of content knowledge and instructional skills of alternate route teachers as compared to traditionally prepared teachers.
In the early 1990’s, the National Center for Education Information (NCEI) produced the first annual report, “Alternative Teacher Certification: A State-by-State Analysis,” which described the tremendous diversity in program types, entry requirements, certification policies and time to completion amongst the 31 states offering alternative route programs. This compendium, along with other research from that same era, showed that alternative route programs were as different from each other as they were from the rather varied universe of “traditional” programs. Yet the intense focus on teaching quality from the mid-1990’s through the current era has yielded some common characteristics of most extant alternate route programs (Feisitritzer & Haar, 2008, p. 87):
High Tech High’s Teacher Intern Program, developed in response to policy changes at the state and federal levels, reflects these characteristics but adds an additional dimension: interns are placed in schools that are rooted in our three design principles: personalization, common intellectual mission, and real world connection, and the program of study is focused on the principles and pedagogy of those schools.
When the planning and initial hiring for the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High was underway, charter school teachers in California did not need to hold a certificate or credential to be eligible for service. That changed in 1999, when a legislative compromise was struck to raise the cap on the number of charter schools but to require that their faculties hold “a teaching credential or other document equivalent to that which a teacher in other public schools would be required to hold.” While the statute provides that “charter schools be given flexibility with regard to non-core, non-college preparatory courses,” teachers in core or college preparatory courses are held to the credentialing requirement.1 The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 placed additional pressure on public schools, including charters, via the certification requirements in the Teacher Quality sections of the bill. NCLB defined a “highly qualified teacher” as one “who holds at least a bachelor’s degree, has obtained full State certification (whether though traditional or alternative routes), and has demonstrated knowledge in the core academic subjects he or she teaches” (Title IX, Sec. 9101. http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg107.html).
High Tech High found itself in a quandary—how could we continue to hire the teachers we considered best suited to teach in our schools without regard to credentialing status? HTH staff began exploring the possibility of offering an on-site credentialing program using California’s alternative route infrastructure—specifically, the precedent of district intern programs, whereby districts can hire uncertified teachers, train them as they work in the classroom, and certify them. After submitting three applications, the last of which responded to California’s overhauled standards for teacher preparation called for by Senate Bill 2042 (Alpert/Mazzoni, 1998), High Tech High became the first charter school entity in California approved to certify its own teachers in August 2004.
The program was modeled in part on the San Diego Unified Teacher Intern program and receives advising through a partnership with the University of San Diego. But what makes the program unique is that it is situated in a project-based work environment that integrates technical and academic education while fostering a sense of community engagement and responsibility. The program provides direct, on-the-job training to recent graduates of post-secondary institutions, those who have taught in non-public school contexts, and individuals in career transition.
Following from state and federal law, High Tech High interns must possess a BA/BS degree (at minimum), demonstrate subject matter competence (through a defined sequence of coursework or by passing an exam aligned to the student content standards for each discipline), and pass a basic skills assessment. More important, candidates must be hired as a full or half-time teacher in a High Tech High school, which means successfully navigating a rigorous hiring process. Essentially, High Tech High evaluates all prospective teacher candidates in the same way without regard to credential status. After submitting a cover letter and resume, selected candidates are invited to High Tech High for a day-long visit, including interviews with staff and students and the teaching of a sample lesson. For the 2007-08 school year, HTH hired 52 teachers, half of whom already held credentials while the other half entered the teacher intern program.
The HTH Teacher Intern Program begins with three weeks of pre-service professional development and instruction, part of which is specific to new teachers and part of which includes returning staff. In the first four days, before returning staff arrive, all new teachers, including interns, create a syllabus, develop a digital portfolio, learn about the HTH student advisory system, devise an integrated project plan for use early in the year, and present that plan to an audience of peers and HTH students. They then join their returning colleagues in site-based preparations for the school year. Once the year begins, interns attend class once weekly in the evenings and roughly one Saturday each quarter. They complete their accelerated coursework in the first 12 months. During the second year of the program they complete a Teaching Performance Assessment, which California now requires of all teachers earning a preliminary credential. Just as we have High Tech High students complete presentations of learning as their gateway from one grade level to the next, HTH Teacher Interns present their learning at the end of their program. In these presentations, they describe their journey to teaching and to High Tech High, share a video clip of themselves teaching and reflect on it, and describe their plans for ongoing development as a professional educator. This presentation takes place before a panel that includes a school director, an experienced teacher, a student, and a community partner (for example, a faculty member from a local university or district intern program).
To date, High Tech High has graduated six interns from the program, a number that will increase dramatically by the end of the 2008-09 school year. While the number may seem small, it is important to note that in 2004-05 (most recent data available), UC San Diego issued 34 single subject credentials and the San Diego Unified District Intern program issued 13.2 High Tech High is poised to issue roughly 30 credentials in the next two years, of which nearly 60% will be in the areas of math and/or science.
Alternative Routes to Teaching have attracted both evangelical support and scathing critique. Proponents of alternate routes see them as a way to expand the pool of prospective teachers, particularly qualified candidates who might not otherwise choose the teaching profession. Further, proponents view alternate route programs as a way of breaking the perceived monopoly held by schools of education in the area of teacher preparation (Walsh & Jacobs, 2007), a view underscored by recent reports characterizing traditional teacher education as irrelevant and ineffectual (Levine, 2006). Those who argue against alternative routes point to concerns over inadequate pre-service preparation, lower standards for certification as compared to traditionally-prepared teachers and potential negative impact on student achievement.3
In a study of program and participant-level data from seven alternative route programs, researchers from SRI International concluded that while program, personal, and contextual elements all influenced outcomes for participants, “the element with the strongest effect on all measured outcomes…was school context” (Humphrey, Wechsler & Hough, 2008, p.1). At High Tech High we find that both teachers new to the profession and teachers who have taught in more traditional contexts face a steep learning curve in our project-based learning environment. Therefore, we have carefully designed the context into which our teachers are placed – a collaborative, reflective culture that emphasizes learning and growth for all of our educators, not just those new to teaching. All HTH teachers arrive at school an hour before the students each day, to meet and plan in a variety of configurations. All core subject area staff teach in teams of two or three teachers that share the same students. Ultimately, whether teachers are new interns or an experienced teachers transitioning into our schools, we know that they will need support from their teaching partners, colleagues, and school directors among others to be successful. That is why we take an inclusive view of teacher development, situating our credentialing program in a broader context of adult learning in our schools.
Brannan, L., & Reichardt, R. (2002). Alternative teacher education: A review of selected literature. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning and Boulder, CO: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
Feistritzer, E. & Haar, C. (2008). Alternate Routes to Teaching. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.
Feistritzer, E. (2008). Building a Quality Teaching Force: Lessons Learned from Alternate Routes. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.
Humphrey, D., Wechsler, M., & Hough, H. (2008). Characteristics of Effective Alterna- tive Teacher Certification Programs. Teachers College Record, 110(1), p. 1-63.
Levine, A. (September 2006). Educating school teachers. Washington, DC: The Educa- tion Schools Project. Accessed from:
McKibbin, M. (2008). Management of Alternate Route Teacher Certification Programs. In Feistritzer, E. (ed.) Building a Quality Teaching Force: Lessons Learned from Alternate Routes (pp. 110-134). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Pren tice Hall.
National Commission on Excellence in Education [NCEE] (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for education reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing
Roach, V. & Cohen, B.A. (2002). Moving past the politics: How alternative certification can promote comprehensive teacher development reforms. Alexandria, VA:
National Association of State Boards of Education.
Walsh, K. & Jacobs, S. (September 2007). Alternative Education Isn’t Alternative. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Accessed from
1 For more information on the credentialing requirements of charter schools visit: http://www.ctc.ca.gov/employers/charter-schools.html
2 For more statistical data on credentialing in California, visit:
3 Mixed in with concerns about the quality of teachers prepared by alternate route programs is the overrepresentation of alternate route participants in high-need or hard-to-staff schools and districts. This is a point echoed in critiques of Teach For America. It is important to note, however, that at its inception, Teach for America was not designed as a route to certification; rather, TFA began as a Peace Corps-like recruitment strategy to attract high-achieving undergraduates into hard-to-staff schools for a two-year commitment. Many alternative certification programs began from the same impulse, to attract high quality candidates to these areas and/or to provide training on the job to teachers filling slots that desperately need to be filled. Newer initiatives such as The New Teacher Project and its Teaching Fellows programs respond to critiques of TFA by linking candidates with certification programs and working to raise teacher quality and retention in the profession.