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House Subcommittee Examines Alternative Certification

There's been a lot of chatter in Washington lately on whether Congress will decide to extend language allowing teachers in alternative-certification programs to be considered "highly qualified" for an additional two years.

The question of how—and whether—the federal government should encourage alternative-certification programs is likely to be an area of debate whenever Congress actually gets around to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. They're not there yet, not even close, and won't be for awhile.

So, for now, issues like how to interpret the No Child Left Behind law's "highly qualified" provision(which includes having a bachelor's degree in the subject they teach and state certification) are being dealt with in spending bills and regulation. Way more background on the issue here.

In fact, last week, two different coalitions sent letters up to Capitol Hill expressing totally different sentiments on whether Congress should continue to allow teachers in alternative certification to be considered "highly qualified."

And today, a House subcommittee overseeing K-12 education held a hearing on the topic. They didn't settle the issue for good, but there was generally a lot of supportive chatter when it comes to alternative-certification programs. If you've been paying attention to teacher quality debates at all, most of what was said won't come as a big surprise.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the chairman of the panel, reminded folks that Republicans sought to get rid of the highly qualified teacher language when it passed legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in January. (So far, that legislation has gone nowhere.) And he added:

"Alternative-certification routes help address teacher shortages in particular geographic areas and subject matter, as well as strengthen the overall quality of the teaching profession. While Republicans know there is no one-size-fits-all federal solution to help put more effective teachers in the classroom, supporting the availability and acceptance of alternative-certification programs is one way the public and private sectors can join together to ensure more students have access to a quality education from an extraordinary educator.

The witnesses generally backed him up on that.

For instance, Jennifer Mulhern, a vice president at TNTP, a national nonprofit that has placed 49,000 alternatively certified teachers, said that the programs provide a good solution to districts' teacher shortage woes.

"Alternate-route programs like ours also provide instrumental support to high-need districts in addressing their most critical staffing needs and do so at scale. Twenty to 30 percent of all new teachers hired annually are trained by alternate-route programs, bringing effective teachers into the classroom that would have otherwise been unable to join the profession."

Later on in the hearing, Seth Andrew, a founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools in New York City, said his students spoke glowingly about a chemistry teacher at the school who doesn't have traditional credentials, but has gotten amazing results on state subject tests (called the "Regents" in New York state.) But alternative certifications should be able to demonstrate that the teachers they are producing are of high quality, said Cindy Brown, the vice-president for education policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, in written testimony.

The programs hold a lot of promise, she said, but "to realize the benefits of these programs, we need to institute policies that ensure the programs are high-quality, innovative, and effective. To be sure, the same needs are true for traditional teacher preparation." She recommended that Congress focus on teacher effectiveness—how much progress teachers are able to make with their students—and not get mired in debates on alternative certification. (In fact, the Obama administration has moved to offer incentives to states to track the performance of graduates of teacher prep programs.)

But some members of the committee sounded a note of skepticism. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., talked about her own experiences teaching adults. She had deep subject matter knowledge, she said, but she still struggled with basic pedagogy. For instance, her students told her that some of her assessment questions were confusing. That shows that you need some sort of background and training to teach, beyond just subject mastery, Woolsey said.

And the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education had this to say about alternative certification, in response to the hearing:

AACTE and the profession support the notion that there are multiple pathways to becoming a teacher. In fact, more than half of all alternative routes to teaching are housed in higher education. With that said, students—especially those in low-income communities—should not be asked to wait while new teachers get up to speed. All pathways to the profession should be held to the same rigorous standards. All pathways should also be held accountable for ensuring their graduates have the knowledge and skills required to teach all students before becoming a teacher-of-record.

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