By Kevin Hartnett
When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law in 2001, it mandated that all classrooms be staffed by a "highly qualified" teacher, re-igniting the debate around how teachers are trained and recruited.
At the center of the debate are Alternative Certification (AC) programs. These programs fast-track teacher candidates with prior "real-world" experience into classrooms by requiring them to take fewer courses than are required in Traditional Certification (TC) programs (like an undergraduate degree in education). Proponents of AC programs argue that traditional training courses add little to a teacher's ability, while critics charge that AC programs yield fundamentally unprepared educators. In 2008 AC teachers accounted for one-third of all new teaching hires. While several academic studies have attempted to assess the efficacy of AC programs over TC programs, few have been able to produce clear evidence one way or the other.
A new report from the Department of Education (ED) sheds light on the AC debate. The study compared 87 TC teachers and 87 AC teachers in 63 different schools, across seven states, over a two-year period. AC and TC teachers within the same school were paired and each randomly assigned a class of students. After controlling for background characteristics like teaching experience and prior academic achievement, the study found that type of teacher preparation had no significant effect on student achievement.
It's a benign conclusion until you consider the wide variation in resources expended in AC versus TC programs. The average TC teacher in the study had completed 642 hours of coursework, more than double that of their AC counterparts. Yet student outcomes for both types of teachers, as measured by the California Achievement Test, were indistinguishable.
The study also directly assessed teaching skills through in-class observations using the Vermont Classroom Observation Tool. The story was the same. The study concluded that "the instruction received by students of AC and TC teachers did not differ."
In recent years, the Department of Education has taken a leading role in supporting AC programs through Teacher Quality Enhancement (TQE) Grants. The grants are awarded on a competitive basis and fall into three categories: state grants to reform certification requirements and fund AC programs, partnership grants to higher education institutions to reform TC programs, and recruitment grants that provide scholarships to individuals seeking to enroll in TC programs.
While initially funded at almost $100 million in 2000, TQE grants received $33 million in 2008. Even more significant cuts were made to the grants that go specifically to fund AC programs. But it looks like the tide is changing for TQE funding. The recently passed fiscal year 2009 budget allocates $50 million to TQE grants. Further, the stimulus bill provides an additional $100 million over the next two years to the program, in recognition of the role increased teacher quality will have to play in our economic recovery.
ED also funds several AC programs specifically targeted at mid-career professionals considering a career change. Since 2000 ED has committed $14 million annually to the Troops to Teachers program and $44 million to the Transition to Teaching initiative. The latter encourages people to transition mid-career to teaching by focusing on "experience, expertise, and academic qualifications" rather than traditional teacher training courses. With the job market in flux, the current economic crisis presents a unique opportunity to renovate the national teaching corps by recruiting from an expanded pool of potential teachers.
So if vocational coursework does not make the teacher, what inputs should federal dollars be supporting? The ED study admits that it does not know. While good teachers may be hard to quantify, they have an important effect on educational outcomes. Given that there appears to be no difference in the impact of AC versus TC teachers, it makes sense to expand AC programs like the TQE grants and Troops to Teachers. These fast-track programs may be the quickest, most direct way to ensure that more of America's best potential teachers end up where they are needed most.
Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. He writes frequently about education policy and was a Teach for America Corps member in New York City from 2003 to 2005. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New America Foundation.
 It is important to note, however, that the Department of Education is not the only source of funding for AC programs. Teach for America has been an AmeriCorps grantee since 1994 and currently receives about $5.5 million in funding through the national and state competitive grant programs.