Horne's 'Alternative Pathways' teacher plan deserves a shot
Arizona Daily Star
Jim Kiser
The best teaching occurs when you put a good teacher in the classroom.
That sounds sufficiently easy, as well as obvious. But few would contend it happens often enough.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is convinced one of the biggest problems, at least in high schools, is teachers with inadequate content knowledge.
Horne just two weeks ago won approval from the state Board of Education to pilot test a new program to help bring in unusually talented and experienced teacher candidates. Horne would do this by making it much easier for experienced professionals in the work force to become high school teachers.
In Horne's two-year pilot of the "Alternative Pathways" program, up to 10 districts will train as many as 20 new teachers each for two years, for a prospective total of 400 new high school teachers.
The idea is not new. Most states now have some sort of fast-track teacher certification program for experienced workers. But whether these programs are just a trend, or whether they really work, is not clear.
Horne's approach has its critics. Criticisms include contentions that it will put inadequately prepared teachers in the classrooms, that teachers who come through alternative programs often don't stay in the field, and that it will drive down teachers' salaries by increasing the supply of teachers.
The first two criticisms are not supported by research; the third implies Arizona teachers prefer a teacher shortage - a deplorable self-centered attitude, if true.
To be admitted to Horne's program, the prospective teachers are required to have at least a bachelor's degree and must pass the content knowledge portions of the Arizona Educator Proficiency Assessment. It is assumed candidates mostly will be midcareer professionals, such as engineers who want to teach math or biologists who want to teach biology. But it by no means is restricted to those fields.
Current accelerated-certification programs offered by the state's universities generally require the candidate to take off at least a year of work for full-time studies, something not many people can afford in midcareer.
Horne's program, to the contrary, requires only one summer of an intensive preparation program before the teacher is put into the classroom. Each participating district will partner with a college of education or the county school superintendent to provide that summer program. When school begins, the "teaching intern" will be hired as a teacher, and the school district will provide a mentor to work with him or her throughout the year.
If the intern teacher is successful, he or she will be granted a teaching certificate. And if the pilot program proves effective at creating successful new teachers, it undoubtedly will be made permanent and expanded.
Whether Horne's "Alternative Pathways" will work is debatable. After nearly two centuries of public education in America, there is no conclusive research on what makes a good teacher.
The Education Commission of the States gathered 500 research studies on teacher preparation, chose 92 to concentrate on, and then looked closely at what the studies say about how to educate and train effective teachers. The commission early last year released its report, "Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say?" The report was devastating.
Does excellent content knowledge contribute to good teaching? Maybe, a little bit. The research offers "moderate support," the report said.
Do education courses help? Maybe, if they are in the subject matter area. There's "limited support" for that in the research. But it's not clear that courses in child development or learning theory do any good at all.
What is the best way for teachers to get practical experience in the classroom? The research is "inconclusive."
Do the growing number of "alternative route" programs work? Maybe. "The research provides limited support for the conclusion that there are indeed alternative programs that produce cohorts of teachers who are ultimately as effective as traditionally trained teachers," the report says.
These findings certainly are not an overwhelming endorsement - either for the alternative programs or, significantly, for the traditional education programs.
More than once, however, the education commission's report suggests alternative programs should be considered. Teacher retention appears similar for accelerated and traditional programs. Importantly, alternative programs enlisted a substantially greater percentage of minority teacher candidates than do traditional programs.
Even so, it is not clear how many Arizona school districts will be interested in Horne's pilot.
School districts that easily attract qualified teachers have no need to participate in the pilot. And rural school districts that chronically have trouble attracting teachers may not have a large enough pool of prospective career-changers. That may leave the most likely prospects to be inner-city districts. That's fine; inner-city schools need top-quality teachers. But they also tend to be the most difficult schools for inexperienced teachers to succeed in.
With that said, Horne's approach deserves a try. If you are cynical, you can ask, "Given the research, what's to lose?" And if you are optimistic, you can argue, as I believe, that if the program brings even a handful of highly competent teachers into the field, it will be a success.
Editor's note: Readers should know that editorial page columnist Jim Kiser is married to Shirley Kiser, executive director of the Tucson Education Association. The TEA represents teachers, white-collar and food-service workers in the Tucson Unified School District, the region's largest.
● Reach Jim Kiser at 573-4597 or e-mail jkiser@azstarnet.com. His column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.