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Teacher Preparation, Explained: Alternative Routes, Enrollment Trends, and More

Few dispute that teachers should be ready for the classroom on day one of their careers. But how they’re prepared for the job varies widely.

Formal teacher preparation in the United States dates back to the 1800s, when education reformers like Horace Mann established normal schools to systematically train teachers and improve the quality of the profession. Many of those normal schools morphed into the regional colleges and universities that still produce the bulk of teachers today.

But as policymakers and district leaders try to recruit more potential teachers to fill staff vacancies, the different types of pathways into the classroom have expanded. In the early 1980s, just a handful of states reported certifying teachers in ways other than through a traditional teacher education program at a college or university. Now, it’s increasingly common for teachers to enter the classroom through a variety of alternative routes.

“There’s a lot of experimentation” among teacher-prep programs, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “How to build a good teacher is the goal.”

But programs across the United States vary dramatically in quality, as well as in depth and breadth, he said.

Here’s an overview of the field: how it works, the differences between program types, enrollment and completion trends, and more.

What is traditional teacher preparation?

In the traditional path to the classroom, an aspiring teacher enrolls in an undergraduate teacher-preparation program run by a college or university and earns a bachelor’s degree in education. (Many traditional programs offer a master’s degree in education as well.)

Programs’ admissions standards vary. For instance, the National Council on Teacher Quality estimates that a quarter of elementary teacher-preparation programs require applicants to have a 3.0 grade point average, while nearly two-thirds have a lower GPA requirement and 12 percent do not consider applicants’ academic records at all.

Once enrolled, the candidate takes courses in pedagogy, or teaching methods, and content knowledge, and at some point, has structured field experience. That may include a certain number of hours observing classrooms, as well as student-teaching, which is usually required for at least a full semester but sometimes last for a full year.

During student-teaching, the candidate teaches in and helps manage the classroom of an experienced mentor or “cooperating” teacher. It’s a full-time experience, and it’s typically unpaid, which can create a real financial burden for some candidates. Some states, such as Maryland, have passed legislation to provide a stipend for student-teachers, in an attempt to make teacher preparation more attractive.

The requirements for student teaching, as well as the specific courses teachers must complete, are shaped by states, as well as by accreditors.

Upon graduation, candidates must pass licensure tests before entering the classroom.

What is alternative preparation?

Alternative preparation programs are typically cheaper and faster pathways into the classroom than traditional programs based at colleges and universities. Candidates often serve as the teacher of record—meaning they’re responsible for their own classroom—while they’re completing their training and before they earn a teaching license.

Among the most widely known alternative programs is Teach For America, begun in 1990, which recruits, trains, and places recent college grads and professionals in schools nationwide, typically in hard-to-staff schools in cities and rural communities. But colleges and universities, nonprofits, school districts, and for-profit companies all run alternative programs.

In the 2018-19 school year, the most recent federal data available, there were 224 alternative providers not based at colleges or universities, and 495 higher education providers running alternative programs. (In contrast, there were 1,453 traditional providers.)

Alternative programs vary significantly in type. Some offer comprehensive training that doesn’t look much different from traditional programs, while others have minimal standards and requirements.

Alternative programs bring in significantly more teachers of color than traditional programs. But research shows that teachers who enter the profession through those programs tend to leave it at higher rates.

Studies trying to compare alternative teacher prep to traditional programs have not definitively concluded one is better than the other in terms of effectiveness.

There are some variations within alternative routes, though: One review found that teachers from online-only prep programs in Texas negatively impacted their students’ achievement.

What is a registered teacher apprenticeship program?

Apprenticeship programs are a growing trend in alternative teacher preparation. They allow workers to train for a new career at little to no cost while earning a paycheck. States can register such a program with the U.S. Department of Labor to open up new streams of federal funding that can pay for the on-the-job training, wages, and other supportive services, such as transportation, textbooks, or child care.

In January 2022, Tennessee became the first state to be approved by the Department of Labor to establish a registered teacher apprenticeship program. Since then, 29 other states have developed such programs, which are known as a “grow-your-own” pathway.

Many programs target paraprofessionals, who might have years of education experience but haven’t been able to afford to go back to school to earn their degree and teaching license. Other programs are for high school students interested in teaching.

In July 2023, the labor department approved a set of nonbinding guidelines for registered apprenticeship programs. The guidelines say that apprentices should spend at least one school year working alongside an “experienced and accomplished” mentor teacher. Apprentices should be paid at a rate that’s based on a starting teacher salary in the district. By the time they complete the program, they should have a bachelor’s degree and have completed all requirements for all state certification or licensure.

But some states—including Alabama, Colorado, and Idaho—have designed their registered apprenticeship programs so that apprentices will be the teacher of record, which goes against these guidelines. Those state officials say the move is necessary to fill teacher vacancies and that guardrails will be in place, but others argue that such a policy doesn’t set up apprentices for long-term success and risks poor student outcomes.

What do candidates typically learn in a teacher-preparation program?

Candidates learn a mix of theory and practice, and how to connect them. The exact curriculum varies by program and by state requirements.

Another key source of variation: the balance between courses in subject matter and courses in pedagogy, Ingersoll said. Taking a course in math is very different than taking a course in how to teach math, but some programs only require the latter, he added.

That’s especially true among elementary teachers. They’re often trained to be generalists, receiving little specific coursework required on science, technology, engineering, or math.

Many teachers have also pointed out gaps in their preparation programs, including how to teach reading in a way that’s aligned with the research and how to manage student behavior.

“A longstanding complaint [has been] their preparation didn’t really prepare them for the realities of the job,” Ingersoll said.

There have been successive waves of efforts to improve teacher preparation. In the 1980s, interest focused on establishing master’s degree programs that would deepen teachers’ skills. The 2000s saw efforts to improve and extend the hands-on field component of preparation. The federal government tried in the mid-2010s to require states to establish a robust rating system for teacher preparation, but that effort ultimately failed.

Two national voluntary accrediting agencies also purport to improve the quality of teacher prep.

What are the enrollment trends in teacher preparation?

In the first half of the 2010s, the number of people enrolled in all types of teacher-preparation programs declined significantly before leveling out. In more recent years, there’s been an upswing, although the total enrollment is still down by about a third from a decade ago.

Alternative certification programs that aren’t based at a college or university bucked the trend, however—they were the only type of programs to see an increase in enrollment since 2010.

The number of people completing teacher-prep programs has also declined across all sector types over the past decade. Those rates are ticking up again, although traditional programs are still graduating far fewer people than they were in the 2010-11 school year.

Many schools are struggling to find enough teachers to staff classrooms, especially in key subject areas and locations. But Ingersoll said the problem isn’t solely related to preparation.

“The supply of teachers has been sufficient to cover student enrollment and teacher retirement,” he said. “It hasn’t been sufficient to cover pre-retirement quitting. … It wasn’t so much that we were producing too few, it’s that we’re losing too many.”

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