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
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
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
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
● Reach Jim Kiser at 573-4597 or e-mail
column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.