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Teachers' Preparation Routes And Policy Views

In a previous post, I lamented the scarcity of survey data measuring what teachers think of different education policy reforms. A couple of weeks ago, the National Center for Education Information (NCEI) released the results of their teacher survey (conducted every five years), which provides a useful snapshot of teachers’ opinions toward different policies (albeit not at the level of detail that one might wish).

There are too many interesting results to review in one post, and I encourage you to take a look at the full set yourself. There was, however, one thing about the survey tabulations that I found particularly striking, and that was the high degree to which policy opinions differed between traditionally-certified teachers and those who entered teaching through alternative certification (alt-cert).

In the figure below, I reproduce data from the NCEI report’s battery of questions about whether teachers think different policies would “improve education." Respondents are divided by preparation route – traditional and alternative.

There is relatively little difference between the agreement rates of traditional and alternative teachers when it comes to the top three most favored policies – removing incompetent teachers regardless of seniority, making high school graduation requirements more strict, and recruiting teachers from the top third of college graduates. For all other policies, however, there are noteworthy differences between these two groups.

For example, only 41 percent of traditional teachers support expanding the charter school sector, compared with almost two-thirds of alt-cert teachers. Similarly, only 31 percent of traditional teachers think that getting rid of tenure would improve education, compared with over half of their alternatively-certified colleagues. And, while overall support among both groups is relatively low, over twice as many (as a proportion) alt-cert teachers favor both recruiting administrators from other professions as well as letting for-profit companies manage schools. Finally, there is even what appears to be a statistically significant difference between the two groups in whether they think “evaluating a teacher’s effectiveness primarily on student achievement” will improve student achievement – 10 percent of traditionally-certified teachers agree, compared with 17 percent of those who took alternative routes to certification.

There is, however, one important thing to keep in mind when interpreting these results: These two groups of teachers are not only different in their certification route, but in other ways as well. Most notably, alternatively certified teachers tend to be less experienced (see page 22 of the report), and the NCEI data show that less experienced teachers support some of the reforms in the table above at a higher rate than their more experienced counterparts (see page 47 of the report).

In most cases, however, the differences by experience (which might also be cohort effects) do not appear large enough, at least not by themselves, to explain the sizeable attitudinal discrepancies by certification route (I can't test this without access to the individual-level dataset). So, while there may be other factors that partially explain the divergence in opinion between traditionally- and alternatively-certified teachers, the available data suggest that the two groups hold distinctly different views.

This begs the obvious question: Why?

There are two possible explanations. The first is that the people who self-select into these programs (e.g., Teach for America) already hold significantly different views on school reform – i.e., they are more likely than other aspiring teachers to support policies such as charter school expansion and test-based teacher evaluations. The second possibility is that there is something about going through the alternative certification process that shapes views differently from the process of traditional certification.

Needless to say, these are not mutually exclusive possibilities. It seems plausible that there is both selection and some unique effect of the process in both routes. Moreover, it is likely that there is a great deal of variation in opinions within the two groups. For example, certain traditional education schools may promote views among their students that are different from those in other schools, and the same goes for different alternative certification programs.

In general, though, the purpose of teacher training programs, whether traditional or alternative, is to prepare people for the classroom. If there is indeed a significant, systematic difference in policy views between traditional and alternative certification teachers, it means that the type of preparation route has, intentionally or otherwise, assumed a political significance, perhaps even a political role. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

- Matt Di Carlo

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