In the traditional path to the classroom, an aspiring teacher enrolls in a teacher-preparation program run by a college or university and earns their bachelor’s or master’s degree in education. At some point during the program, the candidate spends some time student-teaching to get real-world experience. Upon graduation, the individual takes an exam to demonstrate their readiness to teach.
A growing number of aspiring teachers, however, are enrolling in alternative certification programs that are run by school districts, nonprofit organizations, and other entities. (Teach For America is one notable example.) These programs tend to be faster and cheaper than traditional programs, and often allow candidates to teach while completing the requirements for certification. These programs are geared toward people who already have their bachelor’s degrees and may be switching careers later in life. They also tend to prepare more teachers of color than traditional programs.
Teacher residencies are another type of alternative certification program gaining ground. In addition to taking coursework, teacher-candidates are assigned to a mentor teacher and spend a full school year co-teaching and gradually taking on more responsibilities under supervision. The candidates, who receive a stipend for living expenses during their training year, typically commit to teaching in the school district for a few more years as the teacher-of-record.
Despite these varied paths into the classroom, total enrollment in all types of teacher-preparation programs dropped by a third from 2010 to 2018, according to research from the Center for American Progress. Deans of colleges of education have said the main reason for the decline in enrollment is the perception of teaching as an undesirable career, likely based on teachers’ complaints about a lack of professional autonomy and low wages.
Making Sure Teachers Are Well-Equipped for the Classroom
There have been many policy debates over the years about how to make sure teachers are effective from day one. For instance, some in the field favor a high bar for entry into teacher-preparation programs.
Fifteen states require candidates to pass a basic skills test that measures reading, writing and math skills for admission into teacher-preparation programs, according to the National Council of Teacher Quality — down from 25 states in 2015.
After aspiring teachers have finished their preparation program, they must apply for licensure. Requirements vary by state, but more than 40 states use Praxis standardized exams, which test candidates on their skills in reading, writing and math, along with specific subjects that they might teach. The performance-based assessment edTPA is also used in about 40 states. For that assessment, candidates build a portfolio — which includes video clips and lesson plans — during their student-teaching experience.
Licensing exams have been criticized for acting as a barrier for teachers of color. Research has found that candidates of color are significantly more likely to fail the Praxis exams than white candidates. Also, students must pay to take — and retake — the tests. Research has been mixed on whether licensing tests predict the future effectiveness of a teacher.
Updated June 2021.