Alternative teacher certification: A research note

More than 20 years ago when I worked in the research branch of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, a higher-up came into my office one day and informed me that I would be flying to North Carolina, 10 days hence, to represent the department on a call-in show about alternative teacher certification on The Learning Channel.

“But I don’t know very much about alternative teacher certification,” I said.

“You’ve got 10 days to learn,” I was told.

I studied pretty much perpetually over the next week-plus, and while I surely didn’t emerge expert on the topic, I’m pleased to report that I didn’t make any dreadfully embarrassing mistakes and/or provoke any congressional inquiries.

I’m still not expert on alternative routes to teaching, but I’ve stayed engaged enough to cite some key research that’s applicable to a bill on the subject working its way, albeit haltingly, through the Minnesota Legislature.  Supporters (to their great credit) include DFL House members Mindy Greiling of Roseville and Carlos Mariani of St. Paul, and Republican Senator Gen Olson of Minnetrista.

Opponents (unsurprisingly) include Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teacher union.  “Very clearly,” he was quoted in as saying, “when we are expecting more from students, why would we expect less from the teachers who are going to be teaching them?”  We’ll return to his stance at the end.

If I were to make one overarching and introductory point, it would be this:

Minnesota has not been a leader in this area.  But presuming that any expansion of alternative certification programs draws wisely on the successes of other states, policy-makers and parents have nothing whatsoever to worry about when it comes to educational quality.  Wholly the opposite is the case.

More specifically, as long as they’re soundly conceived and operated, programs aimed at making it feasible for non-education majors and mid-career professionals to become teachers work exceedingly well.  Kids profit because of them.

What follows are excerpts from a handful of studies, or reports of them, which highlight a number of pivotal facts.  By definition, such blurbs are a hundred miles short of exhaustive – but they’re illustratively on target.  Let’s start with a passage about teacher credentialing in general from a brand new and important book, Liberating Learning, by political scientist Terry M. Moe of Stanford and political scientist John E. Chubb of the Hoover Institution (and formerly of Stanford).

The effectiveness of the teacher is the number one influence on achievement – up to half a standard deviation in scientific terms, or enough to take a low achieving student from failure to success in just a few years if taught by an effective teacher.  We also know that effective teachers are not easily identified by their credentials, education, or experience (beyond the first few years of teaching).  With the exception of verbal aptitude and subject matter of competence, most of what makes a teachers successful is acquired on the job and can only be observed there.

Jay Greene, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas, concluded similarly (in 2005) in Education Myths.

[N]ot all forms of professional certification actually are reliable indicators that those who possess them will perform substantially better in their chosen fields.  Teacher certification is one of the most clear-cut cases we have of a mismatch between the process required to obtain a professional credential and actual job performance.  While the evidence does clearly establish that teacher quality makes a big difference in students’ academic achievement, it also indicates that there is not much relationship between teacher quality and teacher credentialing.  The presence or absence of a teaching certificate on a teacher’s resume does not make a noticeable difference in the classroom.  Even an advanced degree in education from a graduate school does not establish that a teacher will perform better when it comes to student achievement.

Economist Eric Hanushek of Stanford has perhaps done more seminal work in this area than any other scholar.  Here are a few sentences from his 2003 paper, “The Failure of Input-Based Schooling Policies.”  It ran in The Economic Journal, published by the Royal Economic Society in Great Britain.

The idea that has been picked up by US policymakers at all levels is to increase the requirements to become a teacher.  The notion is simple: if we can insist on better prepared and more able teachers, teacher quality will necessarily rise, and student performance will respond.  This argument – at least as implemented – proves as incorrect as it is simple. . . . Teacher certification requirements are generally advertised as making sure that there is some minimum floor on quality, but if the requirements end up keeping out high quality teachers who do not want to take the specific courses required, they instead act more like a ceiling on quality.

Here are two last snippets of studies, both dealing directly with alternative teacher certification programs.

Teach for America is a terrific program which, for more than 20 years, has made it possible for non-education graduates from some of the country’s most distinguished colleges and universities to teach in low-income urban and rural schools.  In March, Zeyu Xu, Jane Hannaway, and Colin Taylor, under the partial aegis of the Washington-based Urban Institute, released a revised and more methodologically sophisticated version of their 2007 paper, “Making a Difference? The Effects of Teach for America in High School.”  This, in part, is how the Washington-based Fordham Foundation summarized it:

As before, the authors find that TFA teachers are more effective than traditional teachers, even those with more experience.  In fact the ‘TFA effect’ on student achievement is 2-3 times greater than that of 3-5 years of teaching experience . . . . These positive results held across multiple subjects, but were especially strong in math and science.

The final study to be cited was released by the Obama administration in February, via a bureaucratic descendent of my old office in the Department of Education.  Titled, “An Evaluation of Teachers Trained Through Different Routes to Certification,” and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research (a respected consulting firm), its findings and conclusions are numerous, including those in the paragraph below.  They may not be as scintillating as the Teach for America results, but they’re reassuring nonetheless.  (“TC teachers” refer those who have come to the profession through traditional routes; “AC teachers” refer to men and women who have done so through alternative routes.)

There was no statistically significant difference in performance between students of AC teachers and those of TC teachers.  Average reading and math achievement were not statistically significant.  Furthermore, students of AC teachers scored higher than students of the TC counterparts in nearly as many cases as they scored lower . . . . [T]he route to certification selected by a prospective teacher is unlikely to provide information, on average, about the expected quality of that teacher in terms of student achievement.

Based on studies such as these and many more, it’s fair to say that automatic opposition to alternative teacher certification – such as Education Minnesota’s – is grounded more in self-interest than empirical evidence.

— Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. 


Eric A. Hanushek, “The Failure of Input-Based Schooling Policies,” The Economic Journal, Vol. 113, Iss. 485 (February 2003): F64-F98, available at

Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, An Evalutation of Teachers Trained Through Different Routes to Certification (February 2009), available at

Jay P. Greene, Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools and Why it Isn’t So (Rowman & Littlefield 2005).

Thomas J. Kane, Jonah E. Rockoff, and Douglas O. Staiger, “What Does Certification Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness? Evidence from New York City,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 12155 (April 2006)>.

Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education (Jossey-Bass 2009).

Amber Winkler, “Short Reviews: Making a Difference?,” The Education Gadfly, Vol. 9, No. 13 (April 16, 2009), available at

Zeyu Xu, Jane Hannaway, and Colin Taylor, “Making a Difference? The Effects of Teach for America in High School,” National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research Working Paper 17 (April 2007, Revised March 2009).

For a counter view, see:

Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah J. Holtzman, Su Jin Gatlin, and Julian Vasquez Heilig, “Does Teacher Preparation Matter? Evidence about Teacher Certification, Teach for America, and Teacher Effectiveness,” Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 13, No. 42 (October 2005), available at

Linda Darling-Hammond, “Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence,” Education Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 8, No. 1 (January 2000), available at

Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted.