With public schools facing a dearth of teachers and traditional teacher-training programs struggling to reverse a long-declining enrollment trend, for-profit companies offering “alternative certification programs” are rising to fill states’ needs.
Enrollment in for-profit alternative teacher-certification programs grew by 48,000 students nationally, or 283 percent, from 2010–11 to 2018–19, according to a 2022 study jointly conducted by the left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). Meanwhile, both traditional degree programs and nonprofit alternative-certification pathways saw a decline in enrollment over the same period.
For-profit companies and their advocates say they are offering students—who are often nontraditional teaching candidates, including adults switching careers—a quick, affordable path to the classroom, while giving their state and district partners an innovative, market-based solution to the shortages wracking their schools.
But some leaders in educator preparation say the for-profit certification model has had negative effects on teacher quality and retention in the states that have adopted it.
According to a 2021 study by the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, teachers who completed university-based teacher-prep programs had a 24 percent higher retention rate than those who went through alternate-route programs.
Alternative teacher-certification programs, unlike colleges of education, don’t need to be accredited to operate; states set their own standards and determine which organizations to approve. With shortages driving some districts to shorten school weeks or call on parents to become long-term substitutes, some education experts worry that state legislators and education boards may be more willing than ever to sacrifice quality for an efficient solution.
“In every subject, at every level, teachers prepared by universities had student learning gains that were one to two months greater per year than the learning gains obtained by the students of alternatively certified teachers,” said Michael Marder, one of the lead researchers on the UT Austin study and the founder of UTeach, a nonprofit educator-preparation program based at UT Austin that focuses on training teachers in STEM. “Teacher shortages are placing enormous pressure on schools to accept things that they haven’t been willing to accept in the past.”
“There’s always been entities that are really more interested in profit than they are quality preparation,” said Chris Koch, president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). “We have to hold the line on that stuff.”
‘When Can You Start?’
Nationwide, “comprehensive” education programs based at colleges and universities still train the bulk of new teachers. In 2018–19, 77 percent of students who completed an educator-preparation program, or EPP, did so through a comprehensive program, according to the CAP/AACTE report. But alternate-route programs have flourished in some states.
Texas, for one, has welcomed alternative teacher preparation since 2002, when it became the first state to allow programs unaffiliated with an institution of higher education to certify educators. The Lone Star State is currently home to over 100 alternate-route programs, which account for 68 percent of the state’s non-higher-education-based EPPs. During the 2021–22 school year, 69 percent of all teachers who entered the field had either completed or were in the process of completing an alternative-certification program.
Littered across the state’s sprawling highway system is a trail of billboards asking drivers two simple questions: “Want to become a teacher? When can you start?”
The advertisements belong to the Houston-based educator-preparation company Teachers of Tomorrow, the largest and most influential of the state’s alternative-certification programs. More than half of the roughly 132,000 teaching candidates enrolled in Texas teacher-prep programs last year were training through Teachers of Tomorrow.
“Teachers of Tomorrow is the ground zero of for-profit alternate-route programs,” said Jacqueline King, a research, policy and advocacy consultant for AACTE and co-author of the report. “They were the first to do it, and they have the biggest chunk of the sector.”
The program is entirely online and asynchronous, meaning students can move through it at their own pace whenever it's convenient; Teachers of Tomorrow CEO Trent Beekman says this makes it ideal for adult learners who need flexibility that university-based programs can’t provide. The program’s price tag varies from state to state but hovers around $5,000 for the courses and certification.
“We try to do everything we can to make the pathway to teaching as frictionless as possible,” Beekman said. “We’re constantly trying to evolve and make it more readily available to people who want it, because at the end of the day, if you want to be a teacher, we need to find every avenue we can to make that happen.”
The company boasts that it has trained tens of thousands of teachers, including three of the past four Texas Association of School Administrators’ teachers of the year. But it has also run into issues with state oversight agencies.
In 2016 a Texas Education Agency (TEA) audit found the company noncompliant with five out of nine state standards for quality in teacher education; the next audit, in 2021, found it to be in violation of seven standards. (This paragraph has been updated to correct TEA's name; it's Texas Education Agency, not Texas Educators Agency.)
TEA initially recommended that Teachers of Tomorrow be stripped of its operating rights in Texas, a move that would have had wide-ranging consequences given the state’s ongoing teacher shortage and the company’s outsize role in certifying its educators. After conversations with the company, in April the organization walked back its recommendation to a yearlong suspension.
Beekman said the audit did not discredit the company’s curriculum or the quality of its teacher preparation, but rather its organizational shortcomings.
A representative for TEA did not agree.
“There were multiple aspects of the program design that did not meet TEA’s bar for compliance or quality,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “There were additional areas that met the minimum standard for Texas Administrative Code and Texas Education Code compliance but did not include high-quality elements largely accepted in the field as basic best practices.”
In July, members of the Texas State Board for Educator Certification voted to put Teachers of Tomorrow on probation until Oct. 21, meaning the company can continue its standard operations but under the supervision of a state-mandated monitor. Teachers of Tomorrow must demonstrate improvement on the standards it fell short on in order to continue operating past the set date.
For years, Teachers of Tomorrow operated unaccredited in Texas. Then, in January 2021, shortly before the TEA audit, the company was accredited by the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation (AAQEP). But even that decision wasn’t without controversy.
AAQEP wasn’t recognized by the national Council for Higher Education until May of 2021, months after it accredited Teachers of Tomorrow.
Koch, the president of CAEP, AAQEP’s chief competition, said AAQEP has made a pattern of picking up organizations that CAEP rejects—including Teachers of Tomorrow, which he said had applied for accreditation through CAEP years ago but withdrew shortly after being presented with the organization’s requirements.
“They saw the standards and said, forget it,” Koch said.
AAQEP president Mark LaCelle-Peterson said the organization stands by its decision to accredit Teachers of Tomorrow. He added that AAQEP is closely monitoring the company’s compliance review during its probation period in Texas.
“Thus far, we have found no cause to revisit the accreditation status,” Peterson wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.
The company has come under new ownership since the 2021 TEA audit. Private equity firm TPG purchased a majority stake from Gauge Capital last year, shortly after the TEA’s findings were released; in June, Beekman was hired as CEO. He says Teachers of Tomorrow has already resolved many of the issues unearthed in the audit, such as a lack of personal mentorship for candidates and unresponsive customer service.
“We’re putting a lot of money, resources and energy into improving the candidate experience when they’re dealing with Teachers of Tomorrow,” Beekman said. “In a way the audit is a huge benefit for us, in that it’s forcing our hand and really helping us be a better company and build better services for the district and the students.”
The TEA representative said its monitor has been watching the company’s efforts to improve since July.
“To date, the organization has made limited progress,” they wrote.
A Texas Export Spreads its Wings
From its incubator in Texas, Teachers of Tomorrow has multiplied and expanded into eight other states since 2016, including Arizona, Florida and Nevada. Koch said companies like Teachers of Tomorrow have pushed for legislation in many states to relax the requirements for teacher-certification programs.
“With the shortages, we’ve definitely seen growing flexibility from states,” Koch said. “They pay lobbyists to tell legislators, ‘We’re going to address your shortage problem’ … if you’ve got money behind you and you can convince even one legislator, then you’re pretty well set up.”
Indiana was one of the most recent states to open its doors to alternative-certification programs. Last year the state Legislature paved the way for teacher-prep companies by passing a law allowing teaching candidates to pursue licensure through self-paced online programs.
Ed DeLaney, an Indiana state representative who opposes opening the door to for-profit teacher-prep programs, said he’s worried introducing for-profit alternate-route certification will worsen the decline of the state’s public educator-preparation programs.
“The purpose of these companies is to take money out of public universities and public education,” he said. “They are masked as an attempt to solve the problem of teacher shortages, but those firms make their living because there are teacher shortages.”
Jennifer Barce, assistant dean for teacher education at Purdue University and the president of the Indiana Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, is of two minds about the new legislation.
“Alternative programs are a really important piece of solving the teacher-shortage puzzle, but we need to make sure there’s some kind of quality assurance there,” she said. “When I go to a new medical provider, I look them up and see if that person is board-certified, and I also usually look up where they went to school, because that matters. Are those candidates who are coming out of alternative programs meeting the same standards as a traditional candidate?”
Barce added that the influx of alternate-route programs has made university programs like Purdue’s re-evaluate their own strategies for recruitment.
“If I can get a job and be paid and get this teacher license just by taking an online course and the test, why should I go into debt by going to a university program? So I think we’ve really tried to think about how we demonstrate and add value,” she said. “It’s also shown that we have to up our game and get a handle on controlling costs for students.”
Beekman said Teachers of Tomorrow has no ambition to displace comprehensive university-based teacher-prep programs, or even other alternate-route pathways. But the company is on a path of growth, he said. Within the next five years, Beekman hopes it will be operating in at least 20 states; last month was the company’s most successful yet in terms of enrollment.
“I think plenty of states are becoming less resistant to [alternate route] because the shortage just keeps getting worse and worse,” Beekman said. “We want to clear the pathway while making sure the quality of our program isn’t diluted at all.”
Marder said he wouldn’t be surprised if for-profit companies like Teachers of Tomorrow spread even farther and faster.
“I don’t want to be on the record as saying that alternative certification is an unalloyed negative. My concern is that it’s starting to knock everybody else out,” he said. “We’re already at a point where, when I listen to [Texas] state officials talk about teacher preparation, they’re no longer thinking about the university context. They’re thinking about universities as boutique producers who might demonstrate good practice. But when we want to get the job done, it’s ‘let’s ask the companies.’
“If the Texas model is successful, more and more states are going to adopt it,” he added. “I would look for it everywhere.”