Ever since the movement gained traction in the 1980s, alternative teacher certification has been a hot topic of discussion in education circles.
Many critics of "traditional" teacher education who have long questioned the design of such programs -- saying they create unnecessary barriers for talented but busy professionals who want to get into the classroom right away -- have supported the idea of programs that streamline the training process for mostly liberal arts graduates and mid-career professionals.
As the thinking goes: Students can get subject-matter training without having to graduate from a college of education. Schools or school districts, looking to fill particular needs, are best suited to establish their own certificate programs. States, concerned about teacher shortages, are able to authorize the programs.
Education school officials, of course, defend the value of their programs. Still, nontraditional routes to teacher certification have expanded rapidly over the past 10 years, with about half of the programs now administered by colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Alternative Certification .
A new report  from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation , which supports national research on K-12 education issues and is critical of the traditional teacher education structure, asks the question: How well do typical alternative certification programs reflect the original vision of the reformers who launched the movement?
The answer, it finds, is not very well.
"The education school establishment has managed to undermine and trip the reformers," Chester E. Finn, Jr., the foundation's president, said in a statement. "When it came to alternative certification, the ed schools apparently decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Now alternative certification itself has been co-opted and compromised. The empire has struck back."
“Alternative Certification Isn’t Alternative,” a report released jointly by Fordham and the National Council on Teaching Quality (of which Finn serves on the board of directors), argues that many of today's programs have low academic standards, burdensome course requirements and minimal mentoring -- all signs that they have strayed from the original mission of alternative certification. The report focuses most of its criticism on the colleges that administer the programs, as opposed to the other entities.
But Emily Feistritzer, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Alternative Certification, a nonpartisan research organization that each year publishes a report on such programs, called the Fordham report "grossly inaccurate," saying that alternate route programs have remained effective.
Both groups agree that that movement has accelerated in recent years. The Fordham report says alternative certificate graduates account for nearly one in five new teachers nationwide. NCAC's data show that 60,000 people received certificates to teach through alternate routes in 2005-6, up from 50,000 the year before and 39,000 in 2003-4. One-third of current state alternative routes to teacher certification have been created since 2000, and more than half of them have been established in the last 15 years, it asserts.
There is some disagreement on the programs' reach. Fordham notes that 47 states have alternative certification programs, while Feistritzer says every state has at least one alternate route to teacher certification. She said state certification routes are being implemented in approximately 485 program sites.
Authors of the Fordham report looked at 49 alternative certification programs in 11 states. The sample included 34 programs run by colleges or universities, 10 programs run by school districts and 5 programs run by private entities.
One of the report's main critiques is low selectivity. Two-thirds of programs surveyed accept half or more of their applicants, and one-quarter accept nearly all who apply. Of the programs with acceptance rates over 90 percent, 12 of 13 were run by higher education institutions, the authors note. Less than half of all programs require a college grade point average of 2.75 or above. That's problematic, they say, because alternative certification programs were designed to have high entry standards.
But Feistritzer said she takes exception to the idea that the programs aren't selective. Many screen potential teachers by giving them subject-based knowledge tests. And nearly half of students surveyed by her group for a recent report say they wouldn't have gone into teaching if not for the alternate route.
"It’s a market-driven phenomenon that works," she said. "If there’s one out there that doesn’t work, it doesn’t last. If schools don't get candidates that meet their requirements, the programs die."
The Fordham report also faults those administering the programs with losing sight of the original intent to eliminate coursework not deemed essential to teach a particular subject -- education theory courses, for instance, say the authors.
Most alternate route programs have become mirror images of traditional programs, and others resemble what some call emergency routes to certification, according to the report. Roughly one third of the programs require new teachers to complete the equivalent of a master’s degree (30 hours) with another third requiring nearly as much coursework, it says. That burdens students who are first entering the classroom. What's different most often is the structure -- whereas traditional programs are often designed for students to earn their certificates before teaching, the new model has them in the classroom while they are taking classes.
Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Foundation, said the ideal situation is a teacher taking coursework the summer before beginning, and then taking no more than one class per semester for no more than two years.
"What we worry about is requiring new teachers to take a few classes at night for years and discouraging people to come into the classroom in the first place," he said.
Feistritzer said her data doesn't show that students feel overly burdened by course requirements. What's most important, students say, is that they get teaching experience right away.
The Fordham report also criticizes the alternative programs for lack of mentoring of new teachers: Only one third of programs report providing a least once-a-week mentoring during a first-time teacher's first semester.
“It's not meant to be a sink or swim model," Petrilli said. "Get them in quickly and give them on-the-job support while they are there.”
The report notes that while there's a great variance in cost, many programs "appear more consistent with those associated with traditional preparation programs than with a streamlined alternative."
Petrilli said it's in a college's best financial interest to keep students in the classroom. But Feistritzer says 38 percent of alternate route programs don't require any courses for which students pay tuition to a college or university. (About 30 percent of those surveyed were required to complete 31 or more hours at an institution.)
Another factor is the relationship between a program and its local school district. Nearly 6 in 10 leaders surveyed said their programs are designed to prepare teachers to teach anywhere in the state. Fewer programs had agreements with specific school districts, and only several indicated having an agreement with a single school district. Petrilli said coordination between states and school districts is often disjointed.
The Fordham report also says that even those programs not run by education schools "appear mediocre." Petrilli emphasized that the group isn't asking colleges to relinquish control of the programs, but rather for states to ensure their quality.
The report recommends that for the programs to provide a genuine alternative to traditional teacher preparation, state legislatures and departments of education should limit coursework required of new teachers and restrict content to areas immediately relevant to new teachers. It also wants students to be able to test out of requirements.