Getting best results from new teachers

December 22, 2005|By MICHAEL S. ROSENBERG

The U.S. Department of Agriculture expressed concern at one time that students receiving free and reduced-price lunches were not getting enough fruits and vegetables in their meals. Rather than increasing the serving sizes of these foods, it was suggested that the ketchup in the lunches be counted as a vegetable.

Not surprisingly, the public was shocked and outraged that a government agency charged with maintaining children's health and nutrition would attempt to solve a serious problem by redefining ketchup as a vegetable.

Simple solutions to complex problems when it comes to students' needs may surface in Teach for America and various locally developed resident teacher programs, which get personnel into classrooms quickly and provide access to a teaching credential that circumvents conventional university preparation. These "alternative route to certification" (ARC) programs are viewed by some as a means of removing obstacles to getting good people into classrooms.

But many questions remain about ARC programs. How much can we abbreviate the initial training of highly qualified teachers? Are those who complete such alternatives as effective as graduates of traditional teacher training programs? Do ARC teachers stay in their positions? Are ARC programs good investments?

Unfortunately, we do not know enough to say. The range and variability of ARC programs coupled with a shortage of research leave a rather murky landscape, replete with potential promises, threats and challenges.

But research conducted by the Center of Personnel Studies in Special Education, a partnership between the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Florida, has provided initial data on ARC programs in special education, an area that has a lengthy history of extreme teacher shortages. Consideration should be given to the following:

Successful ARC programs have meaningful university and school district collaboration, are sufficiently lengthy to include a variety of learning activities and make use of frequent university and school building-based supervision of teacher candidates.

Cost and retention are important considerations in evaluating the effectiveness of teacher preparation. Survival rates of general and special education beginning teachers vary dramatically with initial preparation.

Youngsters with special education needs require well-trained teachers who, in addition to knowing content, are competent in differentiating instruction, managing behavior, consulting with teachers and collaborating with families.

Most ARC special education programs have candidates enter teaching after three months or less of training. The good news is that many of these novice special educators are being taught and supported through programs of substantial length and rigor. But there are still too many programs that are a fast track to the classroom with limited program support and mentorship.

With more than 200 ARC special education programs, they are a major part of our national educational landscape. We recognize a pressing need to maximize the supply of new teachers and the necessity of having alternative ways of getting good people.

But the temptation to cut corners in teacher preparation is great, and we must be careful that essential aspects of training and support are provided for all teachers. Poor teacher preparation is not benign, and reductions in training for teachers in ARC programs can result in woeful outcomes for our students.

Research has shown that exposure to poor, underperforming teachers is cumulative and life-altering. Many students, particularly those considered "at risk" who are exposed repeatedly to ill-prepared teachers, are unable to overcome the effects of poor instruction, even in later years when taught by more-effective teachers.

ARC programs can produce competent teachers, but not all programs are alike. Programs of inadequate length, support and quality are unable to develop teachers who can meet the wide range of academic and behavioral needs typical of students with disabilities.

An open marketplace can foster innovation in solving the problem of special education teacher shortages and shortcomings. But it is essential that the state, local school systems, teacher educators and parents remain vigilant of those who would capitalize on the problem by developing and participating in hasty, resource-poor and low-quality ARC programs.

Michael S. Rosenberg is a professor in the department of special education at the Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail address is

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