Alternative Teacher Certification: Does It Work?

Many U.S. school districts have difficulty hiring enough qualified teachers to replace those who retire, transfer to other districts, or leave the teaching profession. Some subjects are more difficult to staff and some schools have higher turnover than others, creating recruitment and hiring bottlenecks.

Organizations such as Teach for America and TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project) have stepped in to provide school districts with teachers through alternative pathways, outside traditional teacher training programs at schools of education.

There is a growing evidence base on the effectiveness of selective alternative certification programs like Teach for America and TNTP. Much of this evidence is based on rigorous randomized control trials comparing teachers from these programs with their more traditional counterparts. For the most part, these studies find that teachers coming from these programs teach no better or worse than their more traditional counterparts, based on student achievement.

But few studies have evaluated alternative certification programs at scale. Do these programs work in large urban school districts when they become part of the districts’ ongoing recruitment and hiring infrastructure? To answer this question, AIR evaluated the implementation and outcomes of TNTP’s Teaching Fellows program. Through its Investing in Innovation program, the U.S. Department of Education funded the evaluation, which included school districts in Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Fort Worth, Nashville, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C.

TNTP’s Teaching Fellows program is an accelerated teacher recruitment and certification program that has operated in cities nationwide and trained more than 35,000 new teachers. Using a distributed organizational structure with district-based staff and partnerships, TNTP recruits its Fellows from a wide range of academic and professional backgrounds. It provides them with a summer pre-service training institute focused on foundational teaching skills.

After securing a teaching position, Fellows receive in-service training throughout their first year of teaching—including seminars and coaching—to support subject matter knowledge, effective instructional strategies, and effective classroom climate. This training year includes opportunities for teachers to practice what they learn in real-life settings, experiences that cause some Fellows to realize that teaching is not for them after all and to leave the program. At the end of this first year of teaching, TNTP screens Fellows with the Assessment of Classroom Effectiveness, a multi-component teacher performance measure that determines whether or not TNTP will recommend them for certification.

Because the entire training and certification process takes approximately one year, teacher candidates can save time and money when they use TNTP to earn their certification, compared to many university-based programs that require a year or more of coursework in addition to student teaching. This can make becoming a teacher a more attractive career option for candidates.

But does it work?

We matched TNTP teachers in their first and second year of teaching with similarly experienced teachers who earned their teaching credentials elsewhere.[1] We compared these teachers’ classroom performance (as rated by their districts) and their students’ achievement on standardized tests.

Using statistical methods to control for remaining differences between TNTP Fellows and their “traditional” counterparts[2], we found no differences in either teacher performance or student achievement across the districts where these data were available to us. We concluded that the Teaching Fellows program can increase the pool of available candidates for difficult-to-staff positions in large urban school districts without leading to reductions in teacher quality and without negative consequences for student learning.

This conclusion may not entirely satisfy TNTP and the proponents of selective alternative certification programs who set their sights higher and want their programs to significantly boost teacher performance and student achievement. Our study suggests this outcome was not realized, at least when TNTP teachers were compared with new teachers from other programs.

But selectively growing the pool of candidates with individuals who might not have considered teaching otherwise allows districts to be more selective and may increase teacher quality all around. School districts with teacher shortages or recruitment challenges should seriously consider alternative teacher certification options, as long as they are selective and effectively support new hires. 

Hans Bos is a senior vice president at AIR and a nationally recognized expert in the conduct of randomized control trials in education and other areas of social policy research.

Dean Gerdeman is a senior director at AIR, where he leads projects designed to build rigorous and applicable evidence for addressing problems in education.

[1]Such matching methods are less rigorous than a randomized control trial, but produce valid impact estimates unless systematic unobservable differences between matched groups bias them. We found no evidence of such bias across a number of validity checks and sensitivity analyses.

[2]Such statistical adjustments are customary in experimental and nonexperimental analyses that compare randomly assigned or matched comparison groups. These adjustments minimize random error in the impact estimates and increase statistical precision.


photo of Hans Bos
Senior Vice President and Institute Fellow
Vice President