Controversy Analysis: Alternate Route Certification

Donna Wake

edited 1/24/09

This paper will examine the current controversy surrounding alternate route certification programs employed by states and school districts across the nation to move uncertified personnel into teaching positions. Alternate route certification permits candidates who already hold bachelor's degrees to become teachers without the benefit of finishing a traditional education program. Clearly, this debate was created and fueled by the nationwide teacher shortage, and current projections only indicate an advancement in the problem as estimates are that schools will need to hire about 2 million more public school teachers in the first decade of this century (Olson, 2000). Schools are in desperate need of high-quality and qualified teachers. Finding the candidates for these positions has become an all-consuming task for many school districts, especially for low-income, rural, and urban schools across the country and within the content areas of math and science.

Proponents of alternate route certification provisions point to the fact that many people pursuing this path into the classroom perform at least as well, if not better, on state licensing exams than traditional graduates (Shannon, 1990). In addition, these candidates are often older and more mature than their undergraduate counterparts (Rife, 1988; Shannon 1990). Alternate route certification also has been shown to attract more minority candidates as well as those more willing to work in an urban setting. In addition, more math and science professionals come into the field through alternate routes. Advocates of alternate route certification also point to statistics indicating that these new teachers are stronger in their content area than traditionally trained teachers, and as a result early indications show an increase in student performance within that content area. In short, proponents of alternate route certification see it as providing intelligent individuals with the opportunity to find their way into a classroom and around the prohibitive expenses and barriers associated with traditional certification avenues (Olson, 2000).

Detractors of alternate route certification focus on the detrimental effect of having untrained and unqualified teachers in front of the classroom. The lack of pedagogical knowledge along with the lack of traditional training and support simply means that people who do not know how to teach are placed in classrooms. This degrades the profession as it is seen as easy to get into teaching positions. In addition, detractors of alternate route certification point to the statistics indicating that alternate route certification candidates are more prevalent in minority and low-income school districts in both rural and urban settings. In contrast affluent schools can pick and choose among traditionally qualified candidates and those candidates who have earned their certification through "trial by fire" in low-income schools first. (Olson, 2000).


In 1988, the National Center of Education Statistics published a report stating that 1.65 million teachers were to be hired within the decade of the 1990s. They estimated that of this figure 3 out of 5 teachers would be people not originally choosing teaching as a career (Rife, 1988). A more current study shows that by 1996-97, 31 percent of the 1992-93 graduates who had taught in public schools had not prepared to teach as an undergraduate. Thus, a significant number of novice teachers made the decision to teach after obtaining their initial degree (Boser, 2000). More recent data indicates that more than one-fourth of teachers enters the profession without having fully met state licensing standards. Finally, it should be noted that according to the January 13, 2000 edition of Education Week, 40 states offer alternate routes for people who have degrees in subjects other than education, and an estimated 80,000 people have been certified through alternate pathways (Olson, 2000).

Is the dispute fundamental?

Should the recruitment of teaching candidates through alternate route certification be maintained and increased in order to fill currently vacant teaching positions? If the central question of this debate is phrased as simply as above (in a yes-no question format), the dispute proves itself to be fundamental. There is no doubt that qualified teachers are needed in the classroom and that many school districts are finding it difficult to fill vacant positions; however, the core issue involves a direct contradiction between those who see alternate route certification as detrimental and those who see it as an alternative to placing concerned and able people into today’s classrooms for the benefit of the students. These opposing viewpoints are represented by various entities involved in the debate. Those advocating alternate route certification include the school districts struggling to find able bodies to fill vacant positions as well as state education departments seeking to increase statistics and performance. Those opposing alternate route certification include college and universities who see pedagogical training as imperative to effective classrooms as well as those seeking to uphold professional criteria of the teaching profession. The sides of this debate then are polarized black and white.

Problems of Understanding

The alternate route controversy hinges on the actual definition of the term "alternate route certification." While no party disputes the need to place intelligent teachers in classrooms, the many interpretations and manifestations of the alternate route concept continue to lead to problems of understanding among and between disputants. No mutual agreement exists on how to define and implement alternate route programs.

The crux of the problem lies in the many forms of implementation of the alternate route concept. Each state has formulated its own protocol and rules revolving around the alternate route concept. As a result, such widely diverse programs have carried the label of alternate route that term has become meaningless. While some alternate route programs require candidates to meet the same performance and test standards as traditional candidates, other programs simply provide a shortcut into the classroom.

Different parties to the dispute offer conflicting ways of characterizing the concept. There is no consensus on how to define alternate route certification. Positive and negative characterizations of such programs spring from the conflicting understanding of the concept. Positive perceptions of the issue see alternate route certification as providing intelligent and able people easily accessible routes into a career of teaching. Negative views of the issue deligitimitize those pursuing this route and see alternate route certification as a means to placing unqualified people in classrooms resulting in potentially damaging situations. To these groups and individuals, alternate route certification is a pseudo-solution to the huge problem of finding enough qualified teachers for current classroom positions. In truth, although alternate route certification may not be the best solution, it is a practical, implementable solution, and thus not a psuedo-solution.

Finally, the use of slogans to represent each party’s side of the dispute is also prevalent. Proponents of alternate route certification cry for more teachers in the classroom. This request can hardly be argued and is thus fairly sloganistic. On the other hand, the detractors of alternate route certification bemoan the need for qualified teachers in the classroom. Again, this need is so great that this request cannot be argued.

Problems of Fact

The core issue of this dispute is without argument and revolves around the fact that there is a teacher shortage in existence, at least in some school districts and within some content areas. Again, referring to the background information, thirty-one percent of 1992-93 graduates who had taught in public schools had not prepared to teach as undergraduates, while nineteen percent of those trained in college to become a teacher had dropped out of the profession entirely within five years (Boser). While many factors can be seen as attributing to the dropout rate of new teachers, including training support and workplace conditions, the statistics point to an increased need in classrooms for qualified teachers. Not enough qualified people are entering the field, and too many are leaving too soon. Unfortunately, the same statistics also make the point that these qualified people are often coming into the profession through back doors, and that many come into the profession initially unqualified for the job.

These issues of fact firmly ground and underlie the alternate route certification controversy. There is no escaping the fact that many schools are suffering from a lack of adults to head classrooms. In addition, there is no escaping the fact that many states provide ways for initially unqualified people to enter the profession. Thus, the controversy arises over how these people should enter the field and how to pick and assess these initially unqualified people for potential impact in the profession. Much of this faction of the controversy relies not on statistics, but on emotion.

The confusion of emotion with fact and logic is deeply engrained in this dispute, as the issue of educating children is central to the debate. The emotions involved in this school dilemma run high. The emotional flashpoint here is that the education of children is the key topic, and with that as the primary objective, many emotional dramas must play around it. Proponents of alternate route certification rely on the integrity and passion of those who "wish to be teachers" and have been held out of the profession by unwieldy and archaic requirements, expensive testing, and monetary concerns. Some critics point to convoluted licensing structures as a deterrent for bright college graduates and would-be career switchers (Olson, 2000). This view highlights the many unfilled classrooms, the children who suffer what amounts to remedial daycare, and the overcrowded conditions suffered by those people who are currently teachers. These are all emotional flashpoints for teachers, administrators, and concerned parents. Here the dispute relies on appeals to fear as we envision classrooms of juvenile delinquents without any adult supervision, much less quality educational supervision. A related fear is that students will not learn enough to succeed in life, as there are no teachers to fill that role.

On the other hand, detractors of alternate route certification point to the need to maintain the integrity of the profession by imposing standards and criteria on those allowed to stand in front of the classroom. In addition, they rely on the infallible argument that "kids come first" and that the value of quality education cannot be honored by those not trained in the profession. In their view, students in classrooms headed by alternate route certification teachers amount to no more the guinea pigs in the new teacher’s experiments to learn the trade of teaching. Again, images of children under the tutelage of unqualified and potentially ignorant teachers create a very emotional and direct appeal to fear. Fear that our children will not receive a quality education and will thus be doomed to work in menial jobs throughout their lives. Fear that our society will crumple into a collection of uneducated ignoramuses incapable of ensuring the perpetuation of the American vision. Fear that a potentially damaging individual could be placed in charge of children.

Authority is another key issue involved with the dispute raging around alternate route certification, as the disputants can recognize no common source of authority in this matter. In general, the individual state departments hold the authority to define and implement alternate route certification. However, this in itself is a conflict as we see various states manifest the concept in widely diverse and inequitable ways. Furthermore, even after authority is established at the state level, interpretations of the alternate route policies put forth by the state can vary widely as well. Many states allow back doors to remain cracked for those who can’t meet minimum qualifications of even minimum alternate route certification requirements (Olson, 2000).

Authority comes in other forms as well thus complicating and confusing the issues even more. Studies and statistics reported by various institutions and states continue to offer conflicting evidence of the success of alternate route certification candidates in the classroom. Even Education Weekly, a leading professional journal, offers conflicting evidence from different authorities. The journal acknowledges that little data is available on how alternate route teachers actually perform in the classroom or their effect on student achievement; however, other statistics show that teachers trained in their content areas have a greater impact on student learning and achievement within that content (Olson). Thus the evidence supports both sides, and it is clear that not enough time has passed or data gathered on the competing programs to offer firm conclusions.

Problems of Value

Alternate route certification is often examined in terms of costs paid and benefits gained, and proponents and detractors of the concept often use arguments couched in these terms to demonize the opposing views. Proponents of alternate route certification point to the costs of children going without teachers and children suffering overcrowded classrooms due to teacher shortages. In this perspective, the benefit of allowing unqualified people into the classroom outweighs the cost. By allowing unqualified teachers in front of classrooms, positions will at least be filled, and some of these initially unqualified people may very well turn out to be excellent teachers in the long run. At the very least, this approach will alleviate some of the chronic overcrowding in schools without enough staff thus allowing more one-on-one possibilities between children and adults. This view sees education as an indivisible benefit for all children.

On the other hand, detractors of alternate route certification see the costs of allowing unqualified teachers in the room as outweighing the potential benefits associated with smaller class sizes and more adult/child interaction. The costs, as described by this side of the dispute, rely primarily on the fact that unqualified people are being allowed into classrooms. These new teachers have not been trained in pedagogical, cognitive, or social considerations. This is a potentially damaging situation that could possibly lead to great harm to a child or a classroom full of children as a worst possible scenario. The best take on the situation, from this perspective, would simply be that the new teacher would be incapable of maximizing learning in the classroom. The sheer liability of this is important to consider, and detractors of the alternate route concept feel the benefit of filling vacant positions simply is not worth the potential cost involved. In addition, detractors also consider the cost of degrading the profession by relaxing criteria and allowing anyone with a Bachelor’s degree to enter a classroom. This undermines the whole education field as a serious and valued profession if anyone can simply walk into the classroom. This view sees education as a divisible benefit that hinges on qualified leaders. Students without qualified teachers receive a lesser benefit than those students with qualified teachers, and as a result they will suffer in the long run.

Responsibility is another problem of value that besets this dispute, and is somewhat tied to the issue of authority discussed in the previous section. The responsibility issue involves determining who is responsible for the state of the situation as it exists now as well as who is responsible for fixing the situation. As mentioned in the section on authority, the states hold the responsibility for setting teacher certification standards and exceptions as embodied by alternate route programs. Again, the fact that the states have structured their alternate route programs in such a bewildering variety of manifestations only adds to the confusion surrounding the issue. Many state education departments even find ways to circumvent their own processes by establishing back door routes to certification (Olson, 2000).

Of course, the consideration of alternate route certification hinges on the fact that states and school districts are in a bind to fill vacant positions, and this creates a situation wherein the state can claim it has no choice in the matter of who is hired. In addition, this issue also looks at the motivation of unqualified people for entering the field. Advocates of alternate route certification claim that the states have no choice but to relax their standards and provide alternate paths into the classroom. This viewpoint argues that teachers seeking entrance into classrooms via these alternative pathways have the motivation and intelligence to work with children, but have been prohibited in pursuing the profession by complicated entrance criteria and monetary concerns. At the least optimistic, this perspective points out that schools are in need, and at least an adult will be in front of the classroom

Detractors of alternate route certification routes also point to the fact that school districts are in a bind to fill classrooms with teachers; however, they do not wish for states to relax their certification standards. Instead, this perspective would like to see the state departments recruit qualified people from current and future college students by improving perceptions of the profession. Detractors of the alternate route concept are also more wary of people choosing to enter the teaching profession as a career change. This perspective sees these individuals as suspect for not choosing teaching as their career option at the undergraduate level. Suspicion of these alternate route seekers ranges from their simply looking for a different lifestyle with the summers off option to actually looking for a way to harm children. Many detractors of alternate route certification point to the fact the profession is seen as "easy" thus attracting people who are looking for an easy out in life or who have perhaps failed at their first career choice.


The validity of the underlying issue of this controversy is clear and sound. A teacher shortage does exist in many school districts and some content areas. However, the validity of the underlying assumptions surrounding the alternate route certification debate is less clear. Proponents of alternate route plans rely on the assumption that as long as an individual is strong in their content area, then they can manage to control a classroom and teach the students. Conversely, detractors of alternate route plans advocate that only trained professionals who have gone through the appropriate steps can truly be an effective teacher. Neither argument is totally logical or valid. Indeed, an individual may be effective without pedagogical training, at least to the point of being able to teach basic content to children. On the other hand, even appropriately trained teachers may be ineffective in the classroom. This is an excellent example of both an unwarranted converse logical error and negating the antecedent.

To add to the complication surrounding this controversy, there is little consensus within or among individuals or groups concerned with this debate. Administrators, school boards, parents, teachers, state departments, students, politicians, and media all hold differing opinions based on both fact and emotion. The only issue of agreement among all parties is that good teachers are needed in classrooms and are lacking in certain school districts and content areas. The plethora of forms taken by alternate route programs adds to the confusion for all concerned parties who fall back on slogans and personal emotion to defend their stance. In short, this situation inevitably leads to a classic conflict model.


Many school districts are suffering from an inability to find and place effective, qualified teachers in front of classrooms. This holds especially true for low-income, rural, and urban communities as well as within the content areas of math, science, and foreign languages. The controversy examined in this paper has been whether alternate route certification is a viable pathway for potential teachers into the classroom. As this paper has established, many problems of understanding, fact, and value underlie this controversy making it difficult, if not impossible, to come to a conclusion on the issue.

Alternate route certification can certainly provide a viable means for getting qualified people into classrooms; however, this route can also prove as a doorway for filling vacant positions with barely literate individuals unaware of pedagogical or social concerns affecting their students. It is from these two extremes that the nature of this controversy arises. Clearly some states are finding a middle ground in this debate. While some states still allow individuals holding bachelor’s degrees into classrooms with little or no restrictions, other states require that teacher candidates complete intensive coursework and testing in order to fulfill criteria and keep their positions. There is no easy answer to this controversy. The evidence supports both viewpoints and it is clear that not enough time has passed or data gathered on the competing alternate route programs to offer firm conclusions.



Boser, Ulrich, (2000) A picture of the teacher pipeline: Baccalaureate and beyond. Education Week 19(18), 16-17.

Bradley, Ann, (2000) The gatekeeping challenge. Education Week 19(18), 20-26.

Olson, Lynn, (2000). Finding and keeping competent teachers. Education Week 19(18), 12-18.

Olson, Lynn, (2000). Taking a Different Road to Teaching. Education Week 19(18), 35.

Rife, F., Maloy, R., Keefe, M., (1988). Returning to teach: Why post-degree students reenter college for teacher certification. Teacher Education Quarterly 15(4), 65-74.