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For-profit teacher certification booming in Texas

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Jeff Arrington in his disaster-response high school class in Denton, Texas. (Photo by Allison Smith/The Texas Tribune)

DENTON, Texas — One afternoon in mid-November, Jeff Arrington scattered 80 paper gingerbread men labeled with numbers across the floor of his high school disaster-response class.

The numbers corresponded with the severity of injuries ranging from burns to hysterical blindness. His students had to categorize the “men” based on the level of medical attention each required.

Arrington, in the middle of his third month of teaching at the Advanced Technology Complex in the Denton Independent School District, has a background well suited to the subject. He was a police officer for six years — he turned in his badge on Sept. 12 and began teaching the next day.

He is earning his teaching certificate through an online, for-profit alternative certification program, a nontraditional route to teaching that is becoming more common in Texas. Such programs, which can offer certification in three months to two years, are booming despite little more than anecdotal evidence of their success. They draw candidates like Arrington who bring valuable life experience, but there are concerns about how they will perform as teachers, especially since they are more likely to end up in poor districts teaching students in challenging situations.

More than 110 alternative certification programs — including iteachTexas, which Arrington is completing, and nonprofits like Teach For America — produce 40 percent of all new teachers in Texas, according to an analysis of Texas Education Agency data by Ed Fuller, a Penn State University education professor and former University of Texas researcher.

For-profit programs dominate that market: in each year since 2007, the two largest companies, A+ Texas Teachers and iteachTEXAS, have produced far more teachers than any other traditional or alternative program. While virtually all paths to the classroom have seen declines since 2003, according to Fuller’s analysis, for-profit alternative certification programs have grown by 23 percent. (While the percentage has increased, the actual number of for-profit alternative certificates granted has decreased since the 2009 economic recession.)

Other states have begun allowing for-profits to enter the alternative teacher training market, but Texas has done so to the greatest extent, according to Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Alternative Certification. Earlier this year, New York began permitting private entities like the American Museum of Natural History and Teach For America to grant teaching certificates and master’s degrees, but they are nonprofits. Some states, like Illinois, require that any alternative routes to the classroom be connected to the university system.

iteachTEXAS, begun in 2003, is the first for-profit, non-university based alternative certification program to expand across state lines, with the newly created iteachU.S. operating programs in Louisiana and Tennessee. Additional offshoots will soon come to Michigan and at least two other states.

Diann Huber, president of iteachU.S., said the program’s goal is to provide a new career opportunity for people who have been laid off in other industries, like auto workers in Michigan, who may be able to use their knowledge to teach high-need subjects like math and science.

Texas began experimenting with alternative certification programs in the mid-1980s. Then, the state “didn’t regulate who was operating private programs, and people saw that was a way to make a fast buck,” said Rae Queen, the president of the Texas Alternative Certification Association, who also runs a for-profit alternative certification program in San Antonio. Queen said the state now has a much more rigorous application and audit process for certification programs. In 2008, the state also instituted a minimum grade-point average of 2.5 for all teaching candidates.

Still, Queen said the reputation of for-profit programs suffers. “There are some companies out there that say ‘you want to be a teacher, start today,’” she said, “and they’ve done that through their own advertising campaigns.”

Some traditional educators believe that for-profits, which typically charge around $4,000 for a program leading to certification, accept applicants with little regard for demand or how they might perform in the classroom. “The for-profits will take anyone,” said Nell Ingram, director of the Dallas Independent School District alternative certification program, adding that her program will not offer courses in subjects that are not in demand.

Principals offer mixed reviews of teachers hired from for-profit programs. Most say those teachers succeed in the classroom at the same rate as traditionally certified ones, but others report that they seem less prepared.

Bettejean Gosnell, who earned her certificate through iteachTexas about seven years ago and teaches special education in Argyle, said she was the alternative certification “poster child,” a former Nabisco employee whose busy life drew her to online teacher certification courses. But while she said the program “worked out perfect” for her, she said it did not support her once she was in the classroom.

“I remember thinking that I wanted constructive criticism,” Gosnell said, “and I wasn’t getting it.”

Related stories

More coverage of for-profit education by The Hechinger Report.

The state’s most recent effort to regulate the industry came in the last legislative session, when Representative Mike Villarreal, Democrat of San Antonio, offered a bill that would require potential teachers to spend at least 15 of the mandated 30 hours of practice teaching in classrooms.

The bill struggled to pass — in the end, a watered-down version made it through — because of opposition from some in the for-profit industry, who went after it, Villarreal said, because of their interest in “having as much flexibility as possible to deliver a very simple curriculum with limited time commitment” to process clients.

Vernon Reaser, president of A+ Texas Teachers, testified against the bill at a hearing in March. Reaser said it could have unforeseen practical consequences that could burden school districts and would not necessarily raise the quality of teachers in the classroom.

Reaser, who did not return further requests for comment, supported the changes to the bill that ultimately passed.

Evaluating teacher-training programs — regardless of whether they produce teachers through alternative or traditional routes — is “one of the toughest areas to get ahold of,” said Representative Rob Eissler, Republican of The Woodlands, who has headed the Public Education Committee in the Texas House since 2007.

Eissler said for-profit programs were no more likely to turn out less-qualified teachers than their nonprofit competitors. “Like anything else,” he said, “there are some that are really good and some that aren’t as good as the others.” He said there is a need for the state to study which programs are getting the best results. Right now, Eissler said, “most of what we know is anecdotal.”

The state’s recent $4 billion reduction in public education spending has led to hiring freezes and layoffs in many districts. Some in the education community still question whether for-profits will be motivated to produce new teachers without a corresponding demand.

Queen said her program tries to avoid churning out graduates who will not get jobs by working with school districts to identify their greatest needs. She frowns upon applicants who she senses want to teach because they think it is easy.

“I will tell them they need to go out and substitute teach and spend time in a classroom,” she said, “and they end up self-selecting. They’ll come back and say, ‘This is not at all what I thought teaching would be — you are right.’”

Versions of this story ran in The New York Times and The Texas Tribune on November 27, 2011.

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