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Alternative routes to teacher certification are having a major impact on many aspects of the teaching occupation in the United States. More men, more non-whites, more mature, life-experienced, educated individuals are teaching in the nation’s K-12 schools as a result of a proliferation of alternative routes to teacher certification throughout the country.

What officially began in the early 1980s as ways to ward off projected shortages of teachers, alternative routes to teacher certification have become major players in the production of highly qualified teachers.

We at the National Center for Education Information (NCEI) have been polling state departments of education annually since 1983 regarding alternatives to the traditional approved college of education program route for licensing teachers. We have not only found a rapid development of alternative routes at the state level, but an explosion of individual providers of alternate route programs within each state. In addition, a consensus of the essential characteristics of an alternative teacher certification program has evolved.

In 2005, 47 states, plus the District of Columbia, report 122 alternative routes to teacher certification being implemented by 619 providers of individual programs around the country.

Based on data submitted by the states, NCEI estimates that more than 250,000 persons have been licensed through alternative routes to teacher certification programs since the mid-1980s, with most of the growth occurring in the last decade. Approximately 35,000 individuals are entering teaching through alternative teacher certification routes each year.

Preliminary data currently being collected by NCEI from individuals entering teaching through alternate routes to certification show the following:

  • 70 percent are older than 30 years of age, 38 percent are male and 30 percent are non-white.
  • 46 percent are teaching in a large city.
  • Nearly half were working in a non-education occupation the year prior to entering an alternative route program.
  • "Being able to teach while getting certified” and “receiving a teacher’s salary and benefits” were the most important variables in their choosing an alternate route to teaching.
  • "Teaching full time as a teacher of record during the program” far outranked any other variable as the most helpful component of the alternate route program in developing competence to teach.
  • On average, 97 percent of those entering teaching through alternate routes say they feel now competent in several aspects of teaching.
  • Nearly half say they would not have become a teacher if the alternate route to certification had not been available. An additional 25 percent said they weren’t sure.

Full details of this study will be released in Spring 2005 and will be posted on our web sites at and

Clearly, alternative routes to teaching are bringing non-traditional populations of people into the teaching profession who want to help young people develop and teach where the demands for teachers are greatest.



In the last decade, alternative teacher certification has evolved as a respectable concept and has spawned many new avenues whereby individuals who already have at least a bachelor’s degree, many of whom have had successful careers, can enter teaching.

Alternative routes to teacher certification are having a significant impact on the way all teachers are educated and brought into the profession. Few innovations in American education have spawned more controversy and debate than the alternative teacher certification movement, and few have ultimately resulted in more positive changes.

The term “alternative teacher certification” historically has been used to refer to a variety of avenues to becoming licensed to teach. Sophisticated and well-designed programs that address the professional preparation needs of the growing population of individuals who already have at least a bachelor's degree and considerable life experience and want to become teachers are becoming the norm.

The National Center for Education Information (NCEI) has been polling the state departments of education annually since 1983 regarding alternatives to the traditional approved college of education program route for licensing teachers. We have found not only a rapid development of alternative routes at the state level, but also, an evolving consensus of the essential characteristics of an alternative teacher certification program.

In 2005, 47 states, plus the District of Columbia, report having some type of alternative teacher certification program. This compares with only eight states that said they had any kind of alternative route to teaching in 1983.

It is estimated that more than 250,000 persons have been licensed through these programs. Thousands more post-baccalaureate candidates are being licensed to teach who are participating in college alternative teacher preparation programs.

Not only have more and more states instituted legislation for alternative teacher certification, but, also, more and more institutions of higher education have initiated their own alternative programs for the preparation of teachers leading to a license to teach.

In the last decade, alternative teacher certification has evolved as a respectable concept and has spawned many new programs that provide excellent preparation and training for a career in teaching.

The primary reason for this is that it is one of the few truly market-driven phenomena in American education.

The demand-for-teachers side of the teacher supply and demand issue has gotten considerable attention in the last several years. What has received much less attention is the supply side – the dramatic changes in who wants to teach.
Historically, the nation has relied almost exclusively on high school students who say they might major in education when they get to college as the pool of prospective teachers, both in terms of quantity and quality. In fact, in discussing the academic caliber of teachers, one still hears scare stories that use the SAT scores of high school students who say they might major in education when they get to college as the indicator of how smart people going into teaching are.

These concepts are archaic. There probably isn’t any area of the teaching occupation that has changed more than the profile of individuals entering the profession.

The most dramatic change in the past few years has been a shift toward people beginning their preparation to teach later in life and later in their academic careers.

A 1999 survey of Institutions of Higher Education that have programs for the preparation of teachers conducted by our sister organization, the non-profit Center for Education Information (CEI), found that nearly three out of 10 (28 percent) prospective new teachers who completed teacher preparation in 1998 in college-based programs began their preparation to teach after they had already received at least a bachelor’s degree.

Additional findings of the 1999 CEI study that point to significant changes in those studying to be teachers are:

  • Two-thirds (65 percent) of institutions surveyed by CEI indicated they have at least one program for the preparation of teachers in which candidates enter at the Post-baccalaureate level.
  • Nearly eight out of 10 (79 percent) prospective secondary school teachers who had begun their preparation to teach at the Post-baccalaureate level had degrees in fields other than education. One-half (49 percent) of persons who completed an Undergraduate program prepared to teach at the secondary school level had a degree in a field other than education.
  • Three out of four (75 percent) prospective elementary teachers who began their preparation to teach at the Post-baccalaureate level had a degree in a field other than education. One in three (29 percent) individuals who completed an Undergraduate program prepared to teach in elementary schools had a degree in a field other than education.
  • At the middle school preparation level, 69 percent of the Post-baccalaureate candidates and one-third of the Undergraduates had degrees in fields other than education.
  • More than half (55 percent) of the individuals who were admitted into Teacher Preparation Programs at the Post-baccalaureate level within the last year were transitioning into teaching from an occupation outside the field of education. More than one in 10 (11 percent) of those admitted into Teacher Preparation Programs at the Undergraduate level were transitioning into teaching from an occupation outside the field of education.
  • More than one-third (36 percent) of persons admitted into Teacher Preparation Programs at the Post-baccalaureate level and 14 percent of those admitted as Undergraduates within the past year had prior teaching-related experience, such as substitute teacher, teacher’s aide, or school paraprofessional.

The most significant variable in driving the alternative teacher certification movement forward is this changing market for teaching.

This population of non-traditional candidates wanting to become teachers is growing significantly. The quest for how best to prepare these people for the occupation of teaching has spawned the development of numerous alternative routes to teaching.

Not only has the supply of people interested in teaching grown and the profile of individuals interested in teaching changed dramatically, the demand for teachers is also different than in high-demand times of the past.

Post World War II, when the flood of baby-boomers hit the schools, there was a great demand for elementary school teachers throughout the nation. That is not true today. In fact, across the board, there is an oversupply of elementary school teachers. Today’s demand for teachers is quite geographic and subject-matter specific. Demand for teachers is greatest in inner cities and outlying rural areas of the country and in mathematics, the sciences and special education and mostly at the high school level.

How to recruit, train, license, hire, place and keep teachers for these high-demand areas is the question. And alternative teacher certification is proving to be a big answer.


  • Good alternative teacher certification programs are market-driven. The programs are designed specifically to meet the demand for teachers in geographic areas and in subject areas where the demand for teachers is greatest. Prospective teachers are recruited to meet those specific demands.
  • Teacher preparation programs are tailor-made. Programs are specifically designed to meet the preparation needs of individuals who already have at least a bachelor’s degree and, in many cases, experience in other occupations, to teach in specific areas and in specific subjects.
  • Programs are job-specific. Rather than train people to teach who may or may not ever go into teaching, alternative route programs recruit individuals for specific teaching positions and place prospective teachers in those jobs early in their training programs.
  • The teacher preparation program is field-based.
  • Prospective teachers work with mentor teachers while teaching.
  • Candidates usually go through their program in cohorts, not as isolated individuals.
  • Most of these programs are collaborative efforts among state departments of education whose responsibility it is to license teachers, colleges and universities that historically have had the responsibility for educating and training teachers, and school districts that actually hire teachers.

Nearly all of the states now have some type of alternative to going back to college and majoring in education in order to become a teacher. Forty-seven states, plus the District of Columbia, report that they are currently implementing alternatives to the approved college teacher education program route for certifying teachers. The remaining three states say they are considering alternative routes to teacher certification. (See Table 1, page 23).

The biggest change that has occurred in alternative teacher certification is not the sheer proliferation of programs, but the consensus of a definition of what counts as an alternative route.

In just the last five years, states have passed new legislation and/or created numerous new alternative teacher certification routes that look amazingly similar. All of them include the following components:

  • The program has been specifically designed to recruit, prepare and license talented individuals for the teaching profession who already have at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • Candidates for these programs pass a rigorous screening process, such as passing tests, interviews, and demonstrated mastery of content.
  • The programs are field-based.
  • The programs include coursework or equivalent experiences in professional education studies before and while teaching.
  • Candidates for teaching work closely with mentor teachers.
  • Candidates must meet high performance standards for completion of the programs.

California, New Jersey and Texas have been developing and aggressively utilizing alternative routes for licensing teachers since the mid-1980s. Approximately 18 percent of new hires in California enter teaching through the state’s 63 alternative routes. In Texas, nearly half of its new hires come through the state’s 75 Alternative Routes, and in New Jersey, 24 percent of new teachers enter the profession through the state’s alternative route.

  • People coming into teaching through alternative routes are more men, tend to be older, people of color, have academic degrees other than education, and have experiences in other occupations.
  • Early data from several states indicate that individuals entering teaching through alternative routes have higher retention rates than those entering teaching from traditional college-based programs. Reasons given for this are:
  • Teachers coming through alternative routes generally are older, more experienced and have a strong commitment to helping young people learn and develop. They are making a definitive decision to teach at this point in their lives.
  • Their preparation programs have provided intense field-based, in-the-classroom training and instruction.
  • They have received on-the-job training under the guidance of mentor or master teachers.
  • They have had the support of college faculty, schoolteachers and their peers while actually teaching.

One of the reasons given for the high attrition rate for new teachers in their first few years of teaching is that they receive very little support and professional development as beginning teachers. This issue is directly addressed in the very design of alternative preparation programs, which, if anything, err on the side of getting prospective teachers into classrooms too early.



To understand how alternative teacher certification evolved, it is necessary to understand the process by which individuals become licensed to teach in the United States.

The licensing (certification) of elementary and secondary teachers in the United States is a state responsibility. The regular route for licensing teachers is "the approved college teacher education program route." This process means that a college or university submits a plan for a teacher preparation program for each discipline and/or grade level(s), following state-established guidelines, which the state then "approves." A candidate for a teaching license applies directly to a college or university, takes the required courses and meets other specified requirements, such as student teaching, passage of tests and any other requirements specified by the college's "approved program". Upon completion of the "approved program", the candidate is then granted a license to teach.

The requirements for obtaining a license to teach through approved program routes vary enormously -- not only from state to state but from institution to institution.

Some states require passing different tests and differing lengths of time spent student teaching. Some require observation in schools before student teaching. Some institutions of higher education have added a “fifth year” to their teacher education programs. Others have added internships. Others have done away with undergraduate teacher preparation programs altogether -- and just have a post-baccalaureate program of teacher preparation.

Some states require only the initial certificate; other states require a second or third stage certificate -- sometimes with continuing education requirements and sometimes resulting in a life or permanent certificate.

The terminology used for various types of teaching licenses is terribly confusing. There are 30 different titles used for the initial teaching certificates, and more than 50 titles used for the second stage teaching certificates throughout the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Emergency certificates have been the age-old means of bringing individuals quickly into teaching. Some states wanted to develop an alternative to such emergency routes.

New Jersey was the first state to garner a lot of publicity concerning alternative teacher certification when it enacted legislation for an alternative route for certifying teachers in 1984. The reason New Jersey initiated its program was to come up with a better solution to bringing non-traditional candidates into teaching other than issuing them emergency certificates until they fulfilled all the requirements for a regular teaching certification -- a process that usually involves teaching right away, with no orientation or instructional support, much less training, while taking education courses at night and during summers. New Jersey set out to design a new program that involved actively recruiting liberal arts graduates and putting them through a school-based program, in collaboration with universities, that entailed the candidate working with a mentor teacher, as well as formal instruction while teaching. New Jersey's alternative teacher certification program currently produces approximately one-fourth of all the new teachers hired.

The state of Texas first implemented a single alternative teacher certification program in 1985 in the Houston Independent School District, justifying the program on teacher shortage projections. Legislation passed in 1989 by Texas legislators eliminated the shortage requirement. Texas now has 75 alternative teacher certification programs throughout the state.

California has been struggling with finding ways to bring qualified individuals into teaching to meet its rapid and huge demand for teachers. Like other states across the United States, California has sought to cope with overall growth among the school-age population, as well as continuing, rapid expansion of minority student populations. And, most recently, California has faced the challenge of the statewide K-3 class size reduction initiative.

Almost half (48 percent) of the intern teachers were members of ethnic groups underrepresented in the state’s teaching workforce. Twenty-nine percent were male. The retention rate for the first five years is 86 percent.

Most alternatively certified teachers are trained and teach in urban and rural areas. The greatest demands for new teachers across the nation are in large urban areas and outlying rural areas.

There has been an outpouring of interest in the teaching occupation from numerous sources -- people in other careers who wish to get into teaching; military personnel facing retirement or being relieved of their duties due to the projected down-sizing of the military in the next few years; former teachers trying to get back into teaching; people who trained to teach some years ago but never taught; and current students.

Growing numbers of governors, state legislators, state commissioners of education, deans of education and other political and educational leaders are stepping forward in favor of some type of alternative certification. Local school administrators, school board presidents, parents of school children, and the general public also recognize the value of alternate routes as a means of improving America's educational system. The 1996 NCEI survey of teachers showed that more than half (54 percent) of public school teachers agreed that recruiting adults who have experience in careers other than teaching would improve America's educational system.

Many in this nation have expressed concern about the declining numbers of minority teachers coming through traditional teacher education programs and, consequently, the declining proportion of the teaching force that is minority.

The use of alternate routes gives promise of increasing the representation of minorities in the nation's teaching force. Nationally, state education data show that nine percent of teachers and 26 percent of students are minorities. In New Jersey, where minorities comprise nine percent of the state's teachers and 33 percent of students, the state's use of an alternate route has been the biggest source of qualified, minority teachers. Since the program's inception, 20 percent of the teachers certified through the alternative route and hired by public and non-public schools in the state have been minority.

In Texas, while 91 percent of all public school teachers are white, 32 percent of teachers entering through the state's alternative programs are minority.

Nearly half (48 percent) of the interns entering teaching in California are members of ethnic groups underrepresented in the state’s teaching workforce.

Twenty-nine percent of military people who have entered teaching through the Troops To Teachers Program are from a minority or ethnic group.

A 1998 survey of Troops To Teachers shows that one in four (24 percent) TTT teachers was teaching in an inner city school. Thirty-nine percent of them said they were willing to teach in an inner city and 68 percent indicated they would be willing to teach in a rural community. This compares with 16 percent of public school teachers who currently teach in inner cities and 23 percent who teach in rural areas.

Alternative routes for preparing and licensing teachers are attracting large numbers of highly qualified, talented and enthusiastic individuals to the teaching profession. Applicants to these programs number in the thousands. Most are highly educated, life-experienced adults who want to teach and to improve America's educational system. They will do whatever is necessary in the way of preparation in order to accomplish those ends. Many of them think alternative routes not only make the most sense, but also provide the best preparation for the real world of teaching.



Any discussion of supply and demand for qualified teachers in the United Sates must take into account the structure of public schooling. Public elementary and secondary education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the United States. States have the responsibility for certifying or licensing teachers. School districts have the responsibility for recruiting and hiring teachers.

There are approximately 90,000 public elementary and secondary schools in 15,000 school districts that employ 2.8 million teachers throughout the nation. School sizes and school district sizes range from very small to very large. Spending per student, as well as salaries for teachers, vary enormously. The racial/ethnic composition of the schools and the communities they are in are radically different in different parts of the country and in different regions of each state.

Some school districts, most notably those in wealthy suburbs, are not wanting for qualified teachers. Many of these districts receive hundreds of applicants for a single open position.

On the other hand, large inner cities have huge school districts that oversee many very large schools that enroll high proportions of students from many racial/ethnic groups and from high poverty areas. They have a much harder time recruiting and retaining qualified teachers.

  • One-fourth of the students in this country are enrolled in inner city schools.
  • Another fourth of the students are enrolled in rural areas where the other extreme prevails – very small schools where the likelihood of hiring a physics major to teach one physics class a day is remote.
  • One in five (3,123) school districts enroll fewer than 300 students each. Nearly half of them (7,004) enroll fewer than 1,000 students each and account for just 6.3 percent of all the students enrolled.
  • On the other hand, 216 out of the 14,883 (1.5 percent) school districts enroll 25,000 or more students each and account for nearly one-third of all the students.
  • School size also varies enormously. Forty-one percent of schools enroll fewer than 400 students each but account for only 18 percent of all enrolled students.
  • At the high school level, only three percent of all secondary schools enroll 1,500 students or more each, but they account for one-third (33.3 percent) of all high schools students.

It is terribly important to keep these facts about the structure of schooling in America in mind when considering teaching jobs. The demand for teachers is by no means uniform across the nation.



The demand for more teachers is based on enrollment increases, increased retirements of teachers, general attrition, and most recently, efforts to reduce class size.

The current projections call for 2.2 million new teachers in the next decade or 210,000 new teachers per year for the next 10 years.

But before millions -- or billions -- of additional dollars are spent to recruit, train and certify millions of new teachers, many of whom will never find a teaching job, we need to look beyond these numbers at some of the realities behind this “teacher crisis.”

Changing definitions of “new teacher” muddle the issue. “New teacher” can refer to new to the nation, new to a particular state, new to a school district, new to a school building, new teacher graduate or brand new to teaching. Another complicating variable in the teacher shortage issue is how teachers are counted -- whether or not part-time teachers, substitutes, private school teachers are included in the counts.

When most people hear that we’ll need 210,000 new teachers every year for the next decade, they think it means brand new teachers -- people who have never taught before. Well, that is not what it means. That projection means that 210,000 teachers may be “newly hired” in a given year. To illustrate, 210,000 people who are not currently teaching in the 2002-03 school year might be hired to teach in the 2003-2004 school year. They will be counted as “new” teachers, even though a large number of them will actually be former teachers coming back into the profession or people who trained to teach at some earlier time, but were not attending college the year immediately prior to being hired.

The bottom line is the nation is hiring -- and is projected to need to hire -- approximately 45,000 newly minted teachers per year.

Historically, most people who got a bachelor’s degree in education were considered “qualified to teach.” In fact, experts who claim that there are too many “unqualified” teachers teaching define “qualified to teach” as someone who has gone through a college education program approved by the state department of education which has the authority to then confer a license to teach.

There are a lot of people out there who, by this definition, are fully “qualified to teach” BUT who are not teaching. It’s been known for a long time that only about a third of fully qualified teachers who graduate from the nation’s 1,354 colleges that train teachers in any given year are actually teaching the following year.

Of note in this discussion is the fact that only about three out of four current teachers have a bachelor’s degree in education. One fourth have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than education.

Probably the biggest change that has occurred in this arena is the huge interest in teaching from older people -- life experienced people from other careers, early retirees from the military and other occupations, former teachers, people who have raised their own families and want to teach.

Alternative teacher preparation and certification routes have sprung up throughout the nation to respond specifically to the needs of this growing non-traditional market for teaching.



There is a paucity of research on alternative teacher certification routes -- and with good reason. The biggest reason is that there is no clear-cut definition of alternative teacher certification. Another reason is that there are hundreds of different kinds of programs for the preparation of persons who already have at least a bachelor's degree and want to become teachers. Are they all "alternate routes"?

One needs to be very careful when looking at comparisons between "traditionally trained" and "alternatively trained" teachers. Who actually is being compared? Who decides who is a "traditionally trained" teacher and who is an "alternatively trained" teacher? Different states and different institutions answer those questions very differently.

These are not idle questions or evasive tactics to avoid potential criticism. They actually are at the heart of any research that attempts to make judgments about the effectiveness of alternative teacher certification programs.

While criticisms of alternative teacher certification continue among a small band of educational researchers, the criticisms are based more on lack of definition, faulty data and biases than on actual facts.

The bottom line is there is a demand for high quality teachers in certain subject areas in select parts of this country. There is a huge population of non-traditional candidates -- life experienced adults from many walks of life -- who want to meet that demand.

Since, by law, one cannot teach in public schools in this country without a teaching license, avenues need to exist to train and license this new market for teaching. It doesn't matter what such routes are called. What does matter is that high quality programs be designed with the market and ultimately the students in mind.

Dr. Feistritzer is president of the National Center for Education Information in Washington, D.C.

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