A new internet-based program that allows underqualified teachers, career changers, and other professionals to bypass teacher colleges to become “highly qualified” certified teachers made its debut Aug. 22.

This alternative to traditional teacher-education programs, called Passport to Teaching, was funded in part by a $5 million U.S. Department of Education grant in 2001 to create a cheaper, faster way for schools to meet the Improving Teacher Quality requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and place a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2005. But critics of the initiative–including professional teacher-education associations–say it’s a poor substitute for the rigors of traditional teacher-preparation programs, which often require practice teaching and mentoring before certification.

Administered by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence–a group formed by the National Council on Teacher Quality in partnership with the Education Leaders Council–the program simply requires applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree, complete a background check, pass two computer-based tests, and pay a $500 fee. No coursework or teaching experience of any kind is required.

“Obviously this is a much more time- and cost-effective option,” said American Board spokeswoman Kimberly Tulp. “It’s taking advantage of technology and taking advantage of those who are interested in becoming teachers but don’t want to go to a teacher college.”

Applicants must pass two tests. The first, the Professional Teaching Knowledge exam, measures the applicant’s knowledge of classroom management, student assessment, instructional strategies, communicating and working with parents, and curriculum planning. The second exam measures the applicant’s mastery of a subject area.

Before taking the tests, applicants can complete a free, online self-assessment on the American Board’s web page to gauge their ability to pass the exam. This diagnostic tool recommends web-based and print materials in the applicants’ weak areas to help them prepare for the exams.

The examinations, which are not conducted online but on a computer at a regional testing center, are held four times per year. The first session starts Aug. 22 and ends Oct. 4. Only two exams are available during the first testing period: the Professional Teaching Knowledge exam and elementary education. Exams for middle and high school math are expected this winter.

The essay-response portions of the exams are graded by Vantage Learning and its computer-based IntelliMetric scoring engine, which uses artificial intelligence combined with human input to score long-answer questions.

Passport to Teaching targets people who are interested in becoming teachers but don’t want to take the time and incur the expense of completing a traditional teacher-education program. These include recent college graduates, working teachers who are not certified to teach in their subject area, and persons changing careers.

The program appeals to Janet Armbruster, an employment coordinator at Dannon University in Erie, Pa., who always wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Back in 1975, she graduated with a teaching certificate for secondary English but quickly realized high school teaching wasn’t for her.

Rather than go back to school for three years and pay $60,000 in tuition costs to get her elementary certificate, Armbruster gave up on teaching altogether. “It was such an incredible hurdle to get my teaching certificate,” she said.

So far, only Pennsylvania recognizes the American Board certification, but 12 more states are expected to approve it this year. The American Board hopes to have 25 states on board by 2004.

Armbruster isn’t worried that the program doesn’t include teaching practice or other activities common to other teacher certification programs, because she already has some teaching experience. “I may be discriminated against because I don’t have practice teaching elementary education, but I do have experience teaching,” she said.

But some education advocates are concerned about the rigors–or purported lack thereof–required by the Passport to Teaching program.

“This effort undermines the hard work that the teaching profession has undertaken during the past two decades to strengthen preparation, licensing, and certification,” said Arthur E. Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, in a statement. “This is not how states certify people to practice medicine, law, psychology, dentistry, and other professions.”

He warned, “Placing individuals in hard-to-staff schools is a prescription for increasing the achievement gap and leaving many children behind.”

Other groups also oppose the Passport to Teaching program.

In June, the House Education Committee launched an investigation of apparent attempts to sabotage the program. The American Board said education organizations, including the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), spearheaded an initiative to discredit and derail the program’s launch.

According to published news reports, the American Board accused AACTE of stealing and distributing test questions. Reportedly, ACCTE President and CEO David G. Imig admitted to requesting a copy of the test questions and sharing them with his colleagues for review, but he said he made only one test copy.

“These organizations oppose the tests being developed by the American Board because, once completed and implemented, they will provide a new path to teacher certification,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, CEO of Education Leaders Council and board member of the American Board. “This could ultimately impact the revenues and prestige position currently enjoyed by those involved in organizations such as AACTE.”

School superintendents who spoke with eSchool News had mixed reactions to the program.

“I would be very hesitant to employ a candidate who completed the requirements of the Passport to Teaching [program],” said Doug Otto, superintendent of the Plano Independent School District. “With all due respect, what we’ll have is a non-traditionally prepared teacher who will need extensive coaching, mentoring, and professional development once they find themselves in a classroom.”

He continued, “I have hired teachers from alternative certification programs, but they did come from a program that allowed for interaction and an internship.”

Dennis Dempsey, superintendent of the High Desert Educational Service District in Redmond, Ore., said the program sounds “interesting” and might be plausible in some states.

But Dempsey believes the program is not necessarily a way to ensure effective teaching candidates.

“This service allows folks who have background or experience in a specific field to try teaching first without going through all of the educational hoops,” he said. “It might allow for folks to get their foot in the door before committing to take additional coursework that would help them become effective educators in the long run.”


American Board Passport to Teaching

American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence

Vantage Learning

National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education

American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education