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A Downstream Pathway into Teaching

Alternative Certification Programs

At Science Careers, we try to temper the scientist-shortage rhetoric often heard from policymakers and industry lobbyists. At the Ph.D. level, most workforce experts believe that the country produces too many Ph.D. scientists in most fields in proportion to the available jobs that Ph.D. scientists usually seek—not too few.

But an urgent call for more STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teachers may have merit. The National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 report notes that, "Nationwide, the supply of new mathematics and science teachers may not be sufficient to replace those who retire or leave the profession for other reasons, and teacher shortages in these subjects are not distributed evenly across schools. High-poverty schools in urban areas tend to have the highest rates of teacher turnover."

"The world is not wanting for mid-career-switchers becoming teachers. What it is wanting for is reasonable ways for them to get from where they are to becoming an effective teacher." —C. Emily Feistritzer

Yes, there are opportunities, most with decent pay, good benefits, and superb job security, and mostly in high-poverty urban areas (although rural areas are also underserved). These jobs are ideal for scientists who are tired of the lab and itching to make a difference in people's lives. To help scientists make the transition, a number of alternative certification programs expose scientists to the rudiments of pedagogy and guide them to becoming certified to teach in their state.

This is a companion story to Science's Grand Challenges in Science Education special issue.

Teaching teachers

For scientists looking for such programs, a good place to start is the National Center for Alternative Certification (NCAC), which offers a state-by-state guide to alternative certification requirements and links to programs that are designed to help career-switchers navigate the process. To become certified, most states require, in addition to an advanced degree, at least one year of training that combines both pedagogical instruction and supervised practice teaching in a classroom. A few have additional requirements.

One of the newest of these programs, Teach-Now, grew out of NCAC. It is largely Web-based, consisting of 6 months of online pedagogy courses and 3 months of in-person teaching in a partnering classroom. Teach-Now is being piloted in Washington, D.C., with 10 enrollees, four of whom were working scientists before they enrolled. A second cohort of similar size is scheduled to begin in June, and the organization plans to expand into other states in the near future.

C. Emily Feistritzer, the program's director, says that the main reason most people (including scientists with advanced degrees) go into teaching as a second career is because it affords them more time with their family or to otherwise pursue their other interests. "What you do with your day is different," she says. "The hours are different. They chose to come into teaching for some of those reasons. A lot of midcareer-switchers choose teaching because they get summers off, as well as their number-two reasons, which are helping young people learn and develop and improving education in society."

Many programs are connected to education departments at universities and cost from about $3000 to $15,000. (Teach-Now costs $5000.) Some programs offset those costs for participants who agree to teach in an underprivileged school for a number of years.

NSF's Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program (with which AAAS, publisher of Science Careers, is a partner) is a federally funded variant of that formula. Authorized by Congress in 2002, the Noyce program gives funding to partnering college- and university-based alternative certification programs to recruit and provide scholarships and stipends to people in the process of earning degrees in STEM disciplines. "These students actually are completing their degrees in mathematics or physics or chemistry or biology or engineering or computer science, all of the typical STEM degrees, and they're also taking courses that would allow them to become certified to teach," says Joan Prival, the program's director. In exchange for the financial support, Noyce scholars commit to teaching for 2 years in high-need school districts for each year of support they receive from the program, which must be completed within 8 years of graduating. NSF caps the support at 3 years but individual programs may limit it further.

Another arm of the program funds Noyce teaching fellows, STEM professionals who pursue alternative certification through an NSF-approved program and receive salary supplements for 4 years while working at high-need schools. The goal is to entice scientists and engineers who otherwise would overlook the career because its pay is typically lower.

Since 2002, the Noyce program has funded 6500 scholars and fellows, more than 3000 of whom are still teaching. Prival adds that most Noyce teachers choose to stay at a high-need school beyond what's required of them by the program. "They find it incredibly rewarding," she says.

The students benefit, too. Teachers who have worked as scientists or engineers bring real-world knowledge about science that teachers with just an education degree can't match, Prival says, and students respond to that. "The confidence that you know the subject you're teaching is huge," she says. "You know how research is conducted. You know how to design experiments. You can bring former colleagues into the classroom."

Into the classroom

When Miriam Wahl finishes her path to alternative certification through North Carolina State University's NC TEACH program later this year, she'll bring 27 years of research experience into the classroom, gained as a postdoc at the Wistar Institute and Thomas Jefferson University, as an assistant professor at Duke University, and as a microscopy specialist at Johns Hopkins University.

Wahl was on the tenure track in 2002 as a pathology researcher at Duke University, identifying cellular targets for cancer therapies, when funding dried up for her research and she consequently failed to get tenure. She hopped around a few colleges and universities as an adjunct professor, but couldn't find another tenure-track appointment. "I thought, 'I've discovered what I was meant to discover, and I think I'm kind of done,' " she recalls. "I thought it was a logical place to make a change."

One of her former mentors had gone into high school teaching after retiring from research. "And he said it was fun. You get respect for teaching and you don't have to get any grants to prove you're worthwhile. So I did the same thing."

In 2011, she taught 10th grade chemistry and biology at The Calverton School, a college preparatory academy in Huntingtown, Maryland. (At private schools, teachers don't have to be certified.) Enjoying the experience but worried about the lack of job security, last year she decided to transition into public-school teaching via NC TEACH.

NC TEACH is similar to other university-based alternative certification programs. It costs $3186 for prospective teachers entering during the 2012–2013 school year, and takes three semesters (spring, fall, spring or summer, fall, spring). Pedagogy courses are taught at night and on weekends. On weekdays, enrollees teach in classrooms under senior-teacher supervision. When they finish the program, they're eligible for state certification.

Wahl is now teaching at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina. She says that she loves the change and the challenge. Because she's called upon to teach a broad spectrum of science, she is constantly learning. "I hadn't looked at a physics textbook in 30 years," she says. But because she knows how science works in the lab and real world, she says, she instinctively knows how to relate to what her students are learning in the classroom.

<p>Teacher-in-training and former researcher Miriam Wahl (second from right) runs an experiment with Hillside High School students Chasen Harris (left), Teri Crews, Safiyah Toppins, and Aaron Johnson.</p>

Teacher-in-training and former researcher Miriam Wahl (second from right) runs an experiment with Hillside High School students Chasen Harris (left), Teri Crews, Safiyah Toppins, and Aaron Johnson.

Courtesy of Miriam Wahl

CREDIT: Terrence Boone

Teacher-in-training and former researcher Miriam Wahl (second from right) runs an experiment with Hillside High School students Chasen Harris (left), Teri Crews, Safiyah Toppins, and Aaron Johnson.

Her career in science has influenced how she responds when students provide a wrong answer. "It's OK to make a mistake and then compare our measurements and figure out which is right and which is wrong. That's how science happens, that's the process. … I'm trying to put them through the paces of what really goes on in a scientist's life."

Changes ahead

Some changes may be on the horizon for alternative certification programs. Last year, the Illinois State Board of Education changed their alternative certification policy to require 2 years of classroom teaching; previously just 1 year was required. Feistritzer says that she's heard rumblings that other states may soon push for similar revisions.

In Illinois, this change profoundly altered the alternative certification landscape. For 15 years, one of the biggest suppliers of alternatively certified science and math teachers to the Chicago Public Schools system was a program called NU-TEACH, run by Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. That program will be shuttered after the 2013–2014 school year.

"It was highly successful, highly competitive," says Sylvia Smith-DeMuth, NU-TEACH's director and an assistant professor at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy. "We had 500 to 600 applications for 50 spots or so. So we really had the top of the group."

Enrollees, all of whom held graduate degrees and many of whom were either working scientists or recent doctoral recipients in STEM fields, did an intensive 1-year program of summer classes, where they were drilled in pedagogical theory, then two semesters of supervised teaching in a classroom and night classes where they caught up on math or science areas in which they weren't totally proficient. (K–12 teachers often teach a curriculum far broader than typical narrow research fields.) During the academic year, enrollees were compensated as full-time teachers with full salary and benefits. At the end of that year, they were eligible for a "standard alternative teaching certificate," enabling them to teach for 4 years in public schools, after which they became eligible for full certification.

When Illinois upped the required supervised classroom time to 2 years, Smith-DeMuth and the rest of NU-TEACH opted to close the program rather than extend its curriculum. "I'm not sure that that's going to be beneficial to the high caliber of candidates we were attracting," she says. "I think what you'll end up getting is a lot of younger people, which is not a bad thing, but it will be people who don't have a lot of experience working in their field."

Debra Wexler, senior communications director for TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), which partnered with Chicago Public Schools to provide alternative certification after Illinois made the change, disagrees. She argues that because enrollees will still be paid as full-time teachers during that extra year, the change won't discourage professionals from pursuing teaching. And an additional year of supervision and critical feedback, she says, could help scientists become even better teachers.

Whether or not other states follow Illinois's path, Feistritzer says, there will continue to be demand for STEM teachers in underserved schools and for quality programs to train scientists and engineers to step into those roles. "The world is not wanting for mid-career-switchers becoming teachers," she says. "What it is wanting for is reasonable ways for them to get from where they are to becoming an effective teacher."

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