Akilah Robinson, a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, was at a leadership conference in New York when she realized the financial world wasn't where she belonged. "They spoke about not being afraid to follow your passion," she says. "I remember thinking: It's time for me to follow my passion." And follow it she did—down the street to the New York City Teaching Fellows. Now she teaches elementary special education in Brooklyn, and she took a 55 percent pay cut to do it. Who knew Wall Street's revolving door spun that direction?
Robinson is just one of thousands of teaching fellows who have switched careers to serve some of the most disadvantaged kids in New York. The program, founded in 2000 to get more teachers into the city's struggling schools, currently boasts 8,000 fellows teaching in 1,200 schools. Admission is competitive—this year's acceptance rate is 16 percent—and applicants with outside experience are preferred. "There's a certain maturity that comes from having had a different profession," explains Vicki Bernstein, executive director of teacher recruitment and quality.
Altruism aside, why is the program so popular? Applicants are responding, in part, to the incentives, which are characteristic of alternative teacher certification programs. These typically offer training during atypical times—nights, weekends, and summers. They made their debut in the early 1980s, when a teacher shortage prompted many states to seek out untapped talent by offering salaried training, condensed classes, and flexible schedules. Teaching fellows, for instance, do a seven-week intensive training program on stipend, then go straight into schools, earning $40,000 or more for a school year. Meanwhile, subsidized by the district, they pack in courses at local universities; after two years, they've earned their master's. By contrast, traditional master's students have no opportunity for salaried teaching and often pay more than $40,000 for their degree. It's little wonder alternative routes have become so popular, especially among midcareer professionals, many of whom have families to support. "There was no other way that I could have obtained my certification," says Paul Perry, who got his through Utica College in New York. "If I had to give up my job and my income to student teach—with no pay—I would not have been able to do it."
No silver bullet. When alternative certification first appeared, it was viewed as a back door or a quick fix for desperate school districts. But today's programs have little in common with "emergency certification," their poor-quality forerunner, which banged out ill-trained teachers in a matter of weeks. "When I have people call me up saying, 'I want an easy way to become a teacher,' I say, 'You're talking to the wrong person,'" says Michael McKibbin, administrator for teacher development at the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Alternative programs typically last one to three years, and many offer superior support networks and supervised teaching in partnered school districts.
Today there are over 485 programs, with at least one in every major city and all 50 states. In California—where, a decade ago, state legislation that dramatically reduced K-3 class size created an overnight shortage of 18,000 teachers—there are more than 70 programs. In Florida, state legislation mandates that there be 67 programs—one for each of the state's 67 counties. They've even become competition for traditional certification programs. For example, the UCLA School of Education has instituted a well-regarded program in conjunction with school districts in the Los Angeles area, and New York's Pace University has instituted several programs to serve the city's lowest-performing schools.
Caveat teacher. Is alternative certification right for you? That depends. Teachers are often funneled where the need is greatest: into struggling schools that serve families with multiple challenges. How resilient are you? Do you connect with kids? Do you know your subject? Where do you want to live? "Alternative routes are efficient," explains Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Alternative Certification, "because they really have been created to meet demand for specific teachers, in specific subjects, in specific schools where there are specific needs."