Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Alternative Routes to Teaching

  • Elisabeth E. LefebvreEmail author
  • Matthew A. M. Thomas
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_49-1


Within the field of education, a variety of routes aim to train novice teachers and to induct them into the teaching profession. So-called traditional teacher education is often viewed as the standard form of pre-service teacher education and is primarily delivered through multi-year, college-recommending tertiary training programs, though even this term encompasses a diversity of programmatic forms. In contrast, in recent decades a wide variety of alternative routes and programs have emerged, largely in response to more standard forms of training that have existed since at least the twentieth century. The term given to these “new” programs – “alternative” – implies a shift away from “traditional” routes to teaching, offering something that varies in some way from what has been done in the past. It should be noted that “alternative licensure,” “alternative certification,” “alternative routes,” and “alternative teacher education” are similar but not synonymous terms. In some locales, there are alternative means to become certified as a teacher – for example, where there is a considerable teacher shortage in specific content areas (e.g., special education, mathematics) – that enable candidates to bypass otherwise standard criteria for acquiring accreditation/licensure/certification. Terminology follows the context and varies widely. In this entry, we will utilize “alternative routes” in accordance with the body of scholarship in this arena (c.f., Grossman and Loeb 2008). This entry begins by providing a brief overview of how teachers have been “traditionally” trained, before considering more recent “alternative” routes to teaching. Additionally, this entry describes a prominent example of an alternative licensure program, before concluding with a brief discussion of common debates that surround the topic of teacher education and the many routes to enter the teaching profession.

The Evolution of Routes to Teaching

Modern teacher education was largely developed in response to an increasing demand for teachers, particularly as educational access expanded globally. Prior to the mid- to late 1800s, education was commonly reserved for elite males, and few opportunities were available for women; minoritized ethnic, racial, or religious groups; or those living in poverty. Those who did have access to education often attended schools staffed – if sometimes only briefly, as turnover rates were frequently high – by those who had completed more advanced levels of education or by clergy and church missionaries, neither of whom tended to receive any explicit pedagogical training. Yet as more children enrolled in primary (and later, secondary) schools, more teachers were needed.

Simultaneously, movements to standardize schooling emerged. For instance, in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, the Common School Movement began in New England and worked to provide education for all children living within a particular region or town. Educational reformers likewise worked to create a universal curriculum and to standardize teacher training, thus ensuring that teachers – and in particular a growing number of women – were adequately prepared to teach a newly unified body of content. These dual efforts coalesced into the development of normal schools, intended to prepare novice teachers for the profession.

As another example, elsewhere in the British colonies, missionary efforts to open schools (intended to facilitate the mass enculturation of local populations) were often coupled with teacher training programs aimed at ensuring that there were enough teachers for these students. Though still directed and overseen by British missionaries, and frequently using curriculum either borrowed directly from the United Kingdom or designed for presumably “less capable” local populations, these newly developed teacher training programs offered paid employment opportunities for men and women alike and in some instances facilitated the development of parallel, indigenous school systems that competed for students.

Over time, and in an effort to respond to an increasing demand for postsecondary educational opportunities, many teacher training programs either expanded to provide broad access to a number of other careers or were subsumed under existing colleges and universities. As a result, pre-service teacher training shifted toward being offered at more generalized tertiary institutions instead of education-focused normal schools. Countries likewise increasingly took on the responsibility of approving and accrediting teacher education programs, as well as for authorizing, sponsoring, and monitoring any “alternatives” to “traditional” routes. To return to the U.S. example, by the early 1980s, nearly 90% of 1st-year teachers completed an undergraduate education program, considered to be the traditional format for professional training (Feistritzer et al. 2011). However, debates over an apparent lack of educational rigor – captured most vividly by the 1983 report, A Nation At Risk – coalesced around a perceived lack of high-quality teachers, thus upending a long historical movement toward the centralization and standardization of teacher training. Coupled with broader deregulation efforts across the economy that were predicated on the neoliberal belief that competition was one of the best means of improving quality, alternative routes to teaching emerged. In 1983, only eight U.S. states reported having alternative routes to teaching (often initially limited to emergency teaching licenses), whereas in 2019 virtually all states allow for alternative licensure programs. Similar narratives of regulation and deregulation are also found globally.

Alternative Routes to Teaching

As mentioned previously, today either national or state and provincial governments commonly set standards for teachers, as well as requirements for teacher certification. Therefore, models of teacher training vary significantly, depending on the context. In general, however, traditional teacher education programs are predicated on three core tenants: content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and field experience. First, content knowledge refers to the discipline- and grade-level-specific knowledge teachers need to be able to teach the subjects required of them. Typically, primary school teachers spend time learning basic knowledge about math, science, social studies, and language arts, whereas secondary science teachers, for example, spend most of their time learning more advanced biology, chemistry, and physics. Second, pedagogical knowledge refers to how to teach (rather than what) and includes coursework focused on pedagogy, classroom management, educational psychology, and the broader historical and social contexts in which schools function. Finally, field experience includes a prolonged period spent apprenticing in a classroom setting, with supervision from more experienced teachers, aimed at allowing novices time to apply and practice in real-life settings the pedagogical and content knowledge they have gained. Field experience can begin as early as a student’s first year of university and continue throughout, but at a minimum tends to include a semester of student teaching (i.e., interning) under the supervision of a cooperating or mentor teacher. The fundamental idea behind this approach is that trainees will emerge from traditional programs with knowledge of what (content) and how (pedagogy) to teach and with significant hands-on classroom experience (see Darling-Hammond 2006, for more on teacher education programming).

In contrast, alternative routes to teaching largely upend this emphasis on pre-service training and instead focus primarily on providing a distillation of pedagogical knowledge and field experience, both of which are typically taught over a much shorter period of time, sometimes while candidates are already in the classroom. Because of this, alternative routes typically require a related undergraduate degree or relevant field experience, ensuring that the person seeking alternative certification already has the necessary content knowledge, or at a minimum programs offering alternative routes aim to screen candidates to ensure that they will be able to find appropriate placements.

In the U.S. example, a context with a wide range of alternative routes, there are at least 130 alternative training pathways identified across the country, including both university-based programs for post-bac and graduate students – like Masters of Teaching (MAT) programs – and “fast-track” programs, both of which encompass a significant variety of approaches to teacher training. MAT programs typically require 1-2 years of coursework focused on pedagogical knowledge coupled with field experience, before certifying teachers, and are often offered by colleges and universities. These are in some ways similar to the MTeach programs offered in Australia or others offered in Europe and elsewhere.

In contrast, “fast-track” or “synchronous-service” programs typically forgo significant time spent on pre-service learning and ask trainees to complete coursework on pedagogical knowledge roughly at the same time as they are teaching full-time, thus in many ways substituting field experience under the supervision of a more experienced education professional for on-the-job training. This group of alternative programs includes the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence, which offers an online program in 11 U.S. states; the New Teacher Project (TNTP), which operates in 8 U.S. states; as well as locally-based programs like the Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago, New York City Teaching Fellows in New York, and the Arkansas Teacher Corps.

A Prominent Example

As one primary and globally relevant example of alternative routes to teaching, Teach For All is an international umbrella organization that seeks to develop new affiliate programs based on the Teach For America model. Since its beginning in 2007, the organization has expanded to its current size, operating in 49 countries on 6 continents in 2019. The inaugural program of this movement, Teach For America, was started in 1990 as a direct response to the growing argument that traditional education programs “failed” to recruit the “right” people and to train them well enough to address a perceived U.S. public education crisis. Thus, the related network’s structure directly responds to neoliberal critiques of education, advocating for increased flexibility in licensure requirements wherever they work and frequently pursuing funding from private industry.

At their most basic, all of Teach For All’s partner programs – including Teach For America, Teach For Armenia, Teach For Australia, and Teach For Austria – embrace a similar approach. University students and recent graduates are recruited based on their apparent promise as future leaders (either within or outside the field of education), trained for a brief period (sometimes as little as 5 weeks), and then placed in PK-12 classrooms with the intent of teaching in under-served urban and rural schools for 2 years. While in the classroom, these teachers (known variously as corps members, associates, or fellows; see Crawford-Garrett and Thomas 2018) instruct students based on the “just in time” knowledge they receive from their TF-affiliate organizations during regular meetings aimed at professional development and, in many cases, concomitant enrollment in courses provided by university partner programs; locally determined professional development training courses; or charter school training organizations, such as the Relay Graduate School in the United States.

In practice, Teach For All affiliates and their corps members tend toward a more technicist approach to education, presuming that teaching is primarily made up of discrete tasks (e.g., management of the classroom along a behaviorist model and regular standardized testing) that can be mastered easily, with only a modicum of experience (c.f., Kretchmar and Zeichner 2016). As mentioned above in the overview of “traditional” and “alternative” models, Teach For All affiliates presume that these teachers have the necessary content knowledge and emphasize instead condensed and essentialized pedagogical knowledge. Thus, time spent as the instructor of record is substituted for field experience (aside from a brief time spent practicing teaching during the initial training). Throughout their commitment, these teachers are often mentored by alumni of the same TF-affiliate organization who have only recently left the classroom and in some instances have as little as 2 years of direct experience teaching.

Three Debates

Significant controversy surrounds alternative routes to teaching, based in part on their historic rise (as noted above) as well as inherent positioning as “competitors” with traditional teacher education for recruits, funding, and prestige. Though much could be included here, there are three primary debates worth noting related to this topic: (1) the type of education to be completed before entering the classroom as a full-time teacher, (2) the form and length of field and practicum experience, and (3) the ability of both “alternative” and “traditional” models to recruit the best candidates, those most likely to serve their students well and persist in the profession.

First, significant debate surrounds the type of education and training that teachers need before they enter in the classroom. Traditional models of teacher training (frequently college-recommending programs) emphasize significant coursework in both content and pedagogy to be completed before and alongside time spent under the mentorship of an experience teacher. In contrast, alternative models often jettison coursework on content knowledge and field experience almost altogether, providing instead basic pedagogical knowledge delivered simultaneously to full-time work as a classroom teacher. Critics of alternative programs argue that this tends to focus alternatively trained teachers on only the most immediately practicable knowledge (i.e., what they need to be able to deliver a lesson tomorrow), regardless of the need for deeper understanding of topics ranging from child development to the special education process. As a result, critics suggest that alternative program candidates are poorly prepared for the rigors of classroom teaching and that, in turn, this may contribute to a higher attrition rate among at least some alternatively trained teachers. Responding to this critique, proponents assert that traditional programs tend to be overly theoretical and therefore so removed from everyday practice as to be unhelpful. Thus, in pursuing simultaneous teaching and learning on the part of the trainee, recruits to alternative programs are able to make more useful connections between practice and knowledge.

Second, traditional models of teacher training emphasize the importance of pre-service learning and mentorship, often requiring that candidates complete at least a semester of student teaching (if not significantly more), which includes both observation and practice. Alternative models tend to incorporate only a short period of pre-service observation and practice (again, sometimes as little as 5 weeks) and substitute instead some type of mentorship during a recruit’s early years as a teacher. Proponents of alternative programs suggest that these methods parallel those of other professions, including medical fields, wherein candidates complete clinical rotations, internships, and/or residencies aimed at practice-based learning (though it’s worth noting that medical, veterinary, and dental students commonly complete significant coursework before embarking on these experiences). In contrast, critics of alternative programs argue that on-the-job mentorship is insufficient on its own and that trainees benefit from more sustained exposure to high-quality teaching and practice under the supervision of an experienced educator before taking charge of their own classrooms. Additionally, many college-recommending (i.e., traditional) programs have, over the past few decades, responded to this criticism by increasing the time spent by candidates in classrooms, integrating field experiences throughout students’ 4- or 5-year programs, and seeking closer partnerships with local schools.

Third and finally, programs following alternative models often emphasize their ability to recruit “better” and/or more diverse candidates than traditional programs. Certainly Teach For All and its affiliates have premised their entire structure on their ability to attract “the best and the brightest” “future leaders” from elite universities. Some proponents also contend that alternative programs are able to better prepare these candidates for higher need or more specialized contexts. This last point is especially complicated because it is entangled with other factors, such as the relative prestige of the teaching profession and, commensurately, the pay of teachers; the opportunity costs of pursuing an undergraduate degree; and the increasing likelihood of workers to change careers. In response, critics argue that some alternative routes lead to the de-professionalization of teaching by providing fast-track routes to the classroom without ensuring adequate preparedness, leading to a related belief that “anyone can teach.” Finally, in this debate it is also necessary to consider the length of teachers’ service (i.e., whether they stay in the classroom), the specific perspectives they bring to the classroom (i.e., pedagogical beliefs and practices), and how various programs attract and incentivize incoming candidate teachers to complete these alternative programs.


Globally, an extensive range of programs prepare teachers. Many of these are based on more traditional models and therefore include considerable coursework and practicum experiences before candidates receive accreditation and work full-time as classroom teachers. Other, so-called alternative routes constitute a heterogenous group of programs but generally aim to reduce the amount and type of preparation teachers receive before they begin work as teachers. They also sometimes aim to recruit specific types of future teachers. Some of these alternative programs are based in universities while others sit outside traditional tertiary education institutions, but a key emphasis with alternative programs globally is that they are not “traditional.”

Finally, it is important to note that more research on the variants of these programs is warranted, particularly as historic systems of teacher preparation continue to be reformed around the world, often by the very graduates of these alternative routes themselves. Specifically, more research might compare the growing number of alternative routes to teaching in terms of which seem to work best to recruit teachers to meet outstanding needs. Likewise, though some quantitative work has been done to compare the effectiveness of teachers entering the profession through alternative and traditional routes, less research has considered qualitatively these teachers’ unique needs and approaches while in the classroom. To this end, in-depth observational and ethnographic research may yield interesting and insightful findings about these cadres of teachers. Finally, given the relative “newness” of alternative routes, more longitudinal data would help guide future policy and planning.

In sum, whether one tends to support “traditional” or “alternative” approaches, or both, all educators and policy makers would likely agree that recruiting, training, and retaining a robust and effective group of professionals is paramount to achieving educational quality and equity.


  1. Crawford-Garrett, K., & Thomas, M. A. M. (2018). Teacher education and the global impact of Teach For All. In G. Noblit (Ed.), Oxford research encyclopedia of education. New York: Oxford University Press.  https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.417.
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  3. Feistritzer, C. E., Griffin, S., & Linnajarvi, A. (2011). Profile of teachers in the U.S., 2011. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Information.Google Scholar
  4. Grossman, P., & Loeb, S. (2008). Alternative routes to teaching – Mapping the new landscape of teacher education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.Google Scholar
  5. Kretchmar, K., & Zeichner, K. (2016). Teacher prep 3.0: A vision for teacher education to impact social transformation. Journal of Education for Teaching, 42(4), 417–433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elisabeth E. Lefebvre
    • 1
    Email author
  • Matthew A. M. Thomas
    • 2
  1. 1.Bethel UniversitySt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.The University of SydneySydneyAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Douwe Beijaard

There are no affiliations available