An Alternate Path: Exploring Yale University Graduates’ Tendency To Enter Alternative Teacher Certification Programs

Ryan Campbell


EDST240 – Final Paper

“An Alternate Path: Exploring Yale University Graduates’ Tendency To Enter Alternative Teacher Certification Programs

        Following their strut across the stage and subsequent tossing of their graduation cap, ten percent of Yale students will enter the education field (Yale OCS). Despite the high interest in urban education and educational equality among Yale students, most “Yalies” (i.e. Yale students) who enter the classroom end up doing so through alternative teaching programs, favoring these programs over employment options in district schools with traditional recruitment tactics and teacher preparation programs. For the past two years, Teach for America (TFA), arguably the most well-known alternative teaching program, has been one of the top employers from Yale graduates’ list of top employers, ranking just behind large consulting firms like Bain and McKinsey. TFA’s high ranking on this list reveals the popularity of alternative teacher certification programs among Yale graduates; however, it does not necessarily explain why Yalies are attracted to such programs.

In this paper, I will explore how the opportunities, accessibility and presentations of alternative teacher certification programs are specifically geared to attract Yale graduates, causing them to enter these programs rather than pursue traditional teacher certification at most public schools. Certain companies and school networks, such as the aforementioned Teach for America, Success Academy Charter Schools and Uncommon Schools, provide educationally-interested graduates with the opportunity to work in the classroom just months after graduation, instead of requiring their new teachers to take a year of teacher preparation courses before entering the classroom. Generally, these programs operate under the expectation that these teachers will only remain at a school for one to three years, so a lifelong commitment to teaching is far from the norm. Additionally, alternative teacher preparation  programs often present themselves to be more detached from the political side of education, an ever-complicated aspect of being a teacher that has caused a decline in teacher recruitment among traditional public school systems. For these reasons, most Yale graduates choose to pursue alternative teacher certification programs rather than work  in traditional public district schools.


The Opportunities

In order to understand why so many Yale graduates choose to get involved with alternative teacher preparation programs, one must look at the opportunities that these programs provide. Perhaps most obvious is these programs’ opportunities is a fast-tracked path toward teaching in the classroom; nevertheless, other factors play into Yalies’ choices to join these programs, as well.

The most tangible opportunity provided by alternative teacher preparation programs is the programs’ expedited process to becoming a teacher. Rather than attending a year of teacher certification classes, these alternative programs allow participants, most of whom are recent college graduates, to bypass this year-long requirement, allowing them to enter the classroom as soon as possible. Teach For America, for example, recruits recent college graduates from across the United States and, after only a couple weeks of training, places them in some of America’s most underperforming school districts. Throughout two-year stint with TFA, employees work toward attaining a teacher certification (Teach For America). Other alternative certification/preparation paths can be found through joining a charter school network (i.e. Achievement First, Success Academy, KIPP, Uncommon Schools, etc.), which is another common option among Yale graduates. These networks often forgoing the formal teacher certification process of the state when prepare their teachers for the classroom, since this certification is not a requirement for their teachers (Success Academy Charter Schools). Charter schools’ teacher preparation programs often require new teachers to complete one to two years of “associate teaching” (also known as a “teaching residency” or “assistant teaching”) before they can manage their own classroom (Success Academy; Achievement First). Often, these programs also provide a one-to-one, full-time mentorship component that is not always present in traditional teacher preparation programs (Success Academy). Due to the structure of these alternative programs, new teachers no longer have to delay their teaching careers by going through the formalities of traditional teacher certification. While this aspect of post-graduate plans will be touched upon later, the appeal of entering the classroom within months of one’s graduation is a seen as a great asset among Yale graduates.

Rather than choosing to  enter a mentorship-free teaching program, Yale graduates are more likely to seek an educational program that supports its new recruits, whether that is in the form of a reputable training program or via one-on-one mentorship. (One must note that, despite many students’ interest in urban education, Yale University’s Education Studies program does not include a teacher preparation program or degree in any form (Yale University).) Upon graduating from a liberal arts institution that, according to The Yale Report of 1828, theoretically should not provide “professional or practical education” to its students, many Yale graduates feel unprepared when entering the field of education (Howe 20). For this reason, the reputable mentorship structures are perhaps the main reason why many Yale graduates are attracted to alternative teacher preparation programs over programs in traditional school districts.

In addition to the immediate teaching experience and the mentorship possibilities of alternative teacher programs, college graduates also avoid the formalities of traditional teacher certification programs (i.e. passing state tests, taking a political stance through teachers unions, etc.) when they choose alternative teacher certification programs. Over the past decade, the complicated process of traditional teacher certification has led to a nationwide decrease in new teachers nationwide (Harris). Perhaps the most intimidating part of this process has been the testing employed by states, in order to evaluate whether or not individuals would make adequate teachers. According to journalist Elizabeth A Harris, these teacher certification tests have increased in difficulty since states’ implementation of Common Core standards in 2009 (Harris). As a result, many potential teachers have needed to retake the state-based certification examination(s) multiple times over, delaying their path toward the classroom. As more and more sources claim that “teaching candidates had not been adequately prepared for” state-mandated tests, the growing sense of dissatisfaction with traditional teacher certification programs grows, thus resulting in a diminished interest in teaching from the general public (Harris). Instead of having to study for these challenging tests, college graduates can now enlist in alternative certification programs that substitute state testing with a rigorous training regiment. Consequently, district schools with traditional teacher certification programs have seen  less and less teacher applicants from top-ranked universities. Although state-testing may not be a deterrent to some college graduates, the prospect of being certified through teaching in the classroom through programs like TFA, rather than being certified before teaching in the classroom, appeals to many graduates who wish to make an immediate impact on education.

Along with the hurdle of state testing, the educational field has become increasingly complicated over the past decade. Alternative teaching programs often distance themselves from such politics, as they are able to avoid newly-mandated policies and requirements of certain traditional public schools (i.e. Common Core standards, incentive-based pay, etc.). While the criteria for becoming a teacher may be difficult, retaining one’s job as a teacher has also become less guaranteed, with the recent rise of “Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing and efforts to link test results to teacher evaluations” (Westervelt). Increasingly so, it appears that each new policy, whether imposed at the state or national level, has complicated the role of the public school teacher, causing teachers to sacrifice their autonomy for the sake of rigor and accountability in the classroom. Over the past two decades, these complications have translated into a fear of teaching in district schools, places that are oft-considered to be overly-competitive and controlling. For this reason, there have been “alarming drops in enrollment at teacher training programs” in many states, including those with some of the country’s largest school districts (i.e. New York, California, Texas) (Westervelt). NPR’s Eric Westervelt claims that these “alarming drops” are inextricably linked to the politically-influenced changes to the traditional teacher role. For Yale graduates, many of whom thrive off of the creativity and autonomy of a liberal arts education, decreased autonomy is a significant disincentive when searching for post-graduation plans. Instead of having to conform to the recent policy changes in the nation’s public schools, many non-traditional schools (i.e. charter schools or private school) avoid these policies to some extent, often possessing more autonomy over their curricula and school structure. These programs lead many Yalies to believe that they will be able to exercise their autonomy when teaching for an alternative teacher certification program,  yet another reason why these programs have a high enrollment rate among Yale graduates. Furthermore,  jobs that are organized through these programs are often pegged as a “two-year job guarantee with a good paycheck,” implying a job security that traditional public schools may not have (Klein). With these factors in mind, many Yale graduates drift toward alternative educational opportunities in order to avoid the complicated and controlling stigma of traditional public schools.

Additionally, the social stigma behind teaching has a strong influence nationwide, especially affecting the career choices of Yale graduates as they enter the education field. According to Bill McDiarmid, the Dean of the University of North Carolina School of Education, teaching is seen less and less as a stable career among Americans today due to a variety of factors, including the financial consequences of holding such a job and the previously-mentioned political implications that come with teaching (Westervelt). Exploring the latter aspect, the 2011 Census revealed that the median annual income of a bachelor degree-holding, full-time employee in the field of education is $41,000, a salary that is markedly less than the average median income of the United State (i.e. $56,500) (United States Census Bureau). In fact, out of the all the “fields” accounted for in the census, the “Education” field has the lowest annual median income by at least $5,000 (United States Census Bureau). This salary gap between the average American and the average American working in education reveals the undervaluing of teachers in American society. Resultantly, many college graduates have become hesitant to enter a field that pays so poorly. At Yale, where the annual tuition is $66,893, many graduates find it difficult to enter a field that is infamous for its poor pay (Yale University). Social pressure from peers, many of whom go into medicine, finance or consulting, and parents often lead educationally-minded graduates to doubt whether they should pursue a teaching career.  

Many teaching programs have recognized graduates’ tendency to doubt their career prospects in education; therefore, these programs have rebranded themselves so that they are recognized as jumpstarts to a career rather than a career’s end goal. While teaching in traditional district schools is associated with a large investment of time and capital (i.e. teacher certification testing, joining a teachers’ union, etc.), alternative teaching programs are often seen as a “launch pad” to graduates’ careers. Due to the finite commitment established at the start of these programs (i.e. 1 year of associate teaching, 2 years of teacher-in-residence, etc.), Yale graduates often have an opportunity to move on from the field of education once their term expires. This preset tenure provides an “exit strategy” in case recruits find their calling to be outside of the classroom for any variety of reasons (i.e. political frustrations, loss of interest, poor financial incentives, etc.). For the graduates that want to continue their careers outside of the education field, many of these programs emphasize the possibilities that are open to program “alumni” or “graduates” of these programs (Teach for America). These programs’ emphases on the future encourage graduates to dabble in teaching, while simultaneously boosting graduates’ value to future employers. These companies’ prestigious, no-strings-attached approach appeals to Yale graduates more than the entrenched reputation of traditional teaching programs, as they encourage occupational mobility later in life.

The possibilities afforded by alternative teacher preparation programs promise more autonomy and flexibility to new recruits, while also leading to an accelerated path toward teaching in the classroom. For Yale graduates, many of these aspects help lead Yale graduates toward entering these alternative programs instead of more traditional teacher certification routes.


The Presentation

As previously stated, there are many differences between beginning a traditional teaching career in a district school and entering a classroom through an alternative teacher certification program. In order to appeal to Yale graduates, companies must effectively present the differences between these two options to Yale graduates. This includes managing the company’s’ reputation among possible recruits and manicuring the general presentation of the companies throughout the recruitment process.

Often, alternative teacher programs imitate the recruitment tactics of other popular employers of Yale graduates. By presenting themselves in this manner, companies are able to ward off many of the negative connotations that are associated with entering the education field. “Mission”-driven programs construct their rhetoric around the overall “movement” of their organization, portraying each program as a social good. For example, Success Academy Charter Schools, a network of 34 public charter schools in New York City, cites their mission as “redefining what’s possible in public education” by serving students “from low-income households” (Success Academy). Two important aspects of this advertising highlight why this rhetoric is critical when attracting graduates from top-ranked universities. First, Success Academy is quick to distance itself from a traditional public education. By “redefining” public education, Success Academy subtly points out that the charter network disagrees with the current structure of public education. In doing so, potential recruits dissociate the network from the convoluted requirements of traditional public schools, a factor that is considered a deterrent, as discussed as earlier in this paper. Second, Success Academy points out that they serve a high-needs population, adding a public service component to the job.

A graphic from TFA's website that displays the organizations "public service"-based presentation.
A graphic from TFA’s website that displays the organizations “public service”-based presentation.

According to Indiana University’s Suzanne E. Eckes and Anne E. Trotter, charter schools oftentimes reference their target population in hopes of justifying their existence to parents, politicians and potential employees (Eckes & Trotter 63). In this case, Success Academy strengthens its reputation among college graduates by presenting the network’s existence as a public service. Many programs employ this theme in their advertising, expanding their identity beyond that of a simple employer. In a society where many graduates want to change the world, these programs remind potential recruits that they could do so as a part of these organizations.

On a more general level, alternative teacher certification programs also craft their reputations in a manner that appeals to high-achieving college graduates. Many of these companies cultivate an air of exclusivity around their brand, building up social clout among potential recruits. Teach For America has been the most successful at building a good reputation among college graduates. Twenty-seven years after its founding, TFA is often seen as an “elite brand that will help build” the résumé of any recent college graduate (New York Times). According to the Rebecca Klein, the education editor of The Huffington Post, Teach for America boasts a 15% acceptance rate, a number that the company tries to keep constant, even when the applicant pool diminishes (Klein). The company’s website also boasts of the “remarkable and diverse individuals” that are recruited for the program each year (Teach For America). This particular language attracts graduates from universities, like Yale, where student bodies are lauded for being both remarkable and unique. Including such language within the “mission” of the organization intentionally adds to the exclusivity of becoming a member of TFA. In response to TFA’s advertising model, most alternative teacher certification programs have adopted similar advertising strategies with the hope of attracting a “diverse” and “remarkable” cohort of recruits from top-tier colleges. Ultimately, the perceived exclusivity of these programs, the programs’ ability to separate themselves from traditional teaching careers and the portrayal of these programs as a public service help to differentiate such programs from traditional teaching avenues. Each of these aspects are meant to attract Yale graduates who would otherwise be hesitant to enter the classroom after graduating.

The Accessibility

General accessibility is another aspect of alternative teacher certification programs that helps recruit a high-percentage of Yale graduates. Unlike traditional teaching opportunities, many of these programs carry out specific recruitment tactics that are meant to target Yale students. For example, most alternative teacher certification programs have staff members (i.e. “recruitment coordinators”) who are specifically tasked with recruiting new talent from top-tier schools (Teach for America, Success Academy, Achievement First). These additional staff members allow for such programs to make their presence known on college campuses, both in a physical and a digital sense.

Before the start of their senior year, Yale students are likely to receive at least one email from one of these organizations’ recruitment managers. As the year begins, other programs may reach out to students via email and LinkedIn. Some companies (i.e. Teach for America, Success Academy) even offer on-campus interviews to students who are interested in the program (Success Academy). These early recruitment strategies generally attract a high number of students to the program’s application process, since “high-involvement recruitment practices [are] effective for [programs] with relatively high levels of advertising and reputation,” as researched by Cornell University’s Christopher J. Collins and Peking University’s Jian Han (Collin & Han 1). By recruiting students early in their senior year of college, these companies make students feel valued, while often keeping these same students from applying to more traditional teacher programs later in the year.

Another reason why these companies are so accessible to Yale students is because the university encourages these companies to cater to Yale students. According to the Yale Office of Career Services (OCS), “educational institutions may participate in the On-Campus Recruiting Program [i.e. they may promote their company/schools at any Yale OCS recruitment event] free of charge” (Yale OCS). While all educational institutions in a Yale recruitment event, alternative teaching programs are more likely to have staff members who can travel to New Haven to represent the companies at such events. Traditional school systems are more likely to employ general human resources personnel rather than full-time recruitment managers, thus leaving many of these schools out of Yale’s “On-Campus Recruiting Program.” As a result, alternative teaching programs that attend Yale recruitment events are that much more accessible to Yale students.


The Response of Traditional District Schools

        Recently, traditional public schools and their respective districts have gone to new lengths in order to attract graduates from high-ranking colleges, many of whom would otherwise join alternative teaching programs. While many of these school districts lack the manpower to directly recruit talent from these top-tier schools, they are establishing new programs that have comparable opportunities to popular alternative teacher certification programs. One notable example of this is the NYC Teaching Fellows program, a program founded in 2000 by the NYC Department of Education, which recruits highly-accomplished individuals to teach high-need New York City classrooms (NYC Teaching Fellows). Unlike most alternative teacher certification programs, NYC Teaching Fellows is directly linked to a specific school district. Even though these newly-established programs include certain complications that come with teaching in traditional public schools, the presentation and opportunities of NYC Teaching Fellows compares to those of other alternative teaching programs (i.e. TFA, charter school networks, etc.). (Note: Teach Kentucky, an alternative teacher certification program associated with Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, KY, has attracted seven Yale graduates since it’s founding in 2001 (Teach Kentucky). Similar in many ways to NYC Teaching Fellows, Teach Kentucky and its history of recruitment alludes to the possibility that alternative teacher certification programs employed by traditional district schools can appeal Yale graduates.)


        There are many reasons why the majority of Yale graduates choose to enter alternative teacher certification programs run by para-district organizations or charter school networks. Whether it be the complicated politics or lack of autonomy in traditional public schools, the exclusive presentation and overall accessibility of these non-traditional programs or the expedited path to the classroom that alternative teacher certification an provides to recent college graduates, there is a much higher contingent of Yale graduates who enter these programs.

        This trend brings up the questions: How can traditional teacher certification programs adapt in order to attract graduates from top-tier schools? Would a greater amount of graduates from high-ranked college benefit help the districts themselves? Why or why not? Do these graduates have actual advantages in the classroom?




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