Moving Beyond the Binary of Traditional versus Alternative Programs

“You know, I do not actually believe in alternative teacher preparation programs…” This past year I have heard similar words uttered countless times since I started working for LDA Minnesota’s alternative teacher preparation program. Most recently they were spoken by a retired teacher I was talking with, but I have heard them everywhere from national conferences to a Minnesota think tank for increasing teacher racial diversity in our teacher workforce… “You know, I do not actually think alternative teacher preparation programs can be rigorous enough to prepare teachers like the university I work for.”

And the rhetoric goes both ways. One of the largest alternative teacher preparation programs in the country makes it clear in its website’s messaging that they can do a better job than traditional programs to provide districts and states with a high performing, racially diverse teacher workforce. At LDA Minnesota, I have also pushed us time and again to show our strengths as a rigorous, student-centered program in opposition to traditional programs in this state – our primary competition for applicants. And there lies the problem. We, LDA included, have fallen into the traps of scarcity, competition, and conflict – setting up an “us” and “them” mentality.

Alex Iantaffi writes in Beyond Binaries, “The first step to conflict frequently—if not always—involves framing something as a debate between two positions, one of which is assumed to be ‘right- and the other ‘wrong’. We then ‘pick a side’, polarizing into ‘us and them’ where ‘we’ are right and therefore good and ‘they’ are wrong and therefore bad. This often legitimizes increasingly unacceptable behavior towards ‘them’ because if we are on the side of the ‘right’, then we are justified in doing whatever we have to in order to win (rather than lose). Also, remaining haunted by the idea that we might actually be on the other side of the binary (wrong or bad) can make us fight all the harder to defend our position.”

In Minnesota, we have some big, systemic problems to overcome in K12 education: like racially predictive academic achievement gaps that favor white people, socioeconomically predictive academic achievement gaps that favor the wealthy, linguistically predictive academic achievement gaps that favor native English speakers, disability status predictive achievement gaps that favor the non-disabled, and varying intersections of all of these inequities that compound inequitable access for many. We could mention disproportionality in Special Education qualification in Minnesota like the fact that Native American and Indigenous students are 3 times as likely as white students to qualify for special education services. Or we could mention that we have little racial diversity in our teacher workforce (we have maintained a 96% white teacher workforce for years), despite increases in the racial diversity of our student populations (currently, 30% of students are identified as persons of color of Native American and Indigenous people).

The fact remains that an us versus them binary will not support overcoming our systemic inequities in education in Minnesota. Additionally, the rhetoric that the differences between Alternative and Traditional programs goes any further than the fact that one is affiliated with a college or university and can lead to a degree and one is not is actually a false binary. In Minnesota, Alternative and Traditional programs must both follow the same approval process and meet the same requirements and standards for teacher candidates. As such, when we step back and look at the research, there is a vast blurring of the lines between alternative and traditional routes, with more variation within a single preparation route than between routes. We need to move beyond division and competition and work together. Alex Iantaffi writes, “To consider life from a non-binary perspective is about shifting our framework away from a rigid either/or perspective, towards both/and possibilities, which embrace paradox and uncertainty.”

Both alternative and traditional programs have failed K12 students in many ways, and both traditional and alternative programs need to work together to do better and can do better. While I am by no means certain about what “working together” as a group of teacher preparation institutions in Minnesota means or looks like, I wonder what the possibilities could achieve? I wonder how we could change the face of teacher preparation in Minnesota if we moved beyond scarcity and competitive mindsets? I wonder how we could change our inequitable educational outcomes for K-12 students?

As a program that only accepts 20 candidates a year, even if we think in our biased perspectives that we have all the answers here at LDA – we could only ever provide a drop in the bucket of change. The system may have set us up for conflict; to think there is a scarcity of potential teacher candidates who we all need to compete for. But if we looked at the issue from another, collective perspective, we might actually do better by working together to reshape the face of teacher licensure in Minnesota.


Submitted by Ian McLaughlin, LDA Program Manager/Teacher Coach

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