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Teacher Residencies: The Future of Teacher Prep?

The hands-on approach is growing but whether it can deliver on promises remains to be seen.

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Stubborn achievement gaps, troubling rates of teacher turnover, and a student population that is increasingly more black and brown than its teachers.

These are just a few of the realities that have prompted a rethinking of how teachers are prepared and trained in the United States today, with many questioning the traditional, college-based teacher prep programs that are the typical gateway to the classroom.

One alternative approach gaining traction is teacher residencies. Advocates say its hands-on approach and emphasis on developing concrete skills for the classroom represents the future of teacher preparation.

Dozens of teacher residency programs have cropped up in the last decade and many states appear poised to expand their support for residencies in years to come. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia include residency programs in their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 federal education law that grants states greater leeway in supporting school accountability and teacher quality.

Learning by Doing

Modeled after medical residencies for aspiring doctors, teacher residency programs combine graduate-level coursework at a university with a full year of student teaching. The aspiring teacher is paired in a classroom with an experienced educator who serves as a mentor.

“At first, residents are mostly observing and assisting,” explained Kent Fischer, the communications director for the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR), a nonprofit organization that develops and supports residency programs. “As the school year progresses, the teacher gradually gives you more control of classroom. By March or so, you’re the teacher.”

Typically, the programs lead to both a teaching credential and a master’s degree, and involve a partnership between a participating university and a local school district.

As some states and districts have struggled to recruit and retain teachers, traditional four-year teacher programs have come under increased scrutiny. Critics claim they fail to provide aspiring teachers with the practical experience they’ll need to confront the day-to-day challenges of being in the classroom—instead emphasizing pedagogy and theory.

The teacher residency model seeks to prepare teachers to be ready on ‘Day 1,’ while also addressing the lack of diversity among the teaching field. Nationally, about 49 percent of residents are people of color, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a California-based education policy think tank. About a quarter of aspiring teachers in traditional programs are racial or ethnic minorities.

Alternative teacher certification pathways are nothing new. Thousands of teachers bypass colleges of education through programs like Teach For America where the traditional four years of teacher preparation are condensed to a span of weeks. In 2013, 15 percent of new teachers came out of alternative programs which are typically a much faster pathway to the classroom for aspiring teachers.

What makes the teacher residency model different than other alternative programs is its intensive focus on student-teaching. Most residents receive at least 900 hours of student-teaching experience.

Traditional preparation programs vary in their student-teaching requirement, but typically require 400 to 600 hours of student teaching. And many alternative certification programs, such as Teach For America, provide even fewer student teaching opportunities.

By the time residents are fully-certified teachers with their own classrooms, “they’re rolling in really as a ‘year two’ teacher rather than a ‘year one’ teacher,” Fischer said.

Theory versus Practice

Boosted by philanthropic support and federal funding, the residency model appears to be growing.

“[NCTR] used to be the only organization advocating for teacher residencies, and that’s not really true anymore,” Fischer said. “We’re seeing a growing demand from districts and colleges.”

At least 50 teacher-residency programs exist nationwide, according to the Learning Policy Institute. They range in size from small programs serving as few as five aspiring teachers per year to those serving up to 100 residents, the institute says. Urban Teachers, the Relay Graduate School of Education, TNTP, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation are a few other organizations that operate or support teacher-residency programs.

Underlying teacher residencies is the belief that teaching is something best learned by observing and doing. The idea is that practical skills like redirecting students when they misbehave, collaborating with colleagues and administrators, and communicating with parents can’t be learned from a textbook.

But some argue that residencies fail to provide aspiring teachers with important grounding in topics like educational theory, pedagogy, and child development—the kind of academic coursework that teachers receive in traditional, college-based preparation programs.

Complicating the “theory versus practice” debate is the fact that research on teacher prep has not been able to consistently pinpoint what kinds of preparation programs produce the most effective teachers.

As for teacher residencies, research regarding their impact on student achievement and teacher recruitment and retention is still relatively limited. Early results have reached mixed conclusions.

A report from the Learning Policy Institute cited several studies that found “largely positive” effects on student achievement, but cautioned that “additional studies, using a range of measures of student learning and outcomes over time, are needed for more definitive findings.”

Residency programs aren’t cheap. According to NCTR, the average cost to prepare a resident is about $50,000—typically paid for by a mix of funding from school districts, higher education partners, and philanthropies.

But some school districts are willing to front part of that cost in hope of improving teacher quality and reducing turnover. High rates of teacher turnover are expensive for districts and typically have a negative impact on student achievement. In most residency programs, residents commit to working in the district in which they’ve trained for a period of time.

The most comprehensive study to date found that teachers who had gone through a residency program were more likely than other new teachers to remain in their districts, but not more likely to remain in their school during their first three years.

According to NCTR’s own analyses, more than 85 percent of graduates from their residency programs are still teaching in their school three years after being hired.

When considering this research, it’s important to note that residency programs vary in quality, design, and cost.

Future Outlook for Residencies

Going forward, with the support of major education foundations, the teacher-residency model looks poised to continue to grow and could push traditional preparation programs to boost the practice-based, or clinical, components of their approaches. Already, organizations like NCTR, and the relatively new Deans for Impact, are working with colleges of education to incorporate clinical experiences for teacher candidates.

Key to the expansion of the residency model will be developing a more robust research base from which to draw best practices, experts say. Developing a sustainable funding model with a clear return on investment for school districts, as well as prospective teachers, is also likely to drive their expansion.

Despite their recent growth, teacher residencies still produce a relatively small crop of teachers each year. Still, with teacher shortages in some states and high rates of turnover in high-needs schools, teacher residencies could be an increasingly attractive option for school districts.

Story Ideas

For education reporters, there are a number of angles on teacher prep and residencies to explore. Find out if there are teacher-residency programs in your area. Interview a current resident and mentor teacher, as The Hechinger Report’s Jackie Mader did in this piece. Or take readers into a residency program as NPR’s Anya Kamenetz did here.

Talk to colleges of education to find out what student-teaching looks like in their programs and what plans, if any, they have to expand the clinical experience for their teacher candidates. For more ideas, check out EWA’s Teacher Workforce Topics page.