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Investing in the teaching profession

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The school year has begun for children and teachers; it also needs to begin for Congress. At the core of the federal government’s small but vital role in Pre-K-12 education is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). First introduced in 1965 at a time when our national leaders wanted to act on their belief that education was a civil right and a moral obligation, the law—now known as No Child Left Behind—has languished for six years awaiting reauthorization. Every day that passes is a lost opportunity for improving the lives of children, especially because this legislation could be designed to support fundamental changes to the teaching profession.

Ronald Thorpe

Ronald Thorpe

Title II of the law—“Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High Quality Teachers and Principals”—is the federal government’s chance to make a strategic investment in creating a quality teaching workforce. The $2.5 billion now connected to Title II is used mostly to reduce class size and support unconnected professional development opportunities, neither of which leads to widespread and sustainable improvement in student achievement. That $2.5 billion could have a profound and lasting impact if it were used instead to support a network of “residency schools” that would strengthen the quality of teachers and principals in the same way that teaching hospitals ensure the quality of physicians.

There is much talk about the need to improve teacher (and principal) preparation programs in our country. Indeed, those programs can be a whole lot better in the more than 1,000 colleges and universities where the bulk of this preparation takes place. But to focus solely on those institutions is not enough because teaching—like many other professions—is far too complex to rely on the undergraduate years alone to produce a teacher who can do well walking into a classroom with only a bachelor’s degree and a license to teach. We need a full-blown, universal residency model that would have every newly licensed teacher spending at least one year in education’s version of the teaching hospital, practicing in real conditions under the supervision of accomplished teachers.

Congress knows this model well. Medical residencies are considered so vital to the training of physicians that the federal government supports these residency programs with more than $11 billion annually (from Medicare and Medicaid), while states contribute another $3.78 billion. Through these and other programs, the public puts $500,000 behind each resident, and about 115,000 residents are trained in the nation’s 1,000 teaching hospitals every year. In terms of dollars, that investment may seem staggering, but not when one considers what a less-skilled medical workforce might cost the country.

What would education be like if the federal government invested the $2.5 billion of Title II in similar preparation for teachers? And how different would teaching be if the profession expected each of its newly licensed teachers to spend at least one year in a residency school?

To replicate the medical model, we would need 5,000-6,000 residency schools, or approximately five percent of the nation’s public schools. Each would support 15-30 resident teachers. Some of these schools would be new, but the majority would be existing schools reconstituted according to the criteria established to qualify for Title II funds. Of primary concern would be the presence of a first-rate teaching staff made up largely, if not entirely, by National Board Certified Teachers. States and districts would lead the process of creating these schools, but the residency experience would be determined in collaboration with the profession, as it is in medicine. Most residency schools would be operated by districts, but universities and other entities might also qualify (depending on state restrictions).

The basic cost of each school—i.e., the per-pupil cost that already exists in the district—would be borne by the community as currently happens. The additional costs related to being a residency school, including the salary for residents and higher salaries for those supervising them, would come from Title II.

Over time, such schools would transform the teaching profession with the ultimate result of higher levels of student learning and smaller achievement gaps. Because residencies would not be guaranteed for all teachers, selectivity into the profession would increase, ensuring that the investment would be in teachers who have the greatest capacity to succeed with students. Attrition among teachers in their first five years—a terrible and costly problem—would likely decrease because young teachers would be better prepared for their work.

Teaching warrants such an investment. As Lee Shulman, one of our most respected scholars on the professions, has written: “The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity [to a classroom] would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.” And since the stakes in classrooms are just as high, our children deserve this investment.

As Congress works to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, it should redirect Title II funds toward creating residency schools. The profession, too, must commit to such a change and support this critical step between undergraduate preparation and becoming a fully autonomous teacher. It is a bold investment, but one that could do for teachers and students what we have long done for physicians and their patients.

Ronald Thorpe is president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. He can be reached at rthorpe@nbpts.org.

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