Higher Education

Trying new approaches to teacher training

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Joyce Randall, an AUSL graduate, now teaches high-school history in Chicago. (Photo by Justin Snider)

CHICAGO—Joyce Randall, who’s in her third year of teaching history to 10th-graders in her hometown of Chicago, is blunt about the effort needed to succeed at her work. “This is a difficult job for anyone to do for a long period of time, especially for the money we’re paid,” she says. The 26-year-old spent 12 months at the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a hands-on residency program for future educators, where she gained both practical experience and a master’s degree. “You need more than just a passion for the job,” she notes wryly.

Over the past several decades, a debate has simmered over how to bring fresh talent into the nation’s school systems. A variety of programs and models are being tried, but the jury is still out as to which will prove most effective in meeting the one measure that matters most—improving student achievement over the long term. Some of the best-known training programs in the United States are fast-tracking candidates, including Teach For America (TFA), which received more than 46,000 applications for about 4,500 spots last year. TFA’s summer training institutes, held at eight locations around the country, last only five weeks. By August or September, all trainees are working full-time in the classroom. While studies of student achievement have shown that TFA teachers perform, on average, as well or better than their traditionally prepared and veteran colleagues, keeping them in classrooms has proven a challenge. Only about half of the TFA graduates stick with teaching beyond their two-year commitment.

To address such problems, educators across the country have been trying new approaches, particularly in urban areas plagued by poverty and high dropout rates. Teacher residency programs, like Joyce Randall’s, reflect one new model that is spreading with the support of the Obama administration and on the strength of its initial results. Over the past two years, the federal government has awarded $143 million to 40 universities and other organizations across the country to set up residencies or to overhaul their existing teacher education systems.

One recipient of the federal funds is the University of California–Los Angeles, which has created an 18-month program for students interested in teaching pre-K, kindergarten, special education, secondary math, or secondary science. Graduates earn a master’s degree in education and a preliminary teaching credential from the state of California. UCLA’s program and others like it are modeled on medical schools, where residents spend significant time doing rounds in hospitals, observing veteran doctors, and gradually taking on more responsibilities under expert supervision.

Traditional teacher preparation programs have often been criticized for not offering similar clinical experiences. The residencies aim to change that. Participants observe master teachers, write lesson plans, design assessments, and slowly assume the reins from their mentors in the classroom. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted that programs like TFA and AUSL produce fewer than 10,000 of the 200,000 new teachers needed each year in the United States. To meet this shortfall, President Barack Obama called in February 2009 for the creation of 200 teacher residency programs to prepare up to 30,000 recruits annually.

Student apprentices

AUSL, where Randall trained, is the type of rigorous program Duncan and Obama have in mind. Founded in 2001 by a teacher-turned-venture-capitalist and a former inner-city school principal, the Chicago-based nonprofit offers a year-long graduate program that starts each June with coursework and small doses of teaching (in the form of one-on-one tutoring). Aspiring teachers, called “apprentices,” earn a master’s degree from either National-Louis University or the Erikson Institute, and teaching credentials from the state of Illinois. Admission to the program is highly competitive. Last year, 933 people applied for 85 spots. The program reports that over 90 percent of its students find teaching positions immediately after graduation.

Randall, teaching history to 10th-graders in Chicago. (Photo by Justin Snider)

Another important test of success, says Brian Sims, managing director of AUSL’s residency, is whether principals “keep our resident graduates on staff”—which, he notes, they almost always do, though they have the power to let teachers go any time before tenure is awarded. Part of the attraction of AUSL and similar programs is that those who enroll don’t necessarily have to go deeply into debt. Historically, teacher education programs—especially at the graduate level—have been cash cows for many institutions, with students paying upwards of $50,000 to earn degrees and state certification.

To make a teaching career more financially feasible, a handful of programs now offer both a sizable stipend and discounted tuition to enrollees. The federal government, through numerous grant programs, is footing a large part of the bill. AUSL gives each of its residents a $30,000 stipend, which makes it possible for most to concentrate fully on the program instead of working part time, while National-Louis University provides a tuition discount of just over 50 percent. And those who take out federal Stafford loans can have up to $17,500 in principal and interest forgiven if they go on to teach math, science, or special education in a high-needs school for at least five consecutive years.

Columbia University’s Teachers College, in New York City, launched a 14-month residency program last September with 20 students seeking to become teachers of English as a second language or special education in the Big Apple. Each participant receives a $22,500 stipend as well as substantially discounted tuition while earning a master’s degree and state certification.

In New Jersey, Montclair State University has partnered with the Newark public schools to offer two urban residency programs for future educators. A 12-month program is geared toward those wishing to teach secondary math or science, and it comes with a $26,000 stipend. An 18-month program prepares early-childhood and elementary school teachers, who also earn special education credentials. Those who enroll receive a $39,000 stipend. Both programs cover tuition and some fees at Montclair State. Other institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the colleges of education and science at Texas State University–San Marcos, have developed similar urban residency programs in partnership with local school systems.

Graduates of such programs who leave before fulfilling their teaching commitments typically must pay back all or part of the stipends and tuition discounts they have received. This might help explain why 85 to 90 percent of alumni from the oldest programs—in Boston, Chicago, and Denver—are still in the classroom after five years, compared to a national average of about 50 percent for all new teachers. The other likely explanation for the higher retention rates is that residency training simply prepares urban teachers better for the daily realities they face.

Most states are still developing the costly and complex data systems needed to track student performance over time and to link it to individual teachers. Urban residency programs have shown early signs of success, but in the years to come it will be the hard data on classroom achievement that will ultimately reveal their effectiveness.

A version of this story appeared in the 2012 edition of U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Graduate Schools.”

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Justin Snider

Justin Snider is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report. He is an assistant dean at Columbia University, where he also teaches undergraduate writing. Previously,… See Archive

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