In suburban Atlanta, the 95,000-student Fulton County Schools hosted 270 prospects in its student teaching training program each year, but hired barely 10% of them.
In rural Louisiana, the 2,600-student Richland Parish School Board was lucky to attract two or three student teachers per year, and even luckier to hire just one.
Two years ago, both districts set out to change those odds. The big district wanted a better return on investment; the small district wanted aspiring teachers to discover all it had to offer.
Today, officials in both school systems say they are succeeding, with the help of longer, better-funded and more rigorous student-teacher experiences, often called teacher residencies. Borrowed from the world of medical education, residencies are designed to offer a more immersive teacher-training experience than the typical student-teaching stint.
In Fulton County, last year’s pilot-program crop of 45 student teachers produced 36 hires. Richland Parish hosted 11 residents over two years, hiring nine, and has 11 more residents starting this fall.
“We’ve been able to attract some of the best and brightest candidates,” says Richland Parish Superintendent Sheldon Jones. “It’s creating that pipeline that we truly wanted to see.”
Establishing residency in student teacher training
The shortcomings of the traditional student-teaching model are no secret: A supervised, unpaid semester of practice, followed by a solo plunge into the classroom, too often leaves first-year teachers floundering and unsure of how to apply textbook theories to on-the-ground reality.
“It’s not enough. Folks need more direct experience with students,” says Phelton Moss, director of Educator Talent Acquisition and Effectiveness at the Mississippi Department of Education, which just launched a state-run residency program that will require aspiring teachers to spend 15 hours per week in the classroom during their last two years of college.
Teacher residency models vary. Some serve students during their last year or two of college, while others are designed for college graduates. Compensation can range from very modest to five-figure stipends. Most programs require a year of virtually full-time work under the supervision of a mentor, sometimes with a guaranteed job at the end.
That full-year commitment provides the opportunity for deeper learning, says Vickie Spanos, who administers a year-old residency program in California’s 40,000-student Kern High School District.
“The student teacher can see the whole cycle of what it takes to be a teacher,” says Spanos. That includes “How do we start; what happens through the year; how do you give all the grades; how do teachers meet, communicate, confer; how do you interact with parents. Those are the kinds of things that I don’t think you get a full view of when you go through the regular program.”
Residencies can help districts address a host of challenges, advocates say.
Residency programs can focus on hard-to-staff areas such as STEM or special education. Substantial stipends can draw candidates from less affluent and more diverse backgrounds.
And at a time when over 40% of new teachers leave the profession within five years, the rigorous training that residencies promote improves retention, saving recruitment costs that can run as high as $20,000 per new employee.
“Teachers that are prepared through residencies stick around,” says Kent Fischer, communications director at the National Center for Teacher Residencies. “They’re committed, they’re well trained and set up for success, and as a result, there’s not a revolving door.”
Residency graduates arrive in classrooms better prepared and are qualitatively different teachers on day one, says Marquita Grenot-Scheyer, an assistant vice chancellor in the California State University system, which offers scholarships for teacher residency participants. “They’re much more grounded in the practice of the daily life of a teacher,” she says.
Residencies aren’t inexpensive. Per-person costs range from a few thousand dollars to as much as $60,000, depending on the size of the stipends. Some school districts fund programs by soliciting grants or splitting costs with university or nonprofit partners. Others rely on state funding or on federal Title I or Title II dollars.
Building from within
Why should school district leaders invest in changing the status quo? Because they often hire their own student teachers.
A Spokane Public Schools study conducted by Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington in Seattle, found that 40% of new hires had done their student teaching in the district.
Advocates also suggest repurposing existing funds in ways that integrate residents into school life. For example, district leaders can assign student teachers to spend one day per week as substitutes, paying residency stipends out of the sub budget, or split a paraprofessional salary among several residents.
In Louisiana’s Richland Parish, where the district spends $5,000 per resident, principals “can have three residents for what it costs for one paraprofessional,” says administrator Rebecca Freeland.
Boosting partnerships, screening
For a school district, administrators say, the first step in improving the hands-on training of aspiring teachers is building close partnerships with the universities that prepare and assign student teachers—a process that can require negotiations.
“Your partnerships have to be more than lip service,” says Ron Wade, chief talent officer for Fulton County Schools. “It has to be something where everyone is very clear on ‘What’s in it for me?’”
Close relationships can align expectations and mesh college curricula with school district needs. Partnerships ensure logistical coordination, too: For example, schedules can be synchronized so college students can start student teaching on the district’s first day of school.
And although residencies are increasingly seen as the gold standard for teacher preparation, experts say it’s still possible for school districts working within more traditional models to better prepare aspiring teachers and to persuade more of them to remain on the job permanently.
Careful screening of the mentor teachers who supervise student teachers is one especially crucial lever. Research by Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington in Seattle, has shown that student teachers training under mentors who are effective teachers go on to become more effective teachers themselves.
District administrators can also screen potential student teachers more thoroughly, accepting only those with good academic records and a clear commitment to staying in the profession. They also can limit the number of student teaching slots being offered in oversubscribed subject areas. And they can ask for college curricula that are better suited to their programmatic needs.
In Florida’s School District of Palm Beach County, officials meet with local university personnel four times per year to discuss topics such as social-emotional learning and bullying prevention to encourage the universities to incorporate Palm Beach’s approach into coursework, says Sharon Martinez, the district’s manager of professional development.
Read more: How to gamify K-12 professional development
“I don’t think districts realize the power they have with higher ed,” says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “They’re the only ones who can go back to higher ed and say, ‘If you don’t fix your reading course, you’re not going to place any student teachers with us.’”
Investing for the future
Ultimately, investing in strong student teacher programs can pay off in well-prepared new employees.
“You have to invest in preparing teachers in a high-quality way,” says Marisa Harford, director of teacher residencies at New York City nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools. “And if you prepare teachers in a high-quality way, they’re going to be retained longer, they’re going to be more efficacious, and they’re going to be more likely to become those leaders that you need.”
Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.