Education Schools Need More On-the-Job Training

Or so teaching-residency advocates say

What if surgeons learned to operate by studying textbooks and received only a few weeks of on-the-job training? Who would dare go under the knife?

Lucky for us, surgeons hone their skills in intensive years-long residencies during which they practice under seasoned pros. Education theorists are increasingly arguing that teacher training should be just as rigorous. Year after year, these critics say, education schools churn out graduates armed with a little teaching theory and a few weeks of student teaching under their belts. It’s not until these new teachers are slapped into high-needs schools that reality sets in. The cognitive-development class they took isn’t very useful with living, breathing students who may not always sit up straight, raise their hands, or respond politely when called on.

That’s why the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) says that the education of teachers in the United States “needs to be turned upside down.” The NCATE panel issued a report in November calling for more clinical preparation of teachers. “To prepare effective teachers for 21st century classrooms,” wrote the panel, education schools “must move to programs that are fully grounded in clinical practice and interwoven with academic content and professional courses.”

Illustration by Rachel Harris


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In a speech praising the report, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the Education Department will double the amount it spends on teacher preparation to $235 million next year. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded 28 teacher-training programs $43 million in Teacher Quality Partnership grants; 19 of the awardees are creating teacher residency programs.

As if on cue, teaching residencies are popping up across the country. In New York, Columbia Teachers College just launched one. And entering its second year is a 14-month residency created by New Visions for Public Schools and Hunter College in partnership with Urban Teacher Residency United, a network of 13 clinical programs across the U.S.

Where most states require 10 to 14 weeks of student teaching, New Visions–Hunter students are in classrooms four days a week for 14 months. Graduates must teach in high-needs schools for four years. The program has so far placed 36 residents in 11 schools, and plans on placing 48 residents next year: 16 in math, 16 in science, and 16 in special education.

New Visions–Hunter provides residents with free tuition and a $22,500 stipend, plus health benefits. These costs are covered by federal grants, private foundations, and the New York City Department of Education. NCATE president James Cibulka says school districts are increasingly willing to work closely with education programs, in hopes of getting better-prepared teachers and reducing turnover.

Marisa Harford, the senior program officer for New Visions–Hunter, argues that the program gets a good return on its investment. The program’s first-year residents, according to an external evaluation, performed at or above the level of other teachers in the same subject area in their schools, as measured by students’ test scores, course grades, and credit accumulation.

Education programs have long been criticized for teaching theory divorced from practice, and therefore inadequately preparing their graduates for the classroom. A 2006 report by Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, found that most teaching-school alumni felt ill-prepared to teach after graduation. As a result, the burden of training and retraining teachers has fallen on school districts.

Jillian Coneys, a graduate of the New Visions–Hunter residency who now teaches English at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Manhattan, says that during her residency she taught non-native speakers who were reading below their level. Her mentor suggested that Coneys read assigned books aloud to students. Coneys worried that this would shortchange her students, who needed to practice reading if they were going to improve, and shared her reservations in one of her Hunter classes. The professor suggested she turn the book into a script. That way, Coneys could read as the narrator, and the students could practice reading the characters’ dialogue.

“This was a total team effort,” Coneys says. “It was a way for me to teach students some of my reading strategies and then slowly pull them off the training wheels. On the second day of reading this way, one student said to me: ‘Yo, Miss, this book is poppin’.’ They were getting it, and that meant that they could discuss the book at a much higher level.”

Not everyone is cheering ed schools’ foray into residency programs. Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research calls the teacher residency programs the “flavor of the month.” He is skeptical about how successful they’ll be, particularly if they are associated with education schools, which, he says, employ middling scholarly talents whose research is of negligible value.

“I think teacher residency programs are terrific, but it’s very easy for them to be awful,” Hess says. Many mentors, he says, are “former teachers, principals, or superintendents who have now been at ed schools for five to 15 years and whose practical expertise may well be suspect. Frankly, if I want to be coached on how to handle discipline in school or how to maintain classroom order, I’d much rather be coached by a master veteran teacher in the classroom.”

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