Do-It-Yourself Teacher Training
Districts take over teacher preparation to get the candidates they need. But does it work? And is the extra effort worth it?
By Alexander Russo
Frustrated with the quality of new teachers being turned out by existing methods, a handful of urban school districts including Boston, Denver, Chattanooga, and Chicago are pursuing a promising new middle road between traditional university-based programs and fast-track alternative certification: district-run teacher preparation.
Developing one of these programs is not for the faint of heart, say those who have led the way. "This is a really challenging alternative to starting a fast-track program," says Jesse Solomon, director of the Boston program. "You have to have your stuff together."
That's because the district, rather than a university-based teacher education program, is responsible for training and certifying its own teachers. The district develops its own curriculum, trains and mentors teachers on its own, and credentials them once they graduate.
The Boston Teacher Residency program is probably the best known of these fledgling efforts. In place since 2003, it includes a yearlong, full-time internship in a school with tailored instruction based on Boston's unique student population, history, and curriculum approach. The instructors of the program have a mix of field experience and academic qualifications, and everyone who participates comes out with a dual certification in a subject and in special education.
The Boston program has 53 students clustered in 10 schools and 43 graduates from the first two years out teaching in the district. Working four days a week with master teachers plus one day as students, participants get their master's degree and a $10,000 stipend in exchange for an agreement to teach in the district for at least three years.
There are variations among the different district-based efforts. The $5 million Chicago program, called the Academy for Urban School Leadership, groups its 48 trainees at just three teacher training schools (including two elementary schools and one high school), provides a $30,000 stipend, and requires a five-year commitment in exchange for a master's degree and intensive training. The district provides about half of the funding for the project.
Regardless of these design variations, preparing even a small portion of the new teachers needed every year is not an easy task for districts already stretched thin with other responsibilities.
Boston enjoys several advantages over other districts considering this approach. There was already a state law allowing the district to train and certify its own teachers. Thanks in large part to the reputation of its highly regarded superintendent, Tom Payzant, the district was able to generate foundation support for the effort. The district also benefits from the Boston Plan for Excellence, a nonprofit organization that implements this and other programs on behalf of the district.
Even then, creating and running the program is challenging. Boston had to invent its own curriculum and think through its relationships with existing teacher training programs. It had to figure out new ways to select and support the mentors who work with candidates and also develop a recruitment and selection process that addresses the district's needs for diversity as well as math and science teachers. Roughly half of the current Boston candidates are nonwhite, and not everyone who applied is accepted into the program.
One remaining challenge in Boston will be whether the district ramps up its contribution to the program. This year, the district is paying a quarter of the $2 million in costs and is slated to cover 40 percent next year. An influx of federal dollars via the AmeriCorps program, however, could take some of the financial pressure off.
Another challenge will be winning the respect of the traditional teacher preparation community and the principals who hire new teachers. Thus far, the teachers union has been supportive, while the higher-education community has been skeptical. In response, the Boston program is in the process of applying for NCATE accreditation.