As the challenge of recruiting a new generation of teachers gains increasing urgency, what's old is being made new again. Apprenticeship, an approach to job training used across the globe dating back as far as the Middle Ages, is meant to get workers on the path to a new career at little to no personal cost, all while continuing to earn an income. While it has been a historic mainstay in American industries like the building and construction trades and has even gained an early foothold in early childhood education, apprenticeship has been slow to reach K-12 teaching—at least until now.
The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced that Tennessee will sponsor the country's first Registered Apprenticeship for K-12 teachers. The program will accept 650 applicants in its first year, with slots open to high school seniors, non-certified school employees, and community members.
Following a "learn and earn" model of workforce development, apprentices learn the skills for a job through a combination of coursework and time spent learning on the job under the supervision of a mentor, all while earning an hourly wage that increases as apprentices gain skills, along with a credential (usually a license, but sometimes also a degree). Apprenticeships are typically designed as partnerships between an employer, an education partner, and a sponsor. Tennessee, as sponsor, has partnered with Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools as the employer and two higher education institutions, Nashville State Community College and Austin Peay University as education partners.
Tennessee apprentices will be employed as paraprofessionals working under the supervision of a mentor teacher, all while taking courses toward a bachelor's degree in early elementary education. As they demonstrate new competencies under supervision of their mentor teacher, apprentices will earn wage increases. In addition to earning a bachelor's degree in elementary education, all apprentices in this initial district will earn certification in a specific grade or subject area along with a dual certification in special education.
Some may wonder how a Registered Apprenticeship model is substantially different from the more commonly found Grow Your Own and residency models that so many districts and states have started. In the broadest terms, the difference boils down to both new funding and quality control (through the application process and strict requirements for program design). Registered Apprenticeships are approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, meaning they have met the Department's standards for rigor and quality. A Registered Apprenticeship confers a nationally-recognized credential for apprentices, along with worker protections like minimum pay rules, and unlocks state and federal workforce dollars to fund the program, among other benefits.
Apprenticeship may prove an appealing and viable alternative to the traditional path to teaching: the high cost of higher education can make completing a degree difficult and less appealing to many candidates, particularly those without the means to comfortably take on debt and time away from work. And given how notoriously leaky the teacher pipeline is—losing many candidates between initial interest and final placement in a teaching role—apprenticeship could represent a more seamless and supportive approach, less likely to shed candidates as the result of inadequate support.
Even with quality controls in place, success inevitably depends on the details. To guarantee a quality learning experience for apprentices, the sponsor must select a strong teacher prep program partner and ensure that candidates are taking courses aligned with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, and that apprentices are paired with an effective mentor teacher.
While apprenticeships are being eyed as a tool to address teacher shortages and the diversity gap, it is not yet clear the extent to which they will impact these longstanding challenges. However, Tennessee's new program, designed in part to alleviate a chronic shortage of special educators, could be a strong test case for how states might make a dent in their workforce needs if they are driven to address specific and documented shortages. The idea is gaining popularity, so there may be more known in the coming years: swiftly on the heels of Tennessee, Iowa was approved for its own Registered Teacher and Paraprofessional Apprenticeship.