Alternative certification isn't alternative, redux.

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Stephen Sawchuk has a good article out today about teacher residency programs. Residencies are supposed to be the most "alternative" of alternative routes into the profession, providing intensive support to novice teachers in their first year or so in the classroom and substantially reducing the load of overly "theoretical" courses that education schools often demand. Philanthropy and the federal government have been pouring substantial amounts of money into teacher residencies over the past few years, though as Sawchuk points out the federal spigot may soon be turned off.

It's worthwhile re-asking the question NCTQ raised a few years back: Just how "alternative" are these teacher residency programs? Reading over the article I was struck by what the directors were concerned with, and what they weren't. It sure seems as though the directors are more focused on teacher production than teacher quality.

Concern directors should have: How do we attract the most academically capable candidates into our programs?

Actual concern of directors: High GPA requirements shrink the pool of applicants:
"We had over 50 applicants, but a lot of them didn't meet our criteria," said one director.

Getting a lot more reasonably smart people — i.e., students with a B average, which is the bar many residencies set — into the profession is no mean feat of course, and it will take policy changes at a number of levels, including in teacher preparation. But we know from the experience of Teach for America and New Teacher Project, among other alternative route programs, that it can be done. None of the directors of these programs seem to have stopped to think what they might be able to learn from them to improve the academic profile of their applicant pool.

Concern directors should have: How do we make sure our candidates know the subjects they will teach?

Actual concern of directors: State standards are forcing us to cram in coursework:
"Leaders of the Indianapolis Teacher Residency, for example combined separate courses in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — teaching methods and secondary education methods, using faculty co-teaching to streamline the requirements."

We know all too well that state standards can sometimes keep out perfectly well-qualified candidates from teaching their subjects (one of the directors in Virginia cites the example of a Cornell grad with a major in sociology who had to be turned away because he or she wasn't "qualified" to teach social studies). But shouldn't directors really be focused on determining what their teacher candidates actually do know — perhaps by testing them —  and figuring out how they could fill in any gaps they find? 

Concern directors should have: How can we make sure that residents are placed with the most effective teachers so that they can learn from the best?

Actual concern of directors: We need to raise our compensation for mentor teachers to get more of them to work with our residents:
"[One director] said the $1,000 her program awarded might not have been enough of an incentive for teachers to take on the rewarding, but delicate, task of sharing their classrooms for a full year."

To be fair, the directors interviewed for the article were indeed very focused on the issue of mentor teachers. But they appear to be most concerned about the mentor teacher's ability to work with "adult learners" and devising ways of training the mentors to be better coaches for the residents. Judging from the article, relatively little attention is being paid to identifying teachers who have the greatest impact on student learning, which presumably is the most important characteristic of any teacher who is, in essence, serving as the chief instructor for a novice teacher (Look for our upcoming study on student teaching which will zero in on this very issue.)

I certainly hope that these programs are doing a good job at getting their teacher candidates ready to succeed in the classroom. But I found myself nodding in agreement with Ellen Lagermann, the former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who notes at the end of the article that "the only real variation people have built into these programs is where they fall on the spectrum of theory and practice." If she's right, then can we really expect that teacher residency programs are going to get much more in the way of results than traditional teacher prep?

Arthur McKee