Lamenting the poor lot of student teaching

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Sourcing new teachers through a residency program holds lots of appeal, but the price tag—an average cost of $52,000 to deliver one teacher to a classroom—is daunting. As a business model, it's a tough sell. However, its caché is to die for.

Meanwhile its poor relation—student teaching—survives on fumes. As districts, charters, universities, philanthropists, and even the U.S. Congress enthusiastically launch and/or fund new residencies, student teaching is seen as past its due date. Dare to point out that student teaching could offer the same benefits as residencies provide—for a fraction of the price—and the conversation can get a little squirmy, as if you're suggesting resurrecting the Pony Express.

Not that there isn't plenty about student teaching to justify its sorry reputation. Having a positive student teaching experience is a roll of the dice, though those odds may be overly generous. Much of what's wrong is due to inattention to quality control. Contrast the manner in which mentor teachers for student teaching programs are apt to be selected—often by an all-call rounding up any willing volunteer among the school's faculty—with that of residencies, where a high priority is placed on selecting only the best teachers. When mentors do get handpicked for student teaching programs, it's sometimes for the worst possible reason—a struggling teacher needing backup support.

A lot of teacher prep programs speak to the difficulty of finding good mentor teachers—that increasingly many teachers won't take on a student teacher, worried that the distraction of mentoring might negatively impact instruction or hurt test scores (though the research says otherwise, provided the teacher is effective). But this issue only happens when people stop paying attention to quality control, including not just the quality of the mentor teacher, but also the student teacher. When programs let anyone student teach, regardless of interest or aptitude, and when districts accept student teachers blindly with no opportunity to let mentors interview prospective student teachers, it's understandable that their teachers might pass on the opportunity. However, it's hard to imagine even the best teachers turning down some legitimate assistance—especially if they were to be paid to do so (which few are beyond a nominal amount).

None of these problems explain the chronic underfunding and undercurrent of indifference towards student teaching. It's an important institution deserving of the time and attention that all such undertakings require. When we sow benign neglect, it's no wonder we reap mediocrity.

In spite of all, research reveals incredible benefits from student teaching, benefits that can go head to head with research on residencies. Just by way of example, first-year teachers who have had a strong student teaching experience are so well prepared that they will have acquired the teaching skills of a third-year teacher. That's big.

In this month'sTrendline, we walk through more of this research, hoping that districts will be inspired to double down on the need to recruit the best mentor teachers and think more strategically about who they agree to take on as student teachers, viewed in the context of where their hiring needs are likely to be, and ensuring that student teachers work in schools where they are most likely to be hired.

None of this is to say that residencies should not play a role as one of many sources of new teachers. Even with their high costs, residencies fill an important need in the labor market for individuals who would not otherwise be able to consider a career in teaching. They also appear to be able to attract a somewhat higher percentage of much-needed teachers of color. But it's a pathway providing a tiny fraction of the new teachers who get hired each year, whereas most new teachers still go through student teaching. Surely residencies can spare a bit of their caché.