TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Teacher Apprenticeships: Long on possibility, short on details (for now)

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In my city of Boston, the city pays for people to train to be firefighters. We pay people to become police officers. But if you want to be a teacher? Good luck. Most aspiring teachers pay out of pocket for their preparation. At one institution, American International College (the top producer of teachers hired in Massachusetts), the average cost of attending the program after accounting for financial aid is about $23k.

A new model, Registered Teacher Apprenticeship, seeks to change this—and sets out to expand the supply and diversity of the teacher workforce. Premised on the idea that an aspiring educator can become a teacher for free and get paid to do so, apprentices:
  • Earn a salary as they work alongside a cooperating teacher;
  • Gradually receive increasing levels of responsibility and autonomy; and
  • Complete coursework concurrent with teaching.
At no point is the apprentice the teacher of record. Some candidates come into the programs with bachelor's degrees, while others earn the degree as they complete the program. Some programs identify people who are already working in the school community (paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria staff) who have an affinity for children, understand the rigors and systems of schools, and have already demonstrated an investment and commitment to their communities. These programs support them on the pathway to become a credentialed teacher in this "grow-your-own" approach to building the teacher pipeline.

Since the U.S. Department of Labor approved the first Registered Teacher Apprenticeship model in Tennessee just over two years ago—a process that unlocks funds from the federal, state, and local levels—the model has spread like wildfire. Now 30 states host registered apprenticeships (with more coming soon). Currently, 100 candidates have graduated from apprenticeships and 2,100 people are active apprentices. It's clear evidence of the need for financial support for aspiring teacher candidates.

While this is promising, it is here that I must also insert a note of caution: Right now, we're long on enthusiasm for apprenticeships and a bit short on details and data.

We cannot ignore the importance of ensuring apprenticeships prepare candidates to be successful with students when they step through the classroom door. Even David Donaldson, head of the National Center for Grow Your Own, warned at a recent conference, "If not careful, bad actors and low performing current operators will use [Registered Apprenticeships] to just gain access to labor funding to keep doing exactly what they have always done."

We do not yet know much about the impact of apprenticeship completers. This is expected, given that the first teacher apprenticeship program is only two years into existence and most are far behind. They're still piecing together the puzzle of funding and recruiting and may not yet have assigned any apprentices to the classroom. But questions of quality cannot be delayed. Quality should be top of mind as sponsors (states, districts, or prep programs) identify their "related instruction provider" (i.e., teacher prep program) and then recruit their "journeyworkers" (i.e., cooperating or mentor teachers).

So what should those building an apprenticeship model focus on?

  1. Deciding which college courses can be fulfilled by on-the-job experiences. Presenters at a recent conference on apprenticeships touted that they will credit apprentices' on-the-ground experience toward college credits. While this might provide a smart cost-savings measure, programs and sponsors should be thoughtful about which courses apprentices are allowed to drop. Do years as a paraprofessional mean that someone has an adequate understanding of elementary mathematics content and pedagogy? Maybe, but that might depend on the quality of the instructor they worked alongside or their own personal knowledge.
  2. Selecting a high-quality teacher prep program partner. Anecdotally, it seems that a substantial consideration in identifying prep programs to partner with is the cost and whether programs could offer a discount to apprentices. While cost is important, sponsors must also evaluate potential partners' program quality, especially when it comes to the reading and math preparation of candidates. When only 15% of undergraduate elementary prep programs provide adequate instruction in mathematics,1019 and only 26% of undergrad and graduate elementary programs provide adequate instruction in the science of reading,1020 quality should be a top concern. Otherwise, we risk setting apprentices up for failure and perpetuating inequities in our hardest-to-staff schools where many of the candidates who complete apprenticeships will be assigned to teach.
  3. Identifying high-quality cooperating teachers. Similarly, there's a lot of talk about assigning apprentices to high-quality cooperating teachers, but little explanation of what that means or the processes to make it happen. The suggested guidelines put forth by the Pathways Alliance offer many excellent descriptions of what the apprentices should learn and be able to do. Unfortunately, there is scant attention to the cooperating teachers. Cooperating teachers' own effectiveness matters more than any other aspect of clinical practice that researchers have examined,1021 so those designing an apprenticeship need to carefully define what "high-quality cooperating teacher" means, using research-backed evidence like high observation ratings or value-added scores.1022
  4. Ensuring apprentices complete the program before assuming full responsibilities for a classroom. States and districts may be tempted to use apprenticeships as a shortcut to fill teacher vacancies before apprentices are licensed. For example, a program in Texas recently shared its plan to have apprentices teach a class full time in their final year of preparation, before they have been certified. Apprentices would still be "mentored" by a teacher, but that mentor would be busy teaching in another classroom while being the teacher of record for both classes. The reasoning, it seems, is that an uncertified apprentice is better than a long-term sub. While I am sympathetic to the need to fill teacher vacancies, putting apprentices into classrooms before they are ready will likely perpetuate teacher turnover. This could also become a slippery slope where districts fill teaching positions with cheaper apprentices in lieu of hiring fully certified (and more expensive) teachers.
  5. Collecting, analyzing, and reporting on data. The Department of Labor requires extensive data collection on apprentice programs. Program sponsors should use these rich datasets and link them to existing datasets on the teacher workforce to be able to answer important impact questions, such as: In what types of schools are the apprentice-turned-teachers hired to teach? What are the demographics of the program completers who are hired to teach? What is their impact on students? How long do they stay? How do their outcomes compare to teachers who enter through other routes? 
To be clear, these concerns do not dim my enthusiasm for the apprenticeship model! Teaching is one of the most important professions, and investing in paying candidates as they prepare to teach could increase the supply and diversity of the U.S. teacher pipeline—both of which are important and worthy goals. As this movement gains momentum, we must also demand high-quality experiences with effective cooperating teachers to set the apprentices up for success with their future students.