Millions of families in America depend on education as a pathway toward upward mobility. We owe it to these families and their students to provide highly trained teachers who are ready on the first day. Unfortunately, way too many teachers learn how to teach during their first year in the classroom instead of before it. For example, of all the preparation programs examined in NCTQ’s most recent Teacher Prep Review, not a single one met the standard for effectively training teachers to plan lessons. Only 11 percent of programs met the standard in classroom management techniques. Student-teaching is the only real clinical experience that many teacher candidates receive, yet only 10 percent of programs met NCTQ’s standard for a strong student-teaching experience. In short, most preparation programs are doing a lackluster job of teaching their candidates how to teach.
Education schools are often hesitant to focus on clinical training because it seems too similar to vocational training. Instead, they spend considerable amounts of time on education theory, philosophy, and personal reflection. These are valuable pursuits, to be sure, but a competent teacher is one who can effectively teach. Teacher preparation programs would be much better off replicating on-the-job learning while candidates are still enrolled in their programs. That means not just teaching how to write a lesson plan, but requiring candidates to actually teach the lesson plan, reflect on its strengths and weaknesses, modify it, and then teach it again. It means not just reading about how to manage a classroom, but actually practicing strategies for engaging sleepy or bored kids, responding to minor and major misbehaviors, and dealing with emergencies. It also means that the things a first-year teacher usually learns on the fly—how to determine grades; how to effectively differentiate instruction; how to manage makeup work, students who finish early, and students who need extra time—should be explicitly taught and practiced. Teaching candidates may not be full-fledged teachers, but that doesn’t change the fact that they can benefit from the same type of development as currently teaching teachers. It’s not just about acquiring knowledge and skills, it’s about practicing what they learn, studying the effects, and then adjusting. Current teachers benefit immensely from coaching, and it stands to reason that the same is true for teacher candidates.
All of these skills shouldn’t just be taught and practiced in a clinical setting. They should also be evaluated based on competency instead of time served. Doctors don’t fill out anatomy charts and then start treating patients, and pilots don’t recite plane parts and then climb into the cockpit. Teaching is no different. Competency means that teachers must demonstrate that they can do the core work of teaching—intentional planning, effective execution, and building relationships—before they’re allowed to take charge of a classroom. Student-teaching should be the culmination of years of clinical practice graded on competency—not a candidate’s first foray into the classroom.
To make competency-based clinical training a reality, teacher preparation programs need access to schools with kids. Teacher candidates need plenty of opportunities, starting in their first year, to do the work of actual teachers rather than just reading about and observing it. A recent report from Education First examined partnerships between school districts and preparation programs and offered recommendations for how to shape teacher pipelines through collaboration. This kind of partnership is the key to unlocking competency-based clinical training. Here’s an overview of a potential competency-based, clinical model for teacher preparation.
Years 1–3: Working with hybrid teachers
I’ve written before about hybrid teachers—those who instruct students and hold additional leadership responsibilities. One such responsibility could be working with a group of teacher candidates. It’s a win-win for all participants: Highly effective teachers stay in the classroom part-time and continue to impact kids while simultaneously impacting teaching candidates; candidates absorb the knowledge, experience, and coaching of current teachers; and teacher preparation programs offer the kind of real-world, hands-on experience that they often get criticized for neglecting. After all, nobody offers real classroom experience better than teachers who currently teach.
With that in mind, I imagine a program that looks something like this: During candidates’ first three years in a preparation program, their fall semesters are spent completing traditional college courses, including those related to subject content, education theory, philosophy, current research, and policy. For their spring semesters, small cohorts of candidates are paired with a highly effective hybrid teacher from a local district (rather than a teacher from a lab school). Two days each week, candidates continue to take traditional college courses, including one taught by the hybrid teacher on basics like lesson planning, data analysis, assessment, and behavior management. The remaining three days are spent in the classroom with the hybrid teacher, interacting with children and practicing what they’ve learned.
The responsibilities given to candidates follow a gradual release model and align with what they are learning. For instance, while learning about lesson planning, candidates craft a mini-lesson plan and co-teach it with the hybrid teacher. Afterwards, the hybrid teacher and other candidates offer feedback, which the candidate uses to revise the lesson. Eventually, candidates are solely responsible for delivering a full lesson. When learning about classroom management, candidates could start with one-on-one tutoring and advance to small group projects that require them to engage kids and keep them on task. Learning about IEPs and differentiation would allow candidates to plan for and lead small group remediation or enrichment, and learning to analyze data could occur after unit tests or exams. Each of these exercises would culminate in a performance-based assessment that measured competency rather than completion.
Candidates could gain additional experience and knowledge by monitoring lunch and recess, taking part in parent-teacher conferences, and assisting with field trips and extracurriculars. While all of these experiences are vitally important to the development of candidates, they also represent a key support system for schools and students—candidates become an instrumental part of school operation and provide students with additional mentorship and academic support.
Year 4: Teacher residency
During their fourth year of the teacher preparation program, rather than taking part in traditional student-teacher teaching, candidates complete a teacher residency. Teacher residency programs are based on the model that doctors use; residents spend a year embedded in a school, co-teaching alongside a teacher of record and gradually taking on full ownership of certain aspects of the classroom. While there are several residency programs across the country (including programs in Boston, Memphis, Fresno, and Los Angeles), most of these programs are post-baccalaureate partnerships that offer a teaching credential to candidates who haven’t completed a traditional teacher preparation program. In my proposed model, residency would target candidates passing through traditional programs rather than those interested in alternative certification.
After three years of coursework and significant experience in a hybrid teacher’s classroom, candidates in this program would be better prepared for residency than traditional candidates are for student-teaching. By the time the fourth-year residency finishes, these aspiring teachers would have far more hands-on experience than graduating traditional candidates. This extra experience makes them extremely attractive to districts looking to hire new teachers—not just because they can hit the ground running, but also because they are more likely to understand the demands of the profession and thus less likely to quit after a few years. Even better, the sink or swim mentality that characterizes the first year of teaching would cease to exist; candidates would master important skills before they became official teachers, which could improve student achievement, overall teacher quality, and teacher retention.
Implementing this model will undoubtedly be difficult. For starters, it would likely be more expensive than traditional training. Teacher preparation programs would have to rework course requirements in order to ensure that candidates aren’t bogged down by courses that don’t meaningfully contribute to their development. Selecting the right hybrid and resident teachers would be also hugely important, since their tutelage could make or break the development of candidates. Lastly, getting districts and teacher preparation programs to collaborate could be a heavy lift. But the payoffs would be massive, particularly for the students who would benefit from amply prepared first-year teachers. Preparation programs looking to improve their development of candidates should consider piloting this model with a small cohort of willing candidates—and closely studying the results.