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Study Asks: Where Should Student Teachers Teach?

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Teacher educators disagree about whether it is better for teachers-to-be—especially those who intend to teach in the most challenging schools—to have their pre-service teacher practice in easy-to-staff, high-functioning schools or in the toughest teaching environments. Tougher schools might provide critical exposure to the realities of working with disadvantaged students, especially for teacher wannabes from more-privileged backgrounds; easier-to-staff schools may provide stronger mentor teachers and a better learning environment for young teachers. Either claim might make intuitive sense, but neither is backed up by significant research.

In "Where Should Student Teachers Learn to Teach? Effects of Field Placement School Characteristics on Teacher Retention and Effectiveness," the University of Michigan School of Education's Matthew Ronfeldt seeks to fill that gap by examining the relationship between student-teacher placement and the retention and performance of 2,860 New York City teachers who had field placements during the 2003-04 school year. He finds that teachers who were placed in easier-to-staff schools were more likely to keep teaching in New York City's schools and performed better (as determined, yes, by value-added measures) than those who had pre-service training in tough-to-staff schools.

The odds of leaving New York City's school system within five years were between 14 and 22 percent lower for student-teachers who cut their teeth in high-performing schools. The value added to student achievement was about 10 percent of a standard deviation higher for teachers trained in a school with a high "stay rate" (that is, an easy-to-staff school). Student teachers who are trained in high-performing schools and then move on to teach in challenging schools seem to experience particularly positive effects.

Ronfeldt is careful to distinguish between schools with high numbers of at-risk kids and schools that are difficult to staff. He calculated a stay rate for each school, assuming that teachers are more likely to stick around in schools with better working environments, and found that some high-poverty schools also have high stay rates. Teachers in schools with high stay rates tended to describe their schools as positive work environments. Ronfeldt also controls for teacher-preparation program (though his sample includes more-than-representative numbers of Teach for America and Teaching Fellow teachers) and other teacher characteristics.

Finding enough field placements can be a challenge for teacher-training programs, and placing inexperienced teachers in classrooms might have a short-term cost, Ronfeldt writes, but the long-term impact of placements in easy-to-staff schools on the overall quality of the teaching force could be powerful.

There's room for research into what this looks like in other districts and into what exactly these easy-to-staff schools do to support teachers-in-training. But this study comes down heavily in favor of placing student teachers in high-functioning schools—and, perhaps, for thinking about student teachers as students in need of positive learning environments as well as teachers trying to create positive environments for their own students.

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