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Why Teach For America is Not Going to Become a Residency (and Perhaps Why it Shouldn't)

Note: Heather Harding, vice president for research and public affairs at Teach For America, is guest-posting this week.

Let me start with this confession: I'm a huge fan of the teacher-residency model.

Early in my career, I researched the possibility of a district-based teacher-training program when working at the Boston Plan of Excellence--now home to the Boston Teacher Residency program, thought to be one of the strongest examples of residencies in the country. Additionally, as a former traditional teacher educator in a university-based master's program, I often yearned for the kind of university-school partnership that would provide a more authentic and meaningful clinical experience. So I don't want you to think I'm a hater here. It's just that I think all these calls for Teach For America to become a residency are either insincere or ill-conceived.

The bottom line is that Teach For America is not going to become a residency. There are several reasons why it probably shouldn't that are less about Teach For America and more about how the profession thinks about teacher development--or more accurately, how we fail to consider teacher development as a continuum that begins with recruitment and continues as people move through a career.

Reason 1: The candidates who choose Teach For America might not choose a residency model.

Given that some critics and even some critical friends suggest that Teach For America should extend the two-year commitment, we have surveyed our applicants regarding this question. We come away with the finding that we'd lose close to half our applicants, with the greatest hit to some of the most desirable subgroups--those with the highest GPAs and math and science majors. It is also true, at least anecdotally, that applicants to Teach For America are looking for two things: to serve in high poverty schools and to enter the profession through a fast-track option. As top achievers, they have a menu of opportunities for work entry. We need to seize the opportunity to bring those who are inclined to consider teaching into the field by offering a well-designed entry that provides support for the first few years on the job.

Reason 2: While the residency model makes good practical sense, we don't know if the training received is necessarily better.

The crux of the argument for Teach For America becoming a residency is the belief that the residency model provides more time for pre-service training (here, more time = better training) thus sheltering students from not-ready-for-prime-time instructors, or worse, ineffective ones. The problem is, given the relative newness of the model, we don't know if this largely structural reform actually provides better training. This is true when you consider the experience of training (do candidates feel more prepared?) and in terms of impact (do they have a positive impact on student learning?). Residencies face the same challenge that traditional teacher education programs face when identifying a training site and host teachers for new recruits; an old and stubborn challenge that complicates clinical practice. As for curriculum, there are multiple sets of standards regarding what a teacher should be able to know and do and, unfortunately, there is no program--traditional or alternative--that addresses them all. We have to acknowledge that teaching is iterative, complex, and multi-layered. Hence the importance of an approach to teacher development that is less bound by time than by demonstrated performance.

Reason 3: Education will always benefit from some kind of Teach For America-like program to infuse the field with additional talent and energy.

If we believe that multiple pathways are important, and if we understand that the Teach For America model is not simply about preparing teachers but also about increasing the pipeline of talent into the education sector and about shining a light on how challenging and important public education is, we wouldn't want to end this approach to recruiting talent. If we accept the premise that in today's world, multiple pathways into the profession and into the education sector are necessary to build a high-quality, diverse force of educators, then we have to understand that every pathway has a role to play.

As a fan of the residency model, I do believe that an approach that better marries clinical experience with pedagogical training makes so much more sense than what most traditional teacher-education programs provide. It also seems logical that local communities would want to develop teacher-preparation programs that include important contextual and cultural knowledge. Learning how to teach in the place you intend to teach makes perfect sense. Grow-your-own programs can be powerful in many ways.

Ideally, we want a world where the teaching profession is fielding talent from multiple sources. We want that talent to be well-prepared for the job of teaching, and we want their career experience to include intellectual stimulation and engagement over time, maximizing their passion and leveraging the content knowledge they bring. There are good reasons to worry less about Teach For America becoming a residency and more about building a system of teacher development that softens the hard line between pre- and in-service training to better educate, prepare, and support talented people to meet the challenge of the complex and beautiful job of teaching.

--Heather Harding

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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