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Could an Apprenticeship Be a Viable Way to Prepare Special Educators?

An Ohio teacher-educator has an idea that she thinks will fill persistant teacher shortages in special education fields—and potentially revolutionize teacher preparation.

"By and large, teacher education has not kept pace with research in our field as far as what we know works," said founder Leah Wasburn-Moses, who is a professor in the educational psychology department at Miami University. "I feel like it is past time to do something new in teacher education. There are a lot of really good programs out there, but they seem to be not connected very well. ... I feel like it's really time to move ahead in teacher prep, and take what we know and implement it in a different way."

Her response is FreeTeacher U—a yearlong apprenticeship program that aspiring special education teachers can take for free. Apprentices must already have a bachelor's degree and have spent at least 250 hours in schools over the past two years, possibly as a substitute teacher, a paraprofessional, or even an involved parent. They also must have already passed a background check and the special education content exams required by states.

At the end of the year, apprentices take the edTPA assessment and defend their portfolio, which includes documentation of implementing strategic interventions and meeting the Council for Exceptional Children standards for beginning special education professionals.

Wasburn-Moses came up with the idea about a year and a half ago, and it hasn't yet been implemented anywhere. But she said she's been in conversation with several interested parties in different states. The program would be free for districts to implement and adjust to their own needs, she said.

It's modeled after teacher residency programs, which she calls the "gold standard for what works in teacher prep." In those programs, universities partner with local school districts to provide long-term student-teaching in exchange for teachers committing to the district for a period of time.

FreeTeacher U is an attempt to make that existing model more accessible "in places where there's not a huge university presence, and wherever it's needed," Wasburn-Moses said.

But here's the catch: Rather than assign someone in the program to a mentor teacher and have that person teach full-time in one classroom, he or she would be placed on a pre-existing team of teachers. Apprentices would be working wherever needed: A major part of the program requires the apprentice to select, implement, and evaluate six research-based interventions across grade levels or subject areas. 

Wasburn-Moses envisions the program to have a grow-your-own element to hopefully prevent the teachers, once trained, from leaving after a year or two. 

"Every school administrator has an amazing permanent sub or parent educator who knows the system," she said. "This program is geared toward individuals who already have a commitment to the community."

Of course, there's a long way to go before this program becomes a reality—an outside entity would have to apply to the state to be a qualified licensure provider, since this is an alternative program. And while the program is free of charge for apprentices, it would be up to districts to decide if the apprentices would be paid during the yearlong program—a potential obstacle, if cash-strapped districts ask apprentices to go a year without pay. (The district could possibly roll the program requirements into a substitute or paraeducator role, Wasburn-Moses said.)

Still, she said, this program would "hopefully fit [people's] lifestyles" and convince mid-career professionals to consider teaching. 

While experts debate a national teaching shortage, it's no secret that special education slots have been historically difficult to fill. My colleague Christina Samuels reported recently that a new law in Washington state seeks to fill special education teaching positions by making it easier for paraeducators to get their teaching certification.

And Clark County schools in Nevada went all the way to the Philippines to curb their special education teacher shortage—the district hired more than 80 special education teachers from the island nation this year. 

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