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Student-Teachers In Limbo During School Shutdowns. Here's How States Can Help

30_Student_Teachers_1-BLOG.jpgWhat happens to student-teachers when there are no schools open for them to finish their clinical experiences? States and teacher-preparation programs are trying to figure that out.

As the coronavirus outbreak has forced both colleges and universities to cancel in-person classes, and K-12 school buildings to close down, student-teachers are caught in the middle. They're not sure if they'll be able to take their licensing tests or complete the required number of clinical hours before graduation, especially since not all school districts have started remote learning. Teacher-preparation programs are scrambling to figure out how to support teacher-candidates while still meeting state requirements, which are starting to be revised in some places. 

"Everybody's really in triage mode," said Stephen Pruitt, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which works with 16 states. Aspiring teachers are "supposed to be student-teaching, but there's no school for them to go to." 

SREB put together a focus group of higher education and K-12 leaders from five states—Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—to discuss how to ease some requirements during this unprecedented time while still making sure the soon-to-be teachers are prepared for their first year in the classroom. They came up with a list of policy recommendations, both short-term and long-term, for state leaders to consider. 

First, teacher-preparation programs need flexibility from states to move coursework and practicum hours online and to temporarily remove or reduce the number of weeks or consecutive days of required in-person teaching experience. Since testing vendors like ETS, which administers the Praxis, have closed in-person testing centers, SREB recommends that teacher-preparation programs be allowed to waive assessment graduation requirements and that states waive testing requirements for initial licensure for at least one year. 

Instead, SREB recommends that state policymakers give teacher-candidates a temporary license that allows them to teach for up to one year before taking or passing licensing exams like the Praxis and edTPA. But that means that states will need to create or strengthen mentorship programs for new teachers next year, SREB cautions. 

"We have student-teachers who are going to be caught in the middle of this—we certainly don't need to exacerbate that issue with what's going on with COVID-19. We also don't want to put unprepared people in the field," Pruitt said. "We've always seen that it's important to support first-year teachers, but for the teachers who are coming out this year, it'll be particularly important."

SREB suggests that states establish and fund a five-year study of the current cohort of teacher-candidates to see if there are instructional deficiencies, significant student growth gaps, or decreased retention compared with their predecessors. This data could be used to provide professional development that targets these gaps. 

States Relaxing Requirements

So far, Pruitt said, only a handful of states have enacted policy changes for their student-teachers, but he expects more to come soon.

For example, in Mississippi, the state board of education announced last week that graduating candidates no longer need to meet the minimum requirement of 12 weeks of full-day student teaching to become licensed. The department will work with teacher-preparation programs to determine what acceptable student-teaching experiences could look like now, and how candidates can demonstrate teaching competency. 

And in Washington state, the Professional Educator Standards Board filed an emergency rule that allows teacher-preparation programs to waive or reduce in length the required clinical practice and course work if they feel like the candidate has the required knowledge and skills. And if a district wanted to hire a candidate who could not finish his or her preparation program, it can now do so on a conditional certificate.

The Kansas education department issued guidance that urged teacher-preparation programs to encourage candidates to stay involved in their districts as they pivot to online learning. "This is an incredible learning and teaching moment for our newest members of the profession, and they should be included as much as possible," the guidance said.

But for student-teachers who are unable to work with their school district, the department said universities can make the call on whether a sufficient number of weeks in the classroom has been completed—even if it's less than the 12 weeks required by the state. And if candidates are unable to complete their licensure testing before the start of next school year, the Kansas department said they will issue a temporary one-year license so the candidates can still start full-time teaching.

'Under the Gun'

In the meantime, colleges and universities are working to adapt to an unprecedented situation. 

"Teacher-preparation programs are under the gun in a lot of ways in making sure that candidates are demonstrating proficient teaching before they graduate, which is fairly soon," said Sarah Beal, the executive director of US PREP National Center, a coalition of 21 teacher-training programs. "We're in the infant stages of this." 

The center has issued some resources for preparation programs and is hosting three webinars for teacher-educators to talk through what clinical work and feedback might look like in this new reality.  

While some school districts are open for remote instruction, and student-teachers are able to jump on board, Beal said many student-teachers work in districts where students don't have access to technology or the internet. In many of those places, the districts have created "self-directed learning experiences" for students in the form of packets, "which isn't going to support teacher-candidates in real teaching," she said.

"I think at this point, we can't be reliant on the access to students," Beal said. "We're trying to do as much as we can where teacher-candidates are having to think on the spot ... without real students right now."

Instead, teacher-candidates could watch a video of someone teaching, evaluate the teacher's responses, and then say how they would respond. Or a candidate could plan a lesson and deliver it in real-time to their peers, with their fellow candidates playing the role of students. (There are also virtual simulation programs that some teacher-preparation programs already use.)

"It just offers us an awesome opportunity for us to get innovative quickly," Beal said. "It forces us to learn new strategies quickly and try things that we might not have."

Indeed, SREB recommends that going forward, all teacher-preparation programs provide coursework and field experience in online teaching in a virtual or hybrid classroom. That's a potential bright spot that could come out of this disruption, said Megan Boren, a program specialist for SREB who authored the policy brief. Student-teachers who are having to jump into online instruction could "experience things that will make them better teachers in the long run," she said.

Added Pruitt: "We want to make sure that while we hate that everybody's going through this, at the same time, we should use this as an opportunity to learn from it." 

Image: Marie Erickson, a secondary education English major in her final semester at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in her makeshift home classroom. Erickson is currently completing her student teaching at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, where she teaches 11th grade AP Language and Composition. Originally published on EdWeek's Full Frame photo blog

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