Justin Snider

Urban residency programs offer intensive mentoring and in-class preparation

Joyce Randall, who's in her third year of teaching history to 10th graders in her hometown of Chicago, is blunt about the effort needed to succeed at her work. "This is a difficult job for anyone to do for a long period of time, especially for the money we're paid," she says.

The 26-year-old spent 12 months at the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a hands-on residency program for future educators, where she gained both practical experience and a master's degree. "You need more than just a passion for the job," she notes wryly.

Over the past several decades, a debate has simmered over how to bring fresh talent into the nation's school systems. A variety of programs and models are being tried, but the jury is still out as to which will prove most effective in meeting the one measure that matters most: improving student achievement over the long term.

Some of the best-known training programs in the United States are fast-tracking candidates, including Teach For America, which received more than 46,000 applications for about 4,500 spots last year. TFA's summer training institutes last only five weeks. By August or September, all trainees are working full time in the classroom.

While studies of student achievement have shown that TFA teachers perform, on average, as well or better than their traditionally prepared and veteran colleagues, keeping them in classrooms has proven to be a challenge. Only about half of TFA graduates stick with teaching beyond their two-year commitment.

To address such problems, educators across the country have been trying new approaches, particularly in urban areas plagued by poverty and high dropout rates. Teacher residency programs reflect one new model that is spreading with the support of the Obama administration and on the strength of the initial results. Over the past two years, the federal government has awarded $143 million to 40 universities and other organizations across the country to set up residencies or to overhaul their existing teacher education systems.

One recipient of the federal funds is the University of California-Los Angeles , which has created an 18-month program for students interested in teaching pre-K, kindergarten, special education, secondary math, or secondary science. Graduates earn a master's degree in education and a preliminary teaching credential from the state of California.

UCLA's program and others like it are modeled on medical schools, where residents spend significant time doing rounds in hospitals, observing veteran doctors, and gradually taking on more responsibilities under expert supervision. Participants in the urban residencies observe master teachers, write lesson plans, design assessments, and slowly assume the reins from their mentors in the classroom.

AUSL, where Randall trained, is a Chicago-based nonprofit offering a yearlong graduate program that starts each June with coursework and small doses of teaching (in the form of one-on-one tutoring). Aspiring teachers, called "apprentices," earn a master's degree from either National-Louis University or the Erikson Institute, and teaching credentials from the state of Illinois.

Admission to the program is highly competitive. Last year, 933 people applied for 85 spots. The program reports that more than 90 percent of its students find teaching positions immediately after graduation. Another important test of success, says Brian Sims, managing director of AUSL's residency, is whether principals "keep our resident graduates on staff" -- which, he notes, they almost always do, though they have the power to let teachers go anytime before tenure is awarded.

Part of the attraction of AUSL and similar programs is that those who enroll don't necessarily have to go deeply into debt. AUSL gives each of its residents a $30,000 stipend, which makes it possible for most to concentrate fully on the program instead of working part time, while National-Louis University provides a tuition discount of more than 50 percent. And those who take out federal Stafford loans can have up to $17,500 in principal and interest forgiven if they go on to teach math, science, or special education in a high-needs school for at least five consecutive years.

Columbia University's Teachers College launched a 14-month residency program last September with 20 students seeking to become teachers of English as a second language or special education in New York City. Each participant receives a $22,500 stipend as well as substantially discounted tuition while earning a master's degree and state certification.

Other institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the colleges of education and science at Texas State University-San Marcos , have developed similar urban residency programs in partnership with local school systems.

Graduates of such programs who leave before fulfilling their teaching commitments typically must pay back all or part of the stipends and tuition discounts they have received. This might help explain why 85 percent to 90 percent of alumni from the oldest programs -- in Boston, Chicago, and Denver -- are still in the classroom after five years, compared to a national average of about 50 percent for all new teachers. The other likely explanation is that residency training simply prepares urban teachers better for the daily realities they face.

Most states are still developing the costly and complex data systems needed to track student performance over time and to link it to individual teachers. Urban residency programs have shown early signs of success, but in the years to come it will be the hard data on classroom achievement that will ultimately reveal their effectiveness.

Justin Snider teaches undergraduate writing at Columbia University. This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Columbia's Teachers College.

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