For the past 85 years, the U.S. government has run a registered apprenticeship program to train workers in the skilled trades, such as plumbers, electricians, or information technology specialists. In the past year, the government has added a new occupation to the list: teachers.
An apprenticeship program—an approach to job training that dates back to the Middle Ages and remains particularly popular in Europe—allows workers to train for a new career at little to no cost while earning a paycheck. President Joe Biden has prioritized the model throughout his time in office, including as a way to combat teacher shortages.
The U.S. Departments of Labor and Education have urged states and school districts to create and register apprenticeship programs for teaching, which comes with federal funding that can pay for on-the-job training, wages, and other supportive services, such as textbooks or child care. At a time when many states are lowering standards to fill classroom vacancies, advocates point to apprenticeship models as a way to expand the pool of potential teachers without sacrificing quality.
Tennessee was the first state to be approved by the Department of Labor to establish a permanent grow-your-own model in January. Now seven other states have a registered apprenticeship program for teachers—Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Texas, and West Virginia. Several other states are in the process of pursuing or developing teacher apprenticeship programs.
“Our goal is creating a world in which aspiring teachers can become a teacher for free and be paid to do so,” said David Donaldson, the founder and managing partner of the National Center for Grow Your Own, a nonprofit that provides technical assistance to states and school districts to set up apprenticeship programs.
With federal dollars up for grabs, “I actually think that’s a possible scenario,” he said.
Grow-your-own programs, which broadly focus on preparing community members to take teaching jobs, and teacher residency programs, which feature a year of student-teaching, have been around for years. Both offer prospective teachers—including paraprofessionals, career-changers, and high school or college students—the chance to work in the classroom and earn money while completing their preparation to become a licensed teacher. These programs been found to be particularly effective at recruiting teachers of color.
Donaldson said registering these types of programs with the Department of Labor is “phase two.” It opens up a new source of federal money to help offset the cost of such an intensive style of teacher preparation, he said. The money can also be braided with other federal education dollars—such as from Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—and philanthropy, Donaldson said.
‘People are lining up to become teachers’
At the beginning of 2022, a robust grow-your-own program at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., became the first registered apprenticeship program for teaching in the country. The model, which is in partnership with the Clarksville-Montgomery County school district, has been in place since 2018 and serves recent high school graduates, paraprofessionals, and other community members looking to make a career change.
“This is not a shortcut, this is not a replacement for teacher education,” said Prentice Chandler, the dean of the college of education at Austin Peay. “This is university-based teacher education—it’s just better.”
The program is three years long. Candidates who need a bachelor’s degree first take classes at a community college, which is free in Tennessee. They then finish up their coursework at Austin Peay while working as an educational assistant at Clarksville-Montgomery schools. Tuition and fees, including textbooks, are covered by the program, and candidates earn a salary and benefits for their work at the school district.
After the teachers complete the program and earn their certification, they must teach for three years in the school district. The teachers will all hold dual certification to teach special education, a crisis shortage area for the state. Most people who go through the program will also be certified to teach elementary school, but some prepare to teach middle school science and math—the program tries to tailor the cohorts to meet the needs of the district.
Once you take the barriers and obstacles away, people are lining up to become teachers.
Right now, there are 126 prospective teachers in the pipeline. The last two cohorts have each been about half teachers of color.
“A narrative around teacher education is that people don’t want to be teachers,” said Lisa Barron, the associate dean and director of teacher education and partnerships at Austin Peay. “We have found the opposite to be true.”
Said Chandler: “Once you take the barriers and obstacles away, people are lining up to become teachers.”
The federal Department of Labor money has allowed the program to assist with child care and transportation, too, Barron said: “Students who previously had to drop out because of life challenges like that, now we can say, ‘No, we can help you.’”
Rhonda Davis, a 1st grade teacher at Hazelwood Elementary School in the Clarksville-Montgomery school district, went through the apprenticeship program after spending most of her career working in hospice. This is the 58-year-old’s first year as a fully certified teacher.
“I’d always wanted to go back [to school], but I just thought at my age, I don’t have that many years [left] in the career, and I don’t want student debt going into retirement,” she said. “It was a big game changer for me not having to pay all those expenses.”
Starting in high school
In May, West Virginia followed Tennessee to become the second state to register a grow-your-own model with the Department of Labor. But the Mountain State’s apprenticeship program takes a different approach—it’s focused on current high school students.
The aspiring teachers will complete 24 to 30 dual-enrollment or Advanced Placement credit hours in a range of subjects, including introductory education courses, while they’re still in high school, for free. Then, they’ll go to a participating university in the state for their sophomore and junior years and do a paid field experience on top of their coursework. During their senior year, the candidates will go back to their community and serve as the teacher of record, with support from an experienced educator.
The state recommends that participating counties require their students to commit to teaching for three to five years in their hometown after they graduate college.
“We are harvesting students from the community for the community,” said Carla Warren, the director of educator development and support services for the West Virginia Department of Education.
The state is not covering tuition for the candidates’ two years at a university, but they will receive free materials and textbooks and the opportunity to take the Praxis certification exam for free. And students will work in schools throughout their time in the program, earning an hourly rate that gradually increases from $9 to $11 an hour. When serving as the teacher of record, they will earn a salary.
Warren said the state’s eventual goal is to eliminate the cost of tuition, so candidates can earn a teaching license completely for free. The program is targeting rural, first-generation college students who come from low-income households, she said.
“We know that we have a population of students who want to be successful in college, but they need those wraparound services to do that,” Warren said. “The apprenticeship model is going to lift some of that financial burden.”
After all, the average starting salary for West Virginia teachers is about $38,000, an amount Warren called “pitiful.” But having some of the starting costs covered can make teaching a more attractive career choice, she said.
“This helps level the playing field and provides some equity for the education professional so they can pursue a degree [and] pursue a career in education,” she said. “It has the potential to move the needle on teacher shortages.”
West Virginia has about 1,200 unfilled teaching positions. So far, seven counties are piloting the apprenticeship model with about 65 students registered as apprentices, although 31 counties in total—and about 250 students—are participating in the grow-your-own pathway generally. The state hopes to expand to all 55 counties within the next five years.
“Our goal is to fill classrooms with certified teachers,” Warren said.
Ensuring quality to avoid a ‘wild, wild West’
As these types of programs become more popular, Donaldson, of the National Center for Grow Your Own, said he hopes the federal involvement offers some quality control so the landscape of apprenticeship programs doesn’t become a “wild, wild West.”
“We don’t want to just see [this as] putting lipstick on a pig—programs that already exist just getting [Department of Labor] funding,” Donaldson said. “This is an opportunity to not only remove financial barriers, but also increase the rigor of teacher prep.”
To that end, a coalition of groups that work in teacher education have formed the Pathways Alliance, which launched last year with the goal of providing resources and guidelines for planning, implementing, and improving the quality of apprenticeship models.
“There’s a whole host of us who are looking at this from a policy perspective, a practice perspective, a research perspective,” said Lynn Gangone, the president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which is co-chairing the alliance.
While experts want a common definition and standards, Gangone said the details and logistics of each program will vary by state and local needs.
Experts say the apprenticeship programs have helped break logjams among the groups that work with teachers.
“We are really good at talking about problems in education—we are not as good at solving them,” Chandler said. “This is the first time in my career where a state department of education and a college of education and a community college and a teachers’ association and a school district are all working together. ... And it wouldn’t work without all five pulling in the same direction.”