Each of the past five years, a group of new teachers has been entering some of Boston’s toughest schools knowing almost exactly what they can expect and what’s expected of them.
That’s because they’ve already spent a year in those buildings, observing and teaching classes under the watchful eye of a specially trained master teacher. They have developed a solid understanding of the academic and disciplinary issues they might confront. And if they need guidance, they know mentor teachers are on hand to help.
The teachers are graduates of the Boston Teacher Residency program, a yearlong, selective preparation route that trains aspiring teachers, many of them career-changers, to take on jobs in some of the city’s highest-needs schools.
The program, which fits neither of the two most common types of teacher preparation—alternative routes and traditional teacher education programs—is modeled along the lines of a medical residency that pairs classroom training with practical experience.
According to the program’s director, Jesse Solomon, himself a former teacher from Boston, the expertise needed to create excellent teachers already exists in the nation’s schools. That realization, and the fact that “we do not believe that it is one element that makes for a great teacher, but a combination of elements,” have resulted in a program built around some of the very best practices known to teacher education today.
Mr. Solomon ticks off a few: a rigorous, master’s-level grounding in teacher coursework, a yearlong clinical practicum designed to bridge theory and practice, mentoring support for first-year teachers, and preparation in self-reflection and collaborative teaching.
In recent months, teacher education experts have turned the spotlight on teacher residencies as one of the most promising routes for preparing effective educators. Besides the Boston initiative, similar programs are now running in Chicago and in two districts outside Denver, Adams 12 Five Star Schools and Mapleton.
New programs are expected to begin next June in Chattanooga and Memphis, Tenn.; Denver; New York City; and Philadelphia, said Aneesa Listak, the executive director of the Urban Teacher Residency Institute. Based in Chicago, the institute was established last year and offers training for groups aiming to start such programs.
Ms. Listak said she has been approached by Ohio and Tennessee education officials interested in forming such programs statewide.
New research shows positive effects of the programs. A study released last month by the Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank, found that 90 percent of the Boston graduates were still teaching after three years, and that more than half the recruits were from racial- and ethnic-minority groups. Also last month, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education released a report calling on traditional teacher education programs to embrace residencies.
What has further fueled interest in urban residency programs is a provision in the newly reauthorized federal Higher Education Act calling for $300 million that could potentially be tapped by teacher-preparation programs and school districts to set up such residencies.
The funding, if appropriated, could help remove one of the deterrents to the spread of such programs: high startup costs. Proponents, though, are quick to point out that the costs are neutralized and even transformed into savings for districts in the long run because of the higher teacher-retention rates.
In Boston, said Mr. Solomon, it costs about $3,000 to find and recruit a resident and just under $30,000 to prepare one. That includes a stipend of $11,000 for each resident, health insurance, and tuition. The resident repays a portion of the tuition only if he or she leaves before teaching for three years.
Observers say one factor that has perhaps been crucial to the success of the Boston program is that it operates independently of the school district—something that is true of the residency programs in Chicago and near Denver as well.
“You have to find those third-party groups that are established and work well enough with the district to create [successful programs],” said Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a Washington-based advocacy group. “If the university tries to do it, it becomes a variation of a program in the university, or if a district does it, it becomes embedded in other district programs.”
Most of the upcoming residency programs, Ms. Listak points out, with the exception of Denver’s, will be operated by independent groups.
While it remains to be seen if a district-run model will work, the current “one foot in, one foot out” model is useful, she said, because the programs can leverage change even as they work with school districts that tend to move more slowly. Sustainability of programs run by districts can also be threatened by funding problems and changes in leadership, Ms. Listak added.
The program in Boston originated from the public school system and was housed at the Boston Plan for Excellence, a local education foundation that works in close partnership with the 57,000-student district on professional development for teachers and principals. The startup money came from Strategic Grant Partners, a local foundation.
Under an agreement with the Boston Teacher Residency, the district has paid an increasing proportion of the cost each year, culminating with a 60 percent share in the fourth year. This year, it laid out $2 million.
The program, which is run by many former teachers, recruits and trains teacher-residents on its own, but works closely with the district to place them during their practicums and then as teachers in the city’s schools.
Carol Johnson, the superintendent of the Boston schools, says she is encouraged by reports that the program is helping create a diverse workforce of committed teachers in some of the schools with the greatest needs.
“The marketplace here is very competitive when it comes to recruiting teachers of color,” she said.
But, Ms. Johnson added, she is waiting for results of a study exploring the residency graduates’ effect on student achievement, due next year. “The external evaluation will answer the most important question: whether or not student performance is improving,” she said.
Meanwhile, though, anecdotal evidence is plentiful that urban-residency teachers do better in their first year than new teachers prepared by other routes.
Principal Deb Socia of Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School says she finds that new residency graduates have skill levels more like those of second-year teachers.
“The [residents’] preparation has been fabulous, and they have great success with stepping into teaching,” she said. “You don’t even find that with traditional teacher programs, whose graduates don’t necessarily feel confident stepping into an environment like ours.”
“All our [Boston Teacher Residency] graduates are stepping up to leadership roles in the building,” said Principal Margaret Bledsoe of Charlestown High School, which now has six graduates of the program and six residents on campus. “They are all really strong teachers.”
The urban residency is so popular that Boston schools compete to host residents each year. Many graduates find jobs at the schools they train in.
And because there are typically several residents and graduates at almost every participating school, as well as mentor teachers, the program fosters a constant sharing and camaraderie between its alumni and residents. Those characteristics make for a collaborative learning atmosphere.
Amy Piacitelli, a history teacher at Charlestown High School, has been teaching for 14 years. This year, she’s mentoring resident Jawuan Meeks. Ms. Piacitelli finds the experience enriching, she said, because “I like working with other people. ... Having another person to talk to, to brainstorm with, is really great.”
“It is all about building relationships,” said residency graduate Katie Reinke, who quit a job writing medical manuals and moved across the country from San Diego to join the program.
She graduated in 2006 and now teaches English at Charlestown High, where she is also a mentor teacher to resident Justin Norton. Ms. Reinke did her resident practicum at Charlestown, and the teacher who mentored her during her practicum is in a classroom next door. “I feel like I can go to her for advice anytime,” she said.
Each participating school has a site director who coordinates all residents. Two field directors divide their time visiting all 14 host schools in the program this school year, offering guidance and support when needed.
Ms. Socia says that one of the aspects of the program she loves is knowing that a support network of field and site coordinators is around all the time, willing to provide their expertise in solving problems that might arise. Their counsel, she says, extends even to issues like student attendance, which has been a problem at her school.
All first-year teachers in Boston public schools are assigned mentors, but Mr. Solomon says his program offers professional-development courses and additional support to graduates by sending in coaches when needed. For example, if a mentor assigned to a math graduate does not have a matching content-area background, the residency program would send in a math induction coach.
Each Friday morning, 75 residents, who already have their undergraduate degrees, meet for classes at the University of Massachusetts Boston, set on picturesque Boston Harbor. The residents have been attending classes here since July—two months before Boston schools opened.
At a seminar one recent Friday, they discuss their experiences of the week in their precollegiate classrooms before breaking up into more subject- and grade-specific classes, which are taught by expert practitioners, including former and current Boston teachers, and area university professors.
Guided by Hollee Freeman, one of the program’s two field managers, the residents first talk in small groups, then as a single class, about what they learned in each of their classrooms and what they might do differently when they teach themselves. They seek the advice of their peers on issues they faced in the classroom.
At her table, Danielle Berger, a resident at McCormick Middle School, says she worries about how to handle discipline issues in her special education class.
“I wonder how much of the [problems] are built into a special education classroom and how much can be changed,” she wonders out loud. Other residents at her table offer suggestions and share similar experiences.
Mr. Norton tells the group at his table that his mentor says he needs to pay more attention to how she handles issues in the classroom.
Like most residents here, Mr. Norton, 28, is a career-changer. He worked in the admissions office at Tufts University and wanted to try something more challenging, he says. That’s when he started thinking about a career as a teacher.
He came across the Boston Teacher Residency program in a flier and thought it would be a perfect match. “I wanted something that wasn’t going to put me into a class right away,” he said.
On a typical day, Mr. Norton gets to Charlestown High at 6:30 a.m. He and Ms. Reinke talk about the day ahead. When school starts, he spends three periods in Ms. Reinke’s class and one in a special education class.
All residents receive dual certification in special education because, Mr. Solomon says, one in five of the district’s students is classified as having disabilities.
For now, Mr. Norton spends a good part of his time observing Ms. Reinke teach. It is still early in the year, but as the months go by, he will take on more jobs in the classroom, and by spring, he will have assumed half the teaching workload.
At the end of each day, Mr. Norton and Ms. Reinke get back together to review and assess his progress. This is the time when he can question her about why she may have handled certain situations the way she did, and when she can offer him feedback on areas he needs to work on.
Ms. Reinke says she believes candidates who opt to go through the program plan to stay in the profession.
“It is very clear, even when you read the literature from [the program], that there’s an urgency there to keep teachers in the building,” which, she said, ends up attracting only those who are seriously committed to the job.
As for herself, Ms. Reinke definitely does not miss writing those medical manuals. In her third year of teaching now, she cannot imagine doing any other job.
“I get up at 5:30 each morning,” she said, “but there is not a single day that I feel like I don’t want to go to work.”
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as Aspiring Teachers Take Up Residence