Teaching Profession

How Teacher Residencies Fit With Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — July 19, 2010 2 min read
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The hot new trend in teacher training is “residency” models, which allow promising students to serve at the side of more experienced mentors, absorbing some of the intangible assets that good teachers possess while earning advanced academic degrees.

What might such models mean for special education teachers? Nancy Burstein, the chair of the department of special education for California State University-Northridge, talked about the potential strengths and looming challenges as her school starts a residency program of its own this fall. The presentation was one of dozens of panels scheduled this week for the annual federal Office of Special Education Programs Project Directors’ Conference, a gathering of special education officials from around the country.

The university received a grant for $8.5 million and hopes to enroll 25 students a year for the next five years in partnership with the 678,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. The cohort in the “Accelerated Collaborative Teaching Residency” will go through an 18-month training program that will leave its members with classroom experience as well as a master’s degree. After finishing the program, the teachers are expected to be hired by the district in a high-need school and remain for at least three years.

Those features make the Cal State-Northridge training model similar to other residency programs that are getting a toehold in places like Boston, Chicago, and Denver. But for special education teachers, there are some unique issues. For instance, finding mentor teachers and committed administrators is important—but students with disabilities are spread throughout the system. It’s a challenge to find in one school both a principal interested in being part of the residency program and an effective special education teacher in a specific disability area to serve as a mentor, Burstein said. (The residency program at Cal State-Northridge is intended to certify teacher candidates in either mild/moderate disabilities, moderate/severe disabilities, deaf and hard of hearing, or early childhood special education.)

Gauging the program’s effectiveness is another challenge. Burstein told the crowd that the university was developing a way to measure effectiveness linked to accountability systems, but that it will need “a lot of refinement” over the years.

Finally, there’s the money. How do you sustain a program beyond the expiration of the grant period, particularly in a program that is training a relatively small number of teachers for a relatively small number of students? University and school officials are enthusiastic about the program now, Burstein said, but the question remains, “how do we get the funding to continue to support these programs when these grants end?”

My colleagues Debra Viadero and Stephen Sawchuk have written about teacher residency programs in general. Here, Viadero explains that Mathematica is starting a study to determine if these programs are more successful than standard teacher training; unfortunately, we won’t see results until 2013. And in this article Sawchuk writes about the federal support for such training models.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.