Teaching Profession Opinion

Preparing Teachers Well: The Clinical Difference

By Robert Rothman — November 14, 2014 3 min read
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A couple years ago I had the opportunity to visit Impact Academy, a high school in Hayward, California, that is part of the Envisions network. The school has a heavy emphasis on project-based learning and prepares students to complete portfolios demonstrating their knowledge, skills, and reflections on their learning.

I was very impressed with the classes I saw and the work the students were doing, and had a chance to meet with a group of teachers. I asked them whether their teacher-education programs had prepared them to teach in that environment, and they said that they learned a lot on the job. Specifically, they suggested, the programs did not teach them how to work backwards from the standards they wanted students to achieve and create a sequence of projects that would lead all students to those standards.

It was impressive that these teachers were able to learn how to teach effectively, and many Deeper Learning Network schools have mentorship systems in place to help new teachers. But, it occurred to me, why couldn’t teachers learn more before they enter the classroom?

One school network in the Deeper Learning Network, High Tech High, took this challenge on. That network created its own graduate school to prepare teachers to teach in its schools. The students in the graduate school work alongside teachers in the High Tech High classrooms, and thus have ample experience working with actual students before they become teachers of record. Leaders from the program have contributed to this blog.

There is a growing interest in providing pre-service teachers with substantial clinical experience. Since the early 2000s, districts and charter networks have formed “residencies” to prepare teachers. These programs, modeled after medical residencies, enable prospective teachers to spend a year in classrooms working side by side with mentor teachers, as well as taking coursework and participating in seminars.

A new report by Urban Teacher Residencies United, a network of residency programs, outlines practices of effective residencies. Examining two effective programs, one operated by Aspire Public Schools, a charter network in California, and one operated by the Denver Public Schools, the report identifies the factors that make them successful. These are:

  • Recruitment and selection: candidates are assessed for the characteristics that are likely to lead to success;
  • Coursework and seminars: classes are built around the clinical experiences;
  • Coaching and feedback: structured systems make the clinical experiences meaningful;
  • Assessment and evaluation: the focus is on continual improvement; and
  • The school and school system: the schools embody a collaborative culture, clear rubrics for effectiveness, and a growth mindset.

To be sure, not all residency programs are equally effective, and the Aspire and Denver programs remain exceptions: Denver’s produces 20 percent of that district’s teachers and Aspire’s produces 30 percent of the teachers for that network. But the idea behind residencies--to turn traditional teacher education on its head and lead with clinical practice, rather than add it at the end--could be the way teacher preparation might head.

For a graduate of a residency program, the UTRU report notes, “Her day one was really day 181.” The report states that this is essential:

And because every day counts for every child, it is not just an advantage but an imperative to do all we can to develop a highly capable cadre of committed new teachers able to hit the ground running, to ensure that students are never solely the responsibility of teachers who still have on their training wheels.

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