The federal government is doubling down on what it sees as a promising solution to teacher shortages: Let aspiring teachers train on the job, at little to no cost, while earning a paycheck.
The U.S. Departments of Education and Labor announced July 27 that they have invested tens of millions of dollars into expanding registered apprenticeship programs for teachers. For the first time, they also highlighted quality control: The labor department issued a set of nonbinding guidelines meant to ensure quality as more states adopt the approach.
Tennessee was the first state to register its “grow-your-own” program with the federal government in January 2022, and in August, the education and labor departments issued a letter urging more states and school districts to pursue this pathway, which opens up a new stream of federal funding that can pay for on-the-job training, wages, textbooks, and other supportive services, such as child care.
Almost a year later, 21 states have at least one registered apprenticeship program for teachers. The Biden administration is hoping to get all 50 states on board.
Advocates say that apprenticeship models create an affordable pathway to the classroom for individuals like paraprofessionals, who might have decades of education experience but lack a bachelor’s degree. Some programs also target high school students who are interested in becoming teachers.
“Registered apprenticeships in teaching have the opportunity to change who gets to become a teacher and how they’re prepared,” 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. “If designed and implemented correctly, you can truly become a teacher for free and get paid to do so.”
These programs can be particularly effective at recruiting teachers of color, who are in high demand. Advocates also say they set up teachers to stay in the classroom long term, since they’re typically being recruited from within the school community.
The model has become so popular that education leaders in North Dakota requested that principals also be eligible for federal apprenticeship programs. The Department of Labor approved the request and is considering the state’s application. More states are expected to follow.
An attempt to ensure quality control
The labor department also approved a set of national guidelines developed by the Pathways Alliance, a coalition of education organizations dedicated to bolstering the teacher pipeline. Coalition members include the two national teachers’ unions, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Arizona State University, and Inspire Texas, an alternative teacher-preparation program.
The guidelines provide a shared definition and clear indicators of what makes a high-quality program, while still leaving room for local variation and innovation, said Jacqueline King, a consultant for research, policy, and advocacy for AACTE, and a co-chair of the Pathways Alliance working group who was the lead writer of the guidelines.
While states and districts don’t have to adhere to the guidelines, King said she’s hopeful that policymakers will still embed key elements into their program design.
Teacher apprentices should spend at least one school year working alongside an “experienced and accomplished” mentor teacher who is the teacher of record for the classroom, the guidelines say. The apprentice should be paid on a progressively sliding scale, meaning they have at least one pay bump over the course of the program.
Apprentices should be paid at a rate that’s based on a starting teacher salary in the district and no less than the pay rate for a paraprofessional, King said.
By the time apprentices complete the program, they should have a bachelor’s degree (if they didn’t already have one) and be able to demonstrate mastery of the learning standards or competencies named by Pathways Alliance. They should also have completed all requirements for full state certification or licensure.
According to the guidelines, apprentices should be able to:
- understand how learners grow and develop;
- create inclusive learning environments that take into account individual differences and diverse cultures;
- work with others to create engaging learning environments;
- have a strong level of content knowledge;
- understand how to make connections within the content and help students think critically and creatively;
- use multiple methods of assessment;
- plan instruction by drawing upon content knowledge, curriculum, cross-disciplinary skills, pedagogy, and knowledge of students’ needs and strengths;
- use a variety of instructional strategies;
- evaluate their own practice and adapt as necessary; and
- collaborate with students, families, colleagues, and community members to meet the needs of all learners.
The guidelines “set the floor for what quality can look like in this relatively new pathway into teaching,” said Patrick Steck, the vice president of external affairs at Deans for Impact, an organization that supports teacher-educators.
Steck, a co-chair of the Pathways Alliance working group, added that the standards ensure “that teachers enact instruction that is based on our scientific understanding of how students actually learn.”
And given how quickly states are adopting and registering teacher-apprenticeship programs, monitoring quality will be important, he said: “We cannot just ensure that it’s going to lead to quality preparation without paying close attention to the design and implementation of the experience.”
The Biden administration invests in the pathway
Last August, the Department of Labor pledged to invest $100 million in grants for apprenticeship programs, including ones for teachers.
As part of that commitment, the department recently awarded states more than $65 million competitive and noncompetitive grants to develop and expand registered apprenticeship programs. Forty-five states received money under this program, and 35 of them pledged to target education.
Kansas, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, and Washington state received competitive grant money to expand registered apprenticeship programs for K-12 teachers, as well as other industries.
The Biden administration is also trying other tactics to get states on board.
For example, the education department, alongside several partners, is providing technical assistance to interested state and local leaders. Eighteen states have participated in a workgroup to share resources and best practices.
And the Department of Labor announced that it had awarded a contract to RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, to help launch, promote, and expand registered apprenticeship programs for K-12 educators. (The department also awarded contracts to other groups to promote registered apprenticeships in early childhood education.)