The rapidly growing teacher apprenticeship model was designed to give candidates on-the-job training under the close supervision of an experienced mentor. But in at least three states, policymakers are designing apprenticeship programs that open the door to teachers without college degrees.
Alabama, Colorado, and Idaho have approved policies that could eventually allow teacher apprentices to serve as the teacher of record before they complete the apprenticeship program—and in some cases, before they earn their bachelor’s degree.
That practice, critics say, goes against the very idea of an apprenticeship: Those learning the craft should be supervised and only assume full teaching responsibilities after completing their preparation.
The Biden administration has heavily promoted registered teacher-apprenticeship programs as an opportunity for a new stream of federal funding, leading some to fear that more states could adopt similar allowances.
Policymakers say the move is necessary to fill teacher vacancies and that guardrails will be in place so that an apprentice demonstrates competency before taking ownership of a classroom. But others argue that allowing apprentices to be a teacher of record before they’re fully prepared doesn’t set them up for long-term success, risks poor student outcomes, and potentially devalues the teaching profession.
“It’s belittling to everyone else who has gone through and worked at the university level to obtain their content knowledge and their pedagogy to become a certified teacher,” said Emma Wood, the assistant dean of educator preparation at Idaho State University. “It continues to erode respect for the profession.”
Interest in teacher apprenticeships is booming
The idea behind teacher-apprenticeship programs is that aspiring teachers should receive free or subsidized tuition—and other financial supports, including child care assistance—while earning a paycheck for working in a classroom under an experienced educator. Many programs target paraprofessionals, who might have years of education experience but haven’t been able to afford to go back to school to earn their degree and teaching license.
Over the past 18 months, 21 states have registered a teacher-apprenticeship program with the U.S. Department of Labor, unlocking new sources of funding. Last week, the department approved a new set of national, nonbinding guidelines to ensure quality as the model continues to catch on.
The guidelines, developed by the Pathways Alliance, a coalition of education organizations, are clear: “At no point during the apprenticeship should the apprentice be the teacher-of-record.” Instead, the guidelines say apprentices should work alongside an “experienced and accomplished mentor teacher” for at least one school year.
Alliance members supported that language unanimously, said Jacqueline King, a consultant for research, policy, and advocacy for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the lead writer of the guidelines.
“We want to make sure that these apprenticeships set people up for long-term success and a long, thriving career as an educator, and we’re not pushing people too quickly to take on a level of responsibility before they’re fully licensed,” she said.
Trying to ‘place teachers into the classroom faster’
Yet state policymakers don’t have to adhere to those guidelines, and persistent teacher shortage areas are often top of mind when developing these programs.
Under some of the proposals, apprenticeships could look more like alternative teacher-preparation programs, like Teach For America or teaching fellows programs offered in some cities, in which candidates begin teaching with limited preparation.
Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey issued an executive order in Januaryto establish a competency-based registered teacher-apprenticeship pilot program geared toward paraprofessionals and teachers’ aides. The order says that one of the goals is to improve teacher quality and retention by increasing the amount of classroom experience a teacher has before becoming a teacher of record.
But the program “should place teachers into the classroom faster by letting them be a teacher of record during their final year of teacher-preparation programs,” the executive order says.
A spokesperson for the Alabama State Department of Education said in an email that the state is still in the early planning stages, and the anticipated program launch date is in the 2024-25 school year. The state hasn’t yet registered its program with the U.S. Department of Labor.
In Colorado, a new law, signed by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis in May, authorized registered teacher apprenticeships as a pathway to licensure. The measure says that school districts can employ teacher apprentices “in roles of increasing responsibility, including working as a substitute teacher and a teacher of record.”
Apprentices must be actively enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program and must have passed a state-approved content exam to serve as a teacher of record. Apprentices must also have access to a mentor.
Colleen O’Neil, the associate commissioner of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said stakeholders debated at length whether it would be appropriate to allow apprentices to serve as the teacher of record before earning their bachelor’s degree.
“The bachelor’s degree comes with content knowledge,” she said. “And the apprenticeship is really about the pedagogy and how you teach, and we know that with strong educators, we see a combination of great pedagogy and strong content knowledge.”
But ultimately, she said, state policymakers determined that it’s possible for candidates to demonstrate content knowledge before they earn their bachelor’s degree. The state plans to establish four levels of teaching competencies, and apprentices will have to be at the highest level before serving as a teacher of record, she said.
Also, many paraprofessionals have been in the classroom for a long time and have had access to strong professional development throughout their career, O’Neil said. Allowing them to be the teacher of record while they’re pursuing their degree “utilizes and acknowledges the experiences they have in the classroom and drives them further,” she said.
But paraprofessionals don’t have the experience being the decisionmakers in the classroom, said Wood, the Idaho State assistant dean.
As classroom aides, paraprofessionals are often working with students in small-group settings or are focused on providing special education services, she said: “The idea that they’re going to then walk into a middle school history class [as the teacher of record], that doesn’t make a lot of sense in my mind.”
One state considers going a step farther
The Pathways Alliance guidelines also say that by the time apprentices complete the program, they should have a bachelor’s degree. But Wood said she worries that Idaho is poised to create a pathway to the classroom through an apprenticeship program that does not result in a college degree at all.
Idaho lawmakers approved changes to the state education code this spring that allow teacher apprentices without a bachelor’s degree to serve as the teacher of record.
Also, the state code now says that a standard teaching license could be granted to someone who has a bachelor’s degree and the required professional training—or someone who has successfully completed an approved registered apprenticeship program. (In emergency situations, someone with two years of college training can also receive a temporary teaching license.)
Idaho officials said they have not yet determined what the outcome of an apprenticeship program will be and how a bachelor’s degree factors in.
The office of the Idaho State Board of Education is in the early stages of planning the framework for a teacher-apprenticeship program and has not yet registered one with the U.S. Department of Labor. A working group of policymakers, legislators, superintendents, teachers, teacher-educators, and others has only met once so far.
State officials said they hope to have a framework in place this fiscal year to pursue federal registration. “There’s a sense of urgency to provide a place-bound preparation program for individuals across our state,” said Jenn Thompson, the chief policy and government affairs officer for the Idaho State Board of Education.
After all, it’s difficult for aspiring teachers in some remote areas of the state to travel to universities, especially in the harsh winters, said Mike Keckler, the chief communications and legislative affairs officer for the state board of education. An apprenticeship program will be “one tool in the toolbox” to mitigate teacher shortages in those rural areas, he said.
Even so, the policy changes have sparked concern from some in the state.
Idaho Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, a Democrat and a longtime educator who also serves as the strategic initiatives project director for Boise State University’s College of Education, was one of the sponsors of the bill that authorized a teacher-apprenticeship program as a pathway to licensure. She said she never intended her legislation to open the door to teachers without a college degree.
“When you consider teaching a profession, it is critical that teachers go in well-prepared with strong clinical experience,” she said. “We know that also means mentorship and support from [teacher]-preparation providers. I’m concerned that the current approach does not see preparation through that lens.”
Katie Shoup, the educator-effectiveness program manager at the Idaho State Board of Education, said the working group is considering how to ensure quality. For example, she said, it’s possible that an aspiring math teacher would have to take the math licensing test to demonstrate competence in the subject before they complete the apprenticeship program.
The group hasn’t yet identified how an apprentice would demonstrate competency before taking on the role of teacher of record, she said.
An equity concern
Semmelroth said she is also concerned that students in rural areas will be getting less-prepared teachers than students in other parts of the state.
“We want all of Idaho’s kids to have access to well-prepared, high-quality teachers, especially our rural students,” she said.
Research shows that that the least experienced teachers are more likely to be placed in schools that serve a large population of students from low-income families and students of color, said Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group that advocates for more-rigorous teacher preparation.
Just as most people wouldn’t want an electrical apprentice working on their home without supervision, state and district leaders shouldn’t want untrained novice teachers in front of students, she said. A bachelor’s degree is a signal that the teacher has the content knowledge necessary to effectively teach students, Peske added.
This isn’t the first time states have allowed teachers without college degrees to lead classrooms. Last year, Arizona and Florida lifted the requirement that teachers hold bachelor’s degrees in limited circumstances—a decision spurred by teacher shortages.
In Arizona, teacher-candidates who are in enrolled in college can teach without supervision if they have an emergency certificate, which is issued when a school can’t fill a vacancy otherwise.
And in Florida, military veterans without a bachelor’s degree can receive a five-year teaching certificate, as long as they have completed at least 60 college credits with a 2.5 grade point average and can pass a state exam to demonstrate mastery of subject-area knowledge.
Advocates of teacher-apprenticeship programs don’t want apprenticeships lumped in with those efforts, which were approved in response to pressing numbers of vacancies. They say that the loosened requirements conflict with the model’s intent and purpose—which is to give aspiring teachers extensive, on-the-job training while knocking down financial barriers.
“At the end of the day, while we’re trying to staff classrooms, this is about ensuring every child has a well-prepared teacher,” said Patrick Steck, the vice president of external affairs at Deans for Impact, a group that supports teacher-educators, and a co-chair of the Pathways Alliance working group.
A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as Some States Plan to Give Teachers-in-Training Their Own Classrooms, Prompting Concerns