Teacher Preparation

Teacher Apprenticeships Are Booming in Wake of Shortages. Here’s What You Need to Know

New federal funding could help more people become teachers for free
By Madeline Will — March 17, 2023 | Corrected: March 20, 2023 8 min read
Fatima Nunez Ardon, a teacher in training, teaches Spanish to second graders at Madrona Elementary School in SeaTac, a suburb in Seattle, Wash., on Sept. 28, 2022. Ardon went through a program at Highline College, a community college, to train to be a teacher.
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Corrected: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect description of apprenticeship funding from the U.S. Department of Labor. Its $100 million in grants is not exclusively for teacher apprenticeships.

The number of states with federally registered apprenticeship programs for teachers has doubled in just six months, as policymakers and school district leaders look to the model as a promising solution to teacher pipeline challenges.

An apprenticeship, or residency, program allows prospective teachers to undergo training through a teacher preparation program while they work in schools and earn a paycheck. Registering such a program with the U.S. Department of Labor opens up federal funding to pay for tuition assistance, wages, and other supportive services, such as textbooks and child care assistance.

The goal, advocates say, is to reduce as many barriers as possible so more people will become teachers, while still maintaining high standards of quality. The programs are often meant for paraprofessionals or high school students who have an interest in teaching, with the idea that recruiting within a school community will develop teachers who stay long-term.

Tennessee was the first state to get the stamp of approval from the Department of Labor in January 2022. By October, seven other states had gotten approval, and now a total of 16 states have at least one registered apprenticeship program for teachers.

Many of those states have more than one. Iowa, for instance, has 17 registered apprenticeship programs hosted by school systems, part of a push by Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state education department to train and educate current high school students to become paraprofessionals, and paraprofessionals to become teachers.

Just this month, the National Center for Grow Your Own launched a network for school districts that are in various stages of implementing the registered apprenticeship model. The network will allow the district leaders to regularly meet and learn from one another about the design and implementation of these programs.

So far, 16 districts have signed on, but David Donaldson, the founder and managing partner of the center, expects more to follow soon.

The national center also manages a similar network for states, which launched last year with seven states and now has 17. (Not all states with registered apprenticeships are in the network. Some states in the network are still pursuing the model and haven’t been approved by the Department of Labor yet.) Donaldson said he expects about 30 states to ultimately join the network, which will run through December.

After all, Donaldsonsaid, teacher shortages are plaguing districts across the country. Teacher-preparation enrollment has fallen by at least one-third over the past decade. Low pay is a deterrent for many of those considering going into teaching, especially those from marginalized backgrounds.

Apprenticeship programs represent a new path forward.

“Registered apprenticeships can be used as a Trojan horse to have a different conversation,” Donaldson said. “That conversation we’re trying to elevate is, why can’t you become a teacher for free in America and get paid to do so?”

Mentorship for teacher apprentices is key

Research on teacher residency programs find that program graduates tend to stay in the field longer than average. Residents are also more likely to be teachers of color, who only comprise about 20 percent of the teacher workforce overall. And some studies have found that students of teachers who participated in a residency program outperform other teachers’ classes on state assessments, although that research base is more limited.

The mentorship and coaching that residents get over a prolonged period of time—versus a semester, as is typical with most student-teaching experiences—is critical for long-term success in the classroom, said Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, an associate professor of graduate teacher education at Stonehill College in Massachusetts who studies teacher preparation.

Residency programs help “to make the connection between theory and practice,” said Stringer Keefe, who developed a residency program at Stonehill. “That has long been a criticism of the teaching profession—that [traditional] teacher preparation is too theoretical, and [candidates] need practice.”

But right now, higher-resourced districts are able to offer higher stipends and salaries for residents than under-resourced districts, which are often the ones that need well-trained teachers the most, she said. Having access to new sources of funding could help close that gap.

Once established, registered apprenticeship programs can access multiple streams of workforce funding that previously weren’t available for education. The exact amount programs receive will vary, but many states and the federal government have prioritized this model in their budgets. For instance, the Department of Labor has committed more than $100 million in grants for apprenticeships programs, including teaching ones.

“This could be a really wonderful opportunity for the teaching profession as long as there are safeguards around the academic support,” Stringer Keefe said.

Donaldson has echoed the call for quality control, saying that the registered apprenticeship program could be an opportunity to increase the rigor of teacher preparation. States and districts collaborating through this process could help maintain a high bar.

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Silhouette of a woman with her arms crossed and looming over a classroom watching the teacher instruct her classroom
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The networks that the National Center for Grow Your Own is running are designed for states and districts among the full spectrum of implementation—from the exploratory phase to approval from the federal government.

Both a state educational agency and a district can sponsor an apprenticeship program to register with the Department of Labor. The state or district has to partner with an education preparation provider approved to license teachers—typically a college or university, but it can also be a preparation program run by a school district.

While it’s often easier for state education departments to be the sponsor since they oversee teacher licensing requirements, there are some districts in the network that are taking the initiative, Donaldson said.

“Sometimes a district needs to show what’s possible in order to get the state to move” forward, he said.

District leaders who are participating in the network say they’re eager to share best practices and tips.

“I am a big believer in collective impact, and the teacher vacancy crisis is not just impacting Midland,” said Ashley Osborne, the associate superintendent of teaching and learning at the Midland Independent school district in west Texas. “To be able to network and thought partner with other districts across the country—we’ll be able to learn from them, and maybe they’ll learn from us, and [together we will] collectively mitigate some of the talent challenges we’re seeing in terms of teacher vacancies.”

The 26,000-student district has about 130 teaching positions vacant right now, which is about 7 percent of its teaching force, Osborne said. The vacancies are in all subjects and grade levels.

Beefing up existing programs

The Midland school district has already partnered with the University of Texas of the Permian Basin to run a residency program that is associated with the Opportunity Culture model, which puts strong teachers in charge of more students. Teachers who have demonstrated effectiveness with student learning are named “multi-classroom leaders,” meaning they lead a teaching team, provide on-the-job coaching to their teachers, and still do some teaching themselves.

The teacher residents, who are university students pursuing a traditional path into the profession, are paired with the multi-classroom teacher and work for a full school year as a paraprofessional. They receive a paycheck and health benefits, as well as coaching and support from the mentor teacher and a university supervisor.

“It’s not just removing barriers by getting them into the profession, it’s also providing them with high-quality preparation,” Osborne said.

But the Midland district struggles with obstacles common to teacher residencies: It’s not able to assist with the residents’ tuition. That’s one factor why the pipeline has not yet made a significant impact in the district’s vacancies, she said. Becoming a registered apprenticeship program would unlock additional funding to help with tuition or child care assistance, which would hopefully allow the program to recruit current paraprofessionals as well, Osborne said.

And once the district receives federal registration, it could “backwards design” the apprenticeship approach to include high school students who are interested in becoming teachers, Osborne said. (Currently, the district offers an education training pathway through career and technical education, so high school students can graduate with an associate’s degree.)

Building a pipeline for high schoolers who are interested in teaching is not going to be a short-term fix for shortages. “But we know that we have to grow our own and invest in our people who are from this area so that once they do go through the whole program, get their credentials, and start teaching with us, they’re more likely to stay,” Osborne said.

The Houston Independent school district also joined the national network to explore what an apprenticeship program could look like there, said Kaylan Connally, the executive officer of talent strategy for the district.

The 195,000-student district already runs an in-house alternative certification program, and Connally said the district is interested in developing a registered apprenticeship model to support teaching assistants in earning their bachelor’s degree and teacher certification, among other options.

Houston ISD’s priority is to recruit more Hispanic teachers, as well as those who can teach the high shortage areas of bilingual and special education, Connally said. About 60 percent of the district’s student body is Hispanic, compared to about 30 percent of its teachers.

Many people of color avoid the profession because they would need to take on student debt and know that their earning potential as a teacher is limited. Registered apprenticeship programs can knock down that barrier, among others, Donaldson said.

“Registered apprenticeships allowed us to unlock funding that wasn’t previously available,” he said. “The talent has always been there—the opportunity hasn’t.”

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