There's a Cheaper, More Effective Way to Train Teachers

Why school systems across the country should adopt an apprenticeship model

David Goldman/AP Photo

We don’t know exactly how much money was spent training Will in his first year of Teach for America, but we know it was a lot. We would guess the total sum is above $50,000, a figure that includes district training costs, school training costs, the money Teach for America spent, and Will’s master degree classes.

Although new teachers like Will are receiving tens of thousands of dollars worth of training, few are learning real skills that will help them become better teachers. According to a 2008 study, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent training roughly 200,000 new teachers each year, but there is still a shortage of teachers of “sufficient quality or quantity.” Teacher development programs show “little if any impact.” Education schools are languishing as an “industry of mediocrity.” Teacher turnover is high.

Our experiences—Will’s as a member of Teach for America in Philadelphia and an education master’s degree candidate at University of Pennsylvania, and Michael’s as a researcher and writer—confirm what these statistics suggest: that all the money we spend on new teacher training does little to boost the quality of our beginner teachers. Fortunately, there’s a better, less expensive way to train teachers: an apprenticeship model.

Teacher apprenticeship can take many different forms, but at its core it means pairing a beginner teacher with an experienced “master teacher” who can both demonstrate effective teaching techniques—a good transition between a lesson and independent practice, for example—and then help the beginner adopt these techniques, reflect on them, and eventually forge his or her own unique style.

Will’s master’s degree classes at Penn are often interesting discussions on pedagogical theory, but they rarely relate to his teaching practice. Even his classes on math education focus only on the theory of teaching math to a broad range of ages, which doesn’t help Will with tomorrow’s lesson plan. These meditative sessions would benefit a veteran teacher far more than they do a novice one.

Though both Penn and Teach for America rightly stress coaching teachers in the classroom, neither Penn’s observer (who came six times in the first year) nor Teach for America’s (who comes once a month) has an intricate-enough knowledge of the nuances of Will’s classroom to be effective. They know, for example, that targeting questions is important, but don’t know the individual students’ needs (or even names) well enough to suggest which students to target. Though well intentioned and supportive, their feedback tends to center on abstractions like “vision” or policy issues like “the achievement gap.”

Virtually all beginner teachers, in our experience, meanwhile, agree that what they need more than abstract social and pedagogical lectures are tangible techniques and granular-level coaching. They need Band-Aids, not meditations on hematology.

Fortunately for Will, he teaches at a charter school that does something innovative and different. At Will’s school, the top master teachers are given an additional free period to observe and train new teachers—not in pedagogical theory, but in tools such as how to support individual students (“Elijah’s parents are responsive”); content-specific tricks (“here’s a way to explain how to derive the distance formula from the Pythagorean theorem”); or school-specific techniques (“this is how our school manages half-days”).

New teachers at Will’s school are required to observe master teachers as well. Each shares a room with a master teacher, observing him or her teaching each lesson and replicating that lesson the next day under the master teacher’s close watch. After the lesson, the two reflect on what went well, why certain choices were made in content and delivery, and prep for the next day. Over time, the beginner teacher grows increasingly able to take the reins on lesson planning and begins to cultivate his or her unique style.

That kind of interaction is the essence of well-structured teacher apprenticeship: nuanced feedback aimed at specific situations. You said “length” as opposed to “distance” in that lesson—why? Could you have integrated parts from a lesson on fractions three months ago into today’s? Are you including the right special education material? In order to ask such targeted questions, the coach must have experience at the same school with similar content. And the feedback must be inscribed within a reflective dialogue—as Katherine Merseth, senior lecturer and director of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Teacher Education Program, puts it: “You want the observer to have the awareness that [the master teacher] chose A instead of B, C, D, and E, and to understand why. Because the next time, when I’m all by myself and I haven’t seen the lesson taught before, and I have A, B, C, D, E—how do I know which one to do?”

Will’s school’s teacher training program is only one version of the apprenticeship model—others have deployed it differently, but with equally striking results. In Newton, Massachusetts, for example, the Newton Teacher Residency provides a one-year licensure program in which the trainee teacher spends the full year in one of the district’s master teachers’ classrooms, observing and gradually taking ownership of the teaching. As Jonathan Bassett, one of the program’s founders and its current director, explains: “At the end of the school year, they will have essentially gone through a coached and supported first year of teaching as opposed to a typical, into-the-deep-end first year of teaching.”

Reflecting on the thinking behind the program, Bassett draws an analogy to sports:

If you wanted to learn to play basketball, you wouldn’t go to a university and have long discussions about how to set up the offense. You would learn to dribble, and you’d have a guy who tells you how to get off your left foot or your right foot. And it’s not until you’ve been playing the game for five or 10 years that you say: ‘Whoa, I really think in this situation we ought to go to a zone.’ [...] It seemed to me that a lot of what Ed school did was teach about teaching, rather than teach teaching.

The Newton program is small—at capacity, it can only train eight new teachers a year—but it’s also nimble and cost-efficient: roughly $5,000 per trainee teacher, which is how much it charges those trainees in tuition. Newton is able to achieve that efficiency because it makes use of its most important resource: its existing master teachers, who are excited to take on a new challenge after years of honing their craft.

“These are all stipended, moonlighting positions—nobody’s relying on this for their primary income,” Bassett explains. “That model is totally replicable—there’s nothing to prevent other public schools from doing this. You could decentralize the whole teacher prep thing and go to an apprenticeship model. It could be done.”