The Teacher Residency Question

(This post also appears at Rick Hess Straight Up.)

I’ve gotten a number of questions and comments regarding NCATE’s big Blue Ribbon Panel report, both after my remarks at the National Press Club and in response to yesterday’s post. Thought it worth taking a couple moments to expand and explain a bit, especially because teacher residencies are one of our current “everybody loves ’em” enthusiasms.

First, let’s be clear. I dig the idea of clinical residencies. Something like the Boston Teacher Residency (BTR), or the approach employed in Long Beach, makes all kinds of sense–for those programs, districts, and teachers. I’m all for high-quality clinical residencies when they’re done smartly, cost-effectively, and so forth. So, none of my concerns should be taken as pooh-poohing the central idea (though, as I said yesterday, it’s not clear to me why colleges or universities ought to necessarily be invited to the clinical residency dance–as most bring little more than hefty cost structures, hard-to-change routines, and faculty of dubious clinical expertise).

But, let’s just stipulate that clinical experience is, broadly speaking, a cool idea. At that point, there are four big questions worth asking.

First, even if today’s boutique efforts are found to “work,” how confident can we be that large-scale imitation will deliver similar benefits? One point that was brought up repeatedly at the report launch yesterday, without any apparent irony, is how important it is that programs like the Boston Teacher Residency are highly selective. That’s terrific. But it also poses a huge challenge when one talks of scaling up these programs. To the extent that the secret in such programs is that–unlike most teacher preparation programs–they are careful about who they enroll and graduate, many of the apparent benefits of their expensive programs may be due to nothing more than candidate quality. The problem is that this is hard to sustain if lots of programs are competing for the same pool of folks, and I’m completely unconvinced that the miraculous enthusiasm for clinical residencies would spur the nation’s 1,300+ teacher preparation programs to suddenly become much more selective–or to have much more success attracting high-quality candidates.

Far more likely, I think, is the too-familiar routine in which promising boutique programs (which benefit from selection effects, enormous enthusiasm, philanthropic support, and a sharply honed sense of mission) become one more disappointing fad when adopted by a slew of district and university officials eager to sign on for the best practice of the moment but who don’t ultimately have any stomach for the wrenching changes needed to do it right. The likely result: an amped-up serving of mediocre student teaching now relabeled “clinical residencies,” hampered by too few promising candidates, too few skilled higher education faculty, too few rewarding placements, too little program support, and too few top-shelf classroom mentors.

Second, who exactly does the residency model make sense for? For teachers going into challenging environments where they are going to work intensively with kids who need a high level of “high-touch” adult interaction, then the residency model makes a ton of sense. If the aspiring teachers expect to work in a particular district, school, or school model for a number of years, then the upfront costs can look like a smart investment. For these teachers, I think it’s more useful to ask whether staffing models can be reshaped so they take on roles commensurate with their abilities (hello surgical teams, with exquisitely trained surgeons working hand-in-glove with less intensively trained team members). However, if teachers are instructing students who require less intensive teacher engagement or are more likely to bounce across very different school models, then I’m less confident in the payoff.

Third, how can the residency model be pursued without stifling alternative forms of instructional provision? One Blue Ribbon Panel member told me that he didn’t really understand my concern about stifling online learning. After all, he said, “We’re just talking about partnerships–Florida Virtual could design a training partnership to serve their needs.” Well, maybe. Except that, given that the report explicitly celebrates teacher “residencies,” flags only models like the Boston Teacher Residency, talks explicitly of “instructional rounds,” and so forth, the near-certainty is that higher education and state education agencies which run with the NCATE agenda will do so with BTR as the model. This risks stacking unnecessary costs and burdens on models that don’t require all teachers to have that kind of experience. This might include online instruction, programs like Citizen Schools that explore alternatives to the conventional full-time teacher, or models like the high-performing, cost-shaving Rocketship Academies (built around an Oracle-like model of empowering young employees and using technology and specialization to make their roles more manageable). We’ve a century or more of cautionary history suggesting that well-intentioned policies designed to strengthen teacher preparation by embracing the residency presumption can all too easily stifle creative efforts to boost quality, meet particular needs, or boost cost-effectiveness by using technology or staff in unconventional ways.

Finally, why do residency models seem to envision the deal as a one-size-fits-all proposition? When I eyeball today’s teacher residencies, I see a solitary notion of what it means to be a “teacher.” I’d have a lot more faith if I were confident that the NCATE panel was pushing for an array of clinical residencies, with an eye to developing less onerous, customized, “just-in-time” preparation for part-time tutors or online instructors. Unfortunately, I see no evidence of such thinking in the NCATE effort.

The intuition here is simple, and can be lifted directly from medicine, where the clinical residency for a cardiovascular surgeon is different from that for a general practitioner. Both are trained rather differently than are RNs or EMTs. And all of these are trained differently than the guy who is going to read X-rays. (Remember, also, that for all the attention paid to medical residencies, doctors account for less than 10 percent of American medical personnel. So the famous, expensive medical residency is really intended for a specialized population and not for every employee who sets foot in a clinic or hospital.) If states and colleges casually wind up embracing notions of a one-size-fits-all residency, it’ll be tough sledding to go back and unwind them in a way that facilitates this specialization. After all, this current effort is focused in large part on undoing the legacy of licensure and preparation decisions made more than a half-century ago.

So, again, high-quality residency programs are swell. But, before the eight states that have signed onto the NCATE vision get too far ahead of themselves, and before districts, colleges, or the U.S. Department of Education start jumping on this bandwagon, I sure hope everyone will take a deep breath and make sure they’ve got a vision to for making sure this well-intentioned effort has a happy ending.

-Frederick Hess

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