How Can We Hire and Keep High Quality Teachers in Struggling Schools?

Kelly Hallberg and Glenance Green

For years, the job of drawing high quality teachers to struggling schools has relied mostly on incentives: money, prestige or better professional development.

Those lures have typically met with halting success, but a different approach—aimed at college graduates who didn’t study education in college—is showing promise in addressing the thorny issue of getting a high quality teacher in every classroom. Launched in 2001, the model is based on the simple idea that our educators should be trained the way we train our doctors, through hands-on clinical practice and expert supervision—teacher residencies.

The concept of teacher residencies might prove appealing as Congress once again grapples with teacher equity as it attempts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and as states press forward on federally mandated teacher equity plans due June 1.

The teacher residency program in Denver, evaluated by the American Institutes for Research, provides a reliable pipeline of high-quality teachers committed to hard-to-staff schools and subject areas. Through the Denver evaluation, AIR has learned several lessons about successful teacher residencies, but first some background.

Residencies typically involve close collaboration between area universities and a local school district. During an intensive year in the classroom, teacher-residents shadow experienced teachers, at first just watching them work but gradually taking on more responsibility through the school year. At the same time, teacher-residents are taking coursework toward master’s degrees at the partner university. It’s a substantial commitment. When they graduate, residents usually are required to serve between three and seven years in their host districts. In exchange, the residents often earn stipends or forgiveness on their student loans.

The Denver Teacher Residency (DTR) is now in its fifth year. In interviews with AIR, 62 participants gave the program high marks for rigor—it lasts one year, as opposed to 10 weeks of student teaching for traditionally prepared teachers—and for its continuous, side-by-side training with mentor teachers.

A second-year mentor said the program shows teacher-residents “what a classroom looks like from before kids arrive until the last day of school. …I think other student-teaching programs where it's 10 weeks, or eight weeks, or whatever else it is, give [only] a snapshot of the year.”

The program is showing early signs of success. In the 2012-13 school year, Denver residency graduates significantly outscored first-year teachers on each of the system’s 12 indicators of effective teaching. Additionally, AIR found, math students taught by DTR alumni outperformed math students taught by other new teachers in the districts.

In the 2014–15 school year, 75 percent of principals indicated that a candidate’s teacher training program contributed to their decision to hire. Ninety-seven percent of principals said they were more likely to hire a candidate who completed the DTR program than a graduate of any other teacher-certification program. And, nationally, Urban Teacher Residency United—a coalition of residency programs that includes Denver—reported that 85 percent of its graduates remain in the classroom after three years, compared to the national average, 50 percent.

What have we learned from evaluating successful teacher residencies? Three important lessons:

  • Find the right fit. A predictor of success is making good matches between residents and mentor teachers. In a ritual that looks like speed dating, potential residents and mentors get together for quick meet-and-greets to sort out the best matches. Most respondents said their one-to-one pairing contributed hugely to their success.
  • Make it sustainable. School districts need to think early about keeping the program going beyond their five-year federal Teacher Quality Partnership grants, which fund most teacher-residency programs. In Denver, the residency program has cost about $6.7 million so far and developed 169 new teachers for the Denver Public Schools.
  • Keep it local. “You get to see the actual curriculum and the actual community you’re going to be teaching in,” explained one mentor teacher. By training within the school district where they will eventually work, they can hit the ground running from their first day in their own classrooms – which can make teacher residency a win-win for the new teachers and their districts.

Kelly Hallberg is a principal researcher at AIR and is leading evaluations of teacher residencies in Denver, Jacksonville, Florida and rural Colorado. Glenance Green is a research associate at AIR. Also contributing: Melissa Brown-Sims, senior researcher, and Roshni Menon, researcher.