INGLEWOOD, Calif. – In the back of a 10th-grade geometry classroom on a recent morning at Washington Preparatory High School, nine miles southeast of Los Angeles, Landon Yurica and Alycia Jones bent over the papers in front of them. At 23 and 24, respectively, the two could almost blend in as students as they tried the assignment the high school students were working on: finding the surface area of a geometric shape.
Yurica and Jones are teachers-in-training with the Urban Teacher Residency, a partnership among the Los Angeles Unified School District and four Southern California universities, which provides an alternative route to the classroom.
The program takes three semesters, compared with an average of six semesters in traditional programs for students who start as undergraduates and two for post-baccalaureate programs. It also demands a commitment of at least three post-preparation teaching years from its participants. It is one of an expanding pool of alternative programs capitalizing on the belief that the more experience an aspiring teacher has in a classroom, the better. The number of alternative programs nationwide has skyrocketed from 70 programs in the 2000-01 school year to 658 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and these programs now make up 31 percent of all teacher preparation programs in the nation.
Yet experts on teacher preparation acknowledge that little is known about which strategies actually work best for developing high-quality teachers. In 2008, James Wyckoff, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, was one of several researchers who looked at components of teacher preparation programs in New York City to determine which seemed to affect student achievement the most.
“I think what is remarkable is how little we know about teacher preparation,” Wyckoff said.
His study found, however, that one feature that can make a difference in outcomes for students is the amount of time aspiring teachers spent engaged in meaningful work in classrooms before they graduate from a training program.
In California, as in many states, the number of hours required for student teaching varies greatly by program, and the state has no minimum. Some schools, such as Loyola Marymount University, require as many as 1,600 hours, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Others, like Chapman University and Fresno Pacific University, require less than 500 hours. A handful of programs require no more than 200 hours. Nationwide, traditional teacher preparation programs required an average of 514 student teaching hours during the 2008-09 academic year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, far less than the average of 901 required that year by alternative programs that are not based out of universities.
Emily Feistritzer, president and CEO of the National Center for Alternative Certification, says that nationwide, alternative programs tend to place aspiring teachers in the classroom from the very beginning, so these numbers naturally would be higher. Those new teachers often are the teacher of record immediately. By contrast, in traditional training programs, students observe and then are observed by a mentor teacher.
“ ‘Student teaching,’ that terminology, has very little relevancy in the alternative routes,” Feistritzer said. “An alternative route program is generally a field-based program.”
What constitutes an alternative route varies widely, however. Every state determines its own definition for alternative programs, meaning a program that one state has classified as alternative might be classified as traditional in another state, despite having many of the same characteristics. One example is Teach For America: In some states, it is considered a preparation program; in others, a recruiting organization.
In California, alternative programs are called “intern programs” by the state and refer to programs in which participants teach in classrooms during the program, usually as the teacher of record. And most so-called alternative routes actually are run by traditional university programs, though that might be changing.
The Urban Teacher Residency falls into a small category of alternative programs in California run by school districts. These programs tend to have partnerships with local universities to offer education classes to participants, but emphasize time in the classroom as a crucial component of the training.
Many of these programs were created to address teacher shortages in specific subject areas or to attract candidates who historically have been underrepresented in the teaching force, such as men or minorities. Others were created in the hopes of developing better teachers, either through the program’s methods of training teachers or by attracting candidates with subject matter expertise, like those with degrees in math or science.
Between the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, the number of students in both traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs in California dropped, most likely due to lack of job security, educators say.
But according to the U.S. Department of Education, alternative programs based at universities across the country saw a 3 percent increase in the number of people completing them during that time. Alternative programs not run by universities, such as school district programs, saw an 18 percent increase.
The increase is likely due to more programs and candidates embracing the idea that time spent working in a classroom is more beneficial than time spent reading a textbook about teaching. “We find that the closer you get to the classroom, the teacher training is better,” Feistritzer said.
Alternative routes also might be more convenient – and less expensive – than a university. The Urban Teacher Residency program at California State University, Dominguez Hills pays its participants a stipend of up to $20,000 over the course of the 18-month residency, while others offer perks like free master’s degrees. (At California State University, the graduate and credential programs cost about $6,800 per year for state residents; private schools like Loyola Marymount University can cost upward of $30,000.)
But just as little is known about the effectiveness of traditional routes, there is little evidence that alternative routes are doing a better job of effectively preparing teachers.
During the 2009-10 school year, teachers prepared through an alternate route accounted for 10 percent of those attempting to pass a performance assessment in California, a requirement before earning a credential. Among all candidates, these teachers also had the lowest pass rate on their first attempt to take the exam.
California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing says teachers in some routes take parts of the exam early in their program, however, perhaps accounting for lower pass rates than those who take the exam at the end of the preparation program. Different versions of the test also have lower pass rates than others.
The Urban Teacher Residency, begun in 2010 to fill critical teacher shortages in urban Los Angeles schools, has embraced the limited research suggesting that more classroom experience, especially when it replicates what teachers will be expected to do in their own classrooms post-graduation, produces better teachers.
Teachers in the residency program spend an average of about 1,300 hours in the classroom in student teaching, more than the average number completed in nearly 90 percent of the alternative programs in the state.
Unlike some alternative programs, though, the program gradually introduces candidates to full-time teaching. Teachers-in-training, called “residents,” spend a summer semester taking classes through a university partner, then immediately enter a classroom to become acclimated.
For one semester, the residents observe an experienced teacher nearly full time. The residents say this allows them to build relationships with students before the second semester, when they begin teaching a few classes on their own with mentoring from a more experienced teacher.
Jones, who is in her third semester of the residency program, says she doubts she could learn the same lessons about managing a classroom and keeping students engaged through courses at a university.
“You can’t talk about it, you can’t have conversations about it, you can’t see videos about it,” she said. “You actually have to see it and you have to be in it.”
Alternative programs often are designed to address another frequent weakness of traditional programs. Both nationwide and in California, schools of education graduate an overabundance of elementary school teachers.
The Urban Teacher Residency is focused on producing only teachers who will fill some of the shortage areas that have plagued California schools for years: math, science and special education. Residents are placed in urban, low-income schools and teach only secondary math or science.
To ensure the program is meeting school district needs, HR administrators at Los Angeles Unified sit on a selection committee to interview candidates for the program, and the two entities share data frequently.
“They need information from us, and we need information from them,” said Kamal Hamdan, program director of the Urban Teacher Residency at CSU Dominguez Hills.
Specifically, the district shares student achievement data with the residency program, which Hamdan says is crucial for determining how effective the program graduates are in the classroom and, ultimately, how the program can help.
“It shouldn’t be only the district’s obligation,” he said. “It should be our obligation to step in and say, ‘Wait a minute, this teacher might be struggling, what are we going to do as an institute of higher education?’ ”
There’s not enough data yet, however, to show that the residency program is producing high-performing teachers who outshine graduates from traditional routes – something Drew Furedi, executive director for talent management at Los Angeles Unified, acknowledges.
“We’ll see if that’s a model that prepares people in a demonstrably different way,” he said.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.