For the past 85 years, the US government has implemented a registered apprenticeship program to train workers in skilled trades, such as plumbers, electricians, or information technology specialists. Over the past year, the government has added a new profession to the list: teachers.
An apprenticeship program – an approach to vocational training that dates back to the Middle Ages and remains particularly popular in Europe – allows workers to train for a new career at little or no cost while earning a paycheck. President Joe Biden has prioritized the model throughout his tenure, including to address teacher shortages.
The US Departments of Labor and Education have urged states and school districts create and register apprenticeship programs for teaching, which come with federal funding that can pay for on-the-job training, salaries, and other support services, such as textbooks or childcare ‘children. At a time when many states are lowering standards to fill classroom vacanciesadvocates point to learning models as a way to broaden the pool of potential teachers without sacrificing quality.
Tennessee was the first state to be approved by the Department of Labor to establish a permanent personal cultivation model in January. Today, seven more states have a registered apprenticeship program for teachers: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Texas, and West Virginia. Several other states are continuing or expanding teacher apprenticeship programs.
“Our goal is to create a world where future teachers can become teachers for free and get paid to do so,” said David Donaldson, founder and managing partner of the National Center for Grow Your Own, a nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance to states and school districts to implement apprenticeship programs.
With federal dollars up for grabs, “I actually think that’s a possible scenario,” he said.
Personal development programs, which largely focus on preparing community members for teaching positions, and teacher residency programs, which involve a year of teaching students, have been around for years. Both offer future teachers, including paraprofessionals, career changers, and high school or college students, the opportunity to work in the classroom and earn money while completing their preparation to become a certified teacher. These programs have proven particularly effective in recruiting teachers of color.
Donaldson said registering these types of programs with the Department of Labor is “phase two.” This opens up a new source of federal funding to help offset the cost of such an intensive style of teacher preparation, he said. The money can also be braided with other federal funds for education — such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title II or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — and philanthropy, said Donaldson.
“People are lining up to become teachers”
In early 2022, a strong personal development program at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee became the first registered learning program for teaching in the nation. The model, which is in partnership with the Clarksville-Montgomery County School District, has been in place since 2018 and is aimed at recent high school graduates, paraprofessionals and other community members looking to change careers.
“It’s not a shortcut, it’s not a replacement for teacher education,” said Prentice Chandler, dean of the Austin Peay College of Education. “It’s university teacher training, it’s just better.
The program lasts three years. Applicants who need a bachelor’s degree first take classes at a community college, which is free in Tennessee. They then complete their classes at Austin Peay while working as teaching assistants at Clarksville-Montgomery schools. Tuition and fees, including textbooks, are covered by the program, and applicants earn salary and benefits for their work in the school district.
After teachers complete the program and become certified, they must teach for three years in the school district. The teachers will all be dual-certified to teach special education, a crisis shortage area for the state. Most people who take the program will also be certified to teach elementary school, but some are preparing to teach science and math in middle school — the program tries to tailor cohorts to meet district needs.
Once you remove barriers and obstacles, people line up to become teachers.
Prentice Chandler, Dean of Education at Austin Peay State University
Currently, there are 126 future teachers in the pipeline. The last two cohorts have each been about half teachers of color.
“A narrative around teacher education is that people don’t want to be teachers,” said Lisa Barron, associate dean and director of teacher education and partnerships at Austin Peay. “We found the opposite to be true.”
Chandler said, “Once you break down the barriers and obstacles, people line up to become teachers.”
Money from the Federal Department of Labor also allowed the program to help with child care and transportation, Barron said: “Students who previously had to drop out because of life challenges like this, now we can say, ‘No, we can help you.'”
Rhonda Davis, a first-grade teacher at Hazelwood Elementary School in the Clarksville-Montgomery School District, entered the apprenticeship program after spending most of her career working in a hospice. This is the 58-year-old’s first year as a fully certified teacher.
“I always wanted to go back [to school]but I just thought that at my age, I wasn’t that many years old [left] in career, and I don’t want student debt to go into retirement,” she said. “It was a game-changer for me not having to pay all these expenses.”
Start in high school
In May, West Virginia followed Tennessee to become the second state to register a personal cultivation model with the Department of Labor. But Mountain State’s apprenticeship program takes a different approach — it’s focused on current high school students.
Aspiring teachers will complete 24-30 credit hours in dual enrollment or advanced placement for free in a range of subjects, including introductory education courses, while still in high school. Then they will go to a participating university in the state for their graduate and postgraduate years and get paid field experience in addition to their coursework. In their senior year, candidates will return to their communities and serve as homeroom teachers, with the support of an experienced educator.
The state recommends participating counties require their students to commit to teaching for three to five years in their hometown after graduating from college.
“We are harvesting students from the community for the community,” said Carla Warren, director of educator development and support services for the West Virginia Department of Education.
The state does not cover tuition for candidates’ two years of college, but they will receive free materials and textbooks and the opportunity to take the Praxis certification exam for free. And students will work in schools throughout their participation in the program, earning an hourly rate that gradually increases from $9 to $11 per hour. As a regular teacher, they will earn a salary.
Warren said the state’s end goal is to eliminate tuition fees, so applicants can get a teaching license completely free. The program targets first-generation rural students from low-income households, she said.
“We know we have a population of students who want to succeed in college, but they need these comprehensive services to do that,” Warren said. “The apprenticeship model will alleviate some of that financial burden.”
After all, the average starting salary for teachers in West Virginia is around $38,000, an amount that Warren called “pitiful.” But taking on some of the start-up costs can make teaching a more attractive career choice, she said.
“It helps level the playing field and provides some fairness to the education professional so they can pursue education [and] pursue a career in teaching,” she said. “It has the potential to make progress on teacher shortages.”
West Virginia has approximately 1,200 unfilled teaching positions. So far, seven counties are piloting the apprenticeship model with around 65 students enrolled as apprentices, although 31 counties in total – and around 250 students – typically participate in the personal development journey. The state hopes to expand to all 55 counties over the next five years.
“Our goal is to fill classrooms with certified teachers,” Warren said.
Guaranteeing quality to avoid a “wild Wild West”
As these types of programs become more popular, Donaldson of the National Center for Grow Your Own said he hopes federal participation will provide some quality control so that the learning program landscape does not become a “Wild Wild West”.
“We don’t just want to see [this as] put lipstick on a pig – programs that already exist [Department of Labor] funding,” Donaldson said. “This is an opportunity not only to remove financial barriers, but also to increase the rigor of teacher preparation.”
To this end, a coalition of groups working in the field of teacher education formed the Pathways Alliancelaunched last year with the aim of providing resources and guidelines for planning, implementing and improving the quality of learning models.
“Many of us are looking at this from a policy perspective, from a practice perspective, from a research perspective,” said Lynn Gangone, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges. for Teacher Education, which co-chairs the Alliance.
While experts want a common definition and standards, Gangone said the details and logistics of each program will vary according to national and local needs.
Experts say the apprenticeship programs have helped break down blockages among groups that work with teachers.
“We’re really good at talking about education issues — we’re not as good at solving them,” Chandler said. “This is the first time in my career that a state department of education, college of education, community college, teachers’ association, and school district have all worked together. …And it wouldn’t work without all five pulling in the same direction.