New State Policies Enable Teacher Residences: A Q&A with Tamara Azar of the National Center for Teacher Residencies

As my colleagues and I have shown over and over again, teacher residencies, which closely tie teacher preparation coursework with a year-long (frequently longer) classroom experience, are a promising way to prepare a strong and diverse cohort of new teachers. And recent progress in state and federal policy — including additional flexibility from ESSA on how states use Title I, II, and III and IDEA money for teacher professional development — is making it easier for states to implement the teacher residency model.

The National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR)*, an organization that provides strategic guidance to its national network of teacher residency programs, is at the center of advocacy for high-performing residency programs. Their programs have a strong track record of working in partnership with high-need schools and districts: 97% of graduates from NCTR network programs teach in Title I schools, which primarily serve kids from low-income backgrounds and kids of color.

I spoke with Tamara Azar, NCTR’s Chief External Relations Officer, about the progress of state policies and the future of teacher residency programs.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What state policy approaches enable teacher residency programs to proliferate?

We’ve seen at least four different approaches. The first uses policy as the initial driver. I would put Louisiana, West Virginia, and South Dakota in this group. Louisiana launched the Believe and Prepare pilot with a small amount of funding and focused on changing policy first. West Virginia has written policy requiring teacher preparation programs to offer a teacher residency pathway, and given institutions of higher education (IHEs) the flexibility to identify what works within their systems to accomplish this goal.

A second scenario is using financial incentives to encourage the implementation of residencies. Delaware directed state funding to 1) offer stipends for candidates who enter teaching through a teacher residency, creating a strong value proposition, and 2) encourage teacher preparation programs to develop a plan to implement the residency model at their institutions.

A third scenario is when policy and funding are directed to support best practices that are already underway in the state. California is a great example of this, because it’s a state with several effective teacher residencies that have been operating for years prior to policy expanding the model statewide. The state invested big ($75 million) in financial incentives to expand existing residencies, get more district-IHE partnerships to offer residencies, and attract candidates to those programs.

The fourth scenario is states that use funding as a lever to jumpstart innovation and advance a specific strategic vision. The Mississippi Department of Education partnered with The W. K. Kellogg Foundation to launch the Mississippi Teacher Residency. An especially unique element is that the state ran a centralized recruiting effort seeking candidates who would work in specific partnering school districts. They had an overwhelming response: hundreds of applications from a very diverse candidate pool for just 35 positions.

Do you think other states will follow suit, or are we reaching a plateau?

I think [policy progress] is accelerating, actually. I recently learned about Connecticut legislation supporting teacher residencies. New Mexico has recently invested in residencies. Mississippi, Illinois, California, Delaware, and many other states have already invested in teacher residencies and improving clinical experiences. We will see, I predict, twice as many states with funding, regulation, or legislation incentivizing a shift towards residencies or expansion of residencies in the next couple of years.

How can residency programs affect the quality of teacher preparation as a whole?

States should use teacher residencies as a way to strengthen teacher preparation and as a long-term solution for improving quality and access. States can look at existing systems to identify resources they can use differently, and more effectively.

For example, states can use tuition reduction grants or scholarships as levers to attract more teachers of color to the profession. They can incentivize candidates to commit to training in a teacher residency and to teaching in high-need areas, subjects, and grades. States can use these existing financial levers to create a really strong value proposition that attracts people to teaching who otherwise may not be interested.

When states tailor financial benefits, there are two really positive outcomes: 1) you can open the door of opportunity to a much more diverse, high-potential candidate pool, and 2) you can invest in training and retention in districts that are otherwise experiencing high levels of turnover.

The positive outcomes that residency programs are seeing from their partnerships — better prepared teachers with lower turnover, a teacher workforce that better reflects student diversity, and improved student outcomes — show they are able to upend some of the chronic challenges schools face. We hope policymakers are paying attention.

There are 3.6 million full-time elementary and secondary education teachers as of 2017. The 23 residency programs in your network have produced fewer than 3,500 graduates. Do you think the trends in policy will help residencies reach scale? 

Yes! Sixteen states specifically mentioned teacher residencies in their ESSA implementation plans. I’m also tracking a half dozen more states that have taken recent action on teacher residencies. The upward trajectory is really encouraging. I believe we’ll continue to see increasing percentages of teachers prepared through teacher residencies.

One exciting innovation that we see is teacher residencies at the undergraduate level. While most residencies have been at the graduate level for candidates with a bachelor’s degree, we are seeing rapid expansion of the model for undergraduate prep.

Why do you think teacher residency programs are worth the investment?

Residencies are redefining what quality preparation looks like. Teacher preparation needs to be a cohesive, structured, and extended experience that includes content; pedagogy; and the context of the student, school, and community environment in equal measure. When all three of those work in concert, when they are woven into a comprehensive and practice-based learning experience, candidates are prepared to be effective on day one.

Residencies are also shining a light on how preparation must better support K-12 school and student needs. A predictable, consistent, reliable, and high-quality pipeline of teacher talent is what residencies provide. School districts need more of those.

Residencies are breaking down silos between pre-service teacher preparation and in-service teacher support and development. When higher education and K-12 work together, we will see those investments aimed at a better learning experience for all students.

This op-ed is part of a series on teacher residencies. Read Bellwether blog posts in the #ResidentExperts series here.

* Disclosure: National Center for Teacher Residencies is a previous Bellwether client. A full list of our past and present clients is available here