This blog was also featured in the Huffington Post on October 5, 2015.

Written by: Tamara Azar and Sudipti Kumar of NCTR

A few weeks ago TNTP released a report, The Mirage, which paints a stark picture of teacher development: districts are making sizeable investments in professional development annually but with limited results; when it comes to outcomes, most teachers are not improving significantly year over year. Moreover, even when teachers do exhibit growth, their success cannot be linked to a specific professional development experience. Information provided to teachers about how to improve is also scarce: districts have feedback systems in place but in practice these aren’t giving teachers a true picture of their strengths and growth opportunities.

At the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR), the report highlighted the correlation between in-service teacher outcomes and pre-service teacher preparation. While there are many ways to improve teacher effectiveness, NCTR’s experience and research has shown that one of the most significant drivers is the quality of the preparation experience.

What does high-quality teacher preparation look like? As many researchers have reported, it is preparation that is job-embedded, practice-based, and focused on a core set of skills that are responsive to districts’ needs. These are simple concepts, yet they are hard to find in most teacher preparation programs. Step foot in a teacher residency program however, and this is exactly what you will see.

A teacher prepared in a residency model will have spent an entire year — from the first bell to the last — in one or more classrooms in a high-need school, receiving in-depth coaching by a mentor teacher who has a track record of preparing students to meet challenging academic standards. Graduate-level courses, which take place throughout the year, require the resident teacher to apply what she is learning with her students. She receives feedback each day from her mentor, who herself is receiving regular feedback and instruction on how to be a better coach.

This new teacher’s extensive school-based training is one of the key elements that make residency programs so successful. More and more residency programs are emerging across the country (in addition, many traditional teacher preparation programs are adopting these practices in their own universities). NCTR’s own evolution from Urban Teacher Residency United to the National Center for Teacher Residencies is the result of increased interest in the residency model and demand for the best practices found in innovative residencies operating today.

Residencies show that “the mirage” can be replaced by a better, more effective reality by addressing the core challenges districts face through new teacher preparation and targeted ongoing support. Residencies are often criticized as expensive, but the high-quality initial investment of residency preparation can improve the starting point and the trajectory over time for teacher growth. A teachers’ first professional development experience is in fact their initial preparation. Today’s system isn’t designed to support this model of teacher preparation and growth, but residencies offer a response.

1. Districts are shouldering the cost of teacher preparation in the forms of retraining and turnover. Districts are spending an average of18,000 per teacher, per year on teacher development — filling in the gaps where preparation left off. This large investment is often focused on building foundation skills in teachers, rather than focusing on student and instruction needs. Professional development at the district level should focus on accelerating growth rather than building basic proficiency.

In contrast, residencies invest up-front in the teacher through extensive clinical preparation that integrates the content and pedagogy of teaching. Through a gradual release of responsibility, residents move from a supporting role at the start of the school year (such as teaching a lesson on discipline expectations) to leading small groups, then building up to teaching a large portion of class instruction during the day. Residents also have opportunities to teach independently — including full lead-teaching weeks in the late fall and spring. After each of these experiences, residents’ responsibilities are dialed back to give them a chance to receive feedback and coaching and improve their skills.

What does that mean for principals? Principal Jamie Roybal of Gust Elementary in Denver Public Schools hosts residents and has hired 15 graduates of the Denver Teacher Residency. Roybal says,

Seeing [residents] in the fall as I begin my observations, I know that they have some skills that I don’t necessarily need to worry about as I do a teacher that I hire from a traditional program that student taught for 10 weeks. I know that a teacher from a traditional program, I need to get in there immediately to set up the rituals, routines and the management, and I have approximately three weeks to do that. Otherwise I lose. I don’t need to do that with a resident — and I have 15 on staff — I have not needed to do that with a resident. I have not yet hired a teacher from a traditional program that I haven’t needed to do that. As far as the time and the support, it’s different. While I’m supporting in the fall a new teacher from a traditional program, I’m supporting around management. When I’m supporting a first-year resident, I’m supporting on instruction, and that’s a significant difference.

2. Districts have limited time and opportunities to educate teachers on their standards and to provide high-quality feedback. Novice teachers are often learning about the district’s standards and evaluation system as they experience it for the first time. Additionally, their observers may be school administrators or other staff who they have not yet had the time to work with closely and who in turn, do not have the time to provide in-depth feedback to improve the teacher’s skills.

All residency programs start out by creating a vision of effective teaching that adopts or closely aligns to their partner district’s standards and expectations for excellent teacher. Resident progress is tracked against the rubric that the district uses to evaluate teachers, thus giving residents a clear understanding of how they will be evaluated when they become a teacher of record.

Mentors also have time to build a relationship with the resident and become trusted providers of feedback, coaching, and models of best practice. The foundation of the mentor-resident relationship is a coaching cycle of observation, feedback, and action steps. Feedback is given informally in spontaneous, brief conversations or daily check-ins regarding what went well, what did not, and next steps to take. Formal feedback is given in structured mentor-resident meetings and through examining student work and data analysis. Often, programs require residents and mentors to spend at least two hours each week in “sacred meeting time,” where they debrief past lessons and plan future ones. How residencies define the mentor role is described in NCTR’s white paper, Building Effective Teacher Residencies.

3. Professional development does not always take into account innovative ways to support teachers. Traditionally, professional development in districts is thought of as sessions a teacher attends or coaching provided to teachers. However, mid-career teachers who have been in the classroom for several years need additional opportunities to grow beyond these types of experiences.

The mentor role in the residency is a unique opportunity to provide support to the resident as well as a solid professional development opportunity for excellent, experienced teachers. Far beyond a typical cooperating teacher role, the re-envisioned mentor role is a professional opportunity that not only aids in teacher retention, but also improves practice. In the 2013-2014 NCTR survey of mentors, 95 percent of mentors agreed that “being a mentor makes me a more effective teacher” and over 80 percent agreed the residency program supported their own professional growth and practice.

The central question that The Mirage asks is, “do we know how to help teachers improve?” The findings from the report showcase data that makes that answer a resounding “no.” However, residency models offer one possible solution, because these programs do know how to help teachers improve and they build the skills teachers need before the novice steps foot in her own classroom. Teacher development can take on a whole new meaning when novice teachers are well equipped on day one of the school year.

Learn more about the National Center for Teacher Residencies and read our latest report, Clinically Oriented Teacher Preparation on our website.