A response to “Treat Teacher Education Like a Medical Residency”

The New York Times ran an opinion piece on March 3 entitled “Treat Teacher Education Like a Medical Residency.” In this piece, Jal Mehta (Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education), recommends that the US raises standards for teacher licensure, significantly revise teacher preparation programs, eliminate tenure in its current form, and place pre-service teachers in a model similar to a medical residency.

I agree.

The University of South Florida (USF)/Hillsborough County Public Schools Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program (UTRPP) is already focused on a “radical revamping” of teacher preparation, using a residency model. Our innovative approach to teacher preparation was recently recognized by being awarded a U.S. Department of Education i3 (investment in innovation) grant. This 5-year, $3.4 million grant will evaluate the efficacy of our approach to preparing undergraduate elementary pre-service teachers to work in urban settings. We believe our model will improve teaching quality throughout the six schools that we partner with, simultaneously increasing the retention rate of high quality teachers.

Although the State of Florida has not changed teacher licensure requirements in the manner Dr. Mehta suggested, Residents in the UTRPP are required to demonstrate actual teaching skill in order to graduate. We focus heavily on developing Residents’ pedagogical content knowledge in literacy, social studies, math, and science, with a particular focus on the STEM fields in the second year of the program, given the research that clearly indicates elementary teachers’ difficulty with this subject matter. Our Residents go through teaching cycles in each of these content areas that are supported by an expert of that content (faculty or doctoral students with specific expertise in that area). The Residents spend several weeks taking the lead in planning, instruction, and assessment in one of these subjects. They video tape their teaching, provide the video to the content coach, both the coach and the Resident code the video based on criteria specific to the content, and then they meet to discuss the codes in order to keep a focus on the content of the lesson and evidence of student learning. These cycles are continuous throughout their year-long Residency (their entire second year in the program).

This Residency is made possible through a deep and committed partnership between USF and Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS). We work closely with faculty and administration at our six elementary partnership schools — all of which are urban, Title I schools with 89%+ of students that qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Thus, as Dr. Mehta suggests, we are breaking the trend of teacher preparation and school experiences as separate entities.

As I stated earlier, our goal is to attract and retain high quality teachers through the many opportunities that are available as a mentor teacher — including supporting novice teachers, increased and connected professional development, and teacher leadership coursework. We agree that teachers with an interest in mentoring and engagement with USF will want to teach at these sites with cutting-edge research and innovative practices. For that reason, we consider ourselves an “innovation incubator” where ideas lead to research (not only by faculty, but Residents, teachers, and administrators), and changing practices.

So, I agree. I agree with Dr. Mehta’s ideas whole-heartedly. I have served as Director of UTRPP since Day 1.

But, it isn’t easy. It is far from it. And it takes time…so much time. Time to develop new programs, develop relationships, break the mold of “how things have always been done” — and in a university or school district setting this time is often on top of the full-time jobs we already do. This time doesn’t become part of our full time job until we’ve built the program, or until we receive a 5-year grant to study it.

Residencies are more expensive than traditional models of teacher preparation. While I believe they are worth the expense 1000 times over, it is more challenging to impart that belief on higher education administrators who only see declining enrollment numbers in teacher preparation programs. Those declining numbers make it harder to explain why it is necessary for faculty — who are content area experts — to work directly with small numbers of undergraduate students in the field in order to support the development of Residents’ pedagogical content knowledge (rather than working with graduate students who pay higher tuition and generate more research). Those numbers make it difficult to describe why it is necessary to have fewer numbers of students assigned to a field supervisor in a Residency program than it is in a traditional program (and I would guess that both are higher than the faculty to intern ratio in a medical residency), and why those same supervisors need to have some of their time dedicated to the act of building and maintaining partnerships with teachers, administrators, and the larger school context — because that time does not generate student credit hours.

Both universities and school districts have some inflexible structures that make innovative work challenging. Universities are often inflexible in terms of course innovation, meeting times, and classroom schedules, making it particularly challenging to run a course/lab experience together. School districts typically have specific curricula (which is even more pervasive in urban settings) that makes it challenging to put innovative practices into place long enough to study their efficacy and build teachers’ knowledge of children and curricula. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they are not addressed over night.

Our Residents make a significant commitment to the UTRPP. They sign a contract to be in class or schools Monday-Friday from 7:30am-3:30pm (a teacher’s contracted day) for both years of their program. They must then plan lessons and complete their coursework after that contracted day. Since they do not get paid for this commitment (as a medical resident does), most of them also work 20-30 hours per week. They then enter a profession that does not offer much in the way of compensation for high quality practice — the kind of compensation that a partner in a law firm, a doctor, or even a tenured faculty member would expect — a profession that is often portrayed as one that only includes teachers of a low quality that we must constantly focus on improving.

Our mentor teachers make the commitment to work with Residents without compensation. Our partnership administrators are compensated no more for their oversight and support in these programs. Our faculty, supervisors, and coaches earn no more despite longer hours in the field. While I will not purport to know the pay structure for those working in medical residencies, I have a hunch they do not lack compensation for their work.

Medical residencies are built on capitalistic ideals. Teacher preparation programs — schools in general — are not. So, while the structure might be a goal, the infrastructure is vastly different. It is not an automatic tracing of programs and principles.

Nothing I have shared here is an excuse for not “radically revamping” teacher preparation, nor is it a reason to avoid the challenge of programs modeled after medical residencies. However, this shift is seismic for reasons that extend well beyond the desire for high quality teachers. These programs and their required partnerships must be entered with both eyes wide-open, and the understanding that the shift will take significant time both to implement and see results.

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2 thoughts on “A response to “Treat Teacher Education Like a Medical Residency”

  1. Julie Hughes says:

    I recently have had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Richard Elmore who has published work on “Instructional Rounds,” also based on the medical field. By treating teaching and teachers like medicine and doctors, we are raising the bar for ourselves and our students. Here are a few great links on Instructional Rounds:

    Harvard Education Publishing Group: http://hepg.org/hep-home/books/instructional-rounds-in-education

    ASCD: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb11/vol68/num05/Making-the-Most-of-Instructional-Rounds.aspx

    Marzano: http://www.iobservation.com/files/Marzano-Protocol-Using_Rounds1009.pdf/

    • Only seeing this now for some odd reason. We use instructional rounds in our program, and have since its inception in some form or another. I think there is a lot to learn from the way doctors are trained when training teachers, but there are also many, many factors to consider before calling for residencies to be the platform in our field.

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