Could Apprenticeships Fix the Teacher Shortage?

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Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Several states are pioneering "earn and learn" models as a potential long-term solution to address persistent educator shortages.

Hiring and retaining qualified teachers was problematic long before educators across the country were forced to change tactics and adapt to remote schooling during the middle of a public health crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic managed to make an already stressful occupation even more difficult.

Nearly one in four teachers said that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020–21 school year, compared with one in six teachers who were likely to leave, on average, prior to the pandemic. Black teachers are particularly likely to plan to leave the profession since the pandemic, citing poor working conditions and a lack of inclusivity.

Teacher shortages are especially urgent, given the disproportionate placement of underprepared teachers in schools that predominantly serve students of color and students from families with low incomes. Covid-19 disruptions in schools and the subsequent return to school have further illuminated the value of teachers and the pain caused by teacher shortages.

Feeling a sense of urgency, some states and districts are turning to creative solutions to address the issue of teacher shortages. For instance, some districts are welcoming back retired teachersOthers are asking parents, student teachers, central office staff and even the National Guard to fill critical vacancies

However, these are not long-term solutions.

One strategy that shows promise for a long-term, sustainable solution is establishing teaching as a registered apprenticeship.

An apprenticeship is an “industry-driven, high-quality career pathway where employers can develop and prepare their future workforce, and individuals can obtain paid work experience, classroom instruction, mentorship, and a portable credential” that is nationally recognized.

This “earn and learn” model, common in other industries—like health care, manufacturing and hospitality—has long-term impacts on apprenticeship completers, including higher earnings and better retention. This evidence holds promise for on-the-job training provided through apprenticeship programs that allow people to become teachers without having to pay tuition and while getting paid. Paying teacher apprentices from their first day on the job is a way to encourage people who may face financial barriers to join the teaching profession.

Teacher apprentices get hands-on experiences in the classroom; these practice-based opportunities contribute to strong teaching practices. Participants are supported by experienced mentor teachers for several years. Teachers who come through an apprenticeship program have the benefit of several years of professional support before they become teachers of record and, therefore, might avoid the common challenges that cause early-career teachers to leave the profession.

Through an apprenticeship program, participants have the potential to earn college credit, earn a national industry certification, and gain a guaranteed career upon completion of the apprenticeship. This approach to preparing teachers is similar to teacher residencies, which have a long history of preparing diverse, effective and committed teachers.

Teacher apprenticeship programs are not new, but the U.S. Department of Education is breaking new ground by proposing funds, training and technical assistance to states for teacher-focused Registered Apprenticeship program models.

Model State Teacher Apprenticeship Programs

Tennessee is the first state to try an apprenticeship program to address teacher shortages. The program launched in 2019 with $20 million in state-funded grants. Teacher apprentices work alongside a veteran educator for 3 years while earning wages rather than paying for training. So far, 650 participants have completed the program, which officials calculate is enough to fill one third of the state’s teacher vacancies.

The Iowa Department of Education is launching a similar program for assistant teachers, using American Rescue Plan and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to cover tuition and wages. Iowa’s program will serve more than 1,000 paraeducators and students in 134 schools, ultimately creating over 500 new paraeducators and 500 new teachers.

Similarly, West Virginia recently registered its Grow Your Own program—a pathway for youth to earn credits and gain classroom instructional experience while still enrolled in school—as a teacher apprenticeship in which candidates participate in wage-earning experiences starting in their junior year of high school. The program partners with 13 institutions of higher education in West Virginia.

Institutions of higher education also are exploring teacher apprenticeships. Dallas College in Texas recently launched a paid apprenticeship program that gives participants real-world experiences while they earn a salary, work with students, and take courses.

Apprenticeship programs are long-term investments that show promise. They have the potential to fill short-term vacancies, diversify the workforce, improve instruction, reduce turnover and build a stronger long-term pipeline of educators. Registered apprenticeship programs will not solve the teacher shortage crisis immediately, but they will put additional people in school buildings who can support current teachers of record while these apprentices hone their craft.

Lois Kimmel is a technical assistance consultant to AIR’s Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, which has done extensive research on policies and practices that can help states and districts address teacher shortages.

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