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Inside the Incubator Using Apprenticeships to Redesign Teacher Preparation

Federally approved apprenticeships in teaching are less than a year old. These states are working together to roll out the nation’s first programs

Eamonn Fitzmaurice / T74 / iStock

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Updated, Jan. 10

Wyoming is vast and sparsely populated. Its only public four-year university is located in Laramie, in the southeast corner of the sharply rectangular state. Those factors can make educator training complicated, explained Laurel Ballard, director of innovation and digital learning at the Wyoming Department of Education. Would-be teachers often are turned off from the profession because of the cost or commuting required for training programs.

“All of our districts are struggling with finding teachers and counselors,” she said. 

Now, to combat the problem, her state is rolling out a program designed to eliminate key barriers to becoming an educator — and doing so with the help of a network of more than a dozen other states at the vanguard of what many consider a revolution in teacher preparation

Wyoming and its peers in the National Registered Apprenticeship in Teaching Network are applying a decades-old, on-the-job training model long associated with trades like plumbing or welding to educator preparation. They say the technique has the potential to make becoming a teacher more affordable and hands-on.

“I think it’s going to change the face of what teacher prep looks like,” Ballard said. “We’ve seen [apprenticeships] work really well in other industries. So I don’t know why education would be any different.”

The strategy is brand shiny new. Though the federal government has run a skilled apprenticeship program for 85 years, teaching was only added to the list of approved professions in 2021.

But rather than attempt to navigate uncharted turf on their own, officials from 14 states and counting have banded together to share tips and tricks from the field. The network launched in August and is led by David Donaldson, one of the architects behind Tennessee’s teacher apprenticeship program, which was the nation’s first federally approved model.

“The group’s made up of the implementers, the people who actually get things done,” Donaldson said. “Everybody is learning from one another. I hope people avoid the mistakes I’ve made [in Tennessee] because I’ve made plenty. We say we want people to start at second base, not home plate.”

Teachers, on average, make 76.5 cents on the dollar compared to similar college graduates, meaning those without access to generational wealth may have difficulty paying back student loans. That’s one of several reasons the nation’s teaching force, which skews white and female, fails to represent the racial diversity of its students. A broken teacher pipeline also helps explain the educator shortages aggravated by COVID, experts say. 

Apprenticeship advocates believe the new model has the capability to knock down many of those barriers, especially those associated with cost.

“We are going to create a world … where an aspiring educator can become a teacher for free and get paid to do so,” said Donaldson.

Once a month, the network meets over Zoom. During each session, two states give a brief presentation about how their model works and the challenges they’ve overcome in bringing it to life. 

For Ballard and her Wyoming colleagues, it’s a chance to glean lessons they can bring home. A recent presentation from West Virginia, for example, helped her team imagine a teacher preparation pathway that begins during students’ junior year of high school, she said.

“We took copious notes so that we can apply a lot of what they’ve done. … I don’t want to recreate the wheel,” Ballard said.

Laurie Matzke, in North Dakota, feels similarly. The assistant state superintendent works in a 77-person office — the country’s smallest state education agency, she said — so she appreciates any help from out-of-state colleagues.

“To participate in those calls and hear firsthand from other states how they’re moving forward to create their teacher apprenticeship program, that has just been an invaluable experience,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor currently recognizes the teacher apprenticeship programs of 16 states, including 10 that participate in Donaldson’s network: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming. Several other states in the network are in the process of applying for state or federal approval.

West Virginia was the second state with a federally approved teaching apprenticeship program after Tennessee. There, 250 high school juniors across the state this spring will take part in a pilot that gives them a jumpstart on college with dual enrollment courses in their last two years of high school as well as paid student teaching opportunities. The credits they earn allow the apprentices to start college as sophomores, where they complete two full years of undergraduate coursework in tandem with more student teaching. Finally, to culminate the apprenticeship, they return to their home K-12 district when they are college seniors for a salaried position as a full-time teacher under a veteran educator’s tutelage. At the end of that year, they receive their bachelor’s degree and their teacher certification.

The program will open the door for more West Virginia students to stick around and help future generations of students, predicts Carla Warren, director of educator development at the West Virginia Department of Education.

“It’s a very rural, family-oriented state [and] these individuals want to stay,” she said. That’s important, she pointed out, because those who grew up there are the ones who best understand the issues their communities face, such as opioid abuse and rural poverty.

“This pathway has the potential to level the playing field for our students and allow our best and brightest to say, ‘Hey, I think I want to be a teacher and I can afford to be a teacher in West Virginia,’” the education official added.

“Coming from a community that is so impoverished and rural, it helps a lot,” said Teanna Stubbs, a senior at Mount View High School in McDowell County, West Virginia who grew up in a low-income family. 

The student this year began a vocational track that, like the forthcoming apprenticeship program, gives her an early start on college credits and student teaching. Colleges are already offering her scholarships for next year, she said. When she completes her studies, she intends to return to McDowell County to work with youth.

Courtesy of Teanna Stubbs

“I’ve lived here my entire life. I’ve seen how impactful it is to have somebody who’s willing to come in and help the community,” Stubbs said. “A lot of times, the kids here end up struggling because they have nobody to go to. … I just want to change the lives of kids who grew up like me.”

West Virginia, like many other states in the network, has cobbled together several funding sources to offset the costs for students, minimizing debt and compensating them for student teaching. Being an approved apprenticeship program unlocks both state and federal dollars, Warren explained, and her office has also sought out philanthropic funding.

How to build financially sustainable models is a recurring conversation topic at the monthly meet ups, Donaldson said. 

The most common problem states face is “funding, 100%,” he said.

At least four states in the network have ensured tuition, books and licensure exams are fully funded, Donaldson said, meaning no out-of-pocket costs for candidates. At the same time, students can earn a salary for their student teaching roughly equivalent to that of a paraprofessional, around $20,000. In West Virginia, the price tag is a bit higher. Warren estimates apprentices who begin in high school would pay roughly $11,000 per year of higher education, offset by a roughly $32,000 salary in the clinical year before finally earning a teaching certificate.

Some officials, like Matzke in North Dakota, have used COVID relief dollars to foot the bill for grow-your-own programs that, rather than recruiting high schoolers, provide paraprofessionals with the continuing education needed to become full-time teachers. But as stimulus cash dries up in the coming years, states will have to find other funding streams for ongoing programs.

Still, Donaldson is confident that leaders will be up to the task so long as they continue to lean on and learn from each other. It costs nothing to join his network, and every month since its launch, new states have joined, quickly swelling from seven to 14.

“I definitely see this spreading,” Donaldson said. “It’s become a movement.”

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