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Teacher training: what's the best way?

Some policymakers say the focus needs to be on improving traditional education schools, while others are advocates of so-called alternative models, which can speed up entry into the profession.

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One relatively new alternative model is the urban teacher residency. It produces only a small fraction of America's 3.9 million teachers, yet those going through the program seem to be well trained and willing to teach in the highest-needs classrooms – and to stay there for many years.

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"There's traditionally a barrier between what happens in the classroom setting and what happens in university course work," says Anissa Listak, executive director of the Urban Teacher Residency Institute in Chicago. "Unlike traditional university programs where the course work is the center and the apprenticeship fits itself around that, the residency flips that on its head."

A full year in Chicago classrooms

The Academy of Urban School Leadership in Chicago, where Klinsky works now, is one of three well-established urban teacher residencies in the United States. Each AUSL resident spends a full year in Chicago classrooms, paired with a trained mentor-teacher who gives feedback, coaching, and a chance to gradually have more control over the curriculum. For that year, each resident is paid $32,000 by AUSL, a nonprofit. The money for such payments is obtained largely through fundraising.

The residents' in-classroom experience is accompanied by relevant education course work at a local university, culminating in a master's degree. In addition, the program demands that residents make a four-year commitment to continue teaching in Chicago schools when they graduate. For the first two years on the job, they can count on more coaching and support at their school.

The result: Even after the four-year commitment is up, more than 80 percent of AUSL grads are still teaching in Chicago classrooms, and 87 percent are involved in education in some way.

"The university does a good job of giving them content. We give them the hands-on experience of how to deliver it," says Debbi Thompson, a mentor-teacher at Chicago's Dodge Renaissance Academy. The K-8 school, where 86 percent of the students come from low-income families, is one of AUSL's six "teaching academies" in Chicago. It's also where Barack Obama announced his choice for education secretary.

Ms. Thompson is in the unusual position of having two residents in her classroom. Now, three-quarters of the way through the school year, each of them gets several weeks in which they take over all the lesson planning and teaching and receive feedback on how they've done. They've learned a lot, they say, but still have areas to work on – and they appreciate the length of time and the close mentor-resident relationship that they wouldn't get in a traditional program.

"Sometimes when you're in that moment with your kids, it's hard to see things you might be missing," says Danielle Silverman, referring to the benefits of having a mentor. She's just finished a poetry lesson with her fourth- and fifth-grade class, and it generally went well. But the feedback afterward, she says, helped her realize that she was giving directions to her students at the same time that she was posing questions and asking them to write.

In an aspect unique to Chicago's program, almost all AUSL grads end up being hired at certain "turnaround" schools that the city has given AUSL to run. These schools, among the worst performers in the city, have had their administration and most of the teaching staff replaced.

Some of the ways to get into teaching

There are some 1,200 universities that certify teachers and about 140 alternative routes, according to the National Center for Alternative Certification. Here's a sampling of some ways that people become teachers:

• University-based undergraduate education program: This is still the most typical route. Students enter college knowing they want to become teachers and earn a certificate as part of their bachelor's degree. Those getting high school certification also take course work in the subject area they plan to teach, while future elementary school teachers often focus on child development or related subjects. Some student teaching is also required.

• Master of arts in teaching (MAT): Graduate-level course work is combined with some in-classroom experience. As with undergraduate teaching programs, the requirements for both course work and practical experience vary. Some programs are rigorous and have an extensive mentoring component. (MAT is one of several graduate degrees in education that can be earned.)

• Urban teacher residency (UTR): So far, only a handful exist. Usually these programs involve a partnership between an urban school district, a degree-granting university, and a nonprofit that oversees the program and covers most of the cost through fundraising. A group of residents takes educational-theory classes in the summer and during the school year (often just one day a week). But the focus is on the year-long residency in a high-needs school, with collaboration with a trained mentor-teacher. Residents typically get paid a stipend for that year, in return for a commitment to teach several years in the district. They continue to get coaching and mentoring for the first few years of teaching.

• New Teacher Project and Teach for America (TFA): These two alternative programs are well known for the high caliber of candidates they recruit. The New Teacher Project tends to attract older career-changers, while Teach for America concentrates on people just graduating from college. But their model is fairly similar: an intense, "boot camp"-style training institute in the summer, focused on the needs of the urban, high-poverty schools in which they will teach; course work at a university and support throughout their teaching experience; and a commitment to teach in urban schools for a certain length of time (two years, in the case of TFA). The actual teaching certificate is usually granted by a partner university.

• Emergency licensure: This practice of giving virtually anyone a provisional license to teach in cases of teacher shortages was outlawed under the No Child Left Behind Act. But more than 40 states still issue such licenses, using loopholes in the law. Twenty-two states will also renew emergency licenses. Typically, teachers with these licenses take some course work on the side, but there are no minimum standards or requirements.