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May 1, 2018

Getting Smart about Student Teaching

By better leveraging the student-teaching process, school leaders can reduce costs and improve their talent pipeline.
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School Culture
There are many factors weakening the teacher pipeline. One is the unnecessarily large learning curve that new teachers often face when they enter the classroom due to preparation gaps (Gordon, Kane, & Staiger, 2006). Another factor is that preparation programs routinely graduate too many of some kinds of teachers (such as elementary) and not enough of others (such as special education and ESOL) (Cowan et al., 2016; Walsh, 2015). This lack of alignment in quality and quantity of new teachers creates a challenge for school leaders.
But the most promising remedy for such breakdowns in the pipeline may be a surprise to some. It's not teacher residencies or grow-your-own programs, nor is it Teach For America, Urban Teacher, or Relay Graduate School. While these programs may serve as great alternate sources of new teachers, they provide only a drop in the bucket in terms of the numbers needed—and, frankly, cost a lot of money.
The highest impact remedy to bolster the pipeline is to improve student-teaching arrangements.
In too many school districts, student teaching has become an afterthought, something that schools only participate in because they view it as a professional responsibility. In some cases, there's almost no quality control regarding the caliber of either the student teacher, who is usually placed without being interviewed or screened on paper, or the mentor teacher, who is generally a volunteer (National Council on Teacher Quality, 2017). There's little effort to make sure the student teacher will be a good fit with the mentor teacher. Sometimes it is a great experience. Many times it is not.
In addition, some student teachers don't end up being particularly interested in … well, teaching. By most government estimates, half of all student teachers do not take a teaching job the following year (Cowan et al., 2016). A state teacher of the year told me that she had two student teachers in a row mention on the first day of school that each had no intention of actually becoming teachers. There are many education majors who don't end up teaching. Some may choose the major early on based on familiarity and perception of ease, and then decide they want to do something else after graduation. Others may have every intention to teach but fail to pass their licensing tests. If districts did a better job screening student teachers, they might be able to identify the strongest candidates.
Conversely, many student teachers complain about the poor quality of their experience, reporting that their mentor teacher used their presence as an excuse to take it easy, or only assigned them busy work, providing little guidance for learning how to teach. The unevenness of so many student-teaching experiences can be attributed in large part to a generally sloppy process on the part of schools in selecting cooperating teachers (Greenberg, Pomerance, & Walsh, 2011). Some principals assign student teachers to teachers who have a hard time managing students' unruly behavior, under the theory that having two adults in the classroom will work better than one. In many places, any teacher who volunteers is eligible, without consideration for teaching skill or ability to mentor an adult. Too many schools just aren't paying enough attention to the critical importance of screening for the quality of both the student teacher and the cooperating teacher.

Be More Selective

What many school districts fail to recognize is that they have the power to change this dynamic. Because teacher-preparation programs need to place every candidate into student teaching in order for these candidates to graduate, this is the moment when schools are in a position to articulate their specific needs and even spell out conditions for accepting student teachers. If, for example, a district needs student teachers who are better prepared to teach students who live in poverty, then it can insist that student teachers complete their rotation in a school that is successfully teaching that population of students (Goldhaber, Krieg, & Theobald, 2016). By establishing what is important to them and communicating those needs to institutions, districts can strengthen the new teacher pipeline.
Here are some strategic steps that a school district can take to create a stronger student-teaching partnership that benefits both school districts and higher education institutions:
  1. Carefully select mentor teachers. High-quality mentor teachers should have clear evidence of instructional effectiveness and the capacity to mentor adults. The role should be seen as a great honor within the school—not as a burden or a "favor"—and understood as a weighty responsibility to train the next generation of teachers.
  2. Strategically select and place student teachers. Schools should not accept any student teacher without due diligence. Every mentor teacher should have the opportunity to make sure a potential student teacher is a good fit. A reasonable screening process can ensure that classroom teachers receive student teachers who are serious about becoming teachers, not just getting a degree. Schools can require candidates to submit evidence that they've already passed their licensing tests or ask them to submit a video or a short, written essay that explains why they want to teach. Districts should also be firmer about only accepting candidates who meet the needs of their schools. If the district does not project much need for new elementary teachers, it should not feel obligated to place a lot of elementary student teachers in its classrooms. By limiting the student teachers to only those a district may conceivably want to hire, it can do a much better job of managing the partnerships and providing a great experience to each student teacher.
  3. Approach student teaching as a four-month interview. Most districts separate student teaching from their teacher recruitment initiatives. This is a missed opportunity. While a student teacher is working in a school, the district has several months to observe a potential future employee's skill set, philosophies, and likelihood of fitting into the culture and vision of the district. If districts accept every student teacher who applies, this level of scrutiny becomes too burdensome. But if districts have accepted only good prospects, this exercise pays high dividends.
  4. Treat mentor teachers as front-line recruiters. Mentor teachers should be boosters, not naysayers. I have heard many district talent officers say that mentor teachers often discourage student teachers from applying to the district. Districts can minimize this problem by, again, making it a sign of stature and expertise to be selected into the mentor-teacher pool, by providing reasonable compensation for the additional duties, and by keeping these great teachers engaged through regular communication and events that recognize and honor their service. Districts should always have student teachers evaluate their mentor teachers so that they can weed out teachers who fail to "sell" the district.
  5. Communicate constantly with higher education partners. Districts need to do a much better job collecting data during the student-teacher application process and the student-teaching experience and sharing that data with partner higher education institutions. Armed with information about why some teacher candidates were selected and some were not, or the special needs of their schools, or feedback from mentor teachers about their experiences, district leaders can have frank, productive conversations with their higher education partners about the effectiveness of the student-teacher process and how it can be improved. School leaders can also share information about their district's actual vacancies and needs, which can help institutions understand how to achieve better alignment through such practices as dual certification.

Theory into Practice

This is not a merely theoretical issue for me. At the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), the organization I head, we are aiming to take this approach to improved student teaching from the theoretical to the practical. We launched our Great from the Gate initiative this school year with a group of charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as with the Indianapolis Public Schools.
So that these schools can dedicate more attention to their student-teaching pipelines, NCTQ developed a number of tools that make it possible for districts to hold all parties to high standards without too much burden. We have created, and are in the process of validating, a screening tool called Talent Finder that schools can use to evaluate student-teacher applicants. The results from this tool can also facilitate data-rich conversations with districts' higher education partners and help districts strategically assign student teachers.
We've also created a supplementary, self-paced skills sequence for the student teachers themselves. This online curriculum, which can be adapted by participating teacher-prep programs as part of their own curriculum, gives teacher candidates opportunities to learn and practice a number of teaching strategies that are often missing from student-teaching experiences, including research-based approaches to increase student learning or improve behavior management. An online platform is available to provide coaching on the skills sequence, which takes some of the burden off mentor teachers.
When we first approached the Indianapolis Public Schools about Great from the Gate, they expressed some concern that the "tougher" tenets inherent in this approach might jeopardize their relationships with their current local higher education partners. But the school district has been pleasantly surprised by its partner institutions' willingness to require their student teachers to take the screening tool. We suspect that higher education institutions are just as eager as school districts to make student teaching function well and that these institutions recognize the benefits of being able to guarantee high-quality placements.

Supply and Demand

We've heard the question, "Won't being more selective about student teachers make the teacher shortage problem even worse?" There is no question that schools' leverage is weakest during times of teacher shortages. However, a strong student-teaching program should actually make it easier to find and hire teachers. If administrators are matching the best prospects with the best cooperating teachers, there is a greater chance these student teachers will be a good fit for the school and accept a job offer. One large district recently told us that its yield of teacher hires from its 1,200 student-teaching cohort hovered around 20 percent. This tells us that this district is failing to be selective in the prospects it chooses for student teachers and failing to "sell" the district by providing a high-quality experience. It would lose nothing by screening out student-teacher candidates who have no real intention of taking a teaching job.
Addressing some of the dysfunctional elements of student teaching could also go a long way toward fixing ongoing supply-and-demand issues. If higher education institutions cannot place their student teachers in districts because they do not fill the needs of those districts, then these universities might become more assertive about redirecting their students into concentration areas and fields of study that are in short supply.

A New Role for Student Teaching

Transforming student-teaching programs holds strong promise for fixing the teacher pipeline, more promise than any other strategy I've encountered. No longer would the experience be such a roll of the dice—for any of the parties involved. Districts could extend job offers fully confident that the student teacher is a good fit and has already been trained in their ways. The costs of hiring would drop, with districts no longer having to turn to high-priced alternatives. Most important, first-year teachers would arrive in their classrooms fully knowing what to do and how to teach.

Cowan, J., Goldhaber, D., Hayes, K., & Theobald, R. (2016). Missing elements in the discussion of teacher shortages. Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

Goldhaber, D., Krieg, J. M., & Theobald, R. (2016). Does the match matter? Exploring whether student-teaching experiences affect teacher effectiveness and attrition. (Working Paper 149). Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

Gordon, R., Kane, T. J., & Staiger, D. O. (2006). Identifying effective teachers using performance on the job. The Hamilton Project Policy Brief No. 2006-01. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Greenberg, J., Pomerance, L., & Walsh, K. (2011). Student teaching in the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Council on Teacher Quality. Retrieved from

National Council on Teacher Quality. (2017). Landscapes in teacher preparation: Undergraduate secondary. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from

Walsh, K. (2015). Are big teacher shortages around the corner? NCTQ Teacher Quality Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: NCTQ. Retrieved from

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