Should K-12 schools really certify their own teachers?

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Aug 24, 2017

Summit Public Schools recently made headlines with the launch of its new teacher residency program. Starting this month, Summit’s first cohort of 24 resident teachers began a one-year program that will earn them a California teaching credential. The residency will fully immerse them in the workings of Summit schools, and their coursework will happen through Summit’s online learning platform. This is a unique—but not unheard of—move in K–12 education.

Summit’s new teacher residency places it among Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified—the state’s two largest districts—and the High Tech High charter schools as one of the few California K–12 school operators that also prepares teachers. All told, the state of California authorizes 93 different institutions to prepare prospective teachers to receive their preliminary teaching credentials; but the vast majority of these institutions are colleges and universities. Meanwhile, only seven of California’s roughly 1,025 school districts and 1,222 charter schools run state-approved programs for preparing teachers. Looking across the broader United States, there are just a handful of other charter management organizations that precede Summit in the business of teacher preparation, as I’ve documented in an earlier paper.

Innovation theory gives a clear rationale for why this strategy makes sense for operators like Summit and what it might mean for the future of teacher preparation. Indeed, Summit’s strategy to create its own teacher supply pipeline is not without parallel in other industries. Organizations often bring the design and production of raw materials or subcomponents in-house when the quality or availability of those inputs constrains the quality or performance of their final products. For example, World War I led to shortages that made it hard for the Ford Motor Company to get high-quality raw materials on a reliable basis from its suppliers. Henry Ford’s solution: create mines, railways, steel mills, and rubber plantations to ensure that his automobile factory had what it needed to keep cars rolling off the assembly line. Fast forward to today, and we see a similar pattern playing out in the tech industry. Software companies like Google and Microsoft are entering the computer chip business because the effectiveness of their artificial intelligence technology depends not just on the code they create, but on the design of the hardware that runs the code.

Clayton Christensen’s theory of interdependence and modularity explains why players like Summit, Ford, Google, and Microsoft find themselves compelled to expand into upstream segments of their value chains. When an organization needs to improve the performance of its products or services, the optimal strategy is to integrate across all the subsystems or parts of the value chain that affect performance. This gives the organization the greatest freedom to make its supply chain and its subcomponents align with its particular needs. As Summit’s chief academic officer, Adam Carter, told Education Week, “As we grow, where do we find teachers who can enact personalized learning from the get-go? … Currently, our teachers have to come in and quickly get up to speed. … Residents will have time to build up their comfort with working within our context.”

But while Summit and other pioneers are forging a path into teacher preparation—with both history and theory to back them up—several barriers make this a difficult route to take. For one, states don’t typically give K–12 schools funding to offer teacher prep, which means school systems need either philanthropic funding or the scale of a Los Angeles Unified to get new programs off the ground. Second, state teacher education policies generally hold up university-based teacher preparation as the model that all programs should emulate. This means new teacher preparation programs often have to adopt many of the expensive and innovation-constraining trappings of higher education in order to get state approval.

Summit’s new program was years in the making as its leaders worked through the hurdles associated with getting it launched. Now it will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out. Will the residency produce the quality of teachers Summit hopes to deliver, and will their personalized-learning-focused training enhance Summit’s efforts to keep improving its K–12 schools? Will the residency be financially sustainable in the long run without philanthropic support? Could tuition for the program become a new revenue source for Summit? And what role will the residency program play as Summit adds campuses and expands its network of partner schools? If Summit’s personalized learning model proves to be highly successful with its partner schools, graduates of its residency program may come to be in high demand. And in the longer term, if Summit’s goal to propagate personalized learning throughout K–12 education comes to fruition, traditional university-based teacher education programs may need to take note.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.