Intense competition for teachers inspires urban schools to train their own

ByJay Mathews

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At the beginning of the D.C. public charter school surge two decades ago, the KIPP schools — because of their significant achievement gains — got the most attention and found many good teachers eager to be hired. But as the number of charters grew, it became more difficult for KIPP DC Executive Director Susan Schaeffler to find the people she wanted.

Charter school leaders would visit the best happy hour spots, such as the Tryst coffee shop in Adams Morgan, and recruit young veterans of Teach for America. TFA people were popular — in some ways, too popular — because they had the best résumés and had already taught in difficult urban and rural schools. It got to the point, Schaeffler said, where “we had maybe 20 corps members available, and maybe 20 schools were offering them jobs.”

Schaeffler and her board wanted to start many more schools. (They have since grown to 16, with more than 450 teachers and 5,800 students.) They could no longer count on finding enough good people in local bars and at recruitment events. So they created the Capital Teaching Residency program, a way to train recruits through classroom work that has become nationally the most promising solution to giving disadvantaged children the most skilled educators possible.

KIPP DC has the second-largest of several KIPP residency programs nationally. Other charter networks such as San Diego-based High Tech High have also pioneered the approach, along with the Relay Graduate School of Education, which fosters residencies throughout the country.

KIPP residents work for a year as teaching assistants while taking training classes at their schools. KIPP DC trains 80 to 100 residents a year. It has 360 current residents or alumni teaching in the District and expects to have 800 teachers trained by 2020.

The training includes “a balance of classroom culture and management, child development, pedagogy and content coursework,” Schaeffler said. “It is intended to give them tools and skills to go back and try the very next day with their students.” It allows residents to “grow in their craft at an individualized, accelerated pace,” she said.

This costs a lot of money. Unlike many other training programs, KIPP pays its residents salaries and arranges for them to earn teaching certificates without paying education school tuition. Schaeffler and other KIPP leaders have been able to find donors and leverage federal grants because they have a proven track record. The need for that financial support keeps many networks and districts from adopting similar methods, even though education activists have argued for decades that working with a master teacher is an improvement over the standard education school approach.

The residencies also allow KIPP to recruit many former KIPP students whose potential was obvious to their teachers, plus career changers and military veterans. KIPP DC has managed to save some money by moving previous classroom aide jobs into resident slots, but that does not cover the full cost.

Schaeffler said she considers residency programs essential at a time when D.C. charters are educating nearly half of the city’s public schoolchildren and intensifying the competition for good teachers. Without the residents, she said, she would have to be “taking a lot of teachers from other schools, from D.C. public schools, and that’s not helping. The teacher swap within charter schools too is not moving the needle for the city in achievement. It’s totally unproductive and very frustrating.”

“We see the Capital Teaching Residency as a source of high-quality, diverse talent for all D.C. schools,” she said.

Anyone who has spent significant time in urban schools knows they can only succeed with well-trained, creative teachers led by administrators who understand what disadvantaged students need. Politicians on all sides of the education debate say they want that.

This would be a good time for them to appropriate the money to put more promising newcomers in situations where they can learn best how to make schools better.