Photo by the Library of Congress.

It’s hard for new teachers to get the practical skills they need, whether through traditional schools of education or more recent alternative routes to teacher certification. A new model trains teachers like doctors, giving them hands-on, supervised classroom experience.

For decades, there have been complaints that schools of education have low admissions standards, too much focus on theory, and not enough classroom practice. A recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, while flawed in its methodology, brought renewed public attention to the problem.

Over the past 20 years, alternative teacher certification programs have trained an increasing proportion of teachers. In 2011, about 16% of teachers in the US were certified through an alternative program. At DCPS, where 400 to 600 teachers are hired annually, 23% came from alternative programs last year. That proportion is probably significantly higher for charter schools both nationally and locally, though hard data doesn’t seem to be available.

Existing models don’t teach classroom management

But neither approach expends enough effort on imparting techniques of classroom management. Some alternative programs, like Teach for America (TFA), draw high-achieving recent college graduates into the teaching profession for at least 2 or 3 years. Other programs, like DCPS’ DC Teaching Fellows, cater to both recent college graduates and career-changers. Generally, these programs provide only 5 or 6 weeks of training before putting new teachers in charge of their own classrooms, although participants continue to attend education classes while teaching.

Alternative certification programs are far more selective than traditional ed schools, and the theory seems to be that their graduates’ superior academic qualifications will make up for their lack of training. So far, the evidence on whether that theory is correct is inconclusive.

While traditional teacher ed programs require more practice teaching hours, many don’t provide much actual classroom guidance to student teachers and don’t focus on the skills needed to succeed in high-poverty urban classrooms.

One thing is clear: virtually all teachers get better over the first 5 years of teaching, as they acquire more experience. And it’s common knowledge that first-year teachers often struggle, with their students’ learning suffering as a result.

The medical training model

Teaching, like medicine, is one of those things that you can only really learn by doing. Reading pedagogical theory has its place, but it won’t help you control a class of 30 unruly 8th-graders. And it may not help you figure out why half the class didn’t absorb the material you taught yesterday.

Doctors spend years working under the supervision of more senior practitioners before they’re certified to practice on their own, but most new teachers undergo a “sink or swim” experience. TFA recruits get only a dozen or so hours of teaching experience at a summer “boot camp,” and critics say that the small classes don’t come close to simulating the conditions a novice teacher will confront. And classroom management is one of the major reasons for first-year teacher burnout and attrition.

But a new model is emerging for training teachers to deal with challenging urban environments, that more closely mirrors medical training. Often called a “residency” program, this model puts teachers in the classroom for a year while still in school.

They work with a mentor or host teacher, receive intensive in-class coaching, and gradually assume more responsibility as the year goes on. By the time they’re done, they’ll not only have acquired pedagogical theory and content-area knowledge, they’ll also know how to maintain control of a classroom and manage student behavior.

Most teacher-training programs don’t teach those skills, apparently assuming they’re instinctive. But for most people, they’re not. “It’s like thinking someone is going to just physically know how to pirouette,” says Jennifer Green, co-founder and co-director of the Urban Teacher Center (UTC), one of 3 residency-type certification programs active in DC.

How successful is the residency model?

While I’m not aware of any major studies on the success of residency programs, UTC’s results indicate that the method can be effective. The program doesn’t certify its residents unless their students have gained at least one month of learning per month of teaching, as measured by standardized tests. In 2011-12, 83% of UTC residents achieved those goals, as did 92% of the teachers in years 2, 3 and 4 of the program.

UTC plans to enroll about 70 new residents during the 2013-14 school year, while Capital Teaching Residency, a collaboration between two high-performing DC charter schools, trains about 60 new teachers a year. A smaller Another program, the Center for Inspired Teaching, trains only about 10 residents a year at its own charter demonstration school, although it plans to grow currently has 50 Inspired Teaching Fellows, including 22 teachers in their Fellowship Year and 28 teachers preparing to enter their residency year at either the program’s own charter demonstration school or at Capital City charter school. (Full disclosure: I have been a financial supporter of both UTC and the Capital Teaching Residency.)

The details of these programs vary, but they all combine a TFA-like selectivity with a commitment to preparing graduates to take sole responsibility for a classroom. And their graduates are more likely to stick with teaching.

Nationwide, roughly 50% of teachers leave the profession within 3 years, right when they hit their stride. But for graduates of urban teacher residency programs, the retention rate beyond 3 years is 85%. At UTC, the attrition rate during the residency year may be as high as 20%, but during the 2012-2013 school year, no teachers who made it beyond the residency left the program.

Almost all the residents and graduates of the three DC-based programs, which require graduates to stay in DC for several years, have been placed in charter schools. Last year, DCPS says, fewer than 1% of its new hires came from a residency-type program. But DCPS has recently been in discussions with at least two of the programs, and there are signs that more residents will be placed in traditional DC public schools in the future.

That can only be good news for students and their parents, many of whom may cringe at the prospect that their children will be assigned to a first-year teacher. And in DCPS schools, there’s a particularly good chance of that happening, since the turnover rate appears to be even higher than the national average. According to one study, as many as 50% of the system’s new teachers leave after less than 2 years.

Some may respond that the teachers who are exiting the system are the ones who are less effective. But even if that’s the case, wouldn’t a better solution be to do everything we can to ensure that all teachers are effective right from the start?

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.