Teacher Apprenticeship: What Is It and Why Now?

Blog Post
Getty Images
Feb. 8, 2022

As states continue to grapple with teacher shortages and the need to diversify the teaching profession, many are adopting strategies to increase access to and reduce the cost of teacher preparation. Some have invested funds to better support teachers navigating existing entry routes to the profession, using both state dollars and federal stimulus resources to provide scholarships and other financial incentives to educators looking to enter or advance in the field. Others—like the Tennessee Department of Education, which recently announced the creation of a Teacher Occupation Apprenticeship program—are exploring new routes entirely.

Tennessee’s Teacher Occupation Apprenticeship program is unique for several reasons. For one thing, it’s the first K-12 teacher apprenticeship program registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, which means it has been vetted by the department and has been determined to meet high standards for rigor and quality. While the program includes all of the components of a Registered Apprenticeship—apprentices in the program will complete 6,000 hours of paid, on-the-job training and 1,800 hours of classroom instruction, for example—the program is designed to culminate in a bachelor’s degree. So-called degree apprenticeships are relatively uncommon in the U.S. apprenticeship system, but are a promising model for providing structured, low-cost training for occupations that require associate and bachelor’s degrees, including a high number of in-demand positions in fields like education and healthcare.

Tennessee’s program is also noteworthy for its origins: It is an evolution of the state’s Grow Your Own (GYO) Educator model, which was developed in 2020 to create a no-cost pathway into the teaching profession. GYO has become a popular strategy for teacher recruitment, preparation, and retention due to its focus on developing teachers from the local community, such as high school students and paraeducators, removing barriers to entering and persisting in a teacher preparation program, and incentivizing partnerships between school districts and educator preparation programs.

To fuel program development across the state, the Tennessee Department of Education used $6.5 million in federal recovery funds to launch a competitive grant program to help educator preparation programs and school districts partner to build pipelines of homegrown teachers using the GYO model. GYO programs in the state must be offered at no cost to participants, include a paid, multi-year residency for anyone earning a bachelor’s degree, and lead to dual certification in a grade or subject area, plus either special education or English as a second language (ESL).

Tennessee’s Teacher Occupation Apprenticeship will launch in Clarksville-Montgomery County School System (CMCSS), and will operate much like their existing three-year teacher residency program, which recruits and prepares high school seniors, non-certified school employees, and community members to become teachers in CMCSS. Apprentices will be employed as paraeducators in the school district and work under the guidance of a mentor teacher, while simultaneously taking coursework towards a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Over several years of hands-on experience in classrooms and schools, apprentices will be assessed across a range of competencies to show their learning, earning wage increases as they demonstrate and gain new skills. In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree, all program candidates will earn dual certification in a grade or subject area, plus special education—a critical shortage area in the state. The program will be offered in partnership with Nashville State Community College and Austin Peay University.

Program costs, including apprentice wages, will be covered by Clarksville-Montgomery’s existing funding streams for GYO, including a state GYO grant and district funding. Some of the teacher apprentices may also have access to Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds through the local workforce board. These funds can be used to help cover expenses such as tuition, child care and transportation for apprentices that meet income eligibility requirements. Moving forward, the school system will collaborate with higher education and workforce partners to identify additional sources of funding to support the program. And, as a Registered Apprenticeship, the program is eligible to compete for grant funding and receive other forms of support from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The GYO apprenticeship model smoothes the pathway to licensure, integrating work-based learning with degree and credential attainment at no cost to participants. Importantly, it supplements—rather than supplants, as some have suggested—the credential with work-based learning. According to Sean Impeartrice, chief academic officer for CMCSS, the apprenticeship program formalizes and protects the GYO model they have developed and ensures it can be replicated with fidelity to its core components. “Anybody in the state can now replicate the model, but they have to have the competencies on the job and in college courses and the wraparound support,” he noted. More than that, GYO apprenticeship combines two powerful strategies into a community and economic development effort to build a diverse teacher workforce, reflective of the local community and better able to support its needs and leverage its assets.

Though apprenticeship has much in common with the popular and proven residency model for teacher preparation, the field of education has been slow to embrace the similarities, despite the success of a handful of well-established apprenticeship programs for early educators. This is not altogether surprising, given that the U.S. apprenticeship system has long been seen as the domain of the building and construction trades—a less academic, more hands-on training model for electricians, plumbers, and other skilled craftspeople. But this is changing. Facing tight labor markets, aging workforces, the rising cost of college, and an interest in diversifying their workforces, employers in fields like information technology and healthcare have begun to experiment with apprenticeships’ earn-and-learn model to create more transparent, more structured, and more supported pathways into a range of in-demand roles. Thanks in part to this new interest, the number of active apprentices in the U.S. has jumped over the past decade from 387,720 in 2010 to 636,515 by 2020.

Bipartisan support for apprenticeship has also helped fuel growth. The Biden Administration has called for the diversification and modernization of the U.S. Registered Apprenticeship system, providing grants to support more equitable program designs and the expansion of apprenticeship in new industries and occupations. These supports bode well for the continued growth and evolution of the apprenticeship system. Still, it remains to be seen if the model can make inroads in the field of K-12 education. There’s reason for optimism, but there are several big questions to consider:

Can teacher apprenticeships address acute teacher shortages our schools are facing right now? Probably not. Because teaching requires a bachelor’s degree, teaching apprenticeships will likely take multiple years to complete, even in accelerated models like Tennessee’s, which can be completed in three years. That means teacher apprenticeships cannot provide immediate relief to the current staffing crisis in America’s schools. But, over time, the structure, rigor, and design of apprenticeship has the potential to provide a high-quality and affordable training option for bringing new, more diverse pools of teaching candidates into the profession. We could, for example, eventually see the emergence of apprenticeship programs that target bachelor’s degree-holders who want to become teachers, but need experience and support completing the requirements to earn a teaching license. These programs could be shorter.

Can teacher apprenticeships reduce the cost of training for teacher candidates? Maybe. While apprenticeship programs often provide free or heavily subsidized training, most apprenticeable occupations do not require a bachelor’s degree for entry-level employment. Instead, the related instructional component in most programs leads to shorter, less costly industry-valued credentials.

Educator apprenticeships will need to find ways to reduce or cover the cost of college courses if they are to lower the cost of becoming a teacher. Strong partnerships between higher education institutions, school districts, and workforce partners—which have access to different sources of state and federal funding—can maximize the funding options available to support educator apprenticeships.

However, by requiring that apprentices be employed as a component of their training, apprenticeships can reduce the opportunity cost of preparing for teaching roles, especially for working adults who may be unable to forgo wages to complete coursework or credentialing requirements. Because they are employed during the apprenticeship, teacher apprentices may also be eligible for employment benefits, such as healthcare or retirement benefits made available to other paraeducators in the school system. (Note: While Tennessee’s model will employ apprentices in paraeducator roles, other programs may take a different approach.) Moreover, by requiring that apprentices be paid a progressive wage during their on-the-job training, the model challenges a long-standing tradition of unpaid internships and student teaching placements, which keeps some individuals from pursuing a degree in education, particularly non-traditional college students.

Will teacher apprenticeships help diversify the profession? Again, maybe. Teachers of color tend to have higher rates of college debt than their white peers, which makes eliminating the cost of earning a degree an essential recruitment strategy. If apprenticeship programs can provide a free or heavily subsidized route to bachelor’s degrees, that support—combined with the wages teacher apprentices will earn through their on-the-job training—could make teaching a more viable pathway for candidates who are currently underrepresented in the field. But apprenticeship programs will need to be intentionally designed to ensure the recruitment and participation of racially and linguistically diverse individuals.

How are teacher apprenticeships different from the many other GYO and residency programs that already exist? A big challenge will be helping the field recognize the potential of the model and understand that apprentices will not be earning a watered-down credential or degree. Currently, the teacher preparation landscape includes a spectrum of “traditional” programs designed for undergraduate students and “alternative route” programs designed to be fast-tracks into the profession. These alternative routes include many teacher residency programs and GYO programs that recruit and prepare candidates from the local community. Apprenticeship provides yet another pathway for aspiring educators to earn a degree and gain practical training and experience before they become teachers of record. As noted above, the apprenticeship model also requires that apprentices be paid for their on-the-job training, which is a departure from traditional student teaching or practicum models. And, unlike many other routes into the teaching profession, apprenticeship offers a connection to the public workforce system, which has the potential to unlock new sources of state and federal funding to help recruit and develop the teacher workforce.

While there’s still much to learn about apprenticeship’s potential in the field of education, many states are keen to follow Tennessee’s lead. Just days after the Tennessee program was announced, for example, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds established a new Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship Grant Program that will target high school students and paraeducators. Other models are emerging from Colorado and New York, too. And with states scrambling to address teacher shortages exacerbated by the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems likely there may be more to come.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!

Related Topics
Apprenticeship Teachers and Leaders