Learning Lessons from the Pandemic for Improvements in Clinical Practice

A social studies teacher participates in an online staff meeting alone in his classroom at Middletown High School.It is clear that the pandemic had a profound impact on teacher education, and clinical practice in particular. The closing of virtually all K-12 schools in the spring of 2020 cascaded back to teacher education, greatly reducing (and certainly altering) the clinical practice experiences of student teachers. This continued into the 2020-21 school year as schools in many communities remained closed for in-person instruction.

To examine how the COVID-19 crisis affected the teacher preparation pipeline in the state of Washington, we surveyed 29 state-accredited educator preparation programs (EPPs) from April to June 2020. The findings showed that more than 80% of responding EPPs waived or reduced the length of time required for student teaching in their undergraduate programs, graduate programs, or both. These reductions raise concerns about the preparation of recent cohorts of teacher candidates to join the teaching workforce.

Indeed, a number of recent quantitative studies lend support to the commonsense notion that clinical practice is a foundational part of teacher preparation. For example, findings show that having a more effective mentor (also referred to as the “cooperating”) teacher is associated with better performance ratings and higher value-added effectiveness when candidates enter the workforce, particularly for those with lower academic performance. This statement is also supported through randomized control trial evidence, showing that assignment to high-quality clinical practice apprenticeships leads to the development of effective teaching capacities during clinical practice. Additionally, teachers who experience better alignment between their clinical experiences and first teaching positions tend to be more successful and more likely to remain in the profession.

While the above findings certainly suggest that reductions to teacher candidates’ clinical experiences may have adversely impacted the preparation of recent cohorts of teacher candidates, there may be some pandemic-related adaptations to clinical practice that are worth keeping. One area of promise, for instance, is that what EPPs have learned about supervising practice remotely could help loosen the strong geographic links that exists between EPPs and where clinical practice occurs.

School districts, often rural, that are distant from EPPs are both less likely to host student teachers and more likely to have classroom staffing challenges. Moreover, hosting student teachers is associated with a reduction in hiring teachers with emergency credentials. Forming partnerships with rural districts could provide mutual benefits: teacher candidates might find higher-quality clinical placements, and school districts might find their teachers of tomorrow. There are certainly logistical (and likely other) reasons to have field instructors working in close proximity to the student teachers they help supervise, but the benefits of maintaining these policies must be weighed against what at this point looks to be the benefits of making the quality of clinical placements the paramount concern. Data show that only about 3%  of teachers in the country serve as mentors in any given year, so tremendous opportunity for chance exists in where clinical experiences occur.

But while there are reasons to believe that changes to partnerships might be beneficial, we really need to learn more about this and other pandemic-related EPP adaptations in order to have solid evidence about whether and how to change EPP practice. We have been fortunate to work with a group of EPPs in Washington state (the Teacher Education Learning Collaborative) who are committed to sharing data on teacher candidates to inform teacher education policy and practice. These types of learning consortia are rare, though similar collaborations exist in CaliforniaNorth Carolina, and Tennessee.

We stress the importance of EPP learning consortia here because every academic study linked above is a product of one of these EPP consortia. There is no doubt that creating this type of partnership can be challenging. It requires data sharing agreements between EPPs, researchers, and state agencies, and goodwill and trust that research is high-quality, objective, and geared towards improving EPPs. There is still much to learn. But while research suggests there are opportunities to rethink clinical practice, further studies about the impact of using technology to help supervise clinical practice, or any of the myriad of pandemic-related adaptations to teacher education should be explored. And while there is already significant learning and development that happens within EPPs or between EPPs and partner school systems, we strongly believe it is important to work with learning consortia to study these innovations at scale and connect what happens in teacher education to the in-service outcomes of teachers and their students.

Dan Goldhaber is the director of CEDR (Center for Education Data and Research) at the University of Washington and the director of CALDER (National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research) at the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

Roddy Theobald is a Principal Researcher in CALDER at AIR.

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