Renewing California’s commitment to new teachers

Ellen Moir

Ellen Moir

Over the past year, I was privileged to serve on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s Educator Excellence Task Force. As a native Californian and founder of a nonprofit that does extensive work developing teachers and leaders in this state, I am pleased at the Task Force’s vision for how the state can broaden educator effectiveness in districts to provide a much higher quality of education for California students.

The strength of the Task Force’s recommendations, released last month and aimed at accelerating the effectiveness of beginning teachers, is notable. This is a critical priority because new teachers are more common in schools today than ever before. Whereas 25 years ago the most typical teacher was a veteran with 17 years of experience, today’s students are more likely to be taught by a novice teacher. The recommendations focus on restoring the structured professional support that once made California a national leader in meeting the needs of this burgeoning cadre of beginners.

This professional support is called new teacher induction, and it should include one-on-one guidance from an accomplished teacher who has been trained to mentor new teachers and create regular, relevant opportunities for groups of new teachers to learn collaboratively. The best induction programs help beginning teachers thrive and deepen the impact of their teaching. Research shows that comprehensive, multi-year mentoring and induction reduces new teacher attrition and improves student learning. At New Teacher Center (NTC), based in Santa Cruz, we’ve witnessed these benefits in the induction programs we’ve designed and operated across California for nearly 25 years.

But comprehensive induction programs affect more than just individual teachers. They also provide opportunities for teacher leadership and contribute to the development of a system of teaching excellence. NTC-led induction programs across the nation have blossomed into leadership pipelines for school districts and have created cultures of collaborative improvement within schools. Such intensive support sets new teachers on the path to excellence and serves as a driver in transforming how all teachers are developed.

Before we embark upon restoring support for beginning teachers in California, we must reflect upon where we’ve been. The state’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) program was one of the first in the nation to structure and fund a high-quality approach to new teacher support, built around California Professional Teaching Standards. Since the early 1990s, every teacher in California has been afforded mentoring support and assistance during their first two years in the classroom.

But all novice California teachers are not provided equal opportunities to succeed. NTC sounded the alarm in 2010 in our New Teacher Excellence paper, warning that the overall quality of BTSA programs was in danger of being compromised as a result of a lost focus on individualized teacher growth and learning. Many BTSA programs were high quality, but unfortunately some focused too heavily on completing a checklist rather than providing differentiated and personalized support to new teachers. The negative experience of some new teachers undoubtedly contributed to the state’s decision to allow school districts to sweep BTSA funding for “any educational purpose,” further accelerating this downward spiral and eroding the comprehensiveness of many successful programs.

The Task Force report (Greatness By Design) recognizes these trends: “[I]n the current context, existing strong programs of beginning teacher induction are imperiled … due to budget cuts, and many programs have suffered from lack of guidance to ensure that investments are made efficiently and effectively in the most important supports.”

As John Fensterwald wrote in EdSource last month, however, “California doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It could start by fixing the one that’s bent and broken because of years of neglect.”

That’s the path suggested by the Task Force with regard to developing and supporting new educators. We recommend four key changes [beginning on page 44 of the report] to strengthen BTSA and to expand coaching and mentoring assistance to school principals:

  1. Define the standards for quality induction programs and embed them in state accountability systems for funding and accreditation. This includes identifying and training skilled mentors, providing personalized learning and targeted mentoring support, and ensuring dedicated time for teacher collaboration and learning.
  2. Clarify the competencies that beginning teachers, administrators, and their mentors should be expected to acquire, and ensure they are represented in appropriate assessments. This includes a standards-based approach to achieving competency in all relevant subject areas prior to recommendation for a clear credential.
  3. Provide a strong statewide policy and programmatic infrastructure and adequate resources to allow all local providers to offer high-quality programs. This requires restored state oversight, clearly articulated state policies, and a reinvestment in regionally based program leadership and support.
  4. Align the early career system so it allows a seamless transition from preparation to career and through ongoing development. To meet the needs of individual educators, this requires coherence and shared goals between pre-service, induction, certification, and evaluation policies and programs.

I hope that the Task Force’s recommendations for developing and supporting beginning educators carry weight with policymakers and program administrators in Sacramento. Let’s learn from the best. Let’s build upon what’s working. Let’s fix what’s not.

Most importantly, let’s never lose sight of the ability and willingness of teachers to learn and improve every single day. With our help, they will.

Ellen Moir is founder and chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization that she created in 1998 to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders, especially in underserved areas. Today this organization has a staff of over 150 who work closely with educators and policymakers across the country to ensure that the nation’s low-income, minority, and English language learners – those students most often taught by inexperienced teachers – have the opportunity to receive an excellent education.

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2 Responses to “Renewing California’s commitment to new teachers”

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  1. Paul on Oct 29, 2012 at 11:30 pm10/29/2012 11:30 pm

    • 000

    Thank you, Eric. On the subject of ambiguous results…

    One report found that BTSA was repetitive for candidates who had earned credentials through the internship pathway, benefiting from mandated employer and university support and up to two years of experience as teacher of record.

    Another analysis concluded that, without CalTIDES, the teacher retention claims in the CTC’s reports on BTSA were not reliable.

    I hope that Propositions 30 and 38 will fail, and that BTSA will be among the non-essential programs jettisoned as a result. BTSA exists not to serve junior teachers, or the state’s children, but to provide senior teachers with a convenient way to escape the classroom for part or all of the day.

  2. Eric Premack on Oct 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm10/29/2012 12:49 pm

    • 000

    Though I have no doubt that many teachers benefit from the types of excellent programs that the New Teacher Project and others provide, the research doesn’t always support the policy conclusion that the state and federal governments should micro-manage the teacher training, credentialing, and induction processes.

    If we add-up what California spends, directly and indirectly on its extremely complex teacher training bureaucracy, the costs are staggering.

    The Commission on Teacher Credentialing alone costs $45 million/year and is just the tip of the iceberg. Add on BTSA, the cost of credential-checkers at districts and county offices, what the state spends on tuition subsidies and direct appropriations to state colleges/universities and for teacher prep, and the direct costs alone are in the hundreds of millions per year.

    Then there are huge indirect costs, including the time/tuition/fees spent by prospective teachers to go through the credentialing maze, attend BTSA, etc., along with schools’ inability to hire otherwise-qualified teachers who may be great teachers, but who don’t meet the formal legal and process requirements.

    In an era of limited resources, it’s high time to re-examine these issues and subject them to rigorous cost-benefit analyses. For example, though common lore holds that BTSA improves teacher retention, a closer examination of the research is much more ambiguous. PPIC published a glowing report in 2006 asserting that BTSA “improved elementary school teacher retention by 26 percent.” This study, however, seemingly ignored other profound changes in the larger context (e.g., implementation of the K-3 Class Size Reduction program) and suffered from other glaring methodological flaws (e.g., comparing more experienced teachers with brand new ones).

    Subsequent researchers, including a study cited in “Greatness by Design” found that “while retention is up, it is difficult to attribute this fact to any particular program, policy or demographic trend.” Despite the high cost and ambiguous results, this “Greatness” report and others continue to make the leap that the state and federal government know best.

    Instead of micro-managing the pipelines of teachers and administrators, perhaps the best role for government is to butt-out and instead fund better research, provide demonstration grants to promising programs, and otherwise let the locals decide where the resources are best spent.

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