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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.