Report says new teachers face ‘bumpy path’

July 28, 2014

Berkeley High math teacher Christopher Knight discusses his experience with BTSA during the district's 2014 BTSA colloquium honoring graduates of the program. Next to him is his mentor teacher, Scott Wilson, a math teacher at the high school.

A new report concludes that California’s mentoring program for novice teachers, once a national model, has deteriorated due to lack of funding and district commitment, and provides little help for the many new teachers who enter the profession as permanent substitutes or temporary hires.

“We cannot know how many good teachers California has lost as a result of its incoherent and inconsistent beginning teacher policies. Suffice it to say, pursuing a teaching career in California requires substantial persistence and more than a little good luck,” state Julia Koppich and Daniel Humphries in Bumpy Path Into a Profession: What California’s Beginning Teachers Experience, which was published last week by Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research organization affiliated with Stanford University, UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant, and Humphries, a senior education researcher with SRI International, recommend a series of changes to help new teachers progress: creating a more effective evaluation system for new teachers; hiring fewer temporary teachers while providing more support for those who are hired; and reaffirming a commitment to the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment System, better known by its acronym, BTSA.

Some districts have reduced their funding or assigned multiple teachers to one mentor, while others dismantled their programs, forcing their new teachers to seek programs in other districts at their own expense.

BTSA was created in 1998 for first- and second-year teachers to improve their methods and to encourage them to stay in the profession. Each new teacher was overseen by a veteran teacher who assigned them instructional activities.

All teachers are required to complete BTSA to obtain a final or “clear” teaching credential. For the first decade, the state paid for the program through dedicated funding to districts. But starting in 2008, the Legislature gave districts flexibility to spend dedicated or “categorical” funds for BTSA and dozens of other programs however they want. According to the report, some districts have reduced their funding or assigned multiple teachers to one mentor. Others dismantled their programs, forcing their new teachers to seek programs in other districts at their own expense. Teachers and mentors complain about the paperwork and perfunctory checklists of requirements.

The Legislature created BTSA on the assumption that new teachers would go through it during their first two years on the job. But, the report says, about a quarter of the state’s first- through third-year teachers since 1999 have been hired as temporary teachers to fill a leave-of-absence or short-term vacancy. Many districts don’t provide BTSA or formal evaluations for teachers hired as temps, but they should be required to, the report states. The number of temporary teachers is likely higher, because of unreliable data, according to the report. It adds, “Often, the two-year path to tenure is longer and much more circuitous than state policy anticipates.”

Koppich and Humphries didn’t take a position on the controversial lawsuit Vergara v. California, which claims that the state’s two-year probationary period, leading to tenure or permanent status, is too short a time to judge a teacher’s capabilities. In his preliminary ruling on the case, Los Angeles District Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed with that position. He threw out the two-year probationary period and four other labor-protection laws.

The report concludes, based on interviews and a review of 41 probationary teacher files in sample districts, that the evaluation of new teachers is neither rigorous nor helpful to teachers. Most of the evaluations were based on brief classroom observations. “Evaluations,” the report says, “provide only a rough approximation of beginning teachers’ performance and precious little in the way of guidance for improvement.”

BTSA mentors have a better knowledge of new teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and can make suggestions for improvement, the report notes, but current regulations prevent them from sharing their observations with principals. Teachers unions and districts should have the option of removing that obstacle, the report says.

The report recommends revitalizing BTSA and improving teacher evaluations while providing support and performance reviews to temporary teachers. Under the new funding system, districts must decide how much more to spend on developing new teachers. But “the cost of not doing anything will only impede California’s efforts to improve teacher quality and effectiveness,” Koppich and Humphries state.

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