i3 Validation Grant Fosters Continuous Learning in Education Organization Going to Scale

An estimated 340,000 beginning teachers, according to the National Center on Education Statistics, will enter America’s public school classrooms this year, a more than 50 percent increase in new teacher hires compared to 1999. Many are teaching in classrooms and schools that serve some of the most disadvantaged students — those with the greatest need for a strong, skilled teacher. These new teachers, who are just beginning to master their craft, are working long hours trying to meet those students’ needs, planning lessons, and managing complex curriculum requirements, often with very little assistance.

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Mentor Shalini Patel (right) meets with new Chicago Public Schools teacher Emily Lopez to provide feedback following Patel’s observation in Lopez’s classroom. (Photo by Daniel Shea, courtesy of New Teacher Center)

Even the most promising new teachers are not fully prepared for the challenges of leading today’s classrooms. In too many cases, it’s a sink or swim experience, and students pay the price.

The right kind of support for new teachers is critical

Many district leaders across the country have recognized this issue and are responding by providing new teachers with some form of onboarding. Some districts simply offer a summer orientation, or a “buddy system,” that pairs new teachers with a teacher down the hall who can help them navigate school facilities in the first weeks. But districts implementing more robust models of induction — full systems of intensive support more focused on instructional delivery — say they are seeing more effective teaching and higher teacher-retention rates.

New Teacher Center has been working for more than 20 years to ensure more of the nation’s newest educators receive this robust type of comprehensive instructional mentoring and induction support as they begin their careers. We partner with school districts, state boards of education, and other institutions to design and implement comprehensive systems of support for new teachers that involve selecting, training, and deploying accomplished teachers — who have been fully released from classroom duties or who have dedicated release time — to mentor new teachers and to create relevant, timely opportunities for groups of new teachers to learn together.

An opportunity to learn and improve 

We were honored, in December 2012, when New Teacher Center was awarded an Investing in Innovation (i3) Validation grant to expand our work to improve student achievement by accelerating the effectiveness of new teachers in Chicago Public Schools, Broward County Public Schools, and Grant Wood Area Education Agency, a consortium of school districts in Iowa.

We selected these three partners because each is committed to a comprehensive talent management system that includes high-quality teacher development, with a focus on the needs of those newest to the profession. We viewed it as a unique opportunity to ensure new teachers in Chicago, Broward, and Grant Wood accelerated their practice, and that our program and services were truly a catalyst for their success. We are validating our model in this variety of contexts — across large urban and small rural districts — so more new teachers across the country can access high-quality induction.

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Mentor Shalini Patel models a teaching practice with one of Emily Lopez’s students. (Photo by Daniel Shea, courtesy of New Teacher Center)

Applying for and receiving an i3 grant fits well into our organization’s learning culture. We have maintained a focus on continuously building and bettering our services on behalf of new teachers and students through research. Our own research, and that of other researchers, has shown across our induction programs that new teachers get better faster and stay longer if they receive high-quality support. This support includes rigorously selected, well-prepared mentors, who are released to work exclusively with new teachers in schools designed for student and teacher success. We have closely studied retention rates and student gains, published cost/benefit studies, and participated in a federally funded randomized controlled trial.

We are an organization that helps teachers learn, and we ourselves view this research as an opportunity to learn and improve. It is catalyzing and accelerating our learning in ways we hadn’t known were possible.

Logic model drives research design

The key to this learning has been working with an external evaluation (SRI International) in a randomized controlled trial (RCT) design. The RCT process changed our value proposition as we initiated work with our three i3 partners. To design a minimum treatment to test against a control group, we had to be introspective and clarify exactly what it means to implement the “New Teacher Center model.” Rather than thinking about everything we can do to help new teachers succeed and have the most impact, as our Theory of Action advises, we were forced instead to focus on what is the least we can do to begin to have impact. What are the fundamental components of NTC’s induction model and of supporting new teachers more generally?

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NTC develops, implements, and advocates for comprehensive induction systems for new teachers — grounded in this theory of action — to improve effectiveness, retention, and leadership, thereby increasing student learning.

This treatment was crystalized as part of a logical model that drives the research design of the external evaluation. The model codifies specifically what we must do to implement our program in each partner district with fidelity. With two decades of successes and innovations, there was a lot to choose from in considering those fundamental components. Each product, each training and mentor forum were examined, distilling the essence of what New Teacher Center does to select, prepare, and support mentors as they work with novice teachers.

Clarifying our “dosage” of the treatment was challenging but instrumental to our i3 implementation. Our advocacy for a full-time release mentor model is predicated on the belief that mentors develop as part of a community that hones a unique coaching skill set, and it is necessary to ensure there is time for mentors and new teachers to work together. The i3 grant necessitated that we articulate a baseline number of minutes a mentor and mentee must meet and set attendance thresholds for mentors at trainings and forums. What before were guidelines are now minimum standards that must be met.

Capturing and using data

Central to our success is a data system to closely monitor whether the treatments are delivered with at least the minimum dosage. We have invested substantially in our Learning Zone, an online platform that allows mentors to log time spent with new teachers, tools used, and topics covered during mentoring sessions. This data is not only essential to the external evaluation, but also to us as we work with our partners to assess our collective strengths and areas for improvement.

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Students work with math manipulatives in new teacher Emily Lopez’s classroom. (Photo by Daniel Shea, courtesy of New Teacher Center)

Midway through our first year of implementation, we are just now getting results. While it is far too early to assess our impact on new teacher and student success, we have data on the quality of implementation of our treatment. We monitor Learning Zone data, analyze the duration and content of mentor interactions with new teachers, and reflect on our collective work with district partners.

We liken this to the continuous improvement cycle New Teacher Center uses with new teachers, mentors, and district induction coordinators as a method to improve. This ongoing process of preparing, assessing, and analyzing, which is so familiar to us, has made our work better and stronger in Chicago, Broward, and Grant Wood. We expect we will also see it in our impact on student learning.

We expect districts across the country will benefit as well as we apply what we learn in i3 across the organization to ensure that we have the necessary programmatic components and data systems in place everywhere we work.

Going to scale requires precision

New Teacher Center is at a critical juncture in our organizational history as we work to scale our efforts and reach more new teachers across the country. Currently serving more than 23,000 new teachers annually, we expect to nearly triple that number over the next three years.

NTCIt would be easy to rest on our laurels and impact studies done thus far. But we know that scaling requires precision.

Our i3 grant has helped us precisely define the critical elements of our model, and we look forward to learning more through our evaluation about all of the elements of our model and how they come together to impact teacher retention, instructional practices, and ultimately student success. It is a tremendous opportunity that benefits New Teacher Center and an entire generation of teachers starting their careers with the support they need to actually make a difference for students.

Cynthia Brunswick is New Teacher Center’s senior vice president for induction programs, and Eric Hirsch is New Teacher Center’s chief external affairs officer.

Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Department of Education. The article is being made available on our home page to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and improvement. No endorsement of any educational product, service, curriculum, or pedagogy is implied.