How Can States Better Support and Keep New Teachers?

A Q&A with Liam Goldrick

States have largely failed to invest in programs that support new teachers, even as the percentage of new teachers in schools nationwide has skyrocketed. That’s the main finding of a report released Tuesday by the nonprofit New Teacher Center, which looked at state policies that support new teachers through mentoring and teacher induction programs.

During the 1987-88 school year, a typical teacher in a public school had 15 years of experience. By the 2007-08 school year, a typical teacher was in his or her first year of teaching, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania. As new teachers have become more common, states have been sluggish to expand or invest in new-teacher support programs, according to the New Teacher Center report.

Since 2012, the number of states that require schools to provide support for new teachers has increased slightly, from 27 to 29. Only 15 of those states require that teachers be supported during their first and second years, and only nine states require support for new teachers beyond the first two years. Twelve states mandate a minimum amount of contact time between a mentor and a new teacher, whether it’s per week, semester or year. Yet only 16 states have dedicated funding for this teacher support, and that number is shrinking.

The Hechinger Report spoke to Liam Goldrick, policy director at the New Teacher Center, to learn more about what this new-teacher support looks like, how policies vary by state and how states can improve.

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Question: The report shows that there are more new teachers in classrooms now than in previous years, yet few states have ramped up support for these teachers. Why is that?

Answer: I think there are probably a number of different explanations for it. I think there has to be a recognition and understanding that beginning educators have some very unique needs. They have a steeper learning curve. Even if they receive strong initial preparation, they’re in a stage of the profession where they’re applying a lot of those lessons. There’s a need for states to recognize that and look upon [new-teacher] induction as a really necessary stage for continuous growth and learning.

In states’ defense, there was growth over time, historically, prior to us chronicling this [beginning in 2012]. There was growth in a number of laws and policies during the 1990s that seems to have coincided with a pretty strong growth in the percent of beginning teachers who reported receiving some type of support. But there’s been a plateau of states active in this space. Obviously there’s been a tremendous amount of policy around [teacher] evaluations at the state level, and we haven’t seen nearly as much activity in this beginning educator support arena.

Q: About half of the 29 states that require support for new teachers require it in the first and second year. Why is this important to note?

A: A lot of it goes back to the research evidence. The experience of the [New Teacher Center] is that new teachers in the field are really continuing to struggle into their second and third years, in terms of really getting their sea legs and establishing a clear professional path. You look at the research conducted on the efficacy of induction [programs], and the impact of induction on things like classroom teaching, teacher retention and student learning, and you struggle to find clear and lasting impact from single-year approaches. It appears to take a multiyear course of support.

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Q: Which components of new-teacher support programs matter most in terms of helping new teachers improve?

A: The research on induction is that the package of support is really important. What it really does is it roots the induction program as being about improving and honing classroom instruction. At one level, teacher mentoring or induction is sort of a psychosocial support. It is about knowing someone is there to help. It helps deal with the psychological needs that beginning teachers [have] in the early years and months. But a good [induction] program goes beyond that. It provides a trusted peer, a trusted mentor to address those concerns and problems, but it also really aims to improve the instructional practices of beginning teachers. … It’s not just about having a buddy mentor down the hall that you can call on when needed, but also other supports, things like participation in a beginning-teacher network or being in the presence of supportive principals and administrators. In terms of the types of support that are really necessary, the program length and the frequency of contact that beginning teachers have with mentors and coaches is very critical.

Q: Have you found that states vary in the types of new-teacher support they provide?

A: Classroom observations and feedback are two elements that are certainly most commonly mentioned or required in state policy. Participation in an educator peer network, that tends to be less frequent.

Research shows that if you provide these tool and structures and supports, you can generate real change in the classroom instruction that beginning teachers offer.

Q: Are there any other factors that play into a strong system of support for new teachers?

A: For us, it’s not just about strengthening the knowledge and skills and abilities of individual educators. It’s also about strengthening the conditions and context in which beginning educators are placed, in which they work. Are they in a supportive context with collaboration and strong school leadership? [If so,], they can become more successful in the job. If they’re put in a poor working environment, they’re less likely to stay at that school, less likely to stay in the profession and less likely to get the results we want for their students. It’s rare to find that [working-environment focus] in policy; no one requires that. A small handful of states mention a reduced teaching load or extracurricular duties. … It’s not something that rises to the surface in many states, but it’s definitely one of the stronger program components that can be part of the overall design of induction.

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Q: The report lists a number of policy recommendations to improve support for new teachers. Where should states start?

A: One approach as a starting point for states is to provide seed money to develop some exemplary local [teacher-support] programs through competitive grant programs. Oregon is a good example of that and they provide a pretty robust amount of resources for districts. But you get a bit of a tale of two cities, where you get really high-quality multiyear programs that blossom in some districts, but in others, there’s a whole lot of nothing going on. So that’s one of the challenges. But really by developing local exemplars, [states] can light the way for other districts to see that it is possible. Also, there is a really critical role for a state to evaluate and provide oversight. … For states that have gone so far as to create [program] requirements, it behooves them to follow those up with real oversight [and check] to see what impact the work is having on things like teacher turnover and student learning.

Overall, our main message is that policy makes a difference, but we don’t position policy as the end all be all. It’s clear from research that in states that have some requirements in place [for new-teacher support], the beginning teachers in those states do exhibit a higher rate of [getting] mentoring assistance and services, which are more likely to result in positive impact. For us, it’s important to think about a really expansive definition of policy. It’s not just laws and regulations; it has to go further than that. We find it’s very beneficial to not create a one-size-fits-all approach to this work.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jackie Mader

Jackie Mader received a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a recipient of the 2012 Fred M. Hechinger Journalism Education Award. Prior to attending Columbia, she taught special education in Charlotte, N.C. and trained first-year teachers in the Mississippi Delta.