Trial by Fire Is Fueling a Crisis in Education -- Let's Stop it Now

photo of teacher writing sum on ...
photo of teacher writing sum on ...

This school year, around 300,000 beginning teachers are entering the classroom for the first time. Many will end up teaching in the most difficult urban areas, in classrooms and schools that serve some of the most disadvantaged students -- those with the greatest need for a strong, seasoned teacher. They will work long hours, planning lessons and managing complex curriculum requirements with little assistance. They will struggle to manage as many as 30 students, each with their own learning needs. Even the most promising new teachers will not be fully prepared for the challenges of leading today's classrooms. Unfortunately, students will pay the price as their learning suffers.

It is a trial by fire experience, and it's fueling "America's Next Educational Crisis."

By the time new teachers are expected to hit their stride in the classroom, about five years in, almost half have quit. In underserved urban settings this percentage is even higher. The teaching force today is significantly less experienced than ever before, and far less stable. As the nation hires more teachers, the number of novices in the profession has grown. Over the past 20 years, the number of first-year teachers tripled. Now, as parents go to drop off their child, they are more likely to drop them with a first-year teacher than with one with any other number of years of experience. This is the "Changing Face of the Teaching Force" and the implications are huge.

Tackling the teacher retention crisis and ensuring highly effective teaching are of the utmost importance if we want to improve student performance in our schools. High teacher turnover rates sap education of its talent and scar schools and students. What message is a revolving door of new teachers sending to our students about the value of staying in school, or even about their own value? Quality of teaching has been proven to have a substantial effect on the lives of students. For every year an inexperienced teacher is left alone to struggle at the front of the classroom, we are at risk of their students falling behind.

The good news is we have a solution. To address this crisis in education, we need to sharpen our focus on the fate of our newest educators. We need to ensure they don't just survive in the classroom, but truly thrive. We need to make sure they are reaching all students and helping them achieve. Great teachers are made, not born.

We need to provide new teachers with the kind of support that will help them get better faster. Give them each a mentor; a talented, experienced teacher who will work with them each week helping them improve instruction, classroom management and content knowledge.

Support from an effective veteran teacher during at least their first two years on the job helps new teachers overcome their individual early career challenges and go on to become effective teachers whose students succeed. It lets them see what being a master teacher looks like and lets them know that career pathways for talented teachers exist -- pathways like mentoring that allow effective teachers to extend their reach and impact on student learning. We need to keep new teachers' passion for the profession alive and increase their desire to remain teaching.

But not just any mentor will do. To be successful, mentoring programs must be more than just a "buddy system" that affords a new teacher emotional support, a shoulder to cry on or someone who helps them navigate the school facilities and district paper work in the first weeks. While helpful, this kind of support will do little to advance student learning. Instead, mentoring must focus on classroom practice. Mentors should be rigorously selected from the brightest and best teachers in a district and then provided with in-depth training. The switch from teaching children to coaching adults is substantial and those selected for the job must be properly prepared their new role. Districts and schools also need to make time available for mentor and mentee meetings, time for beginning teachers to learn from and observe their mentor and other exemplary teachers, opportunities for collaboration with colleagues and access to other teacher leaders and instructional resources.

Providing each new teacher with a dedicated mentor is not an expense, but an investment given that teacher turnover costs an average $2.2 billion a year. Yet, still few states have the policies and funding to drive such improvements. It is time to rectify this situation. A starting point would be for the nearly 900 districts that plan to apply to build high quality induction into their applications for Race to the Top funding.

High-quality, mentor-based, new teacher support programs improve teacher motivation, retention and student achievement. In Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, new teacher retention rates have jumped from just 72 percent two years ago to 86 percent a year later and appear to be moving above 90 percent in year two with New Teacher Center's teacher induction program in place as an integral part of the district's wider, comprehensive talent management system.

I firmly believe we need to invest in building the effectiveness of new teachers from the get-go and in retaining our best and brightest educators. They are at the heart of the quality of our education system and the future lives of our students depend on them.

At all levels of the system -- from policy to practice -- we need to strengthen the support we provide to the growing number of new teachers if we are to improve the quality of teaching, stem the current exodus from the profession, close the achievement gap in our nation's schools and avert the next crisis in education.