Second in Series of Reports Looks at First-Year Teachers from Teach for America, Troops to Teachers, and the New Teachers Project
Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality today released research that raises questions about the support given to new teachers who come to teaching through alternate routes new teachers who are often placed in the most troubled schools. It gives voice to the concerns of these new teachers once they are on the job concerns about insufficient support from school administrators and insufficient advice and help from colleagues.
A comment from one first-year teacher illustrates the isolation that many of these 'alt-route' teachers feel, Teachers have to go it alone, especially in the city. You cannot send a student out of your room. You have to deal with the behavior problem, and fill out forms.... You're kind of like an independent contractor. You've got to just manage your little society in the classroom.
The second report of the Lessons Learned series, Issue No. 2: Working Without a Net focuses on new teachers in high-needs schools and compares the perspectives of those coming to the profession through traditional teacher education versus those from three alternate-route programs: Teach for America, Troops to Teachers and The New Teacher Project.
Based on this survey, our question is: Are we willing to create a system that gives new teachers the support that will help them succeed regardless of the route they take to teaching? These are three well-established, well-respected programs, so the results here points up an important challenge for the field, said Public Agenda Executive Vice President and Director of Education Insights Jean Johnson. The plight of new teachers wrestling with difficult assignments with limited guidance and minimal mentorship is more pronounced among the 'alt-routes,' but significant numbers of traditionally-trained teachers find themselves in the same boat especially those in high-needs schools.
Sabrina Laine, Director of NCCTQ, which commissioned and helped to design the research said, That new teachers in high-needs schools are feeling isolated and abandoned in their classrooms is a significant problem. School leaders need to make supporting this new generation of teachers a priority, no matter where these teachers teach and what route they took to the classroom. Administrators can start by listening and responding to these teachers' desires for more opportunities to collaborate in both instruction and classroom management.
Steve Cantrell, Director of REL-Midwest, who provided guidance on the design and analysis said The perfect recipe for increasing the achievement gap is to assign those students with the greatest needs to those teachers least equipped to address these needs. And if these highly mission-driven teachers feel like their efforts don't make a difference, they will find other ways than teaching to contribute to society. It's a vicious cycle that our educational system cannot afford to perpetuate.
According to the survey, the alternate route teachers from these three programs are especially motivated by the desire to help disadvantaged children but at the same time more disheartened by the conditions they find in their classrooms. Whether it is their belief that they are assigned the toughest classrooms or their perceptions about the level of support they get from administrators and other teachers, those who come to teaching through alternate routes are considerably more disheartened by their experiences than new traditionally-trained teachers who also serve in high-needs schools.
The differences between the two types of first-year teachers is striking: Significant differences emerged on many of the items on the survey, including reflections on the usefulness and relevance of their training and reactions to various proposals to improve teacher quality and effectiveness, among others. These differences persist even when controlling for a high-needs school environment. The study questions whether the contrast comes out of differences in the reception, training and support these alternate-route teachers receive on the job or whether they stem from different standards held by these new teachers (many of whom come out of selective colleges and universities or have served in the military) may bring to the job.
Idealism and High Expectations Going In
The new teachers from the alternate route programs studied here were especially likely to say that being able to help underprivileged children was their main reason for entering the profession. Among new teachers working in high needs schools:
Dashed on Day One
Large numbers of the alternate route teachers voice concerns about their first teaching assignments, and many see problems such as lack of support from administrators and discipline issues with students as the major drawbacks of teaching. Traditionally-trained teachers working in high-needs schools and at the secondary level report similar problems to some degree, but the issues are more pronounced among the alternate-route teachers in the survey.
For example, even among those teaching in high-needs schools, alt-route teachers are much more likely than traditionally trained teachers (64 percent versus 41 percent) to say that they have been assigned classes with some of the hardest-to-reach students in the school, while the more experienced teachers are assigned less challenging classes.
A Call for Help
More than half (54 percent) of new alt-route teachers in high-needs schools say lack of support from administrators is a major drawback to teaching, compared with just 1 in 5 (20 percent) new teachers who are traditionally trained. New alt-routes in high-needs schools are about twice as likely as the traditionally-trained group to give administrators fair or poor marks for instructional leadership (64 percent versus 32 percent), support on discipline problems (59 percent versus 29 percent) and providing resources like textbooks and well-equipped classes (49 percent versus 23 percent).
Another striking difference is the alt-routes' judgments about the kind of help and feedback they can count on from other, presumably more experienced teaching staff. Less than a quarter (22 percent) of alt-routes in high-needs schools said their cooperating teachers gave them excellent feedback on managing the classroom, compared to over half (56 percent) of traditionally-trained teachers in high-needs schools. Just over half of the alt-routes said their cooperating teacher was a positive role model, compared with 88 percent among the traditionally-trained teachers. In addition, 16 percent of the alt-routes said they did not spend any time at all with a cooperating teacher.
Less Satisfied With Their Preparation
The vast majority of new teachers feel comfortable with their subject matter, but there is a substantial difference between the alt-routes and the traditionally-trained when it comes to how they view their readiness for the classroom. Of those working in high-needs schools, 54 percent of the alt-route teachers surveyed by Public Agenda say they could have used more time working with a classroom teacher during their preparation period and an additional 16 percent said they spent no time with a teacher prior to their first year on the job.
Another Vote for Smaller Classes
The previous edition of the Lessons Learned series (They're Not Little Kids Anymore: The Special Challenges of New Teachers in High Schools and Middle Schools) reported that, for strong majorities of the new teachers regardless of their grade level, two items topped their list of recommendations for improving the profession overall. The first is reducing class sizes, and the second is giving teachers better preparation to individualize teaching in a diverse classroom. Public Agenda's surveys of teachers overall show a similar pattern even teachers with more experience rank reducing class size as their top priority for improving education.
Asked for their advice on how to improve teaching, both new alt-route teachers and new traditionally-trained teachers place smaller class size at the very top of their reform wish list, and there is substantial interest in beefing up preparation to teach in ethnically diverse schools and classrooms. For both groups, reducing certification requirements and relying more on alternative routes is near the bottom of the list.
The authors of Working Without a Net caution that, because the survey of teachers coming to the profession via alternative routes could not be fielded with a random sample, the findings should be considered within the context of their limitations. While the research was conducted as methodologically rigorously as possible and is perhaps the most in-depth survey of its kind, the report nonetheless calls the research exploratory and poses many of the findings as questions. There is currently no national database of teachers who entered the profession through alternate routes, and consequently there is no practical way to field a random-sample survey of the entire alternate route universe.
The report is based on two separate surveys using virtually identical questionnaires. The first is a national survey of 641 first-year teachers and the second a survey of 224 teachers pulled from lists of three specific alt-route programs (Teach for America, the New Teachers Project and Troops to Teachers [TTT]). Interviews were conducted between March 12 and April 23, 2007. It included 111 items covering issues related to teacher training, recruitment, professional development and retention. The study explored why new teachers come into the profession, what their expectations are and what factors contribute to their desire to either stay in teaching or leaving it. The margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points; it is higher when comparing percentages across subgroups. Selected survey results can be found at publicagenda.org.