Special Report

Earning Their Stripes

By Jeff Archer — January 13, 2000 14 min read
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The school day ended for Tom Griffin’s 26 students nearly an hour ago, but the 4th grade teacher is still in his classroom. His plaid tie loosened for the first time today, he sits at a squat table across from his mentor, Elaine Ahnell.

Ten weeks into his first teaching job, the 29-year-old rookie has a lot on his mind. In short order, the two educators cover the logistics of parent-teacher conferences and how to divide students into different reading groups based on their ability. Ahnell, a 29-year veteran at Hebron Avenue Elementary School here, shares examples of her students’ work from a lesson Griffin plans to replicate in the coming days.

These weekly sessions make a long day even longer, but Griffin says he wouldn’t want to go through his first year without them. “Elaine is my keel,” he says. “If I didn’t have this, I’d be up at 2 o’clock in the morning, scared.” But these meetings are more than just hand-holding sessions. They’re a central part of Connecticut’s comprehensive program for inducting teachers into the profession. By providing them with ample support and guidance, the state is betting that new teachers like Griffin will not only survive their first years, but also grow to become highly skilled educators.

The Beginning Educator Support and Training, or BEST, program grew out of big policy changes Connecticut enacted in the mid-1980s. Other ingredients included tougher requirements for college students applying to schools of education, higher salaries for teachers, and new statewide exams to track how K-12 schools and students were performing.

More recently, the state launched an innovative process for assessing new educators based on videotaped lessons and portfolios of their work.

The multifaceted strategy appears to be paying off. Fewer than 100 classroom teachers in the state’s public schools are working with emergency permits, and the graduates of its teacher-preparation programs typically have some of the highest grades on their college campuses.

The success explains why Connecticut education officials are in demand as speakers at national conferences, called on to spread the gospel of the BEST program. As the country tries to reconcile its hopes for raising teaching standards with an estimated need for about 2 million teachers over the next decade, many states are turning to Connecticut as a model for meeting demand without sacrificing quality.

Novice teacher Tom Griffin says he wouldn't want to go through his first year at Hebron Avenue Elementary School without his mentor.

Gerald N. Tirozzi was named Connecticut’s education commissioner on the same day in 1983 that the federal government released A Nation at Risk, whose damning assessment of U.S. education sparked a wave of school improvement efforts. The former New Haven superintendent had barely moved into his new office when he was besieged with questions about how his state would respond to the concerns raised in the report.

The ‘Balanced Equation’

Many of the policy changes the state made during the next several years presaged those other states have pursued over the past decade. Among other steps, Connecticut raised the bar for students with a new system of rigorous tests given each year in grades 4, 6, 8, and 10. But Tirozzi believed assessments by themselves could not yield the kind of improvement Connecticut needed. Recognizing that the classroom was where the education system’s rubber hits the road, he launched what he called “The Balanced Equation.” Essentially, that meant greater expectations for teachers in exchange for increased support and compensation.

So when state lawmakers passed their comprehensive Education Enhancement Act in 1986, the $300 million legislation called not just for new student tests, but also higher standards for teachers and dramatic hikes in teacher pay.

“I truly believe school reform is not rocket science,” says Tirozzi, who has served as an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Clinton and is now the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “The delivery system for education is what happens in the classroom.”

The new law helped double Connecticut teachers’ salaries between 1985 and 1995, about twice the rate of increase for the nation as a whole. At $51,727, Connecticut now boasts the highest average pay for teachers in the country, though that ranking slips to fifth when adjusted for the state’s high cost of living.

But with the carrot came the stick. All prospective teachers now had to major in an academic subject rather than in education, and maintain a grade point average of at least 3.0 in the courses they took for those majors. They also had to pass a basic-skills test to gain admittance to a teacher-preparation program, and a series of subject-area tests before they could be licensed.

Connecticut also scrapped lifetime licenses for teachers in favor of a system in which all new educators must earn the equivalent of a master’s degree before receiving the state’s highest-level license. And all teachers must now renew their licenses every five years through additional coursework and training.

“The policies they put into place in Connecticut in the 1980s amount to one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful efforts for improving teaching that has been done anywhere, and they’ve stuck with it for more than 10 years,” says Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who chairs the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future.

Despite early concerns that raising the bar so high could create shortages, Connecticut’s education law has had the opposite effect--a significant point for other states aiming to raise standards, yet fearful of looming teacher shortages. Applications to the University of Connecticut’s school of education, for example, have tripled since the legislation took effect. The school, which several years ago created a highly regarded program in which candidates earn a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years, reports that its students’ GPAs rank, on average, higher than those of 10 of the 11 other schools on campus, including engineering, business, and nursing.

“When you raise standards, you get more interest, because people are willing to work hard for something they think is valuable,” says Richard L. Schwab, the school’s dean.

As well prepared as Connecticut’s new teachers typically are, the architects of the Education Enhancement Act believed novice educators still needed support and guidance after first being assigned their own classrooms. That’s where the BEST initiative comes in.

New teachers must successfully complete the program within three years of beginning their first jobs before they can move beyond Connecticut’s initial license. BEST requires that districts give each new teacher a mentor or team of mentors for at least the first year of the program.

During the second year, participants must complete their portfolios, which in many ways resemble senior projects in college. In a series of written summaries, logs, and reflections, the teachers must describe how they carried out specific lessons, and what they would do differently in the future. Along with the portfolios, they must submit videotapes of themselves in action.

Teams of teachers hired and trained by the Connecticut Department of Education review the portfolios and videos during the summer, after which they grade each teacher on a scale of 1 to 4. Those who score a 2 or better receive a provisional license; the rest are given a third year to redo the entire portfolio and videotaping process. Teachers who do not receive at least a 2 on the second try are denied a license, and may no longer teach in the state’s public schools.

The hope behind BEST is that it can both assess whether or not someone has the right teaching skills and push teachers to improve their practice. “The idea is that if you get a person early in their development--in their first two or three years on the job--that will jump-start them into their career so they can be successful throughout,” says Raymond L. Pecheone, who heads up the bureau of curriculum and teacher standards at the state education department’s division of teaching and learning.

Growing Support

For Tom Griffin, the new teacher at Hebron Avenue Elementary, the trickiest thing about this first year has been knowing what to expect of 4th graders. He switched to teaching grade school after working as an assistant dean in the University of Hartford’s college of engineering. “I know what a 4th grader looks like, how they act, and how you should talk to them,” he says, “but what they’re able to understand is something I’ve had to adjust to.”

Griffin says having a mentor across the hall who is also a 4th grade teacher has been a major asset as he tries to find the right balance in setting expectations that are high enough for his students, but not so high that they become lost. Although his first year has already been a lot of work--more than he expected--he’s convinced he made the right choice when he changed careers.

“I may not be the best teacher in the world, but I am very comfortable in the classroom,” he says. “The teaching thing is very definitely for me.”

Many experts believe that formal support programs such as Connecticut’s can play a key role in determining whether a teacher sticks it out or not. According to an analysis of federal data carried out for Quality Counts, nearly 20 percent of those who graduated from college in 1993 and became teachers the following year quit the field after three years. Those who did not go through an induction program were roughly twice as likely to give up as those who had support.

Other states are recognizing that one of the best strategies for keeping classrooms fully stocked is to provide enough support so that new teachers don’t bail out early in their careers. Twenty-eight states have some kind of induction program on the books, and many are improving their existing initiatives, according to Quality Counts’ policy survey.

Many states with induction programs, however, have not ensured that the support is available to all beginning teachers. Of those states with provisions for such programs, just 10 both provide funding for them and require districts to participate.

Even Connecticut has suffered some criticism about the adequacy of the resources it devotes to the mentoring part of the BEST program.

The state gives each of its mentors about three days of workshops in which the educators learn what the program requires of new teachers. Topics covered include the specifics of completing the portfolios and Connecticut’s Common Core of Teaching, a set of standards spelling out the skills and knowledge expected of teachers in each subject and grade level.

But the state’s $3.4 million budget for BEST provides each district only about $200 per new teacher that can be used to pay mentors a stipend. While some districts elect on their own to give bonuses to those veterans who agree to work in the program, the state does not guarantee that will happen. Most of the program’s budget goes for state-run training for mentors, workshops that introduce beginning teachers to the BEST program and to the state’s standards for educators, and the portfolio assessment.

The lack of bigger financial incentives may help explain why new teachers across the state say the amount of support they receive varies widely. Though all are assigned a mentor, not every novice has the benefit of someone who takes the time to sit down for an hour once a week to talk about how things are going. Often, the process is a much more informal one, in which new teachers consult with their mentors only when concerns arise.

When Connecticut first launched the BEST program, the state provided districts with enough money to give $1,000-per-year stipends to every mentor, but the allocation was cut severely during the recession of the early 1990s. Last year, the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, proposed a series of amendments to the legislation, including the return of the state-supported stipends. But the legislature failed to act on the union’s recommendations.

A New Yardstick

While several other states have recently increased their support for new teachers, none has fully implemented the kind of portfolio-based assessment used in BEST. Even in Connecticut, the portfolio system is the newest--and therefore least proven--part of the induction program.

Last summer was the first time Connecticut graded portfolios and showed teachers how they did on the 4-point scale, and only for mathematics and science teachers. The state also has issued the assessments in other subjects, such as elementary education, but they were scored only on a pass-fail basis. This is now the first year of full implementation, in which--with a few exceptions--all new teachers must complete one of the projects.

Although the portfolio requirement is relatively new, BEST has always included an assessment feature. Pecheone, the state education official who has led much of the program’s design, believes that both assistance and an official evaluation should be part of any induction program for new teachers. “What gets measured is what counts,” he says.

Originally, BEST measured the performance of new teachers through a series of classroom observations by state-trained assessors. But the method ran into problems. First, the challenge of trying to coordinate the schedules of assessors--who were generally working teachers themselves--with those of the BEST participants created a logistical nightmare. Second, state officials believed the one-day observations provided too narrow a snapshot of an educator’s performance. Finally, and most importantly, the observations provided little opportunity for new teachers to learn from the experience.

In contrast, the portfolio method allows the assessors greater insight into the thinking of the new teachers; the assessors can see not just what they did, but why. What’s more, the portfolios are designed to emphasize what the education department believes are aspects of good teaching, such as continual reflection and the adjustment of instruction to meet the needs of students with different learning styles.

Grading the portfolios obviously is far more complicated and expensive than feeding a stack of multiple-choice exams into a machine, but worth it, many say.

“What I love about this is that it asks not just what a teacher knows, but also how a teacher makes it happen in the classroom,” says Joyce Klauck, who is on leave from her job as a Danbury middle school English teacher while she works as a teacher-in-residence for the education department.

Connecticut’s new form of assessment for teachers is also growing more rigorous. About 13 percent of those who submitted math portfolios last spring failed to receive a score of 2 or above, as did 18 percent of those who completed one in science. Though they still have one more year to submit portfolios, it already appears that the process will weed out more new teachers than the observation-based assessment, which in recent years failed only about 2 percent of teacher-candidates at the end of three years, Pecheone says.

State officials say it wasn’t their objective to keep more people out of the field. “We are going to fail more teachers than we ever have in the past, but our goal is to improve teachers,” says Catherine W. Fisk, who coordinates the education department’s educator-standards and -assessment unit.

About 25 percent of Connecticut’s teachers have now either gone through the BEST program themselves, been trained as mentors, or served as assessors. The cumulative impact of such involvement has been to ensure that the state’s teaching standards are well-known in Connecticut.

While Connecticut remains in the vanguard of the movement, a handful of other states have embraced some form of performance-based assessment as a part of their licensing procedures. Kentucky, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and South Carolina evaluate new teachers based on observations by teams that include experts from outside their schools, such as representatives from a teacher-preparation program.

A few states-including Ohio and Arkansas-are phasing in the use of the PRAXIS III, an assessment designed by the Educational Testing Service that similarly involves observations by trained assessors. Arizona, Indiana, and North Carolina are testing new portfolio-based assessments.

But Connecticut remains the only state to have opted for portfolios that are specific for each subject. The belief is that skills required in one discipline may be different from those in another.

Not everyone is thrilled with the way BEST has evolved. The changes proposed by the Connecticut Education Association last year included many recommendations that would have shifted the initiative back closer to its original form.

CEA leaders and some members have complained that the portfolios require too much work, and that the process by which they are assessed gives too little feedback. Supporters of the new assessment, however, believe the real concern is not whether the portfolios are a lot of work, but whether they bring about better instruction.

Meanwhile, many observers believe there is ample proof that the state’s overall strategy of focusing on teachers, and their first years on the job, is having an effect.

Connecticut is one of only a few states to have shown significant improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 1992 and 1994. In fact, NAEP results released last summer showed that no other state matched the gains Connecticut’s 4th graders had made on the reading portion of the test since 1992.

“The evidence is there,” says Tirozzi, the former state education commissioner, “that if you stay the course and concentrate on teaching, you will see improvement.”

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See Becoming a Teacher in Connecticut for more information.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2000 edition of Education Week


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