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Calif. Center Gauges Novice Teachers With Tools, Mentors

By Lynn Olson — May 10, 2007 9 min read
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It’s growing increasingly common for schools to use formative assessments, classroom measures designed to steer day-to-day instruction based on what students have learned. But a California organization has put its own twist on the trend: It has developed a similar set of tools focused on what beginning teachers themselves are learning.

The New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a national, nonprofit organization that works to provide systematic support to new teachers, and more recently principals, through the use of full-time mentors. Its formative-assessment system includes tools that range from templates for planning individual lessons, to scripts that capture teacher talk and students’ reactions during a single class period, to midyear reviews of novice teachers’ growth.

Together, the tools are meant to provide a framework for guided conversations between mentors and novices that zero in on student learning and help new teachers reflect on their own practice.

About This Series

    MAY 2

  • • Palm Readers:
    Teachers in a rural New Mexico district use hand-held computers to assess students’ reading progress and target instruction accordingly.
  • • Critical Thinking:
    Schools in Boston are gaining insight into their students’ thought processes through a locally developed reading-assessment system.

    MAY 9

  • • New Math:
    Teachers in a Texas school have shelved some of their math textbooks and turned to an online curriculum and formative-assessment resource instead.

    MAY 16

  • • Teacher Training:
    A California center is using formative assessment to help beginning teachers reflect on and improve their own work and that of their students.

“The way we’re assessing beginning-teacher growth and development is the way we want them to assess student growth and development,” said Ellen Moir, the center director. “If you think about being a brand-new teacher, there’s so much coming at you; this structure helps them see their successes and helps them focus, and not become so overwhelmed.”

On a recent morning, Erin Brown, a second-year teacher at Radcliff Elementary School here in Watsonville, contemplated a piece of kindergarten writing and then placed it in one of four piles on the desk in front of her, based on whether the student’s work was below, approaching, at, or above her expectations for how children should be writing by the end of the school year.

As she sifted through the stack of papers, she noted that her classroom, with 15 boys and three girls, the majority of them English-language learners, could get “pretty crazy.” Still, she’s working with them on learning to memorize and write high-frequency words and to begin using words that they sound out on their own. She’s also checking to see if the students write complete sentences, leave a space between each word, start each sentence with a capital letter, and end it with a period.

As she worked, mentor Marina Cook encouraged her to focus on what each student was doing well, “because it’s really easy to fall into what they are not doing.”

“How can we scaffold each one of these groups to move them toward the end-of-year goals?” she asked.

Over the course of the hour, the novice teacher and her adviser used the center’s “analysis of student work” protocol to compare Ms. Brown’s own expectations with the state and district standards for kindergarten writing, zero in on each group of pupils to figure out next steps, and delve more deeply into the work of a few individual youngsters.

Periodically, Ms. Cook offered suggestions, or asked a question that probed Ms. Brown’s understanding of how her students were performing or what she was doing in the classroom.

“I think it’s really helped me see what’s going well and what to encourage, and how to take them further,” said Ms. Brown. “I have to tell you, Marina has been a lifesaver. I honestly don’t think I could even have gotten the classroom off the ground without her.”

What’s Working

Mentors hired by the New Teacher Center are highly skilled veterans who are released from their teaching duties full time to work with a caseload of about 15 novices, each of whom they meet with about once a week.

The meetings typically start off with the mentor and the new teacher filling out a “collaborative assessment log” that reviews what’s working in the novice’s classroom, current challenges or concerns, next steps, and any support needed to move forward.

“Beginning teachers often want to start off with all the problems,” said Caroline A. Lucas, an out-reach coordinator with the center. “We really want to start with what’s working.”

As new teachers use the tools in conversation with their mentors, they’re encouraged to compare their practices to a set of professional teaching standards and assess their levels of proficiency.

The center has created a “continuum of teacher development” that describes five levels of teacher performance. As the teachers and mentors collect evidence of the teachers’ work, the continuum enables them to make judgments about their successes and challenges and to identify realistic and specific goals for improvement.

While some of the tools, such as the midyear reviews, are used at certain points during the school year, mentors can pick and choose most of the tools as appropriate. Mentors and novices keep copies of the tools in large, portable portfolios that they can refer to over the course of the school year for evidence of growth; they’re also available electronically.

‘Habit of Mind’

On the same day that Ms. Cook used the system’s “analysis of student work” with Ms. Brown, for ex-ample, mentor Cynthia Balthaser used one of the lesson-plan templates with a new 4th grade teacher to help him move away from relying on the math textbook and toward more engaging and focused lessons.

The discussion ranged from efficiently assessing students’ knowledge at the start of each lesson to determining and making visible the most important objectives for lessons. As they talked, Ms. Balthaser modified the template to highlight things the new teacher could focus on that would make it easier for him to use the template in planning lessons on a regular basis.

“Thanks to Cynthia, I know what’s next and what I have to do,” he said, admitting that he still found it hard to ask other teachers for help and incorporate their ideas into his own teaching style.

Of Radcliff Elementary’s 21 teachers, 16 are in their first three years of teaching. By using the formative-assessment tools with teachers across the school, said Principal Ulli Kummerow, “we’re used to getting together and having conversations about instruction and about students, because they are doing that all the time. It’s creating that professional habit of mind.”

California’s Pajaro Valley Unified School District, in which Radcliff is located, has also adopted the center’s formative-assessment tools, including the individual learning plans and the midyear reviews, as part of its teacher-evaluation system, so that the messages are reinforced districtwide.

Parallel Processes

But the tools would mean little without the skilled mentors who employ them. All mentors receive training in how to use the assessment tools, including a weekly forum during which they meet to pose and solve problems, practice their mentoring skills, and use formative-assessment tools to track the progress of their novice teachers in much the same way that novice teachers track the progress of their students.

At one recent meeting, coaches selected one element of the California standards for professional teaching and divided their caseload into four groups based on how close they were to meeting the standard, using an “analysis of participating teacher development” tool.

Then they selected a teacher as a case study, whose practice they analyzed more deeply based on the data they’d collected through the formative-assessment tools. After describing what the educator was able to do well, they focused on how they might support the teacher to meet the selected standard and what evidence would constitute successful growth.

Mentor Valerie Leal had been working with her case-study teacher on student engagement. Now she wanted the new teacher to understand how to use those same engagement strategies to check for student understanding during the course of a lesson. While she had modeled some lessons for the novice teacher, she worried that it had been too much information for the novice to absorb.

Mentor Maria Reynolds suggested that Ms. Leal ask the case-study teacher to focus on one student during the course of the lesson and check on his understanding, rather than trying to observe the class as a whole. The mentors also decided that Ms. Leal might videotape the model lesson so that she and the new teacher could review it together and pause and discuss what the mentor was doing and thinking at any given moment.

“It takes an enormous mentor knowledge base to do excellent formative assessment,” said Betty Achinstein, who directs the center’s research program, “knowledge of student assessment, knowledge of state content standards, and knowledge of professional standards. So investing in the mentor development is a key piece.”

‘Huge Learning Curve’

Surveys and focus groups of mentors that the center has conducted have found “a huge learning curve for mentors,” said research specialist Anthony Villar.

“Being a good teacher does not ensure you’ll be a good mentor,” he said. “Mentors say that at first they look at the tools as paperwork, as something akin to a burden.”

Later, he said, “they realize that they actually help to frame questions and organize the work in a way where you can see growth and development. But it takes a little bit of time to get there, it’s not automatic.”

Mr. Villar and others also caution that the tools cannot stand on their own. Rather, they provide an entry point for conversations between the mentor and the novice that are grounded in a strong, trusting relationship.

“We’re not here for evaluation,” Ms. Cook said after her meeting with Ms. Brown, the kindergarten teacher. “So it’s a safe harbor, and a safe place to admit what you need.”

“When we have the relationship, we can really start to challenge the teacher and keep pushing her on student achievement,” agreed Ms. Balthaser. “But if you don’t have that, you’ll get nothing but resistance.”

That’s created some tension for the New Teacher Center. With the 1998 passage of state Senate Bill 2042, regulating California’s teacher-credentialing system and setting standards for teacher-induction programs, the center is now using evidence from the formative-assessment tools to help new teachers complete their credential requirements. So far, Ms. Moir said, the center has managed to walk a fine line between evaluation and support by keeping its supportive role at the forefront.

“At the end of the day, what we’re hoping—and what we’re seeing—is that if we use formative assessment with new teachers, they’ll then use it with their kids,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is that as beginning teachers exit their induction programs, they not only value the support they received from mentor colleagues, but also value and know how to use effective assessment practices in their classrooms.”

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week

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