Getting Better at Teaching

Guest post by Neal Teague, Director of the Teacher Launch Project

If you asked the 25 year old me at the end of a long day at Charlestown High School during my rookie year how I planned to get better at teaching (and boy did I need to get better), I would have said something like “Well, first I need to figure out which activities are the best.  I am going to try to plan different activities and see which ones keep my students’ attention the most.  Teaching is something you have to learn by doing it, and then you reflect on what worked and what didn’t.  I will make a lot of mistakes and have plenty of bad days but in 3-5 years I think I will get the hang of it.”

That would have echoed a very commonly held belief about teaching: that the job is more art than science, and the only way to learn how to do it is through years of trial and error.  Of course, if you spend a moment thinking about that terrible metaphor, you might remember an art teacher you had at some point showing you how to draw, or paint, or sculpt that clay ashtray you gave to your non-smoking mother for Mothers’ Day.  Of course mom loved what you made, but it wasn’t exactly ready for the Pottery Barn showroom. 

Unfortunately, the stakes are a lot higher for teachers. Too often, novice teachers have little to no impact on student growth during their first year in the classroom. Below is a chart that illustrates the differences in students’ math outcomes that are generated Boston Public School teachers over the course of the first 8 years of their career. 

The good news here is that teachers tend to show rapid growth between their second and fourth years, which seems to reinforce the “learning on the job” narrative. 

But what if we could change that trajectory?  What if we could show that there is a way to get teachers ready to impact student outcomes from day one?  And most importantly, what if we could show that this method of teacher preparation does not only work in high performing charters but in the much broader world of traditional district schools?  Imagine the impact that this new trajectory for rookie teachers would have on closing the achievement gap.

These questions are driving the Teacher Launch Project at the Sposato Graduate School of Education.  Sposato has long been in the business of preparing rookie teachers to teach in the country’s highest performing urban charter schools and has consistently achieved strong outcomes. In aggregate, Sposato-trained teachers significantly outperform their non-Sposato rookie peers, as measured by outside experts and principal evaluations.  

But it’s hard to know why these teachers are getting these results. Is it just that the program is recruiting and selecting the right people (Sposato’s admissions rate is historically <10%, with most participants coming from top-tier colleges and universities)? Or perhaps these teachers and the methods they learn through Sposato can only be successful in charter schools (which only educate 4.2% of the total student population in the U.S.)? 

To affect the broader world of teacher preparation, we need to understand the degree to which the Sposato methodology, separate from the program’s selection and placement practices, is generating unusually effective rookie teachers. Methods can scale a lot faster and wider than teacher prep programs with 10% admissions rates. 

At the heart of this methodology is two big ideas about how novices learn to teach: (1) Rookie teachers need detailed, nuanced, and prescriptive instruction on highly specific teacher skills and moves to guide their decision making with planning, classroom management, and instructional execution. (2) These skills can only be learned through intensive, deliberate practice and immediate feedback from expert coaches—feedback that sounds a lot more like what your basketball coach said when your shooting elbow was in the wrong place rather than the suggestive, “Hmmm, you might try doing X or Y or Z” coaching that happens in a lot of schools. 

So beginning this summer, the Teacher Launch Project will embark on a three year randomized controlled trial of the Sposato methodology in partnership with Dr. Tom Kane and Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research. Our pilot cohort of 30 teachers—folks who are recent graduates of mainstream education school programs and who are on track to teach in traditional public school districts—will attend an intensive four week summer institute and then will receive 20 weeks of coaching during their rookie year.  The summer institute will carefully replicate the types of teaching simulations and real-time feedback used in Sposato. And the weekly coaching in the fall and winter of their rookie year will look a lot like this session with UP’s very own Kelsey LeBuffe and Jesus Moore at UP Oliver:

The results of the 30 teachers in this “treatment” group will be rigorously evaluated by Dr. Kane and compared to a control group of teachers, who volunteered for the training and coaching but were not selected through the randomized lottery. In the two years that follow, another 200 teachers will be recruited for the Teacher Launch Project—100 to receive the training and coaching, and 100 for the control group. The three years of data will help us learn if the Sposato approach does indeed change the trajectory of rookie teachers who are more representative of the broader workforce in Massachusetts’ public schools. 

We are confident that our model will demonstrate a clearer pathway to ensuring every teacher is effective in their rookie year.  This evidence can then inform decisions that school districts and schools of education make about how they prepare new teachers.  We are pushing for a future where new teachers across the country answer the question about how to get better with a simple two word response: “practice and feedback”.  We like that a lot better than “trial and error.”