Resisting the Sirens of Teacher Induction

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By Kate Walsh, NCTQ President

Let's begin on common ground. I love teacher induction. What's not to love? Instead of throwing new teachers into a lion's den, they are bestowed with frequent doses of wisdom and experience from the school's veteran teachers and blessed with schedules that provide ample time for reflection, observation, sharing and dialogue. Nobody quits.

I'll admit that this description may contain a tinge of sarcasm--but it isn't because I don't find induction seductive. My skepticism lies in the tendency of induction proponents to misrepresent or gloss over the true costs of "high-quality" induction that they are prescribing. Most importantly, no matter how much money we invest into these Cadillac programs, it won't solve the delivery problem. Induction, highly dependent on the quality of personnel in the school building, is least likely to work where it's needed the most.

The truth is that the price tag for implementing the kind of induction programs that are being touted are not inconsequential. Actual numbers are anyone's guess because costs are only discussed in the context of "you can't afford not to act." There is no shortage of pen and ink demanding high quality induction programs, but the costs are treated as somehow too crass to consider. The hue and cry to fund universal teacher induction as the reform de jour gets louder, politicians are lured in by the rhetoric, and once again we delude ourselves that lots of money will cure the endlessly complex dysfunction that characterizes all too many of our schools.

The Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) is the latest group to come out with a report calling for more and better teacher induction in a report released this week entitled Tapping the Potential: Retaining and Developing High-Quality New Teachers. The report uses a figure from NCTAF that estimates that teacher attrition costs $12,500 per exiting teacher, building a case for states and school districts that argues they can no longer afford to ignore this problem.

But arguments based on fiscal responsibility are a bit disingenuous, however well-intentioned. AEE's five-point induction program would probably cost about as much as attrition is costing school districts-and that's assuming induction is a hundred percent effective and nobody quits. In a former job, I helped to build a high-quality mentoring program, one of only five elements of AEE's design and it cost about $8,000 per new teacher per year. Yet AEE contends that its induction program can be done for $4,000 per teacher and still build in additional features such as common planning time, ongoing professional development, an external network for teachers, and top it all off with a meaningful evaluation. Even AEE's report doesn't provide any evidence that its design won't be too costly to swallow; not one of the real-life case studies described in the report is able to offer the fully comprehensive induction program that AEE would have districts adopt.

OK, so even if we concede that the kind of program that AEE and others have called for would cost a bundle, isn't it worth it in terms of the damage that prematurely departing teachers have on student achievement? That brings me to my second problem.

Any chance that induction has of working is premised on new teachers being placed in a reasonably well-functioning school that is led by a good principal and offers a healthy number of available skilled veteran teachers who can provide a big chunk of their time to the cause. Here's the rub: if any of these things were actually true, there'd be no need for these Cadillac induction programs. It's a Catch 22. Good schools don't really need these costly programs (which is not to say nothing is needed; a Chevy will do); weak schools aren't likely to be capable of delivering them with much success. So we not only continue to bleed teachers, we waste a lot of money too.

What is not adequately considered are the chief reasons that many new teachers decide to quit, especially the ones with other options. Most often it's not the kids, but the dysfunctional culture of school systems and the non-sensical, daily decisions made by the other adults in their buildings. And if the plan is to get around this problem by handing the responsibility of implementing induction over to the districts-a move which violates one of the precepts of good induction-that is an even more absurd suggestion. If decision-making at the school level doesn't make sense, you can count on the decisions made at the district level to be even more removed from what is best for kids.

All of this skepticism is not to suggest that supporting new teachers is a waste of time and resources. AEE is right in saying that some strategies work much better than others. But before we launch into calls for universal funding from the feds, as the AEE report does, we need to understand that all the funding in the world will not transform schools that have been proven incapable of holding on to teachers. We also need to acknowledge that we don't know what the three, five, or ten criteria of a successful induction program are or what features would be considered an add-on versus a must-have. Not even considered by the AAE report, for instance, is the European model of reducing course loads for new teachers, a stress reduction strategy that is much less dependent on the quality of personnel in the school building than the AAE model and perhaps no more expensive. So, let's not leap to costly federal funding solutions based on thin data and analysis and that will inevitably end up being directed to the schools that need it the least.