Reflections on our ‘Fast Start’ Work with TNTP

| Doug Lemov's Field Notes | Erica Woolway

TNTP has a new study out this week, a retrospective analysis of their Fast Start training program which set out to change the odds–and the thinking–on first year teachers. In the words of Tim Daly, hiring 1st-year teachers had become “like ‘Survivor,’ where only a few thrive….” and in fact where the failure rate of new inner city teachers over their first three years in the job was 50%. Yup, 50%.  Anyway, we’re proud to have been partners with TNTP–especially Ana Menezes and Jessica Varevice. Here, Erica Woolway, my partner in crime, offers a reflection on the work. –Doug

Erica writes:

When we were first approached by Tim Daly and his team to work with TNTP to help re-design their Fast Start summer training for new teachers, we didn’t hesitate.  Or maybe we hesitated a little because our plates were brimming over, but after approximately three minutes of talking with Tim and his team on the phone in the spring of 2012, we immediately knew that we wanted to join forces with TNTP.  We usually figure that we can out-geek anyone, but in TNTP we had met our match.

In their new report that can be read here (exhibit A: TNTP has the capacity, insight, and intellect to write white papers), TNTP outlines the ingredients for the success of their approach to training new teachers.  The entire report answers the essential question: “If a teacher’s initial success in the classroom is so important, how can teacher preparation programs help more teachers get off to a fast start?”

They note that most teacher prep programs don’t actually teach teachers how to teach, focusing instead on theory and pedagogy.  When brand new teachers arrive at thousands of districts across the country for the first days of school, those districts become responsible for training and developing them, without the resources to do so.

TNTP is also humble and reflective (exhibit B for why we love working with them).  They realized that as in their ten year history in teacher prep, they had been repeating the same mistakes that have been made in education schools for years.  They analyzed the data over and over again from their early years and found that their teachers weren’t any more or less effective than teachers from any other program.  And this is when we got the call from Tim as he asked for our help in re-designing their Fast Start approach.  We had read their amazing reports like the widget effect and pinched ourselves.

We were thrilled to be asked, because frankly we didn’t yet have substantive data that supported the techniques that we used in training teachers.  We used data to inform our techniques – we observe and videotape and obsess over the tiny things that champion teachers in high performing classrooms (classrooms with strong data) and we then use those techniques to train other teachers and leaders.  But we didn’t yet have data (and certainly there was no white paper on the horizon) that illustrated which techniques and in which order had the highest impact on teacher performance, and therefore on student performance.

TNTP’s recipe for Fast Start is rather simple.  In their 5 week pre-service they:

  1. Focus on the most essential skills
  2. Practice those skills
  3. Give bite-sized feedback

In developing Fast Start TNTP decided to focus on only four essential skills that teachers need to be immediately effective.  Right around the same time we came to believe very intensely in a similar tenet – do fewer things better – as we started to build one day workshops on single techniques.  Previously focusing on 10 topics during their in service, they looked at the evaluation data for thousands of first year teachers (across districts and both within and beyond TNTP) and noted that successful first year teachers mostly shared the same basic skills, often related to classroom culture.  And that is where Teach Like a Champion came in.

Early on in their work (Summer 2012), TNTP was able to answer a question that our team had grappled with for a long time.  Of the 49 techniques in TLAC, which are the most important?  The answer is different every time you ask the question, because what is important in September may not be as important in April.  And techniques that a new teacher or a new school may need to focus on may be different for another teacher or school.  But for TNTP’s context, training brand new teachers and wanting to nail classroom culture from the starting gate, they identified that four techniques were most strongly correlated to teacher effectiveness.  Drum roll please…

  1. 100%
  2. Positive Framing
  3. Strong Voice
  4. What to Do

We were excited to see that this is where they landed, as our predictions were pretty aligned.  (Though there is one dark horse technique too that is not mentioned in the report – Control the Game.  More on that in blog posts to come.)

To hear Tim Daly analyze the results is both a privilege and a process in humiliation, as you quickly start to realize the limitations of your grad school stats classes – he is an absolute data whiz.  But what is important is what they did with those results – they re-wrote their curriculum AGAIN in the summer of 2013 to focus relentlessly on these anchor techniques (more than two thirds of fellows’ time is spent during pre-service on learning about and practicing them).

Narrowing this focus has allowed teachers a better chance of truly getting proficient in these key skills in the five week time frame.  Instead of barely mastering a wide variety of skills or having to master of a wide variety of pedagogical content, TNTP fellows enter the classroom on the first day of school armed with the essential skills they need to create a strong classroom culture.

We agree wholeheartedly with their disclaimer in the report that this is not to say that these are the only skills that matter.  Kids will not be college and career ready with a healthy dose of Strong Voice and Positive Framing alone.  But we do agree that mastery of the fundamentals is crucial to create a strong classroom culture in which instruction can then thrive.  As they say in the report, “Basketball players who cannot dribble and pass will not be very good at executing complex offensive plays.”  The foundation is critical for new teachers in order to be able to establish a strong classroom culture where learning is front and center.  TNTP covers these more advanced academic skills during the school year.  [In fact, Doug writing here, helping teachers focus on winning culture first helped us to develop a road map to rigor that they could use to guide themselves in the meant time. This “Rigor Checklist” became, to me, one of the most useful things we produced all year.]

Just as important as the essential skills that they focus on is how they taught those skills – through simple run of the mill practice – 26 hours of it over the course of 5 weeks to be exact.   Through practicing and mastering the fundamentals, they effectively freed up their teachers’ minds to be able to focus on more important and advanced cognitive decisions, like what questions, how to instill habits of discussion, or how to ask or how to break down a concept when students are stumped in a way that maintains rigor.

Finally, the third ingredient of their model has also been vital to their success.  Their approach to coaching incorporates real-time modeling and feedback, gives direct and actionable feedback, and the opportunity to practice implementing the feedback immediately.  This is the same type of coaching that teachers at Uncommon receive from their principals and TNTP has been able to carry this approach to its sprawling district setting.   Over the summer, fellows get about 32 hours of direct coaching, a support that continues throughout the year.  They don’t emphasize this in the report, but their fellows also get feedback on their lesson plans BEFORE they actually teach them.

Did we mention how humble TNTP is: “Our goal is not to declare victory but to share our experience with others who may want to follow a similar path.”  The conclusion of their report says that this is just the beginning.  Only an organization like TNTP could take such positive early results and declare it just a small (though fast) start.  So, Tim Daly and friends, if you are still reading, pick up the phone and give us a call again.  We’re excited to see how we can continue our work together to continue to learn from you.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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