BTSA: The Bane of a Beginning Teacher

With the end of the school year approaching, my first year of BTSA, otherwise known as the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment induction program is officially over.  As noted on the BTSA website, “… ‘Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment’, is a state-funded induction program, co-sponsored by the California Department of Education (CDE) and the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC) designed to support the professional development of newly credentialed, beginning teachers and fulfill the requirements for the California Clear Multiple and Single Subjects Credentials.”

Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA)

BTSA, as with most public school programs, sprang from well-meaning intentions as detailed in Success for Beginning Teachers: The California New Teacher Project, 1988-1992 (Pearson, Honig 1992) and Shaping Teacher Induction Policy in California (Bartell, 1995).  The following two paragraphs, taken from the latter article, underscore the challenge faced by teachers, increasingly so today with the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the changing demographics of our student populations.  It is important to note that while these words were written in 1995, they still ring true today for this teacher, even as a BTSA participant.

“Beginning teachers enter classrooms today with high expectations for themselves and for their students. Yet, a recent national survey demonstrates that the first year of teaching is a sobering experience for most new teachers, and that over the course of one year, teachers experience a decreased strength of belief in their own efficacy and in the learning potential of their students (Harris & Associates, Inc., 1991). Nearly every study of retention in the teaching profession identifies the early years as the riskiest on the job, the years in which teachers are most likely to leave the profession (Charters, 1970; Grissmer & Kirby, 1987; Mark & Anderson, 1985; Murnane et al., 1988, 1989; Willet & Singer, 1991).

Even among those who remain, the early years are more difficult that [sic] they ought to be and fail to provide for careful, thoughtful development of teaching expertise (Bullough, 1990; Darling-Hammond, 1988; Huling-Astin, 1987). Teaching, unlike many other professions, is one in which novices are expected to perform the same duties and responsibilities as the more advanced professional. They are often given the most challenging assignments and work under conditions that do little to foster their success. They work in isolation from their colleagues, receive little guidance and mentoring, and virtually no useful feedback about their developing skills and abilities.”

Legislated and created in the 1990’s, BTSA was codified into the California Education Code, Section 44279.1 (b) with the purpose to “improve the educational performance of students through improved training, information, and assistance for participating teachers.”

Unfortunately, as with most anything, the devil is in the details, which is the likely cause for the expression “the path to hell is paved with good intentions.”  And BTSA sure has a significant amount of details!  More importantly, from my perspective, BTSA is not chock full of support, training, or assistance as the statute claims.  However, it is filled with information, much of which is not very helpful since it is mostly related to BTSA itself.  Additionally, many of the tasks and elements in BTSA, as embodied by the Formative Assessment for California Teachers (FACT), feels contrived and overly constrained.  There is significant potential in FACT; however, as it exists today, it is more chaff than wheat.

Formative Assessment for California Teachers (FACT)

As noted in the FACT Formative Assessment for California Teachers User’s Guide, the FACT System:

…focuses on the development of a teacher’s practice, combining reflective assessment and support, to help them improve their skills. Through a structured series of critical thinking tasks completed with the assistance of a trained support provider, participating teachers deepen their understanding and application of: Induction Program Standards (IPS); the California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTP); the state-adopted academic content standards for students; and, the curriculum frameworks. The primary focus of the FACT System is the application of these standards through the ongoing process of planning and teaching lessons, reflecting on the results, and making informed changes to future practice, based on evidence.”

I appreciate FACT’s Plan-Teach-Reflect-Apply (PTRA) cycle, as embodied in the following graphic from the User’s Guide.  It is similar to the Plan-Instruct-Assess-Reflect (PIAR) process I learned in my credential program, and used in obtaining my preliminary credential via the Performance Assessment for California Teachers (PACT).  I find the PIAR model more reflective of reality, however, PTRA nonetheless has the key elements.

My concerns about FACT are captured in the following figure from the FACT User’s Guide, which illustrates the myriad standards FACT encompasses.  As a former systems engineer and business process management consultant, I am very impressed with how the architects of FACT integrated so many interconnected practices and skills into the induction program unifying them into one system.  It must not have been an easy task. [1]

At the same time, that same experience makes me question the viability of any one person ever successfully accomplishing these while simultaneously teaching 150+ students on a daily basis spanning up to three different courses.  This begs the question why beginning teachers are expected to fulfill these responsibilities in parallel with performing all the classroom duties held by fully credentialed teachers, who themselves likely did not have such a rigorous dual burden to handle.

As one sees in the description and figure above, FACT integrates a wealth of important standards and frameworks, which underscores the complexity of teaching today.  A quick read through the California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTP) provides a more than adequate overview of the complexity in teaching.  If only more people understood the enormity of a teacher’s responsibilities, especially parents of public school students, like myself.  Boy, do I now know what teaching entails!

FACT Conceptual Framework

The FACT Conceptual Framework below, from the FACT User’s Guide, explodes into ninety-pages of explanatory text, figures, and tables requiring a participating teacher ultimately to create a binder with a couple hundred pages of completed forms, evidence (lesson plans, worksheets, student work, etc.), reflections, self-assessments, and other items ad nauseum.  All of this while oftentimes creating their own curriculum, lesson plans, activities, assessments, and etcetera for one, two, or more different courses; in my case, I have three different courses to teach, one of which is an AP course.  Needless to say, I did not feel very supported with this albatross around my neck throughout the year.

 

FACT’s complexity creates an overwhelming number of requirements for beginning teachers, which in the name of support, burdens them with even more responsibilities such as digging around for decentralized school and district information that should be consolidated into a handbook and provided to them in the first place, such as school site contact information, various staff responsibilities, and etcetera.  While not all of BTSA / FACT is worthless, as the weekly meetings with my mentor, aka BTSA Support Provider, were quite helpful, when they were not filled with BTSA paperwork.  Much of FACT should be revised, and simplified, especially in light of the increasing burden placed on teachers to teach a highly diverse class of students including English language learners (ELL), resource support specialist (RSP), gifted and talented (GATE), migrant farm worker (MIG), and other classifications, some of whom are taking the same class for the third time.  While highly matrixed programs like BTSA / FACT enable organizations to claim they successfully address wide ranges of requirements, the reality is they simply increase the likelihood that those needing extra support continue to struggle as one person in the form of a teacher is not a computer capable of multi-threaded, multi-tasked processes as envisioned by today’s mandates and legislation.

My Recommendations to Improve BTSA / FACT

My suggestion to improve BTSA, via FACT, is to have a preliminary credentialed teacher teach four class sections, of only one course, leaving the fifth section dedicated to daily work on BTSA / FACT, with the BTSA Support Provider and Participating Teacher collaborating on three of the five days.  My situation, where I teach three different courses in five sections totaling 150+ students is nearly untenable.  Were I not supremely dedicated to teaching, I might have walked away from the innumerable situations where the reality of public school conflicts with the reasonable person’s concept of what teaching entails.  In other words, teaching is ridiculously difficult to even the most seasoned teacher and nigh impossible for a beginning one, even one with a quarter century of high-tech experience.  The following quote, again excerpted from the BTSA User’s Guide, captures the profound discoveries and emotional extremes I experienced in my first year teaching.

“Teaching involves a search for meaning in the world.  Teaching is a life project, a calling, a vocation that is an organizing center of all other activities.  Teaching is past and future, as well as present; it is background as well as foreground; it is depth as well as surface.  Teaching is pain and humor, joy and anger, dreariness and epiphany.  Teaching is world building; it is architecture and design; it is purpose and moral enterprise.  Teaching is a way of being in the world that breaks through the boundaries of the traditional job and in the process redefines all life and teaching itself.”

–William Ayers

Since the author’s understand the challenge in teaching, I hope they recognize the nearly insurmountable task it presents to beginning teachers to teach a full load of classes and complete BTSA / FACT with any meaning other than begrudgingly completing the litany of tasks simply because it is required to get a clear credential, and not an opportunity to fulfill the envisioned purpose for BTSA:

  • Provide an effective transition into the teaching career for first- and second-year teachers in California
  • Improve the educational performance of students through improved training, information, and assistance for participating teachers
  • Enable beginning teachers to be effective in teaching students who are culturally, linguistically, and academically diverse
  • Ensure the professional success and retention of new teachers
  • Ensure that a support provider provides intensive individualized support and assistance to each participating beginning teacher
  • Ensure that an individual induction plan is in place for each participating beginning teacher and is based on an ongoing assessment of the development of the beginning teacher

End of First Year BTSA Survey

Officially marking the end of the first year of BTSA required completing one final assignment: a small, six-question survey.  Since there were no questions which permitted a participating teacher, such as myself, to provide our final comments about BTSA / FACT, I expanded my response to the last question so that I could convey what I felt was important feedback.

The gist of the last question dealt with how my interactions with my BTSA Support Provider helped me grow as a professional educator.  My response follows.

“The opportunity to meet regularly with my Support Provider and to discuss challenges and successes was the most valuable aspect of BTSA.  Everything else paled in comparison.  In many ways, the other BTSA elements interfered with my ability to have meaningful discussions since the contrived nature of the majority of the BTSA program directed conversations away from what was most relevant and pertinent in the moment.  Absent the regularly scheduled meetings with my Support Provider, the passion and purpose for my teaching might not have had the chance to be recharged, or the challenges and difficulties of a first year teacher be remedied.

The compassionate, adult interaction between a Support Provider and a Participating Teacher is critical to keeping teachers committed to the profession.  I would go so far to suggest that many of the other elements in BTSA be de-emphasized, as they seem only to serve a check-box process of accountability with minimal true value delivered, especially for first year teachers coming to BTSA from credential programs using the PACT system, which FACT seems to duplicate in not very meaningful ways.”

After submitting my response, I decided I wanted to blog about it; hence this post.  I learned more about BTSA’s origin and purpose in researching the post than in the program itself.  Surprisingly, I came across the following excerpt, emphasis added, from the Study of the Impact of the California Formative Assessment and Support System for Teachers, Report 1, Beginning Teachers’ Engagement with BTSA/CFASST (Thompson, 2004).  [NOTE:  FACT initially was called CFASST.]

“Interview data confirmed these findings and also revealed that having a support provider was often identified as one of the best, if not the best part of being in BTSA. Interview data also indicated a strong relationship between CFASST engagement and having an on-site support provider, although the reasons for that relationship were not clear.  The interview data also gave voice to teacher complaints about the program, the primary one being the large amount of paperwork required.  A related complaint concerned the repetitive and time-consuming nature of the program.

When such a statement from 2004 still seems to be true, as I believe it is, my hope for improvements to BTSA deflates rapidly.  Unfortunately, it appears that one must hunker down and complete the program regardless of its limitations, as it is now institutionalized in a near permanent state.  I will continue to hold out hope, however, I will not hold my breath in the meanwhile.

[1]  Shortly after writing my praise for the ingenuity of FACT’s architects above, I noticed a note in the FACT User’s Guide that the PLAN-TEACH-REFLECT-APPLY cycle central to all of FACT’s processes was adapted from works by William Edwards Deming, a noted pioneer and expert in quality control processes.  See W.E. Deming, Out of the Crisis , Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering, (1986).e
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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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10 Responses to BTSA: The Bane of a Beginning Teacher

  1. Nathan Brown says:

    Hi Dave:
    As an old quality engineer from way back in the 80’s, I immediately recognized Demming’s Plan-Do-Act-Check cycle. Demming was an interesting and brilliant guy, but his work was explicitly about industrial processes. Some of his ideas are useful in other contexts like education, but as others have noted, children are not widgets and the industrial approach to educating them is working less and less well as time goes by.

    Some of Demming’s ideas are being applied to education, with varying degrees of success. I personally think the Plan-Do-Act-Check cycle transfers pretty well. Another of his ideas that has been very influential has been “You can’t improve what you can’t measure”. He also insisted that you can’t improve any process until it is absolutely consistent. These were part of a very scientific approach to manufacturing that was revolutionary at the time (he developed these methods during WWII). You will no doubt recognize the influence that these two ideas have had on NCLB. Viewing NCLB from Demming’s perspective, however, there is a glaring problem. Demming’s manufacturing approach assumes and relies upon absolute consistency in the raw materials. If the raw materials are of varying quality, Demming’s whole approach falls apart, and he knew it. The authors of NCLB didn’t understand Demming, and misapplied it.

    I’ll leave you with a final Demming quote, and my personal favorite. It was perhaps his single most influential idea with respect to manufacturing, yet is usually ignored by people trying to apply his ideas to education. We ignore it at our peril:

    “You can’t inspect quality into a product, it is already there.”
    – W. Edwards Demming

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    • Sadly, I find many concepts that work well in their prescribed domains are routinely misapplied to education. Free markets, competition, auctions, TQC, etc., while they serve great purposes in businesses and manufacturing, they do not fit into a public service environment with a serve all ethos. Pieces of these concepts might be applied in limited forms, in certain areas, but not wholesale as so many education reformers claim.

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  2. Cal says:

    BTSA is horrible, but I would never want your proposed fix. First, recall that BTSA already costs the state money. So the state would continue to pay more money, and get fewer sections from all new teachers? As a taxpayer, I protest. That adds a great deal to the cost, and for what? A program that’s worthless to start with.

    Second, one prep is not something that all teachers want. I’ve only had one prep my second year, and it was not fun at all. I had three preps my first year teaching–three and a half, actually–and two preps this year. Both were more fun than my middle year, which was one prep. Horrible.

    The obvious solution is to dump BTSA and just use mentor teachers. No collaboration, no prep forced on new teachers.

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    • I agree that BTSA, as currently structured, is horrible. I do think it could be fixed quite easily, if those beholden to BTSA, as written, got out of the way. Since I called the BTSA baby ugly, I felt that was appropriate enough, offering a path to improve its looks and effectiveness as an olive branch. Throwing the baby out with its bath water is not necessarily the best overall solution either. I do think structure is needed, especially for twenty-somethings entering teaching directly from college, as opposed to us more seasoned citizens. However, BTSA, in its current form, takes structure well past reasonableness, which decreases it overall effectiveness considerably. Beginning teachers are nearly run ragged by the compounding factors of 1) antiquated processes and structures of teaching and 2) increasing diversity in classroom populations encompassing language, literacy, cognition, memory, learning, and behavior. Piling today’s BTSA requirements on top of teachers in this environment nullifies any benefits that might have accrued to them from the program itself, rendering it at best a zero sum game, and more realistically accelerating the rate at which new teachers head for the exits. I am curious if there is any data to support this assertion / hypothesis?

      In terms of how to fix BTSA, I am flexible, and open. If it stays the same as it exists today, I do think setting aside a period a day to deal with its bureaucratic nature is necessary. As a taxpayer, I prefer my money be spent wisely, as I value return on the investment over the level of investment, per se. Hence, I want teachers to have adequate time to get something out of BTSA other than just a sigh of relief that it is over. Of course, if we could accomplish both, the same investment for a higher return, all the better.

      Participating teachers do not have to be limited to one prep, however, I think three is unreasonable. I mentioned the one prep since many might prefer it, however, if someone like yourself wants more, that should be allowed.

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  3. David Simons says:

    Dave, you go too easy on BTSA. BTSA , in my opinion, is not just a waste of time and taxpayer money, but very possibly HARMFUL to new teachers. I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and was recently a BTSA Support Provider. New teachers need and respond to mentors, which is the only positive aspect of BTSA. The rest of it is needless drudgery, pure and simple, and may make some potentially fine teachers give up. This is absurd, given the “support” part of the acronym. My fix would involve giving fair stipends to a standing committee composed of perhaps 7 or 8 of the best (and most “supportive”, personality wise) teacher volunteers on each campus, keep them trained and current in the latest teaching techniques and legislative requirements, and let them decide how they want to work with the new teachers. (One on one, whole group, by subject matter, etc.) Beginning teachers need practical suggestions and teaching techniques that they can actually use in their programs. They also need a forum in which to decompress. Teaching is incredibly stressful and difficult for the first few years, and BTSA makes it significantly more stressful and difficult.

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  4. I am a support provider in BTSA currently. I agree with many of your concerns. When I was a beginning teacher in BTSA (near when it first started) it emphasized the support part much more heavily and not the useless paperwork. I am finishing the term I am doing with my beginning teacher until he is done because I don’t want to abandon him, but after that I will vote with my feet and refuse to be a part of BTSA until they again make it about supporting beginning teachers instead of useless paperwork.

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  5. Shana Pursche says:

    BTSA is a credentialing agency, and as such, must have required documentation. However, in our district, the Support Provider is the person who completes the paperwork and uses the documents as a guide to follow as they have meaningful conversations with their teachers. Forcing a bunch of paperwork on new teachers is the same as asking them to take university coursework and was NEVER the intention of BTSA. However, done right, BTSA has been proven to retain teachers because of the level of success and support they feel.

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  6. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:

    After discussing BTSA with a fellow, 2nd career, new teacher at a recent swim meet, I decided to reblog this post from two years ago…

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