Driving diversity with data

Min Sun uses data to help Seattle Public Schools strengthen support for first-year teachers — especially teachers of color.

 

At the start of every school day, the 30 fourth-graders in Halle Mahlik’s class at Olympic View Elementary line up outside her classroom door. 

As each kid enters, Mahlik, a first-year teacher of color, greets them with a handshake, high-five, fist bump or a hug — a personal greeting each child chose at the beginning of the year.

“It’s just a nice way to start the day,” Mahlik said. “I’ve heard so many horror stories about how your first year of teaching is going to be impossible — but my experience at my own school has been really supportive.”

Video spotlight

First-year teacher Halle Mahlik and her mentor Lana Sumner, along with Professor Min Sun, discuss the importance of supporting teachers of color who are entering the profession.

Mahlik said one reason her first-year experience has been so positive is that the culture in her building places high value on supporting new teachers, including pairing her with a more experienced teaching partner. 

Another big reason for her success, Mahlik said, is the supportive, ongoing relationship she has with her Seattle Public Schools consulting teacher, Lana Sumner.

That mentor relationship is part of every first-year teacher’s experience in Seattle through the school district’s Peer Assistance Review (PAR) program, which recently completed its first year of full implementation. PAR builds on the district’s long-standing mentoring efforts.

All first-year teachers are assigned mentors through PAR, and district administrators are hopeful the program will be especially helpful in boosting the retention of new teachers of color. 

And while anecdotal stories like Mahlik’s are always good to hear, the district needs quantitative, research-based evidence to ensure the program is effective at keeping first-year teachers on the job — especially teachers of color.

To find and interpret that evidence, the district maintains an active partnership with University of Washington College of Education Associate Professor Min Sun, who spent three years working with the district to plan and test the program before its full implementation. This collaboration was recently awarded a research-practice partnership grant from the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education to support its continued work. 

Sun is an internationally-recognized expert in quantitative research and education policy who focuses on ways to improve teacher and school effectiveness — with a particular emphasis on diversifying the teacher workforce.

PAR — and much more

“I was brought in to help [Seattle] monitor the PAR initiative, how it is implemented in schools — and what are the impacts on teachers’ professional growth and student performance,” Sun said. 

“As the program’s matured, we’ve developed a full-on partnership. We’re now helping to not only monitor and evaluate PAR, but also to analyze their administrative data connected to student information, and to help inform multi-level decision-making with regard to human resources.” 

According to Eric Anderson, director of research and evaluation for Seattle Public Schools, partnering with Sun makes it possible for the district to dive deeper into complex issues like teacher retention.

“It’s very, very difficult for school districts to do in-depth, systematic research evaluation work,” Anderson said. “It tends to be labor intensive and time consuming.”

Anderson said that, among other things, Sun has shown the district new ways to access, connect and use data they already have to tackle more complex questions — questions like how PAR is working to make first-year teachers more effective, or how to attract and retain more teachers of color.

Teacher diversity is a big goal

While Seattle Public Schools and many other districts around the state have made attracting and retaining enough teachers of color to match student demographics a key goal, in actuality, there’s a lot more work to be done. 

In fact, a recent series on teacher diversity by The Seattle Times showed that the percentage of teachers of color in Seattle — a little over 20 percent — is about the same as it was six years ago. Meanwhile, the percentage of students of color — now over 50 percent — continues to rise.

One of the reasons for the lack of progress in closing the gap is attrition — teachers of color are leaving the district at about the same rate that new teachers of color are coming in.

According to Seattle Public Schools Chief Human Resource Officer Clover Codd, who earned her Masters in Teaching degree at the UW, there’s hope that Sun’s work can contribute to finding the right supports to help more teachers of color — and all first-year teachers — stay with the district.

“Right now we’re just starting to explore through research what it means to be a new teacher of color in Seattle Public Schools,” Codd said. “Are there differences between being a first-year teacher of color versus being just a first-year teacher? How do the experiences differ, if at all? How can we make sure that our induction program is supportive of all of our teachers? But specifically, what would supports look like for teachers of color?”

While research is just beginning on the experience of teachers of color in Seattle, there is significant research nationally on why teachers of color, especially novice teachers of color, leave the profession. 

As Sun has noted in her own research, teachers of color tend to be placed in lower-performing schools with higher needs students, fewer financial resources and less effective leadership. 

These stresses, along with the “normal” stress of being a first-year teacher, go a long way toward explaining why teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

The reason that’s important, Sun said, is that “teachers of color are more likely to devote more time to students of color, judge their learning potential more favorably and refer them to gifted programs at higher rates. This increase in learning opportunities and belonging leads to positive outcomes for students of color in both achievement and discipline.”

For someone to be able to come in who knows me and knows my students, and give that confidential feedback on my own practice that I might not necessarily be seeing, [it] helps me be more reflective of my practice. I really appreciate that.

Research, advice and support

Sun said her work with the district has evolved over time to meet specific needs within the district.

“We are helping them to think about whether they’re actually achieving their goal of diversifying their teaching workforce,” Sun said. “We’re really looking into their teacher workforce of the past couple of years, at the trend of the proportion of teachers of color. Are the teachers equitably distributed? That’s important so students from historically underserved backgrounds are able to have an equal chance to access high quality, diverse teachers.”

Sun and her team also write memos to help inform district leadership decision-making. “For example, the district was thinking about how to develop a teacher professional development program that focuses on culturally responsive pedagogy,” Sun said. “We connected that concept with helping teachers use student data to inform their instruction.”

According to Anderson, who has ultimate responsibility for research in the district, “Min has been the closest I’ve had to a mentor. She’s always providing great advice and support. She’s very innovative and she’s always talking about what information we can collect that’s most likely going to provide evidence we need. I think a significant component of Min’s work is that it can help the district over time use data in a more intentional and ongoing way.”

Codd said the high quality of Sun’s work is helping bring legitimacy to the district’s human resources effort to increase diversity and improve its support of all new teachers.

“Min has been a gift to me,” Codd said. “We want to make sure what we’re doing is really working for students and teachers. Not just that it’s a great idea — but that it’s really working. She’s brought the research lens to that in a way that really lifts the level of the work. 

“My hope is that once we start to gather findings from the research and we start to see trends, that it will impact future implementation and help us make adjustments to our program if necessary. To me it’s like a dream to be able to work with her.”

There for them

Mentors provide support, instruction — and reassurance

Like other Seattle Public Schools PAR consulting teachers, Lana Sumner mentored about 17 beginning teachers during 2018-2019, the first school year of the program’s full implementation. In all, about 200 teachers were served.

For her new teachers, Sumner said the relationship started with an orientation at the beginning of the school year, followed by regular classroom visits and conversations to help mentees reflect on and build their practice.

Sumner and her team also created four special professional development sessions for new teachers, focusing on topics such as building relationships with students, communication with families, culturally responsive pedagogy and different types of student assessments. 

“It’s nice that they know that I’m there for them,” Sumner said. “It’s very rewarding. Just about every teacher with whom I’ve worked has found benefit in the work — they’ve really been able to grow their practice with the support of this program.”

First-year teacher of color Halle Mahlik, one of Sumner’s mentees, said the relationship has been very valuable to her — even though she already felt lucky to find a placement with “wonderful building support” for her fourth grade class at Olympic View Elementary.

“Lana’s been amazing. She’s seen my teaching from the beginning and knows my class from the very start,” Mahlik said. “Sometimes it’s harder for me to recognize the growth and progress that we’ve had over the course of the year. And she came in the other day and said ‘it looks like a new class — you’re doing so well! Everything is going smoothly.’ 

“For someone to be able to come in who knows me and knows my students, and give that confidential feedback on my own practice that I might not necessarily be seeing, [it] helps me be more reflective of my practice. I really appreciate that.”

About PAR

The Peer Assistance and Review program serves all first year teachers in Seattle Public Schools, along with approximately 75 second and third year teachers and 50 veteran teachers.  

Education Policy Analytics Lab

Professor Sun is principal investigator for the Education Policy Analytics Lab at the UW. The lab partners with practitioners and policymakers to develop solutions to pressing issues involving teaching and leadership effectiveness, reducing educational inequities and education policy. 

Learn more

Teachers of color still a rarity as state, country diversify

While the number of teachers of color has increased, it hasn’t increased quickly enough to match the growing number of students of color. To match the current racial makeup of Washington’s student population, the state would need to more than triple the number of teachers of color.

2012-13

Students of color: 40.9%

Teachers: 9.4%

Washington state population: 28.5%

2017-18

Students of color: 45.6%

Teachers: 11.1%

Washington state population: 31.3%

Where minority teachers work

62% of teachers of color work in high-poverty schools vs. 31% of white teachers

Teacher turnover

19% of teachers of color leave their school every year, either to move to another school or to exit the professional altogether, versus 15% of white teachers. 

50% of teachers of color report dissatisfaction as a reason for leaving. 

29% – a low-income black student's probability of dropping out of school is reduced by 29 percent if he or she has one black teacher in 3rd, 4th or 5th grades. 

18% – a low-income black student is 18 percent more likely to express interest in college after graduating if he or she has one black teacher in 3rd, 4th or 5th grades. 

3 – black children are three times as likely to be placed in a gifted education program if they have a black teacher.