The CEO of New Teacher Center
Dr. Blackburn, CEO of NTC

Social justice in education is about making sure there is equity in every classroom – and that type of environment starts with the teacher. New Teacher Center (NTC) is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving student learning for systemically underserved students by increasing educator effectiveness. Founded in 1998, NTC works with school districts, state policymakers, and educators across the United States to provide high-quality professional learning, leadership development, and coaching for educators who serve students with the highest needs. NTC serves 25,000 teachers annually, helping to impact 1.8 million students. Technology is core to how NTC operates.

Cisco began supporting New Teacher Center in 2009 through social impact grants, which seek to help nonprofits develop technology-based solutions to improve how they operate, reach underserved communities, and increase their impact.

“New Teacher Center builds student-teacher trust by reducing bias,” said Kyle Thornton, manager of the education investment portfolio for Cisco and the Cisco Foundation. “Most recently, Cisco supported the launch of New Teacher Center’s Classroom Connection Program, that helps teachers build strong, empathic relationships that provide students with the essential needs for whole child development.”

Desmond K. Blackburn, PhD, CEO of NTC, worked as a high school math teacher, a principal, and a school district superintendent before becoming CEO of New Teacher Center in 2018. Dr. Blackburn recently talked to us about the link between social justice and education and shared how his organization supports educators who serve students with the highest needs.

Can you tell us more about your background before you became an educator? 

I was born and raised in Mt. Vernon, New York (just outside of the Bronx), by Jamaican-born parents who recently migrated to this country. While my parents did not go to college, education was an unyielding priority in our home. I’m from very humble beginnings and I am a first-generation college student. I can connect with what most of our students today live with, which is a humble community with loving, disciplined, immigrant parents, committed to any sacrifice that enables their child to be introduced to the American Dream. I always start with that part of my story because it’s still very influential to how I do my work and what my priorities are today. For a number of years, my father was an undocumented immigrant until he became a resident and then a citizen before he passed. So, I have a great deal of connectivity to those social issues as they relate to education.

What are the educational inequities that exist in schools around the United States? What causes them, and what impact does it have on communities?

If I had to identify two salient causes to the educational inequities that we are talking about, I would identify economics and I would identify race.

Let me start with economics. When a child grows up in poverty, that child is experiencing a long list of “least likely to haves.” That child is least likely to be born to a mother who received adequate prenatal care. That child is least likely to be in a home environment where a high-quality pre-school opportunity exists. That child is least likely to be born to parents who, while loving, don’t have the finances and social capital to help that child navigate, not only the K-12 educational environment, but the pathway toward post-secondary education. Growing up in poverty means you are least likely to have the basic life necessities.

As international reggae artist, Bob Marley, once said, “A hungry man is an angry man.” So, a hungry child is an angry child. What that means for us in education is that if you haven’t eaten for days on end, you’re not bringing the right mental capacity or emotional state to digest Shakespeare, or wrestle with chemical equations, or solve calculus problems. You are hungry, and you’re frustrated. So, economics plays a huge role.

Compounding economics is race. I call it the soft prejudice of low expectations and inappropriate assumptions. Six-foot-one Black males are good prospects for the basketball team, but not necessarily the speech and debate teams. Good prospects for the football team, but not necessarily the chemistry club. Those stereotypical assumptions feed opportunity, feed mentorship, and feed guidance. All of those pieces are so influential to outcomes. I’m an example of all of those things working in my favor. While I grew up in a humble environment, my parents made sure I was around strong mentors, counselors, coaches, and pastors.

How can helping teachers become more effective in reducing or addressing these inequities?

The CEO of New Teacher Center meeting with a young student
Dr. Blackburn visiting a Kindergarten student

Teaching is the number one opportunity to impact student lives. So goes the quality of the teacher core, so goes the quality of your school and school system. That’s why it ought to be a priority right now. We have to own and realize that teaching is not an easy profession. Teaching is a challenging profession and is disproportionately harder for educators within their beginning years of the job. We need to acknowledge that we need to create more support for novice teachers. We need to make sure that support includes peer-to-peer, side-by-side, real-time coaching.

From a social perspective, the teacher needs to understand equity and understand how to create culturally responsive curriculum and instructional methods. Teachers have to be empowered to leverage social-emotional supports for children as well. Children are all different, and there is no teaching the student without reaching the human being. That’s a whole other skill set that requires a targeted approach to developing and coaching teachers.

Everything I just mentioned is what we do here at New Teacher Center – and these things work.

There’s a mindset shift that is needed. In this next wave of education reform, we need to make sure that we prioritize support for teachers over supervision of teachers. We need to make sure we prioritize assistance for students over assessments for students.

What kind of impact are you having?

A lot of resources are spent on measuring our impact in school systems across the country. We found that students taught by teachers who are supported and mentored through NTC are realizing more than five months of additional growth in a single year in math and English, and that is based on state-wide assessments.

Because teaching is so hard and is so under-resourced, teacher retention is a big problem. We’re finding that when we apply our model of coaching and mentoring to teachers, teacher retention in a district can go up more than 20 percent. You have a better-skilled teacher, and you have a better-skilled teacher staying longer and impacting more children. And in that resource-constrained school system, you have a cost saving of around a million dollars per year that you don’t have to spend on teacher recruitment, hiring, onboarding, and re-training. That’s a substantial cost saving that you can reallocate to other resources that support teachers.

How has the pandemic impacted your programs?

If there is a silver lining, it rejuvenated our focus and appreciation for the value of tech-enabled development – for not only students but educators as well. In many of our larger school districts, we had a 100 percent face-to-face model before the pandemic. Our staff swiftly converted all of our service offerings into an online format. That took a lot of change, a lot of initiative, and a lot of creativity. Shifting that support to virtual created many logistical efficiencies, like trying to navigate traffic in a major city in the middle of the day to get to a professional development training and then get back to school for your afternoon classes. Technology has just added extreme efficiency to how we deliver services.

It also prompted us to create the Resource and Community Support Hub. We wanted to make sure we were showing up for the education sector, so we partnered with The Education Trust to create what we call our (R)evolution Campaign – an online hub where the public could openly access a ton of resources.

We didn’t want any barriers to stand between learning and the application of learning, so we gave away our intellectual property around whole child development and whole educator development. We gave away our intellectual property on what it means to address diverse learners in a classroom effectively. We gave away intellectual property on what it means to have trauma, your awareness of trauma to inform your interactions, and your instruction of children.

Everything in the resource hub is still available for open access during this crucial time in our history.

How has the pandemic created opportunities to increase teacher effectiveness and reduce inequities? 

There is more awareness among teachers now about the home and community environment. There’s an economic gap between the average teacher who’s living a middle-class life and the average student, especially systemically underserved students living in poverty. Now, we are looking into each other’s homes through video calls. That awareness gap between what kids are living with and living through has gotten smaller.

Appreciation for leveraging technology for both students and adults to learn has been amazing. The digital divide is something that we have talked about for decades. Some kids don’t have devices at home, and they don’t have high-speed Internet capability. Overnight, school districts across the country put devices in the hands of children and worked with local and state-wide partners to provide free high-speed internet connectivity. The digital divide wasn’t eliminated, but we came a very, very long way. I’m hoping that level of “don’t accept no” innovation continues in education.

Like no other time in history, we have all felt the significance of schooling during this global pandemic. And that is a thriving, well-resourced, operational school system is at the epicenter of a well-functioning society. There is no scenario where society bounces back to “normal” or “better than normal” without schools being fully operational. If we have not fueled the rationale to invest in schools and supporting those who are teaching and leading schools over the last ten months, I don’t know what it will take.

How has Cisco support benefited New Teacher Center?

Cisco has helped us grow over the last ten years. What’s exciting and different today is that Cisco supports some of our most cutting-edge work around something called the Classroom Connections Program.

Research that came out of UC Berkeley and Stanford shows about a 50 percent drop in suspensions when teachers were trained in empathetic teaching practices. NTC and our partners have developed a pilot program known as Classroom Connections to help teachers reduce bias, to help teachers develop trusting relationships with students, and to help teachers grow student engagement. All of that is within the Classroom Connections Program. With Cisco’s support, we’ve been able to launch this pilot work in three districts across the country, from Florida to Iowa. We’re currently reaching 30 coaches, 70 teachers, and 1,600 students. And, opportunities are ripe for the future for an expansion of this work, all because of Cisco.

If you are interested in learning more about Cisco’s partnership with New Teacher Center, please visit our partner profile page.


Stacey Faucett

Manager, Content Creation

Chief Sustainability Office