New studies can inform teacher mentoring and staffing practices

Two recently released studies have the potential to influence policy related to teacher mentoring programs and school staffing. These studies are especially poignant for Ohio as it moves to restructure its new teacher induction programs (see here).

A study by Mathematica Policy Research (see here) found that highly structured mentoring programs for new teachers yield marginal results. These programs are known as comprehensive teacher inductions and are common in districts across the country. Such programs rely on carefully selected mentors with an intensive curriculum. They are commonly designed to support new teachers and reduce teacher turnover. In contrast, less formal mentoring programs, referred to as traditional induction programs, are usually site-based and involve a new teacher being paired up with a veteran teacher within their content area or grade level in their building.

The Mathematica study involved 1,009 teachers in 418 elementary schools in 17 medium and large urban school districts in 13 states. It examined a treatment group of teachers exposed to the more intensive and comprehensive teacher induction, and an equivalent control group exposed to a less structured mentoring process. Researchers used surveys and school data to measure teachers’ backgrounds; receipt of induction services and alternative support services; attitudes and outcomes related to classroom practices, student achievement, and teacher retention. The researchers found that the treatment and control groups showed no discernable difference over a two year period in student achievement and teacher retention.

Conversely, a study to be released in October by C. Kirabo Jackson and Elias Bruegmann (see the abstract here) reports that good teaching has spillover effects. The study showed that teachers with a record of proven excellence helped to raise the performance of their peers.

The results from these studies can have far-reaching implications for how future mentoring programs are designed. School districts currently expend considerable time and resources creating and running comprehensive teacher inductions. Now that there is empirical proof that these inductions are not making an impact in comparison to less demanding and less costly ones, resources should be devoted to other areas of professional development.

In Ohio, new teachers have been required to go through a lengthy mentoring process to obtain a professional certificate. This program, known as Praxis III (see here), is comprehensive in nature and bases the decision to license a teacher on only one or two observed lessons. Gov. Strickland’s education reform plan addresses this shortfall by proposing a four-year teacher residency program before attaining professional licensure, though many details about the residency program are still being worked out.

Bruegmann and Jackson’s study also raises the issue of proximity and access to quality mentors. They found that the spillover effect occurs when experienced teachers are in the same building or grade level as their colleagues.  Many new teachers tend to begin their careers in at-risk schools and then migrate to schools they consider ‘better’ as they gain experience. The end result is an imbalance of experience in schools within a district.  Under the Praxis III system, it is possible for teachers to end up with mentors located in another building and outside of their content area. Logistical hurdles aside, larger districts should consider ways of placing their best veteran teachers as mentors in schools that have the highest numbers of new teachers.

It would be wise on the part of those crafting the new teacher induction programs in Ohio to examine these reports when designing the mentoring aspects of the residency.