Teacher Mentoring and Student Achievement

July 1, 2008 | Blog


UPDATE (6/28/2010):
“Positive Effects of Comprehensive Teacher Induction”

Friday afternoon’s blog post on Education Sector’s The Quick and The Ed offers a surprisingly negative take on a new teacher mentoring study, but does raise some shrewd points about the importance of a shared vision around supporting new teachers.

As I recently discussed, last week the American Enterprise Institute featured an event at which ColumbiaUniversity economist Jonah Rockoff spoke about his study of teacher mentoring in New York City. One of the principal findings in Rockoff’s study is that students’ math and reading achievement was higher in the classrooms of new teachers who received more hours of mentoring, supporting the notion that time spent working with a mentor does improve teaching skills.

Rockoff writes:

The magnitude of these effects are substantial, with an additional ten hours of mentoring expected to raise student achievement by 0.05 standard deviations in math (0.10 in the survey sample) and 0.04 standard deviations in reading (0.06 in the survey sample). If truly causal, these effects would lend considerable support for the notion that mentoring has an impact on student achievement.

In her blog post, Laura Guarino speaks of “slight increases” in student achievement and Rockoff’s overall “tepid” results. I think that understates this finding in his study. However, I think some of Guarino’s other counsel is wise and her perspective as a new teacher tremendously valuable.

Guarino writes:

If the purpose of mentoring is to provide support in order to keep good teachers and make them better, then the responsibility of a mentor must be clear to both parties involved. When there are numerous goals and assorted models of mentoring, it is clear that we need to find “a best practice” in carrying out these programs. Mentoring is one of those good ideas in theory, but is far more complicated than it seems.

As a first-year TFA teacher in Charlotte, it sounds like Guarino experienced some sporadic and haphazard mentoring. It’s an experience from which we can learn. She references four different mentors giving her advice with four different visions of what their roles were. Four mentors?!?! Egads! That might sound like an embarrassment of riches, but certainly it isn’t if the mentors are operating at cross-purposes and if they haven’t been trained for the role.

Guarino is correct in saying that “Mentoring is more complicated than it seems.” That’s a lesson that policymakers and district leaders need to learn. It is not enough simply to require mentoring. It’s not enough merely to assign a mentor to every new teacher. There’s much more that goes into designing induction and mentoring programs to produce the desired impact on teaching and learning.

A well-designed induction program pairs a carefully selected, intensively trained mentor with each first- and second-year teacher. It provides protected time for a mentor to meet regularly with a new teacher for 1.25-2.5 hours per week. Induction is not an old-fashioned buddy system that makes everyone feel good but doesn’t provide the regular, structured, contextualized and substantive support and feedback to the beginning teacher. I cannot underestimate the importance of mentor training and time in this regard. A prepared mentor is the necessary engine to ensure that the mentoring relationship focuses on improving teaching practice rather than on providing psychological and social support alone. Like it or not, that costs money, but it’s an investment that pays dividends if done right.

A strong induction program also has a clearly articulated vision shared by all stakeholders. Key stakeholders are not just the mentor and new teacher–but also the program site administrator, instructional coaches, school principal, and district superintendent. The program vision should include supporting new teacher development and strengthening student learning—not simply reducing teacher attrition and improving teacher morale.

Finally, I should note that the despite the positive results, New York City did take some shortcuts in implementing this program. Its decision to provide mentor support only during the first year of teaching may have been a fundamental flaw. It’s a short cut that many states and districts take, sometimes for financial reasons and sometimes because they fail to understand that second-year teachers have unique needs as they continue to develop into veteran educators. In the Big Apple, this decision could well have depressed the potential for additional student learning gains. New TeacherCenterresearch [see Figure 1, page 2] from California shows that greater student achievement gains are realized as a result of intensive induction sustained over two years. That’s a finding that should be investigated further in different school and district contexts.

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UPDATE: Here is Alexander Russo’s post on this topic.

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