[Daiyu Suzuki, Teachers College Columbia University]
TO: District X, New York City
FROM: Educational Policy Consultant, Y
DATE: February 19, 2010
RE: Site-based Mentoring Program
Despite a large body of literature which illustrates teacher as the most significant educational resource, teacher is also the most inequitably distributed resource. Low-income urban districts suffer from chronic shortages of high quality teachers, who leave for wealthier districts for more desirable teaching positions. In addition, frequent teacher turnover undermines children’s opportunity for high quality education by disrupting the continuity of the education while draining the financial resources. Organizations such as Teach for America (TFA) have responded to the issue of inequity in teacher distribution by recruiting and placing the graduates of prestigious colleges in hard-to-staff districts through alternative certification routes and have been joined by others who explore teacher residency models. The Obama administration has embraced such initiatives that address teacher effectiveness and distributional inequity, and its fiscal 2011 budget request reflects this stance.
Such an educational landscape provides an excellent context for a development of a district-wide mentorship grant to enable schools to construct strong mentorship programs for teachers. More than half of beginning teachers receive only basic job support, which hardly makes a significant difference in their one-year attrition rate (39%) as compared to teachers who receive zero formal induction support (41%); however, for teachers enrolled in high-intensity induction programs, that rate drops to 18%. Mentor-based teacher induction programs have also been shown to generate $1.37 for every $1 invested. Moreover, as it will be discussed later, the design of a grant which is different from most mentorship-related policies will enable the district to overcome some of the key issues that are left unaddressed by recent models such as teacher residency.
This memo first lays out some of the key issues and challenges faced by initiatives related to mentoring. These are then addressed with three recommendations: development of unique site-based mentorship programs; systematic prioritization of hard-to-staff schools; and persistent focus on capacity-building. Together, these recommendations will ensure the nurturing and retention of competent teachers, especially those who work in hard-to-staff schools.
Mentorship is an educational undertaking that aims to promote teacher effectiveness with teacher effectiveness and, by design, requires evaluation and selection of teachers who demonstrate such desirable traits. In this sense, career ladder that flourished in 1980s dealt with very similar issues as its design also necessitated differentiation of teachers with demonstrated qualities that are perceived to characterize effective teaching (e.g., performance, skills, knowledge). However, this differentiation process often invited problems as it stood on a widely shared assumption that there existed a fair and accurate means of assessing teacher effectiveness. Importantly, this was the same assumption held by the previous merit pay schemes that generated an entire set of questions that largely remained unanswered. How is “teacher effectiveness” defined? How and by whom can teachers be most fairly assessed? Does good teaching look the same regardless of the context? In fact, the failure of merit pay schemes and many career ladder programs is often attributed to such “evaluation problem.” Also, many evaluation and selection methods generated competition and undermined collegiality among teachers while promoting individualism and isolation. These are the issues still not clearly addressed by more recent initiatives that incorporate mentorship such as TFA programs and residency models. Moreover, career ladder programs can even reinforce inequities in teacher distribution by placing excessively large proportion of teachers of an affluent district at the highest stage of the career ladder. Finally, a difficult policy question entailed by career ladder is how to hold teachers and schools accountable while embracing the capacity-building nature of career ladder, as those programs that focused more on surveillance and external control of teaching and work standards were largely unsuccessful.
The literature on career ladder reveals intricate policy issues surrounding teacher effectiveness and tells us that a successful mentorship-related policy would also entail thorough considerations of above mentioned issues. Three recommendations that follow are designed in light of those issues.
1)Help develop unique site-based mentorship programs
The most effective way to implement a large-scale mentorship policy that embraces the complexity of high quality teaching is to help each school construct its own mentorship program. Rather than taking the traditional “one size fits all” approach to mentoring that imposes decontextualized external standards for teacher effectiveness, it is wiser to allow participating schools to develop internal standards for the unique communities they serve.
Many policies designed to improve teacher effectiveness stand on a problematic premise that successful teaching in one context can be extracted and reproduced elsewhere. However, effective teaching looks different from context to context, and educational possibilities are determined by various contextual factors such as the academic and cultural needs of students, the socioeconomic characteristics of the students and the community, the availability of educational resources, the positionality of the teacher (in terms of race, class, gender, etc), and the nature of collegial relationships at the site. Site-based mentorship programs can account for such contextual variables through the provision of flexible grant guidelines that will help each participating school develop challenging and worthy internal standards for their mentorship programs. The guidelines hold the participating schools responsible for addressing key issues such as the content, method, duration, responsibilities and accountability of the stakeholders in their programs. A special caution is required for choosing the method of selection so as not to generate detrimental competition among teachers. In sum, the site-based design will contribute to the retention of high quality teachers by enabling each school community to define teacher excellence contextualized in their unique environment to provide meaningful support for new teachers.
2)Maintain focus on capacity-building
Mentorship, as already mentioned, is a capacity-building instrument by design. It differs from other policy instruments such as mandates, inducements, and system-changing in that it seeks to invest in teachers’ professional capacity. Hence, the success of a mentorship program largely depends on how the original capacity-building nature remains intact through its implementation. This also legitimizes the choice of a grant rather than a mandate.
Analyses of the contemporary education policies reveals that many policymakers mistakenly focus on designing controls when the original intent instead calls for developing capacity or that they tend to develop hierarchical control instead of delegated control even when the situation demands teachers’ cooperation and commitment instead of conformity. For example, career ladder policies have shown success when commitment to teachers’ professional growth was maintained over an extended period of time in contrast to the unsuccessful cases that focused more on regulations. Moreover, the persistent focus on capacity-building needs to be reflected in the shaping of accountability as well. The challenge of maintaining a harmony between the persistent focus on capacity-building and the due accountability requires a questioning such as, How can the district delegate more control to teachers and administrators in order to vitalize continuous self-improvements? It is essentially to situate aims and practices in a dialogical relationship. In sum, a persistent focus on capacity-building will contribute largely to teacher retention by ensuring sustainable and accountable mentorship programs.
3)Establish a systematic prioritization for schools with the highest rates of attrition
It would be a mistake to assume that all schools have an equal institutional capacity to succeed when applying for a competitive grant. For example, low-income urban schools are disadvantaged from the very start due to the shortages of high quality experienced teachers who are capable of assuming effective mentor roles. The fact that each school’s institutional capacity is necessarily influenced by the built-in inequities in resource allocation as well as the political capital of the constituencies necessitates a systematic prioritization in order to ensure the allocation of the grant to the targeted schools.
Moreover, such prioritization effort needs to include an effective dissemination of information to the targeted schools as well as provision of personnel who will assist in developing and implementing a successful site-based mentoring program where necessary. Potential district supports to the school include an organizational developer who works with school on program design while assessing the school's organizational structure and individualized needs, a mentorship coach who guides the mentor-mentee relationship while assisting with the selection of mentors and the development of high standards for teacher induction, and an off-site support network coordinator who helps school build relationships with local universities and other professional organizations such as National Staff Development Council and New Teacher Center. In sum, such a systematic prioritization will maximize the effect on retaining high quality teachers in low-income urban schools by ensuring the grant distribution while cultivating their agency and institutional capacities.
The current educational landscape that is largely shaped by the discourses of teacher effectiveness provides an optimum context for a development of a district-wide mentorship grant proposed in this memo. What this grant ultimately promises is the establishment of professional teaching communities in low-income urban schools, where guaranteed professional autonomy enables local educators to tailor their instructional practice to the needs of their students while self-regulating their educational qualities through a continual process of reciprocal and self-reflection.
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