Teaching teachers

Mentors matter: Good teaching really can be passed down to student teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

Do student teachers learn more when they’re mentored by especially effective teachers?

The answer may seem obvious, but there’s been little research confirming as much. Until now.

Three studies released this year offer real evidence that good teaching can be passed down, in a sense, from mentor teacher to student teacher. In several cases, they find that the performance of the student teachers once they have their own full-time classrooms corresponds to the quality of the teacher they trained under.    

And as many teacher preparation programs face pressure to improve, the findings offer a common-sense prescription: invest in finding the most effective possible teachers to supervise their trainees.

“Taken together, the point is that teachers who are … effective appear to be very promising mentors,” said Matt Ronfeldt, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored all three papers.

One of the studies, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, examined thousands of student teachers between 2010 and 2015 who were subsequently hired by a Tennessee public school. (Getting the data to understand this was a multi-year undertaking, since there isn’t a centralized system connecting mentors with their student teachers.)  

It found that teachers tended to be better at raising students’ test scores if their supervising teacher was better than average, too. Similarly, new teachers scored better on classroom observation rubrics when they had been mentored by a teacher who also scored well on that same rubric.

There was no evidence that teachers with more years of experience, all else equal, were more effective as supervisors.

The researchers can’t definitively prove cause and effect, but the results suggest that the mentor teachers are imparting certain specific skills to their student teachers.

The effect was small, though: Having a supervising teacher who did particularly well on their observations or their test scores was comparable to about half the performance leap teachers make between their first and second years in the classroom. That’s not a huge difference, but research has found teachers make their steepest improvement in those years.

A similar study, released in January, focused on about 300 student teachers in Chicago Public Schools who were subsequently hired in the district. Again, the student teachers who had better mentor teachers, as measured by classroom observations, ended up with better observation scores themselves.

Here too, there was no clear benefit of having a more experienced supervisor.

A separate paper, published in April through the research organization CALDER, looked at a single teacher prep program, Tennessee Tech University, which allowed researchers to conduct an experiment with its student teacher placements.

After all of the supervising teachers and schools had been selected, researchers divided them into two categories: those likely to be effective mentors and those less likely to be. This was based on data on the teachers (their performance and years of experience) and the schools (staff retention numbers and student achievement growth). From there, the nearly 200 teachers were randomly assigned, allowing the researchers to conclusively determine whether being in that high-quality group mattered.

It did. The student teachers with better placements reported that their mentor teachers were better instructors, offered more frequent and better coaching, and provided more opportunities for them to practice. This analysis didn’t track the student teachers’ later performance, but they did report that they felt more prepared to teach themselves and to manage their future classrooms.

This study, the researchers conclude, “would make a strong case to school systems that the quality of placements is fundamental to the development of new teachers.”

The set of studies add to a small but growing body of research on the best ways to set teachers up for success. Previous research had linked higher-functioning placement schools to better results for student teachers. Teachers also seem to do better after having student taught at a school with similar demographics as the school where they go on to teach. And concerns that adding a student teacher to a classroom hurts students (by allowing an untrained teacher to take over for a high-performing one) seem mostly unfounded.

The latest findings aren’t especially surprising, but to Ronfeldt they’re still important.

“While that may be a ‘duh’ moment, the reality is that there [are] often assumptions like this in education, and I think having the research evidence to back it up is critical,” he said, pointing out that few states have requirements that mentor teachers have strong evaluation scores. “We can make all sorts of assumptions, as I have for other things, and find out the opposite.”

Want to read more about efforts to improve teacher preparation? See Chalkbeat stories on teacher residencies, a Texas program known as UTeach, the challenges of identifying successful programs, a teacher training program that has embraced “personalized learning,” Denver’s effort to ease the transition into the classroom, and New York City and Memphis programs to recruit more men of color into teaching.

churning not learning

New research shows just how much losing a teacher midyear hurts students

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post
Brown International Academy teacher Kate Tynan-Ridgeway works with a student.

The consequences of teacher churn were apparent to Esperanza Vazquez, a mother of two from New York City.

I had an experience with my son where he had a new teacher every week in math,” she told Chalkbeat recently. “That doesn’t help students.”

Now new research backs up Vazquez’s experience, documenting for perhaps the first time the steep consequences for students after teachers leave a classroom in middle of the school year.

The finding comes in a trio of new studies focusing on North Carolina. Together, they suggest that ill effects of teacher turnover identified in previous research may be driven largely by midyear departures; that those consequences extend even to students in the same grade whose teachers stay on; and that midyear turnover may be more common than previously thought, especially in schools serving more students of color and those from low-income families.

“While it is possible for turnover to be beneficial for school systems, an extensive body of research points to the ways that teacher turnover disrupts … the continuity of a child’s learning experiences, particularly in underserved schools,” write researchers Gary Henry of Vanderbilt and Christopher Redding of the University of Florida in one of the papers.

Henry and Redding’s three studies — two of which were published earlier this year in peer-reviewed journals, with the other is set to be published in coming weeks — home in on the rarely studied phenomenon of midyear teacher turnover.

Using recent data from North Carolina, two of the papers focus on the prevalence of the phenomenon. Annually 4.6 percent of teachers in the state departed midyear; among teachers in their first three years the rate jumped to 6 percent. The number was higher in schools deemed “underserved,” meaning they had more students of color and students in poverty, as well as lower test scores and fewer resources. Turnover was lower when principals were rated as more effective by teachers. It was higher among teachers who were less effective, those eligible for retirement benefits, and high school and middle school teachers.

Roughly a quarter of all teacher turnover in the state occurred in the middle of the school year.

The third study uses data from 2008 to 2014 to examine the consequences of midyear teacher attrition on elementary and middle school students’ test scores. In both math and English, students saw drops in learning as a result, controlling for a number of other factors. The decline in math scores was nearly as large as the difference in performance between an average teacher and an excellent one — a difference that has motivated dramatic policy changes in many places.

Impacts were smaller in English and in middle school, but also consistently negative. Students in the same grade level, but not class, of teachers were also harmed, but again less so.

The negative results are consistent with research on the effects of hiring teachers after the school year starts, in some ways a mirror image of the phenomenon.

The paper suggests three things that might explain the results: disruption in classrooms where teachers leave, instability in a school where teachers are exiting midyear, and less effective teachers replacing those who depart. The study suggests the first two theories seem to be clearly at play, since it was relatively ineffective teachers who were particularly likely to leave.

“When multiple teachers exit a school during the year, it can become increasingly difficult for teachers to maintain a work environment with a high degree of collaboration,” the researchers say.

The study did reach some surprising results: Students of color, students in poverty and students with lower prior test scores, generally did not suffer more as a result of midyear turnover; if anything, they suffered less in English. It may be that their schools were better prepared for midyear exits since they happen more frequently; it could also be that those students were simply “not well served by the teacher who departed,” the paper hypothesizes.

Another counterintuitive result: Unlike midyear turnover, departure of teachers at the end of the school year did not lead to declines in student learning, and even led to small benefits in some cases. That’s surprising in light of past research — and conventional wisdom — suggesting that teacher turnover harms students. (Prior studies generally have not distinguished between midyear and end-of-year turnover.)

The latest research does come with a key caveat: Test scores might be lower in classes where teachers leave midyear for other reasons — perhaps a particularly disruptive class causes both a teacher to quit and students to learn less in school. The authors attempt to account for this by comparing how the same student did in years when their teacher does not turnover.

The studies also look at just a single state, so it’s unclear whether the results would look similar elsewhere.

The researchers point out that some churn is inevitable, even healthy. “Many of the personal factors driving within-year teacher turnover are unlikely to be amenable to change: a teacher takes time in the middle of the school year for parental leave; a veteran teacher retires midyear; a beginning teacher leaves a few months into the school year after realizing teaching is a poor occupational fit,” write Henry and Redding. Indeed, female teachers between the ages of 26 and 40 years old were particularly likely to exit mid-year, indicating that parental leave plays a significant role in the results.

But the studies collectively conclude that students could benefit from combating midyear departures — although the best way to do that is not clear.

In Detroit, some schools have adopted a crude — and some would say cruel — approach, imposing financial penalties for teachers who left midyear. Studies focusing on turnover in general have found that higher pay, better working conditions, and more effective principals can make a difference.

At the same, time Henry and Redding argue that policymakers ought to make extensive efforts to avoid midyear teacher turnover when possible. For instance, they point out that information from teacher evaluation systems, including “value-added” test scores measures, aren’t always available until after the school year has begun. Finalizing those results before classes are underway could decrease midyear exits, they speculate.

“All measures of teachers’ performance, including their value-added scores, should be provided during the summer to allow teachers and administrators to attend to employment decisions without disrupting classes that have already begun,” the researchers conclude.

First Person

Staying ‘neutral’ after the Jason Van Dyke verdict was a tough ask of Chicago teachers like me

PHOTO: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
A woman holds a sign outside the courthouse after a murder verdict is handed down in the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

At the beginning of every school year, I introduce myself to my students with a very personal presentation.

I show them pictures of where I grew up, my family, and the students I’ve taught at two other Chicago schools. I’m a human, not a robot, I tell them, earning a couple of laughs with my corny robot impression. At the end, I show them a signed copy of John Lewis’s “March,” the graphic novel that illustrates his experiences as a Civil Rights Movement leader. I talk about seeing Lewis speak at a Chicago Public Schools event years ago, and how he inspired me to speak up when I saw injustice.

In return, I ask my students to introduce themselves. They bring pictures of their lives, families, friends, and travels, and they talk about who they want to become. These presentations help to turn the library and writing center I oversee into a community.

The connection I have with my students isn’t out of the ordinary in Chicago. I’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher in the three very different high schools I’ve taught in and in schools all across the city who didn’t have strong ties to the students they teach. That’s why it felt so problematic that my district, CPS, asked its teachers to remain “neutral” about the Van Dyke case — the trial of a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting a Chicago teenager.

Two days before the Van Dyke decision came down, amid warnings that riots could follow a “not guilty” decision, the district sent an email advising teachers about how to handle discussions surrounding the verdict. I applaud the email for its initial statement: “It is critical that educators are prepared and provide space for students should they and their students choose to engage in this critical and timely public issue,” it read.

But in the next paragraph, the district said that teachers “must remain neutral.” The email cited a 2007 Indiana circuit court decision, Mayer v. Monroe County Schools, that ruled that “teachers do not have the constitutional right to introduce their own political views to students, ‘but must stick to the prescribed curriculum.’”

That left me with several questions. First, is an opinion on the Van Dyke trial truly a political view? Many of my students, now juniors and seniors, were just becoming teenagers when they watched the dash-cam video where 16 bullets riddle Laquan McDonald’s 17-year-old body.  The opinion CPS is concerned about me sharing, presumably, is that Van Dyke should face consequences.

I have taught many students like Laquan McDonald, students who have grown up in foster homes, who have failed out of the very school I taught in, whose city literally left them behind. When I saw Laquan McDonald in that video, I saw their faces grimacing on the ground, their bodies writhing. To me, his death, the subsequent cover-up, and the verdict, is personal, not political.

Asking me to “stay neutral” as a white teacher in a classroom full of African-American and Latinx students is asking me to send a message that I am indifferent to their experiences and to have them see me as a stereotype of whiteness. I am on their side. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having them know this. But the message I received implies that my district does.

In the court case evidently used as proof for why staying neutral is mandatory, students asked their teacher whether she ever protested. She told them that she honked her car horn at demonstrators calling for peace at an anti-Iraq War demonstration. The teacher believed she was fired because of this discussion. The court ruled in favor of the school district, stating, “the First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system.”

How this applies in my situation is confusing, since every year in my career I have either had the freedom to construct or co-construct curriculum for my classroom. It also reminds me of what Holocaust survivor and award-winning author Elie Wiesel said in his speech when winning the Nobel Peace Prize: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

Asking teachers to remain neutral when discussing Laquan McDonald teaches my students something I don’t want them ever to learn: that my connections with them, and my pursuit of justice for our shared community, are not my highest priority.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.  She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.