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.

Charter strike

Chicago charter files federal labor complaint against union over strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, left, met Dec. 7, 2018, with striking Acero teachers and their supporters, who were protesting at his office.

As the acrimonious teacher strike against Acero charter schools wound down its fourth day, both sides ratcheted up pressure, neither giving any indication of backing down.

The charter network sought a court order to halt the strike, and filed a federal complaint claiming that the strike was illegal.

Meanwhile, powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas heavy with Acero schools, addressed strikers who had marched into his office Friday.

“My heart is with you,” Burke told them. He promised to speak with Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez in an effort to end the strike before Monday, according to both Burke’s office and Acero.

Some 30 teachers and parents wedged into the foyer of Burke’s office between a lit-up Christmas tree and a statute of a horse wearing a green beanie labeled “Ald. Ed Burke.”

They demanded that he use his clout to pressure Rodriguez to agree to teachers’ contract demands, among them smaller class sizes and better compensation for teachers and paraprofessionals. Later Friday, Acero issued a statement confirming that the two, political allies, had met. The network did not explain the content or nature of the discussion.

About 500 teachers have been striking since Tuesday, with 7,500 students out of school. Seven of Acero’s 15 schools are in Burke’s ward.

Acero filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the Chicago Teachers Union and is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board to halt the strike. The charter management organization also sought a temporary restraining order to force teachers back to work. You can read the NLRB complaint below.

In response, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a press release, “Acero’s management is desperate and our pressure is working.” He insisted that the strike is a legal protest over wages and working conditions.

In response to strikers’ accusations that Rodriguez is uninvolved in the negotiations, Acero also issued a statement insisting that Rodriguez had met with management negotiators throughout the talks. Union officials have complained of Rodriguez being absent from the bargaining table.

Acero’s roots

Acero, once the nation’s largest Hispanic charter school operator, sprang from a community organizing tool to build Latino political power on Chicago’s Southwest side.

The history of Acero illustrates how charter schools in Chicago are intertwined in local politics, and how their growth would have been impossible without political support.

The United Neighborhood Organization was founded in 1984 by a Jesuit priest who recognized the struggle of immigrants in Chicago’s fast-growing Mexican-American community. Soon a South Side community organizer named Danny Solis joined and turned the organization’s focus first to local school politics and eventually to citywide influence.

Over the years, UNO’s power in neighborhoods grew as it nurtured local leaders like Juan Rangel, who eventually became CEO of the network. Both Rangel and Solis also ran for aldermanic positions, with Solis eventually winning an appointment in 1995 as alderman of the 25th ward, which encompassed the Pilsen neighborhood.

Rangel, meanwhile, had worked his way to the head of UNO just as then-Mayor Richard Daley and his school leadership team were ushering in an era of school choice in Chicago, and looking for community groups to take up the mantle.

“When charters emerged, UNO was one of the first entries into the charter market,” said Stephanie Farmer, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University who researches charter school finance. “They did work their political connections to get state funding.”

UNO first proposed two charter schools in 1997.  Two decades later, it runs 15 schools spread across both the Southwest and Northwest sides of the city.

Enter Ed Burke. Halfway through an ambitious construction project for a new campus, UNO ran out of money and was forced to turn to its political allies, among them Burke, who helped the network get a $65 million low-interest loan from bankers. Several years later, Rangel supported Burke’s brother in his run for an Illinois House seat.

Farmer called this a clear example of the benefits of political patronage, without which Acero could not have grown as much as it has.

“They became patronage benefactors. It was both a way for UNO to build political power and then also a way for Burke to solidify his relations with the Latino political machine,” she said. “They were the only [charter school] who got as much state money as they did for the buildings.”

Rangel’s tenure at UNO ended abruptly and in disgrace. Accused of nepotism and misusing public funds, and under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he quit.

The charter school arm of UNO formally separated from the organization in 2013 and, in 2015, renamed itself the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN). In 2017, it rebranded itself as Acero in an effort to distance itself from Rangel’s misdeeds.

Today, charters in Chicago face a harsher climate than they did during Acero’s initial expansion.

Chicago Public Schools recommended this week that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide rising against the independently operated public schools. And the state’s new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters.

But Burke’s ability to call Acero’s CEO and encourage him to come to an agreement shows that politics may still play a significant role in the charter industry.

It also shows a more critical turn both toward machine politics and education in Chicago, Farmer said,  “The strikers are highlighting that Burke’s machine doesn’t work for the ward’s children.”



money matters

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb proposes pumping brakes on teacher pay, cutting performance bonuses

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

As educators and lawmakers call for increases in teacher pay, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is suggesting a far more measured approach, potentially tempering expectations that meaningful raises could be possible in the coming two years.

In his legislative agenda announced Thursday, Holcomb proposed devoting 2019 to studying teacher pay — how much money would be needed, how the state can ensure districts direct funds to salaries, and what amount makes Indiana competitive with surrounding states. He suggested that actual raises might not come until following years.

“We want to do it right, and it’s a big number. We have some ground to make up here,” Holcomb, a Republican entering his third year as governor, said. “And we want to … make sure we are showing local communities that the state is investing in them. We want them to have local control.”

It’s not clear if lawmakers will go along with this plan, however, as some have already made strong calls for upping teacher pay, which even by conservative estimates would probably cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Democrat Phil GiaQuinta, the House Minority Leader from Fort Wayne, said the governor should take bolder steps to “increase teacher pay right now. We don’t need to study this issue before making a final decision.”

With the upcoming year projected to have a tight budget and little new revenue available, Holcomb also proposed eliminating $30 million in annual performance bonuses for teachers, and he is not supporting an increase in state money for pre-Kindergarten.

Instead, Holcomb is suggesting to split the $30 million bonus pool in two other efforts that his administration said are more equitable and impactful: sending about $20 million per year in overall state aid for districts, and putting the remaining $10 million per year toward increasing teachers’ school supply tax credit, from $100 to $500.

His decision to not support an increase in pre-K funding is a departure from years past, and flies in the face of advocates calling for Indiana to make pre-K accessible statewide to 4-year-olds from low-income families. In 2017, Holcomb was a key force in the decision to nearly double the state’s investment in its pre-K voucher program, known as On My Way Pre-K.

Essentially, officials with the Holcomb administration said Indiana can do more with the $20 million per year that it’s already spending on pre-K. One goal would be adding 500 students to the program each year by widening application windows and creating a website where families can apply for the vouchers, rather than in person during business hours. The program, currently serving about 3,000 students across 20 counties, is heading into the fourth year of its five-year pilot.

Officials from Holcomb’s office said that available federal dollars have increased from prior years, putting less pressure on the state to set aside more money. The state is also pursuing another federal grant, which could bring in up to $10 million to help preschool providers identify and address gaps in their current offerings.

Then, in 2021, officials would ask for more state dollars to expand the program to more counties and families, Holcomb’s staff said. Last month, House Speaker Brian Bosma said he would support adding more money to the program so long as it was focused on low-income families, but he also raised the possibility that the state might have to rely on federal funding.

Lawmakers can choose whether to follow Holcomb’s lead, but the governor doesn’t craft legislation. He can, however, veto bills at the end of the General Assembly’s session.

Holcomb, a Republican entering his third year as governor, did not outline exactly what he wants to spend on K-12 through 2021, deferring those specifics until the state releases its final revenue forecast of the year, although he did call for adding dollars to the state’s overall school funding. A budget proposal from the governor’s office is expected in early January.

The governor also wants to:

  • Set aside about $3 million per year to fund computer science training for teachers.
  • Move up the date to appoint the state’s next schools chief, from 2025 to 2021.
  • Require students to enroll in a one-semester class as freshman or sophomores that introduces them to college and career planning.
  • Change the career and technical education funding formula to favor classes that result in students earning a certificate or credential before they graduate.
  • Loosen the rules for workplace specialist licenses, which allow people with experience in skilled trades to become high school CTE teachers.

The rest of Holcomb’s agenda revolved around workforce development, expanding the state’s trail system, combating the health and mental effects of substance abuse, and creating a hate crimes law.

Read more from Chalkbeat: ‘Indiana’s war on teachers is winning’: Here’s what superintendents say is causing teacher shortages

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

Indiana faces a tight budget in 2019, lawmakers say. Will expanding pre-K be in the cards?