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.

the return

An innovative elementary school — a product of Denver education reform — tries to get back to normal post-strike

PHOTO: Centennial Elementary
Teachers last year at Centennial Elementary, which reinvented itself as an expeditionary learning school.

Nic Savinar tried to maintain a measure of normalcy for three days in her fifth grade classroom at Centennial Elementary School in northwest Denver, even as her students asked awkward questions about why she was still there when most teachers were out.

Walking in the door, she had a fleeting thought that someone from outside the school community might join the picket line and lash out at her. Her fellow teachers marching in the cold lent nothing but support, sending her texts throughout the day checking in.

Then not long after 6 a.m. Thursday, word started getting around that the Denver teacher strike was over. Principal Laura Munro’s phone blew up after her morning Crossfit workout. Munro ended up getting to school late because excited teachers kept texting her.

With the three-day strike about teacher pay ending with a tentative deal that gave both sides reason to feel good, Denver schools spent Thursday in a strange in-between place as substitutes and central office staff fill-ins reported for duty and striking teachers returned.

The labor action and its sudden conclusion posed a test for the 147 district-run schools affected by the strike and the 71,000 students in grades K-12 who attend them. Centennial just a few years ago was at risk of closure due to persistently poor academic performance. The school started to turn around after it reinvented itself in 2013 as an expeditionary school, where teachers in each grade weave a year-long “expedition” theme into their everyday lessons.

The school, in a gentrified neighborhood in a city that has become less affordable for families and teachers alike, would not exist in its current form without the kind of education reform that has gained Denver both a national reputation and opposition from the union and its allies.

“We have worked really hard to build a positive and trusting culture,” said Munro, who has been principal for eight years. “Even that being said, trying times can make any situation difficult.”

Of the 32 teachers, nurses, counselors, and other educators at Centennial covered by the teachers contract, all but six took part in the strike on Monday, Munro said. One teacher returned to the classroom Tuesday, and a nurse came back Wednesday, she said.

Those are higher strike participation figures than in the district as a whole. Between 56 and 58 percent of teachers were out each day, Denver Public Schools has said.

Savinar was among those Centennial teachers who remained in the classroom. But it wasn’t because she disagreed with the union’s opposition to many aspects of ProComp, the once-promising pay-for-performance system that was the subject of negotiations.

Savinar recently took maternity leave, much of it unpaid. She and her husband crunched the numbers —  taking into account that teachers strikes typically last a week — and concluded that foregoing a paycheck, as striking teachers must do, was not something they could afford.

The irony is not lost on Savinar: She couldn’t afford to strike to improve her salary prospects.

“There was a lot of thought behind it, and it was definitely a financial decision,” she said, pointing out that her Centennial colleagues who remained in classrooms all have children 1 or younger. “It was a very challenging decision for every single person, I’m sure.”

A ninth-year teacher, Savinar left a job in neighboring Jeffco Public Schools to join Centennial four years ago. She said she was won over by the people and by expeditionary learning.

The school has a vegetable garden, an outdoor classroom with log benches, and a devoted corps of parent volunteers. For a recent lesson on biodiversity, Savinar took her students to Denver Botanic Gardens to visit a rainforest exhibit. They learned about different habitats and species of plants. Students who are now working on writing first-person narratives written from an animal’s perspective, like a jaguar or an exotic bird that makes its home in the lush canopy.

That a district-run public school would offer a model like expeditionary learning is unusual, and it’s part of Denver Public Schools’ philosophy of offering families a variety of school choices.

Centennial is also an innovation school, which means it doesn’t need to follow all aspects of state law or the teachers union contract. That allows for a much longer school day, for one. The opening bell rings at 8 a.m. and dismissal is at 3:45 p.m., with an 80-minute enrichment period.

Savinar is a “teacher-leader,” spending part of her time teaching and part of it coaching other teachers — another initiative that other U.S. school districts look to Denver to emulate.

Savinar said her support for the union stance during ProComp bargaining was rooted mostly in supporting an increase in all teachers’ base pay and in cost-of-living increases. She said she loves the flexibility that innovation status affords teachers and students both.

“It’s all relative, I guess,” she said. “Completely depends on what teachers are wanting in their school community.”

During the strike, Munro kept a detailed spreadsheet of classroom assignments, using a combination of regular teachers, substitutes, central office staff temporarily reassigned to schools, and her own preschool teachers who were available because DPS shut its preschools.

All but two classrooms were covered by certified teaching staff during the strike, she said.

Because of the timing of the tentative agreement, Thursday was more chaotic than when teachers were on strike, she said. Although all the striking teachers returned, the school retained a few substitutes to honor their commitments. Central office staff helped cover classrooms until late-arriving teachers got to work, then went back to their regular jobs.

“People had been gone three days and were just trying to put the puzzle pieces back together,” Savinar said. “People were scrambling a little bit because teachers are always prepared for their students, and they were feeling unprepared, coming into I am not sure what.”

Centennial will move on from the disruption of the strike at a time it faces its owns challenges. What was once a predominantly Latino student population has grown whiter and wealthier, driven by neighborhood changes and the appeal of expeditionary learning.

Having fewer students whose families live in poverty cost Centennial its Title I status, and the extra funding that goes with it. Munro said school officials knew it was coming and planned accordingly, accounting for the lost revenue over a two-year period and lessening the blow.

The older grades at Centennial are more diverse than kindergarten and the earlier grades, so as a fifth-grade teacher Savinar has a more diverse class than most.  

Next up, her students will begin a module on inequality. She and a returning colleague struck upon an idea Thursday: including a discussion about the issues underlying the strike. It’s in keeping with expeditionary learning’s aspiration to connect learning to real-world events.

So in the near future, Nic Savinar’s fifth-grade students at Centennial Elementary could talk about the issues that kept their teacher in school while her colleagues picketed outside.

teacher prep

Report: Tennessee’s teacher prep programs are doing a better job, but graduating fewer educators

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Oliver Morrison
Teacher candidates undergo training through Memphis Teacher Residency in 2014. The nontraditional training program is among eight in Tennessee that scored in the top tier on the State Board of Education's latest report card.

Tennessee’s teacher training programs improved or maintained their scores on a report card released Friday, even as the number of would-be educators they graduated dipped for a third straight year.

Eight of the state’s 40 programs received the top overall score in 2018, while seven others moved up one notch to earn the second-highest scores. None of the programs saw their overall ratings decrease on the four-point scale, with 4 being the best.

Nontraditional training programs continued to excel, with Memphis Teacher Residency, Teach for America in Memphis and Nashville, and the New Teacher Project in Nashville all achieving a top ranking.

Among traditional programs, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Union University in Jackson, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville maintained their top scores, while Christian Brothers University in Memphis broke into the top tier as well.

“We’re now seeing a greater distribution of top scores” among traditional and nontraditional programs, said Sara Morrison, executive director of the State Board of Education.

That’s important because university-based programs produce about 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

The State Board issues its annual report card to gauge how well programs are preparing candidates for the classroom and whether they’re meeting the needs of school districts and the goals of the state. Criteria includes a profile of graduates over the past three years, their placement and retention in Tennessee public schools, and their observation and growth scores on their evaluations on the job.

The latest report card is the third under a redesigned grading system that launched after a 2016 report said most of the state’s training programs weren’t equipping teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms. It was a big red flag because the quality of teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

“We have seen an improvement in overall scores year after year,” said Morrison, noting that more first-year teachers are being retained and are helping their students show gains on state standardized tests.

Also encouraging: More recent graduates were prepared for teaching positions that districts struggle to fill every year, including English as a Second Language, Spanish, special education, high school math, and high school science.

On the flipside, the report card showed a gradual decline in the number of teacher candidates completing their training programs.

That troubling trend comes as the state braces for half of its 65,000 teachers to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Every program is looking to improve their recruitment strategies,” said Amy Owen, the board’s policy director, who spoke with reporters on the eve of the report’s release.

Another continued concern is lagging diversity among teacher candidates. Only 15 percent are people of color, compared with 35 percent of the state’s student population — a challenge since research shows that students of color are more likely to succeed academically when taught by teachers of color.

Among the report card’s other highlights, Tennessee Tech University, one of the state’s largest teacher training programs, improved its overall score to reach the second-highest rating. So did Belmont University, King University, Maryville College, Milligan College, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Western Governors University.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sara Morrison is executive director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

The University of Memphis maintained its score in the second-highest tier, as did Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, and Middle Tennessee State. All three are among the state’s largest training programs.

Morrison applauded programs for increasingly aligning their training to the state’s newest academic standards, especially in the area of literacy, and for collaborating more with nearby school districts to meet their needs.

“Some programs have even begun implementing dual-certification models so that their candidates are prepared to teach both an area like elementary education and either special education or English as a Second Language,” she said. “The result is a win-win situation, with teachers being more prepared and in-demand, districts having ready access to the educators they need, and education preparation providers improving on the state report card.”

You can view the full report card here and find previous report cards here.