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.

NEW DATA

Michigan’s ‘band-aid’ for filling teaching jobs is expanding. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Teachers welcome students to the Southwest Detroit Community School on the first day of school. Seven of the charter's 31 educators last year entered the profession through a fast-track training program.

There aren’t enough qualified teachers to fill classrooms across Michigan — and especially in Detroit. That’s why state officials have opened the door to a controversial way of filling classrooms, loosening restrictions on so-called alternative certifications for educators.

In addition to Teachers of Tomorrow, a fast-track, for-profit teacher certification program that began placing teachers with virtually no classroom experience in schools this year, another for-profit company, #T.E.A.C.H., was recently approved to help expand the state’s teacher pipeline. They’ve joined long-running nonprofit programs like Teach for America, whose corps members typically get some in-classroom training and more hours of teaching classes.

If the expansion continues, it could change the face of schools across the state, in cities like Detroit most of all. In states like Texas — home to Teachers of Tomorrow — nearly half of new teachers take non-traditional routes to certification.

As policymakers gear up for a tug of war over teacher certification, Chalkbeat obtained last year’s teacher certification data for the entire state. The data, alongside interviews with experts in teacher training, painted a picture of where we are now — and where we might be headed.

It shows that teachers with alternative certification are concentrated in Detroit, largely at charter schools, and that they’re disproportionately at a handful of schools.

Scroll down for a list of schools in Michigan that employed at least one teacher with an interim certification last year.

But first — what is alternative certification, again?

In short, it’s an express lane into the teaching profession. Michigan teachers have traditionally attended teacher certification programs that require them to student teach in an actual classroom. By contrast, Michigan’s alternative certification route, which was created under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, allows anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 GPA to start teaching after taking a few courses online and passing a test in the subject they hope to teach. Unlike traditional teacher colleges, these programs don’t require any in-classroom training.

After three years on the job, teachers with alternative certifications can become fully certified if their principal signs off.

This fast-track arrangement is not unusual — almost every U.S. state offers an accelerated route into teaching. But some are much more widely used than others.

The vast majority of Michigan educators still come from traditional, four- or five-year teacher training programs.

It’s not even close. When the state Legislature allowed for an alternate route to teacher certification nearly a decade ago, the policy was billed as an important tool in the struggle to alleviate a statewide teacher shortage. But the 248 educators with “interim certifications” who were employed in Michigan last year amount to little more than a blip in a statewide teacher corps of about 100,000.

A few controversial for-profit certification programs, which were approved to operate in Michigan for the first time last year, hope to change that. Teachers of Tomorrow, whose graduates have begun finding work in Michigan schools, certifies tens of thousands of teachers in 12 states.  And in a promotional video on its website, #T.E.A.C.H, promises to help would-be educators “start teaching almost immediately.” It allows teachers to complete their online training after they have started working in the classroom.

Teachers who go through an alternative certification program are heavily concentrated in Detroit.

Research shows that poor students of color in the U.S. are more likely to be taught by a teacher with an alternative certification. That holds true in Michigan. Two-thirds of the teachers certified through a non-traditional program in the state teach in the city of Detroit, where most students are poor and black or Latino.

This may be because Detroit schools are more willing to hire them. Less than one-twentieth of Michigan’s more than 3,000 schools don’t employ a single teacher with an interim certification. About one-third of Detroit’s schools do.

To be sure, the statewide teacher shortage is particularly punishing in Detroit, where poverty and large class sizes make working in the classroom more difficult. Alternative certification programs have focused their recruiting efforts in the city in an attempt to help fill the gap.

Across the country, cities “are where it’s hardest to get conventional teachers,” said Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has published studies of alternative certification. “Cities are also often where people from Teach for America and other idealistic programs are likely to want to teach.”

Critics say that lowering the barriers to entry into the teaching profession won’t address the deeper problems that plague Detroit schools. And they worry that this quick fix comes with unintended consequences.

“It’s really more like a band-aid, as opposed to addressing the larger issue,” said Christopher Crowley, a professor of teacher education at Wayne State University. “These are experiments, and they’re being tested on certain populations and not others.”

Teachers with alternative certifications can be effective.

It is very difficult to determine whether teachers who take this route perform any worse than their peers, partly because the accelerated programs vary widely in the amount of training and support they give new teachers. Armen Hratchian, director of Teach for America in Detroit, says its program allows teachers to be successful with fewer hours of in-classroom training — known as student teaching — that is common at traditional teacher colleges.

“To help meet the highest standard of teaching here in Michigan, TFA teachers spend over 400 pre-service hours training over the summer, continue to receive intensive coaching and development throughout their first two years, and are monitored and credentialed by the University of Michigan,” he said in an email.

But they are far more likely to leave the profession.

There’s little doubt that teachers who use alternative certification are more likely to leave the profession within a few years. Schools that fill vacancies with such teachers can find themselves in a “vicious cycle” of never-ending hiring, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, an education researcher at the non-partisan Learning Policy Institute, which last month published a list of best practices for combating teacher shortages that does not include alternative certification.

“Most states have been struggling to address teacher shortages for several years, often filling the vacuum with underprepared teachers,” the report reads.

Charter schools hire more teachers with alternative certifications than traditional schools.

Last year, 130 teachers with alternative certification were in charter schools compared with 105 at traditional schools in Michigan. A handful of charter schools have an especially high concentration of these teachers. At the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a tiny charter high school on the city’s northern border, nearly half of the 25 teachers at the school last year had not attended a traditional teaching program.

“As the teacher shortage continues to be an ongoing issue, I am always looking to find creative ways to find qualified candidates,” said Wendie Lewis, principal of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, in an email. In her experience, teachers who arrive at the school via programs like Teach for America are actually more apt to stay than traditionally certified teachers, perhaps because they promise at the outset to teach for two years.

There are lots of other ways to fight the teacher shortage.

Experts recommend raising salaries, trying to coax retired teachers back onto the job, forgiving student loans for teachers, offering new teachers more mentorship — and the list goes on.

Local governments, philanthropies, and companies have also pitched in, sweetening the deal for teachers by offering discounts on houses and cars for educators in Detroit.

And school leaders in Detroit are already going to extraordinary lengths to fill their classrooms.

Most recently, the city’s main district announced a partnership with the University of Michigan and the Kresge Foundation to, among other things, build a new “cradle to career” school that will feature a beefed-up teacher training program. The idea, in part, is that better-trained, better-supported teachers are more likely to stay in the profession. The district has said it won’t rule out hiring teachers from alternative certification programs, but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has made clear that he prefers teachers with more training.

“We have to get out of the days of taking any adult that has some education and some certification and placing them in a school, and go to a model where we actually teach teachers how to teach,” Vitti said as he announced the new school on Thursday.

Here’s a list of schools where teachers with alternative certifications were working in Michigan during the 2017-18 school year:

School # Teachers w/ Alt. Cert. Type of school City
Jalen Rose Leadership Academy 11 Charter Detroit
Central High School 9 Traditional Detroit
Voyageur College Prep 8 Charter Detroit
Denby High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy 7 Charter Detroit
MacDowell Preparatory Academy 7 Charter Detroit
Mumford High School 7 Traditional Detroit
Southwest Detroit Community School 7 Charter Detroit
Detroit Enterprise Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (PSAD) 6 Charter Detroit
Voyageur Academy 6 Charter Detroit
Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies – Elementary 5 Charter Detroit
Burns Elementary-Middle School 4 Traditional Detroit
Law Elementary School 4 Traditional Detroit
Southeastern High School 4 Traditional Detroit
Cass Technical High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Cesar Chavez High School 3 Charter Detroit
Clippert Academy 3 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Innovation Academy 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Elementary 3 Charter Detroit
Detroit Leadership Academy Middle/High 3 Charter Detroit
Ford High School 3 Traditional Detroit
Pansophia Academy 3 Charter Coldwater
Washington-Parks Academy 3 Charter Redford
Beecher High School 2 Traditional Mount Morris
Benjamin Carson School for Science and Medicine 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit City West Side Academy for Leadership Development 2 Traditional Detroit
Detroit Prep 2 Charter Detroit
Frontier International Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Linden Charter Academy 2 Charter Flint
New Paradigm Loving Academy 2 Charter Detroit
Nolan Elementary-Middle School 2 Traditional Detroit
Old Redford Academy – High 2 Charter Detroit
St. Catherine of Siena Academy 2 Private Wixom
Trix Academy 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – High School 2 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) Middle School 2 Charter Detroit
Webberville High School 2 Traditional Webberville
Western International High School 2 Traditional Detroit
Academy for Business and Technology Elementary 1 Charter Dearborn
ACTech High School 1 Traditional Ypsilanti
Advanced Technology Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
All Saints Catholic School 1 Private Canton
Alternative Educational Academy of Iosco County 1 Charter East Tawas
Ann L. Dolsen Elementary School 1 Traditional New Hudson
Arno Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Avondale High School 1 Traditional Auburn Hills
Avondale Middle School 1 Traditional Rochester Hills
Bendle Middle School 1 Traditional Burton
Botsford Elementary School 1 Traditional Livonia
Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Capstone Academy Charter School (SDA) – South Campus 1 Charter Detroit
Cesar Chavez Middle School 1 Charter Detroit
Chandler Park Academy – Middle School 1 Charter Harper Woods
Chelsea High School 1 Traditional Chelsea
Communication and Media Arts HS 1 Traditional Detroit
Conner Creek Academy East – Michigan Collegiate 1 Charter Warren
Crescent Academy Elementary 1 Charter Southfield
Crestwood High School 1 Traditional Dearborn Heights
Croswell-Lexington High School 1 Traditional Croswell
Dansville High School 1 Traditional Dansville
Dearborn High School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Detroit Achievement Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Collegiate High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Edison Public School Academy – High School 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit Merit Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Detroit School of Arts 1 Traditional Detroit
Dickinson East Elementary School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
East Arbor Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Eastpointe High School 1 Traditional Eastpointe
Ecorse Community High School 1 Traditional Ecorse
Escuela Avancemos 1 Charter Detroit
Fitzgerald Senior High School 1 Traditional Warren
George Washington Carver Elementary School 1 Charter Highland Park
Grand Ledge High School 1 Traditional Grand Ledge
Hamtramck High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Harrison High School 1 Traditional Farmington Hills
Henry Ford Academy 1 Charter Dearborn
Holy Family Regional School 1 Private Rochester
Hope of Detroit Academy – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
Horizon High School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Inkster Preparatory Academy 1 Charter Inkster
International Academy of Flint (K-12) 1 Charter Flint
Jackson Christian School 1 Private Jackson
Jackson ISD Local Based Special Education Programs 1 ISD School Jackson
Kensington Woods Schools 1 Charter Lakeland
Kosciuszko School 1 Traditional Hamtramck
Legacy Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Lindemann Elementary School 1 Traditional Allen Park
Litchfield High School 1 Traditional Litchfield
Lowrey Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Madison High School 1 Traditional Madison Heights
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Maybury Elementary School 1 Traditional Detroit
Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody 1 Traditional Detroit
Michigan Connections Academy 1 Charter Okemos
Multicultural Academy 1 Charter Ann Arbor
Munger Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Murphy Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Noble Elementary-Middle School 1 Traditional Detroit
Northeast Elementary School 1 Traditional Jackson
Northridge Academy 1 Charter Flint
Novi High School 1 Traditional Novi
Novi Woods Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
Osborn Academy of Mathematics 1 Traditional Detroit
Owosso High School 1 Traditional Owosso
Oxford Crossroads Day School 1 Traditional Oxford
Pershing High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Reach Charter Academy 1 Charter Roseville
Redford Service Learning Academy Campus 1 Charter Redford
Redford Union High School 1 Traditional Redford
Regent Park Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Renaissance High School 1 Traditional Detroit
Royal Oak High School 1 Traditional Royal Oak
Salina Intermediate 4 – 8 1 Traditional Dearborn
Saline High School 1 Traditional Saline
South Lake High School 1 Traditional Saint Clair Shores
South Pointe Scholars Charter Academy 1 Charter Ypsilanti
Thornton Creek Elementary School 1 Traditional Novi
University Preparatory Academy (PSAD) – Elementary 1 Charter Detroit
University Preparatory Science and Math (PSAD) High School 1 Charter Detroit
University Yes Academy 1 Charter Detroit
Washtenaw International High School 1 ISD School Ypsilanti
Woodworth Middle School 1 Traditional Dearborn
Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College 1 Traditional Ypsilanti

Source: Michigan Department of Education

Race and equity

Looking for the ‘Wakanda factor’: 3 tips for breaking down barriers facing educators of color

PHOTO: Getty Images

It’s a persistent problem in schools across Indianapolis, the state, and the nation: Too few teachers look like their students.

America’s teaching force is disproportionately white and female, even in districts like Indianapolis Public Schools, where just under half of students are black, nearly a third are Hispanic, and about one-fifth are white.

At the annual conference Thursday of the teacher training and advocacy group TNTP, I moderated a panel on addressing the systemic barriers and unconscious biases that educators of color face — from their own formative school years, through college and certification, and into the classroom.

The dynamic group of four panelists — an equity expert, a politician, a school leader, and an administrator — offered thoughts on dismantling the structural barriers that many educators face, with the goal of fostering more inclusive classrooms for both teachers and students.

From his experience as the principal of Camden High School in New Jersey, Alex Jones underscored the importance of students having teachers who come from backgrounds similar to their own.

“One of my coworkers coined a phrase where he said, ‘We’re looking for this Wakanda factor. … You know, when people see “Black Panther,” now students believe they can do these great things that we saw as part of Wakandan society as things that people of color can achieve,’” Jones said. “So, we want to make sure we’re putting people in front of our students that our students can say, ‘This is someone who has had similar experiences to me, this is someone who I can relate and connect to, and this is someone I can see myself growing up and being like.’”

Here are three other tips, tools, and takeaways from the discussion.

Systemic problems require systemic changes

At the start of the panel, which brought together a few dozen educators from across the country, Aleesia Johnson, deputy superintendent for academics at Indianapolis Public Schools, explained: “If you see a lake full of dead fish, you’re not going to say, ‘What’s wrong with the fish?’ You’re going to say, ‘What happened in this lake that all our fish are dying?’”

And yet in education, Johnson said, “we turn to ‘fish-fixing’ versus seeing systemically what’s wrong with our lake, and what do we need to do to fix the lake that our fish are in.”

The metaphor comes from longtime district educator Pat Payne, who runs IPS’ Racial Equity Institute to train schools on racial biases.

Be a school that embraces diversity

Tiffany Kyser, associate director of engagement and partnerships at the Great Lakes Equity Center, offered tips for creating more inclusive schools, such as using people-first language. Instead of “English-language learners,” for example, she said educators could refer to such students as “emerging multilingual students.” Different cultures and native tongues can be seen as assets, rather than deficits, she said.

But while the value of diversity might be easy to understand, Kyser said recruitment and retention of educators of color can be a one-way street if schools don’t often ask themselves: “Are you actually ready to receive educators of difference?”

People of color “should not be ornamentation,” Kyser said. “When you introduce people to your organization, your organization is going to change. From a strategic standpoint, is your organization ready to be malleable? To go to a place of deferring judgment, so that it can reimagine who it’s going to be?”

Take on the “-isms”

Equity needs to be central to the work that educators are doing, the panelists all pointed out — and to the community at large.

Johnson, the IPS deputy superintendent, acknowledged how easy it is, in the bustle of the school year, not to be as thoughtful or intentional enough about racial equity.

“It’s very easy to think about your equity work not as the foundation of the work, but a body of work that sits over here that I can check the box on,” she explained.

For her part, Kyser said educators need to confront racism — and other “isms” — head-on.

“‘Bias’ has now become a safe word to get around using other terms, like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. So we have to name it if we’re going to redress racism,” she said. “We have to name it in a loving way. There are other factors at play where you don’t want to shut people down — you want to honor where people are, but you also don’t want to dismiss and excuse that often people who are using coded language are also people who are benefitting from more and more types of privilege.”

Blake Johnson, an Indianapolis city councilman, said lawmakers rarely talk about systemic racism and implicit bias, so they often don’t focus on how to change policies that create structural barriers.

“In the policy world, these conversations don’t happen very often,” he said.