Student Well-Being

New York Shifts Strategy on Mentoring New Teachers

By Bess Keller — October 04, 2007 6 min read
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A New York City mentoring program once hailed as possibly the largest overhaul of teacher induction in the country has been dismantled amid district officials’ push to give schools more say over their own affairs.

In place of the 3-year-old venture to support beginning teachers in the classroom, New York’s schools will individually shape help for new teachers, using a combination of dedicated and general resources.

First-year teachers will still have mentors, as required by state law. But the mentors will no longer be part of a cadre trained under the eye of the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a nonprofit organization that has pioneered a widely admired system for supporting and improving novice teachers. And fewer of the mentors will be occupied with their rookies full time.

“The program ended, and with it that particular variety of mentor,” said Aminda Gentile, the director of the professional-development arm of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers’ union, which has worked with district administrators on both the old and new approaches.

“Ideally, it’s the best way to go,” Ms. Gentile said of putting schools in charge of how novices are supported. “The downside is the quality of the mentoring,” which is harder to guarantee in a decentralized system.

To help schools make the change successfully, the district has hired about 60 of the 350 mentors from the old program to work with “networks” of schools on supporting new teachers, said Amy McIntosh, the chief talent officer of the New York schools.

The 1.1 million-student district’s commitment to supporting new teachers remains as strong as ever, she said. “It’s very much in everyone’s interest in the system,” she said, “to invest time and energy in helping new teachers be the best they can be.”

“I am certain it did not all work fine in the old model,” Ms. McIntosh added, “and this way, we’re putting decisionmaking into the hands of the people with the best information and the strongest incentives.”

Ms. McIntosh said that with better monitoring of results, which the district is planning, “we’ll be able to tell school by school” how well schools have done with their newest teachers.

High Satisfaction

It’s widely agreed that the old model had shortcomings, and the New Teacher Center itself pointed many of them out in a 2006 evaluation of how the program was faring. The center acted as an adviser to the effort, which was run by the district and the teachers’ union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate. Involvement in the New York program was a feather in the cap of the center, though, and it had touted the scale and scope of the venture.

The district spent some $36 million in the 2005-06 school year on full-time mentors, who were able to give new teachers at least 1¼ hours per week of structured, one-to-one coaching using assessments devised by the center. But mentors, many of whom traveled to several schools, averaged 17 new teachers, while the center recommends 12 to 15. Nor did the program extend to teachers in their second year or those who were new to the district but not to the profession.

In addition, the report said that mentors and principals were not always working in sync.

Still, teachers who were mentored in the second and third years of the program gave it high marks, with 80 percent or more saying they found their mentors very helpful in their professional development, according to the district. Also, the percentage of mentored teachers who left the New York City schools after the first year of teaching dropped from 9.4 percent in 2004-05, the first year of the program, to 6.5 percent in 2005-06. A district spokeswoman said that preliminary data for the past school year seem to show a continuation of the downward trend.

Under the new setup, principals can ask that second-year teachers or those coming from outside the district get mentors, Ms. McIntosh said.

Ms. Gentile of the UFT said if she had to guess, about half the principals would give new-teacher mentoring their best thought and planning.

“Most schools have a literacy and math coach, and it’s my gut [feeling] that most of them will do the mentoring,” she said.

Melissa Menake, who worked as a mentor under the old program, said she feared that the level of commitment the old program represented would never be there again.

“I trust that certain schools will give new teachers great support,” she wrote in an e-mail. “But underfunded, struggling schools in hard-to-staff [areas] just might not have the staff to support their newest colleagues; I predict that teacher turnover in these schools will remain high.”

The mentoring change reflects a policy shift, announced in April by schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, that gives schools a choice of different organizations to support their operations and teaching in exchange for greater accountability for results. The idea of the decentralization, school officials said at the time, is to undo a compliance mentality and empower principals to make the best decisions for their schools.

Principals’ Responsibilities

Ellen Moir, the founder and executive director of the New Teacher Center, which now has a scaled-back agreement with the district, characterized the new program as “a huge change.”

She acknowledged that the program had not won over principals as it had in districts elsewhere, in part because of its initial placement in the district’s human-resources department.

Officials of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that includes New York City principals, declined to comment on either mentoring program.

The district has salvaged some parts of the effort, Ms. Moir said. “They are trying as best they can to embed them,” she said.

In the last school year, the district paid the center $1.1 million for its services and materials; this year, it anticipates spending $500,000, according to district spokeswoman Melody Meyer.

Norm Fruchter, an expert on the New York City schools with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, agreed that the old program was not perfect. In particular, he said, a ratio of 17 new teachers to one mentor “was above what anybody thought was feasible for effective mentors.”

Nonetheless, said Mr. Fruchter, who heads Annenberg’s community-involvement program in New York City, the new version presents another serious problem. “Lots of folks are worried about what it means to have the principal responsible for so many areas of school function, especially given the relative inexperience of a number of principals.”

Gillian W. Williams, who as a New York City principal led a South Bronx elementary school out of the academic doldrums, said the way the 60 experienced mentors are deployed could make a big difference. She’d prefer to see them assigned full time to the 60 most beleaguered schools because struggling teachers need intensive and consistent help from skilled people at their schools.

Failing such an arrangement, the mentors should be helping leaders in the schools become experts in helping teachers, said the former principal, who six years ago founded School Turnaround, a nonprofit group in Rensselaerville, N.Y., that coaches principals.

School leaders have to take responsibility for teachers’—including the newest ones’—improvement, and neither the old nor the new model, Ms. Williams said, appears completely adequate to that task.

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