School & District Management

Quality of Principal Mentoring Uneven, Report Says

By Lynn Olson — April 12, 2007 4 min read
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Roughly half the states now require mentoring for new principals during their first few years on the job, but a report suggests that many school leaders may be getting the equivalent of “mentoring light.”

“Many, if not most, existing mentoring programs are falling well short of their potential,” says the report by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation. Too often, it asserts, state and district programs result in “buddy systems” or “check-list exercises,” rather than on helping new principals improve teaching and learning in their schools.

The report, “Getting Principal Mentoring Right: Lessons From the Field,” released this month, is based on a review of existing research, interviews with leading experts, and site visits to mentoring programs in New York City and the Jefferson County, Ky., public schools. The two sites, both of which are Wallace grantees, have made on-the-job coaching and training a core component of their efforts to prepare school leaders. (The foundation also underwrites Education Week’s coverage of leadership issues.)

A summary of “Getting Principal Mentoring Right: Lessons From the Field” is posted by the Wallace Foundation.

While mentoring for teachers has spread rapidly since the early 1980s and is now required in at least 30 states, the idea that novice principals should get similar help has only recently gained credence. Before 2000, only a handful of states—notably Kentucky and West Virginia—required all new principals to undergo mentoring.

The report attributes the surge in interest among states and districts to a variety of factors, including growing recognition of the critical role of school leaders and fears of looming principal shortages. (“Mentoring for New Principals Gains Policy Attention,” Sept. 13, 2006.)

‘Quality Guidelines’

But the study found limited data about the effectiveness of such programs. Much of the information gathered by states and districts has been anecdotal and has focused on the satisfaction levels of novice principals and their mentors, the report says, rather than on whether the programs improve retention rates or lead principals to adopt practices that could improve instruction in their buildings.

Based on its findings, the foundation offers five “quality guidelines” for states and districts to consider in strengthening their programs.

“Good mentoring, regardless of the field, has some characteristics that are common,” said Richard D. Laine, the director of education programs for the foundation. “Our hope is that as we identify these very few criteria that people will use them, in effect, as a mirror to assess their current policies in terms of mentoring; to determine the efficacy of their current efforts; and, if need be, take actions to improve what they’ve already begun.”

“Principal mentoring has long been overlooked,” said Ellen Moir, the executive director of the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit organization based at the University of California at Santa Cruz that provides mentoring for novice teachers and principals. She praised the report and its guidelines for an emphasis on “robust mentoring models” for new school leaders.

To begin with, the report argues, states and districts should provide high-quality training for mentors. “The mere fact that a person has been a successful principal is no guarantee that he or she will be a successful mentor,” it says.

The study found that nearly half the states that require mentoring make no specific provision for training. In other places, training is minimal and often focuses on compliance issues.

High-quality training should prepare mentors in conflict management, goal setting, active listening, and ways of providing and receiving feedback that encourages self-reflection, the report says.

States and districts also need to gather meaningful information about the efficacy of their mentoring programs, it says, with a focus on whether the behavior of new school leaders actually changed as a result.

Despite the cost and challenges of gathering such data, it notes, the case for maintaining mentoring or funding it adequately may depend on demonstrating that it develops principals whose behaviors align with state and district standards and lead to tangible improvements in their schools.

The report also recommends that mentoring be provided for at least a year, and ideally two or more years, to give new principals the support needed to become “self-assured leaders of change.”

Though comparable data on the costs of mentoring programs are scarce, it says, states and districts, in general, need to spend more money than they are now spending to provide mentoring programs of sufficient quality. “It is safe to say,” the authors write, “that funding for principal mentoring tends to be modest with relatively few exceptions.”

State-level appropriations for mentoring typically are well under $1 million a year, the study found. Stipends for mentors generally range from less than $500 to about $1,500—“hardly a lavish incentive,” the report says, “for attracting sitting principals to spend a minimum of 50 hours of contact time with new principals, and many more hours getting trained, filling in forms, and performing other duties.”

Most important, it suggests, mentoring programs need to focus on preparing school leaders who put learning first and know how to rally their communities around that goal.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Quality of Principal Mentoring Uneven, Report Says

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