While teacher mentoring has become nearly ubiquitous as an education reform, new research suggests state and district mentoring policies may leave gaps in support for special education teachers.
Mentoring, in which a new or struggling teacher is matched with an expert instructor for support and training, has won broad support from union leaders to governors; federal school improvement grants even recommend it as an intervention for improving low-performing schools. Nearly all states have a teacher mentoring program of some sort—most as part of induction for new teachers—but some, such as Alabama and Virginia, for any teacher who isn’t meeting state teaching standards.
Yet a study published in the current issue of the Education Policy Analysis Archives found that even within a state that requires mentoring for all new teachers, only 64.4 percent of special education teachers reported access to a mentor, compared with 85.6 percent of general education teachers. The quality and length of the mentoring relationships that were available differed from district to district for both general and special education teachers, and did not always meet state requirements, according to study author Leah Wasburn-Moses, an assistant professor of educational psychology at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio.
That’s of concern, experts say, because growing evidence, including recent studies by the Institute of Education Sciences and New York’s Columbia Business School, suggests high-quality, long-term mentoring can improve student performance.
“We have to go beyond ‘mentoring can be good’ to look at these special populations, like special education, to find out what really works to improve student achievement,” Ms. Wasburn-Moses said. “This is a [teaching] population that really, really needs mentoring because of the complexity of the positions and the differences within and between schools and the high attrition due to stress. … Just doing mentoring because you have to do it is not good enough.”
Most states require preservice student teaching for special educators, said George A. Giuliani, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Special Education Teachers, but he agreed that those teachers often have less access to mentors once they actually begin to teach.
Ms. Wasburn-Moses’ study examined implementation in urban districts in a single Midwestern state, which was not identified, but Shirley A. Dawson, a special education instructor with the University of Utah’s college of education, said special education teachers may face similar gaps in access to mentors nationwide. In a 2010 study of state mentoring policies, Ms. Dawson found that while 48 states have mentoring laws, regulations or programs, policies tend to be vague on how special educators are included. Fourteen states require districts to match teachers to mentors in the same grade or subject, but only Kentucky specifically requires special education teachers to receive a mentor who also teaches special education.
Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Wasburn-Moses agreed that finding a mentor with suitable expertise can be particularly hard for special education teachers because their pedagogical requirements on the job span a wider range.
“The field is so varied that some special [education] teachers do things that are very similar to what general [education] teachers do, while some teachers are working with very, very specialized populations, and they do completely different things,” said Ms. Wasburn-Moses. “What we know from the literature is, often in professional development, special education teachers will often do what is set out for ‘all teachers,’ and it’s not always what they need as a group.”
Yet mentors can help general and special education teachers alike, Mr. Giuliani said, if they focus on helping teachers differentiate instruction and use a universal design for learning. Universal design, a term taken from architectural design, involves teaching and classroom space that allow a wide variety of students, including those with disabilities or English-language learners, to access the curriculum.
“In terms of mentoring,” he said, “it’s not just knowing how to teach the content, but knowing what’s out there in terms of assistive technology and knowing what’s available to teachers. How can an iPad help a child with autism communicate? [Mentors] have to know what resources are available to teachers.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week