The Importance of Mentors

Bethany Bowman, Director of Professional Development at Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET), writes on the importance of mentoring.

January has been proclaimed National Mentoring Month. Mentoring can strengthen families, schools, businesses and communities.

Despite the obvious benefits of mentoring throughout a career, the type of guidance or skills required will likely change over time. For example, at the beginning of a career, a more job-specific mentor may be appropriate. Longtime employees also might benefit from what Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, called “reverse mentoring” – partnering with someone from a younger generation to share expertise, update skills, and gain a different perspective.

When I was hired for my first teaching job several days before school actually started, I was supposed to be part of a team. However, the team I was assigned consisted of veteran teachers who didn’t need or want help from anyone. They were also not very helpful to a rookie educator. So basically I was going at it alone facing all the challenges that most first year teachers face without support.

In my second year teaching, I moved to a new school where the teams actually planned and worked together as a team. I was given plenty of sage advice and had a successful career at that school. Working together, we helped each other grow as colleagues and teachers.

Today it appears that many school districts are paying attention and seeing the positive results that come from teachers mentoring each other and planning as a team. However, with the many changes in technology, it is not just the young new teachers that need mentoring. There are plenty of experienced teachers that need assistance with the new technology that is be thrust their way. Teachers are expected to be the expert on all aspects in their field of study.

Everyone’s skill levels are different and varied. You may be an expert in classroom management and can provide advice to struggling teachers. I may have a different set of skills that I can share expertise with you. We all need to mentor each other. This will significantly improve not only our own lives, but more importantly, teachers mentoring other teachers will impact the lives of the children they serve.

Professional Educators of Tennessee encourages all people to accept the challenges and rewards of mentoring someone knowing that both the mentor and mentee will experience benefits that will last each of you a lifetime. Together we can all reach our goals.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

A Positive Education Agenda

The use of this image is in no way sarcastic.  Well, maybe a little.The last few years of education debate and policymaking in Tennessee have seen a lot of negativity.  You can name the fights off the top of your head: teachers’ unions and collective bargaining, vouchers, teacher evaluations, Great Hearts, charters vs. traditional public schools, K12, Inc., teacher pay, etc.  There are more.

I, for one, have been preaching, to everyone I can think to, that people on all “sides” of the debate have a lot more in common than we/you/they think.

I truly believe this.

What we need, then, is some common ground. Not faux common ground, couched as a talking point and then used to attack (“How can you not agree with X?”), but real, actual common ground.

Looking back at the pieces from my school board campaign last year, I came to re-read my “issues” section from my campaign website.  I put a lot of thought and research into it at the time, and I think it still reads true.  So, if you haven’t had a chance, here’s what I think the (beginnings of) a positive education agenda look like.  It’s incomplete, for sure.  But it’s a start.  I’d love to hear what you think.  P.S. I’ve cut out the “I’m going to be a great school board member” intro and skipped right to the issues.

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Community-Supported Schools

No student should get a worse education because of their wealth or zip code.  As research has shown, however, a student’s home life, socioeconomic status, and the health of their community have a strong correlation with that student’s ultimate academic success.  Research has shown the increasing importance of communities and community support to schools.  Professors Ellen Goldring, Lora Cohen-Vogel, Claire Smrekar, and Cynthia Taylor discussed this very issue in “Schooling Closer to Home: Desegregation Policy and Neighborhood Contexts,” a study specifically of Nashville schools and communities.  (American Journal of Education, Vol. 112, No. 3 (May 2006), pp. 335-362).  Cohen-Vogel, Goldring, and Smrekar also wrote an article entitled “The Influence of Local Conditions on Social Service Partnerships, Parent Involvement, and Community Engagement in Neighborhood Schools.”  (American Journal of Education, Vol. 117, No. 1 (November 2010), pp. 51-78).  Both of these articles shed light on this crucial issue, and support the idea of the importance of communities and community context in building strong schools and supporting student learning.

To a large extent, wealth and zip code determine student outcomes, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  We can and must do everything in our power to support the educators and staff in our most at-risk schools, and provide them the support they need to overcome the achievement gaps our at-risk students suffer.  Ultimately, this can only ever be an incomplete solution.  Our schools need to become the centers of their communities again, and I will work to connect our parents, churches, neighborhood associations, community groups, and local residents to our schools.  To achieve this goal, we need a board member involved with and connected to the community and community leaders so that we can tailor the resources and strategies needed in each school to fit the community those schools serve.

High Standards, Less Testing

High standards are excellent — there is no question that all children can learn, and that we do a disservice to them by lowering standards, or assuming they cannot think critically or master difficult concepts.  Unfortunately, one of the most unintended, but very real consequences of the standards movement was the massive increase in testing of our students.  These days, students spend up to several weeks out of their school year taking mandated tests.  As well, because these tests are “high-stakes,” often determining funding and local control over schools and school districts, together with a  focus of laws such as No Child Left Behind on reading and math skills, there has been a movement away from rich curriculum including science, art, music, physical education, and more.  (See, for example, Richard Rothstein, “The Corruption of School Accountability,” (School Administrator, Vol. 65 No. 6 (June 2008) pp. 14-15).  Good schools and good teachers constantly assess student progress, little by little, not just with a massive test at the end of every quarter or every year (if that even ends up being necessary).  Good assessment shows where students are learning, and where teachers need to spend more time.  Good assessment happens mostly in the background, and is supplemented by longer traditional tests like chapter tests and end-of-course tests.

As a school board member, I will push our district towards the latter concept of assessment, making use of technology such as Kickboard, so that, as a policy matter, we do not put massive, unwanted pressure on our schools, educators, students, and parents, with all the negative consequences that come with high-stakes testing, while still preserving the inherent good of standards-based learning and assessment.  We can accomplish this by committing, as a district, to moving towards a collaborative model of teaching, where teachers are highly trained to use assessment and data in the classroom, and have mentors, master teachers, and coaches to help them, both in the use of that data, and in responding to the needs of their students.

High-Quality Teachers

Teachers are the backbone of our public schools.  As discussed above, though non-school factors play a major role in predicting student success, schools all over Nashville and Tennessee have shown that committed schools, with the right people and resources, can overcome a child’s background Though it is not within the province of a school board member to recruit teachers to our system, we can put in place research-based policies that will lead to higher quality teachers who stay in our system.  When asked, teachers overwhelmingly identify school leadership and school culture as reasons they do or do not stay at their school.  For example, Tennessee’s own teacher survey, TELL Tennessee, shows the following results:

Teaching_Conditions_TELL_Tennessee

These results are typical — teachers want a strong school culture with a good principal, as well as support for good instruction.  These are policy choices as to where we spend our dollars, and the latter option, “instructional practices and support” is a crucial issue addressed above with respect to assessment and support.  As a school board member, I will support the district in finding school leaders who are quality instructional leaders, but who also reach out to and build connections with their teachers and the community around them.

Teacher turnover is also a problem, especially in an urban district like Nashville.  Paying teachers commensurate with our surrounding cities is a first step, and rewarding our excellent teachers must also be a priority.  However, Nashville has a gaping hole when it comes to developing its newest teachers, so that we support and retain them.  As I know personally, the first year of teaching is especially hard.  Many teachers leave the profession during or after their first year.  Again, it does not have to be this way.  Nashville needs to make a multi-year induction, evaluation, and support program a cornerstone of our practice.  The article, “What are the Effects of Induction and Mentoring on Beginning Teacher Turnover,” by Tom Smith and Richard Ingersoll, among others, shows that such programs can have an outstanding impact on developing and supporting excellent teachers, and retaining them in the district.  (American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 41 No. 3 (September 2004) pp. 681-714).  In fact, this is something beginning teachers are not being provided, though they want it (I certainly would have appreciated it during my first year teaching).

Mentoring_TELL_TennesseeAs you can see, though many teachers have a “formally assigned mentor,” a large majority of them do not have formal time to meet with that mentor during school hours, nor do they have time to observe other teachers, or have a reduced workload in order to learn how to be a good teacher.  During my time at the Mayor’s office, working on the ASSET program, I pushed for such an induction and mentoring policy, and I will continue to do so on the Board.

I believe deeply that we must support our teachers; we cannot fire our way to success.  The labor pool does not exist to replace a massive amount of teachers in our system, and the resources we would expend would be wasted.  There will always be some number of teachers who should not be teaching; I absolutely support removing such teachers.  However, the vast majority of our teachers want to be good teachers.  The vast majority are good people, committed to Nashville’s children.  I will put in place policies on the Board to support those teachers, and give them the tools they need to be better.

The Alternative Education Agenda

As the 2013 legislative session got underway, I reported on the “tricks and gimmicks” education agenda being offered this year.

At the time, I was hopeful a more reasonable agenda would emerge. An agenda embracing the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement (Article XI, Section 12) that the General Assembly provide for and support a system of free public schools.

So far, in spite of much (well-deserved) criticism of the gimmicks posing as serious education policy, no alternative agenda has surfaced.

Tennessee ranks near the bottom in both investment in public education and key indicators of student achievement.  A correlation I suspect is no accident.

Certainly, we must do something to improve those numbers.  And those offering vouchers, performance pay schemes, and other unproven policies should not be faulted for at least making an effort to change the numbers.

However, none of the current agenda items results in a new investment in Tennessee’s public schools.  So, I’m proposing here the outlines of a new education agenda for Tennessee.  A true path forward that if fully implemented will get positive results.

PRE-K — Tennessee should expand its high-quality, voluntary Pre-K program so that it serves the entire at-risk (Free and Reduced Lunch) population of four-year-olds in the state.  We currently serve just under half of that population in a program started under Governor Don Sundquist and rapidly scaled-up under Governor Bredesen.  The program works.  Kids who complete the Pre-K program are far less likely to drop out of high school or encounter the criminal justice system than their counterparts who don’t have access.  The kids start school ready to learn and stay on track.  Some have criticized the program for “fade-out” — but even the most negative findings show that kids who have Pre-K end third grade working at grade level.  That means the kids end third grade on-track.  And teachers will tell you that a child who is on-track at the end of third grade has a far better chance of succeeding in school than a child who starts Kindergarten behind.  That said, a number of other studies (Tulsa, Chicago) indicate the effects last well beyond third grade.  We’re in a state with a shamefully low number of college graduates — we can’t change that unless more students graduate from high school college ready.  And Pre-K is a long-term, proven policy solution that will help Tennessee meet that goal.

We should expand the Pre-K program to serve all at-risk four-year-olds by 2017. 

 

Improve the BEP.  The Basic Education Program (BEP) is Tennessee’s funding formula for public education.  It’s how the General Assembly proposes to provide for that system of free public schools the Constitution requires.  Of course, the legislature had to be forced into creating the BEP by the state Supreme Court back in 1992 because the system of school funding at the time was ruled inequitable and thus, unconstitutional.

To put it simply, the current BEP is broken.  Most systems hire a number of teachers well beyond the number generated by the BEP formula.  Ask any parent and they’ll tell you textbooks aren’t free.  There are fees for lockers, classroom supplies, and other basics necessary to operating a school.  Some of this is the fault of local governments unwilling to raise sufficient revenue to fund schools adequately.  But in other cases, a local government could increase taxes all day and still not generate sufficient additional revenue to fund a truly free system of public schools.  This is the system our General Assembly allows to persist.  And it’s not working — just look at the results.

The BEP should be adjusted to allow for a more accurate funding of the number of teachers needed in local school systems.  It should account for the importance of school nurses and physical education.  It should be adjusted so that the funds sent to districts for teacher salaries more accurately reflect the dollar amounts needed to attract and retain excellent teachers.

Governor Bredesen and then-Senator Jamie Woodson made some progress on improving the BEP in 2008.  This effort, dubbed BEP 2.0, resulted in significantly greater dollars flowing into many districts, especially those with surging at-risk and ELL (English Language Learners) populations.  However, that plan was never fully-implemented.  Starting with BEP 2.0, lawmakers should build a NEW BEP.

Tennessee policy-makers should build and launch a new BEP formula in time for the 2015-16 academic year.

Invest in early career teachers. It is absolutely imperative that early career teachers receive adequate support and assistance so they develop into excellent teachers.  It’s also critical that those teachers are encouraged to stay in the field.  High teacher turnover costs districts (and taxpayers) money and deprives students of the valuable benefits of strong, stable teachers.  One proven method of retaining new teachers that also results in improved student learning is early career mentoring.  Research at the New Teacher Center suggests that placing a trained mentor with a new teacher in the first two years of teaching both improves teacher retention and shows a positive impact on student learning.

Tennessee policy-makers should build a new teacher mentoring program and ensure every new teacher has a trained mentor by the 2016-17 academic year.

Improve teacher compensation. Tennessee’s teachers are among the lowest-paid in the Southeast. Attracting strong employees and keeping them in the profession requires an investment in those employees.  Beyond early career mentoring and support, teachers should expect to be well-compensated for the important work they do.  Tennessee has a new, more rigorous evaluation system.  It also now takes five years and consecutive strong evaluation scores before a teacher can receive tenure.  That is, there’s more accountability and more being expected of Tennessee’s teachers.  Attracting and keeping teachers in this environment requires a strong compensation plan.  Adopting a state teacher pay scale that ensures that the starting pay for Tennessee teachers is no less than $40,000 in any district is a critical first step.  By using compression, like Metro Nashville Public Schools did, the cost for such a move can be lessened.  Make no mistake, it will take a commitment to investing in teachers to make this dollar amount happen – but our students are worth it.  Following the improvement of starting pay, teacher pay increases should be designed in a smarter way.  Changing the step increases from every year to every 3 years, for example, could yield savings to the state on the front end while also ensuring higher overall pay for teachers throughout their careers.  Metro Nashville teachers now reach the highest step in year 15 — but they will also see higher lifetime earnings because of raises given by the district over time.  It’s a win-win for teachers and for those managing budgets.  While the initial cost of raising teacher starting pay to $40,000 may be significant, it’s also a matter of budgeting priority.  Making teachers a priority tells our kids that education matters and that Tennessee is going to do what it takes to attract and keep the best teachers right here.

Tennessee policy-makers should raise the starting pay for all teachers to $40,000 and adjust the pay scale to improve overall compensation by the 2015-16 academic year.

 

These four items can and should form an alternative education policy agenda for Tennessee.  One that is smart, progressive, and moves our state forward.  Putting schools first is not about party or geographic region, it’s about doing what’s best for our communities and our entire state.

 

 

 

 

 

The Value Proposition for Teachers

I applaud SCORE CEO Jamie Woodson and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman for their column advocating a sharper focus on teacher quality in Tennessee.  They point out that Tennessee’s colleges should be more selective in terms of who enters teacher preparation programs and also that teacher licensure should be a more rigorous process.  These are both laudable goals.

Their basis for making this argument is research suggesting that a child’s teacher is the number one school-based factor influencing student achievement.

Let’s be clear about what this means before we go further.  Most research suggests that school-based factors account for roughly 50% of the impact on student achievement.  Non-school factors (home life, poverty, education level of parents, etc.) account for the other 50%.  Of school-based factors, a child’s teacher can impact up to 50% of student achievement.  That makes it the biggest school-based influencer on student achievement.  But it also means teacher quality accounts for 25% of the impact on student achievement.  75% is beyond the teacher’s control.  At that level, you could have amazing teachers and get the other 75% wrong and the student will still struggle and likely fail.

That said, school systems can only really control school-based factors and of those, teacher quality is the one with the biggest potential for influence.  So, it makes sense to focus attention there.  Of course, it also makes sense to ensure that schools are clean and safe, that class size is optimized, that principals are instructional leaders, and that the overall environment is conducive to learning.  But focusing on teachers from a policy perspective is a sensible approach to impacting student achievement.

So, let’s examine the specific proposals put forth by Huffman and Woodson.  First, they propose a more selective process for admission into teacher preparation programs.  Next, they suggest making licensure a more rigorous process.

Again, both are sensible proposals.

Here’s the challenge in Tennessee.  In order to be more selective about who becomes a candidate for a job or who is admitted to a program, the overall value proposition has to be high.  Fields like law and medicine lure academic high achievers because the outlook for successful completers is positive. Career satisfaction, good pay, prestige.  By contrast, teaching has a low value proposition.  Many teachers in Tennessee will retire never earning what even the average lawyer or doctor makes.  The attrition rate for teaching is high.  Nearly 50% of teachers leave the field in their first five years, according to Richard Ingersoll.  That means teaching is tough and the field weeds out those who can’t or don’t want to do the demanding work involved on the front end.

So, why would a college student choose to submit to a highly selective process for admission to a teacher education program only to enter a field where there’s a good chance they won’t make it past the first five years and if they do, they’ll earn far less than other professionals?  They simply won’t.  Which is why the bar for admission right now is relatively low.

To change this, Tennessee policymakers must stop talking about what they can do TO teachers and start talking about what they can do FOR teachers.

John covered the issue of performance pay in some depth.  However, this plan appears to rely solely on a reallocation or infusion of local dollars to fund a new pay scheme.  There’s no mention of additional state dollars or a revamping of the BEP to allow for the performance pay envisioned in the bill.  Plus, as John points out, a study of performance pay by Vanderbilt of teachers in Tennessee shows such a scheme is not likely to be effective.

What does work, as indicated in this London School of Economics study, is paying teachers more.  The study indicates that raising teacher pay has a clear link to student achievement.  Raise pay 10%, student performance goes up roughly 10%.  Why? Making the field more attractive does two things:  It encourages people to pursue teaching and stay in the field AND it adds to the prestige of the profession (which also helps with retention of high performers).  Metro Nashville Public Schools has some experience with this as when they moved to a new pay scale setting a minimum salary of $40,000 ($6,000 more than it had been) and enabling teachers to reach the top of the scale in 15 years rather than 25, they saw three times as many applicants for teaching jobs than they had in the past.  The value proposition went up and MNPS was able to choose among applicants for the best fits for open positions.

Of course, changing the value proposition is not just about paying teachers more.  It is also about ensuring they have the support they need to succeed.

One area of support is meaningful induction.  That means a focused mentoring program in the first two to three years of a teacher’s career.  Research at the New Teacher Center suggests that a meaningful induction program improves both teacher retention AND student learning.  Tennessee has no comprehensive teacher induction program and no funding on the table to support such a plan.

Yes, we should accelerate our efforts around teacher quality in Tennessee.  But if we focus solely on doing to instead of for teachers, we’ll run out of gas (and teachers) before we get very far down the road.