Mentoring not so GOLDEN

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Last school year, Chicago Public Schools hired over 2,700 new teachers. Before the end of the year, nearly 200 had quit, leaving not just their schools but the district.

A similar scenario has played out for each of the last several years. In 2003, Catalyst Chicago reported that new teachers were leaving the district at a faster clip than 10 years ago (See “More new teachers leaving CPS,” Nov. 2003). Since then, while attrition in teachers’ second and third years has slowed somewhat, more new teachers are quitting before their first year is complete.

Good mentoring can make a critical difference in keeping new teachers on the job. But CPS’ core mentoring program, called GOLDEN, has not lived up to its name and needs a substantial increase in funding to fulfill its potential, say outside observers. Pending legislation in both Congress and the Illinois Legislature would address the funding issue, although CPS would not automatically benefit.

Launched in 2003, GOLDEN—which stands for Guidance, Orientation and Leadership Development Empowering New Teachers—has had its budget cut from $3.4 million in 2003 to $3 million now. One expert notes that Chicago’s budget is about one-tenth of what New York City spends on mentoring.

More mentors have been trained and are now working through GOLDEN, but the number of schools served has dropped.

The decline is due to school closings and an increase in the number of schools participating in alternative support programs, says Karen Cushing, program coordinator at the CPS Department of Learning and Development.

Those alternatives—including a support network for newcomers and an initiative that matches retirees with first-year teachers—offer intensive training and support. But only about 280 newly hired teachers are currently involved with the alternatives. In contrast, 1,742 first- and second-year teachers are participating in GOLDEN.

Through GOLDEN, mentors receive two days of training in topics such as content knowledge and pedagogy, adult learning theory, communication skills, strategies for providing constructive feedback, classroom observation skills, problem-solving skills, formative assessment and self-assessment, Cushing says.

But some observers say one-on-one time between mentors and new teachers is lacking because of inadequate funding.

“The district seems determined to support its first-year teachers with really scarce resources,” says Timothy Knowles, executive director of the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago. “That’s really, really hard work given what we know nationally about what good teacher support requires, and the costs of it.”

Knowles estimates that GOLDEN spends about $800 to $1,000 per teacher. Meanwhile, organizations like the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future and the New Teacher Center at the University of California-Santa Cruz believe mentoring programs need to spend closer to $5,500 to $6,000 per teacher to be effective.

“At $800 per new teacher, you have to stretch those dollars really far,” Knowles says. As a result, GOLDEN “probably doesn’t provide the kind of direct support in the classroom for new teachers that can make the biggest difference in terms of whether they stay.”

Amanda Rivera, CPS director of learning and development, doesn’t foresee the district approaching anywhere near the recommended per-teacher funding without more state money. The district’s current spending “is not enough to do what we need to do,” she acknowledges. One-on-one time between mentor and mentee and more in-depth training are needed, Rivera says.

Tom Carroll, president of the national teaching commission, credits CPS for establishing training, networking opportunities and a “clear structure of interaction between the mentors and the mentees.” He believes GOLDEN has had a modestly positive effect.

“It’s going in the right direction,” Carroll says. “You need more mentors with more time to work with new teachers because the payoff is clearly there.” The program “needs to be much bigger, much more intensive [with] more contact time between the mentors and the mentees.”

Illinois requires districts to establish mentoring programs, which new teachers must complete to gain full professional status, says Audrey Soglin, director of the Center for Educational Innovation at the Illinois Education Association. Programs must include observation of the new teacher by the mentor, an opportunity for the new teacher to observe other veterans and “some way of giving formative feedback,” she explains.

Soglin also serves as executive director of the Consortium for Educational Change, a network of 56 districts (not including CPS) that helped develop criteria for the programs.

But, says Soglin, accountability is lacking. While districts may have “the right stuff on paper,” she points out, many may not follow through because the state does not provide funding and many districts are strapped for cash.

An infusion of funding would help provide relief time for mentors to observe new teachers, for new teachers to observe veterans, and for both to attend training sessions and participate in networking, Soglin says. “One of the things we find challenging is taking on mentoring on top of a full [teaching] load,” she says.

A $4 million proposal pending in the Illinois Legislature would fund between six and 12 pilot programs in selected districts, providing up to the recommended $6,000 per teacher spending level.

A similar program is now in place in California, Soglin says.

“The intent [is] to show the effect a high-quality, well-funded mentoring program can have on both teacher retention and student achievement, to try to urge [lawmakers] to broaden funding beyond the pilots,” she says.

One provision in the program would allow mentors to be released from classroom duties either full time or part time. Mentoring “would be a teacher’s job, instead of trying to do everything he or she is already trying to do,” Soglin says. “They could then mentor between 12 and 16 new teachers.”

Innovation districts

While Carroll estimates that Chicago’s investment in mentoring is similar to that of other large urban districts, he notes that New York City, which is working with the New Teacher Center, has invested $30 million per year.

“It’s probably the biggest mentoring program in the country,” he says. “They have more training, and they have more contact time between mentors and teachers.”

Carroll notes that a few other cities have launched innovative mentoring programs: Boston, which has received significant foundation support; and Chattanooga and Memphis, Tenn., both of which have received state support, along with foundations in Chattanooga. “We think those are interesting models,” Carroll says. “They’re happening only in a few places, but they’re very effective.”

To expand and support such models nationwide, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama has introduced legislation to create 20 “Innovation Districts” that would focus on improving teacher recruitment, training and retention. The legislation would provide $1.5 billion, and would provide raises for higher-performing teachers and financial incentives to those willing to work in low-income schools.

Having a strong plan to mentor and retain new teachers would be a major determining factor in selecting the 20 districts, says Steve Robinson, a high school teacher who is serving as a one-year fellow in Obama’s office.

“If you want to have good teachers, you don’t place them in a classroom with a bunch of kids and let them sort it out for the first few years,” Robinson says, adding that doing so leads to greater turnover and, in turn, higher costs. “It’s pretty expensive to bring in new teachers every couple of years. If you can cut down on that, then a proposal like this, after awhile, is not that expensive.”

Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.