Latest Push for Teacher Quality: Better Mentoring of Classroom Rookies

August 8, 2013

Professional mentors for new teachers have been long been recognized as critical to boosting teacher quality, guiding the rookies in New Jersey and elsewhere through what can be a brutal first year in the classroom.

But the quality of the mentoring has also long been viewed as inconsistent, at best, and often depends on the district or even the individuals involved.

The Christie administration is hoping to improve on this situation by changing the requirements for choosing and training mentors, strengthening some rules and easing others.

For instance, only teachers who themselves are judged as “effective” or “highly effective” under the new teacher evaluations would be eligible to serve as mentors, and training will need to cover specific areas.

Further, developing the mentoring plan will be strictly up to the district superintendent, removing local committees and teachers from the equation.

“Mentoring is one of those things like motherhood and apple pie that is hard to be against, but data has shown that many programs have low effectiveness,” said state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, in presenting the new code to the state Board of Education yesterday.

“So, it is not about just having a mentoring program, but having a quality mentoring program,” he said.

As far back as former Gov. Christie Whitman’s administration, districts have been required to provide professional mentors to advise and counsel novice teachers. While the regulations require districts to have a full mentoring plan in place, however, they remain largely silent on what it should encompass.

This has led to a notoriously inconsistent state of affairs, with novice teachers in some districts being coached by highly trained and involved peers, while in other districts they get little more than a monthly meeting with someone who barely has seen them at work.

At the same time, it is often left to teachers to pay the required $500 fee to the mentors themselves. Under Whitman, the state once paid the stipend but that was discontinued after only a year or two.

The proposed regulations are meant to address some of those issues, administration officials said. They come on the heels of the state’s new teacher tenure law, which reinforced the requirements for mentors of first-year teachers, as well as those new to a school. Among its edicts, the law required that mentor programs be “research-based.”

The new program proposed by the Christie administration includes basic frameworks for selecting and training mentors. For example, mentors would need to be skilled in how teachers are observed in the classroom and how new national curriculum standards are applied.

The proposal met little resistance when it came before the state board yesterday, with some board members stressing that training mentors is essential.

“I know you said you don’t want this to be prescriptive about training, but that really is the heart of this, ” said Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers education professor on the board.

“It has gotten better, but [the training of mentors] can really make or break a program,” she said.

State officials said they were spelling out broad parameters for the training but didn't want to be too prescriptive. In general, the Christie administration has sought to scale back regulations on school districts.

‘We are trying not to be too heavy handed, but at the same time feel there are certain things that should be in there,” said assistant commissioner Peter Shulman, who’s office oversees teacher quality programs.

The state’s leading school organizations said the proposals were a good start, although they hope for some changes as the regulations move through the approval process. Yesterday, the code received a first reading before the state board, and will see several more months of review.

“The quality of programs now vary broadly across the state,” said Patricia Wright, executive director of the state’s principals and supervisors association. ”I’m not sure the new regulations alone will address that, but I’m looking forward to further guidance from the state.”

The state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, also said it supported the specifics being proposed for selecting and training mentors.

“Clearly these are steps in the right direction, but we are still hoping for a more formalized process to be put forth,” said Lisa Galley, an NJEA associate director of communications who attended the state board meeting.

“And we are hoping the state will impress upon districts how important this is,” she added.