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This State Is Reimagining How to Mentor Teachers in Alternative-Certification Programs

29-TeacherPD-Coaches-Teach-blog.jpgTeachers who enter the profession through alternative-certification programs quit at higher rates, research has found—and experts have pointed to these teachers' feelings of preparedness in the first years on the job as a potential factor.

In Louisiana, almost 20 percent of teachers who are prepared through alternative routes leave the profession after just two years, compared to the 12 percent of teachers who go to a traditional college of education. This is especially notable because half of aspiring educators in the Bayou State are prepared through alternative-certification programs. Teachers in these programs hold an undergraduate degree outside the education field and complete their training while serving as a lead teacher.

"Access to high-quality preparation is ultimately an equity issue," said Hannah Dietsch, the department's assistant superintendent for talent. "I think you would see across the country, and it's true in Lousiana as well, our most challenging schools have the most limited access to teachers who are fully prepared for the classroom."

While the state requires candidates in alternative-certification programs to have a school-based mentor as they teach while working toward a full license, the amount of time they actually spend with those mentors varies from place to place. According to a new report from the Louisiana Department of Education, this can result in "first-year teachers who have had minimal practice and who are, therefore, more likely to struggle in their first year." 

But a paid, full-year residency model for alternatively certified teachers would be prohibitively expensive for schools, the report noted. Instead, the department set up a pilot program this year for school districts to experiment with innovative approaches to supporting alternative-certification candidates. 

This school year, eight rural Louisiana districts received planning grants from the state to support 38 alternative-certification candidates who are teaching in 16 schools. The logistics vary from place to place—but on average, in each program, candidates receives a full period of support from their mentor each day. Mentors engage in co-teaching and planning with their mentee. 

The pilot programs have increased the amount of practice alternatively certified teachers receive by 350 percent, the department estimates. 

While each school system received, on average, about $30,000 from the state to cover the cost of design and implementation, the pilot programs became cost-neutral, Dietsch said. That was accomplished, she said, "by making adjustments to the schedule of the school day and also how classes are organized." For example, one school system both increased class sizes and shifted staff members from overstaffed schools to the mentor's school to reduce the number of periods that a mentor teacher had to teach each day.

In October, the department surveyed the participating alternative-certification candidates, mentors, and school system leaders to assess the progress of the pilot programs. Interestingly, the candidates expressed a desire for even more time to co-teach with their mentors, and mentors wanted more time to observe their candidates.

"I think the vast majority of teachers are improvement-oriented," Dietsch said. "They want to grow in their careers, they want to get better at what they do. They want mentoring and support in order to continue on that path." 

Now, the department plans to publish a toolkit for school systems across the state in January that will give recommendations for analyzing schedules and class structures to make this model work. The department will also explore whether to propose policy changes to the state board of education, such as increasing the minimum requirements for how much mentoring alternatively certified candidates need.  

"I feel like the only limit to scale is [having enough] high-quality mentors," Dietsch said.

To address that issue, the department is simultaneusly building a cadre of trained mentors—classroom teachers picked by their school district who learn how to support new and developing teachers.

This work started last fall. To date, 862 teachers have been trained as high-quality mentors, according to the department. The goal is to have at least 2,500 trained mentors by 2020. 

A recent study found that teachers tended to be more effective at raising students' test scores if they were supervised during student teaching by a mentor teacher who was better than average, too. 

And this work is aligned with Louisiana's other major goal: By the 2019-20 school year, all teacher candidates in a traditional undergraduate program will go through a yearlong residency under the tutelage of an experienced mentor. This year, 39 percent of undergraduate candidates are completing yearlong residencies. That work is being funded by Title II federal funds

"Teaching is dynamic, it is challenging, it is also something that's incredibly rewarding," Dietsch said. "But it's not something that can be learned in six weeks." 

Image: An induction coach takes notes as a new teacher teaches a reading lesson. —Liz Martin for Education Week/File

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