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Stronger Mentors Produce Stronger Teachers

A period of practice teaching under the tutelage of an experienced teacher has been a hallmark of traditional teacher preparation since before there were alternative routes to the classroom. Yet we know surprisingly little about the effects of  mentors on their aspiring proteges. A new study by Matthew Ronfeldt, Stacey Brockman, and Shanyce Campbell helps fill the void, marshaling data on 3,200 mentors and their 2,900 pre-service proteges to find evidence consistent with an intuitively compelling idea: that mentor teachers should be among the most effective available, and that their mentoring of pre-service or student teachers pays off for students.

Reported in an article in this month’s Educational Researcher, the evidence deserves attention for three reasons. First, the work shows audacity in seeking evidence of highly intuitive yet empirically elusive phenomenon. In this sense, the new study brings to mind Northwestern economist Kirabo Jackson’s 2009 article on peer-effects among teachers. Jackson found that students of teachers with observably stronger colleagues score better than students of otherwise similar teachers with inferior colleagues. And one can think of the new study as addressing a special case of peer effects among teachers.

Second, Ronfeldt and his co-authors have begun to fill a void in the literature that answers opponents of alternative certification. Now, research shows that student-teachers who work with highly rated mentors receive higher observational and value-added scores during their first years of teaching. The conclusion would be strengthened by replication studies finding the same results, but the new evidence is compelling.

Third, the research suggests that policymakers would be wise to reconsider the compensation of mentor teachers. Such teachers typically receive a very modest stipend for their efforts. If we really want effective teachers involved in mentoring pre-service teachers, some realignment of resources may be in order. The “master’s bump” and the tight link between salary and years of experience still dominate teacher compensation, in part for lack of alternative ideas that teachers can get behind. Shifting resources to demonstrably effective mentor teachers would be step in the right direction.