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Volume 17, Number 3
May/June 2001

Teachers Helping Teachers

Lead-teacher programs that once promised to attract fresh talent to schools by providing teachers with richer opportunities have waned


On a November afternoon, Valerie Barattini is driving through downtown Rochester, NY, on the way to visit a first-year kindergarten teacher and her class. "I have to warn you—it'll be a bit chaotic," she says. "My plan is to help this teacher find ways to keep the kids' attention. We have to start with that before we can even think of moving on to instruction." As a mentor-teacher, Barattini spends half her time tutoring and evaluating first-year recruits. She says the position has given her a chance to develop new skills after spending 20 years in the classroom. Once she arrives at the Jefferson Avenue Family Learning Center, she peers into the class. "It's going to take a lot of work in here," she says. "But I have a plan and I'm going with it."

When Rochester started its Career in Teaching Plan in 1987, only 60 percent of new teachers got to their second year. By 1999, that number had jumped to 86 percent. In a district where 80 percent of students live in povery and many are developmentally disabled, that first year of teaching is a shock for many recruits, says program director Carl O'Connell. Many arrive with just a few education courses and a little student teaching experience. "Most say they would have left in the first three weeks if it weren't for their mentor," says O'Connell, who oversees 200 mentors and 527 first-year teachers. "We're turning to the experts—the best teachers—to provide them with one-on-one training."

Rochester's lead-teacher program is one of the few still thriving. Lead-teacher and career-ladder programs gained popularity in the 1980s as a means to provide veteran teachers with opportunities to advance their careers and to attract more top-notch college students into the schools. The hope was to transform teaching into a true profession, providing for mentoring and administration. But few lead-teacher programs survived the budget cuts, turf wars, and administrative turnovers that have plagued districts like Rochester. In 1986, 29 states were either implementing or already required career-ladder programs for teachers, which usually include lead teacher positions. Today only a few states, including Arizona, Utah, and Missouri, still provide funding. The result is that the once-promising effort to create a new generation of teacher leaders has stalled.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

G. Grant and C.E. Murray. Teaching in America: The Slow Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

K. Leithwood. Teacher Leadership: Its Nature, Development and Impact on Schools and Students. Toronto: University of Toronto, Center for Leadership Development, October 2000.

A. MacGowan. Policy Perspective: Evidence of Significantly Positive Effects of the RCSD Mentor Program. Rochester, NY: Rochester City School District, Department of Research, Evaluation, Testing and Records, November 2000.

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C.E. Murray, G. Grant, and R. Swaminathan. "Rochester's Reforms: The Right Prescription?" Phi Delta Kappan 79, no. 2 (1997): 148-155.

P. Phillips. Influence of Career Ladder Programs on Student Performance. Jefferson City, MO: Missouri Department of Education, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, January 2000.

M. Smylie. "Research on Teacher Leadership: Assessing the State of the Art." In B.J. Biddle et al., eds., International Handbook of Teachers and Teaching. New York: Kluwer Academic, 1997: 521-592.