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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.

Back at Jefferson Avenue, Barattini quietly joins a circle of kindergartners playing with building blocks on the floor. Today, the group is attentive until it's time to put the blocks away. Kids are running for the basket, and the teacher is yelling for them to sit. Barattini quietly models her classroom-management technique. "Everybody have a seat, have a seat, have a seat. Everybody have a seat, on the floor," she sings in a whisper, sitting cross-legged on the floor. "Not on the ceiling, not on the door, everybody have a seat on the floor." Soon, the class is in order. An hour later, after a whispered conference with the teacher, Barattini is off to see another young teacher. "Part of the reason I spend so much time with them is that I really feel responsible for their success," says Barattini, who oversees five interns in three different buildings.

Rochester's program, developed jointly by the union and the administration, was lauded as revolutionary when it was introduced. The four-step career ladder begins with new teachers, called "interns," who are assigned mentors who help evaluate their performance. At the end of the year, both mentors and the interns' principals submit recommendations to a joint panel of six lead teachers and six administrators about whether to retain the intern. Approximately 10 percent are not rehired. Those who are become "resident teachers." Once they receive state certification (and tenure), they move up to the rank of "professional teacher," where they are eligible for the district's lead-teacher positions.

Lead teachers on the joint review panels also recommend ways of dealing with underperforming teachers, sometimes voting to withhold pay increases or to require emergency intervention by a mentor. "To have teachers involved in evaluations was viewed as heresy and betrayal," recalls Adam Urbanski, longtime president of the Rochester Teachers Association. "But taking responsibility for who qualifies to become a teacher and who deserves to remain a teacher is the job, first and foremost, of teachers themselves."

The teachers in Rochester fought for this power, yet it collides with a fundamental part of teaching culture—a close-knit, communal environment in which everyone expects equal treatment. "This doesn't exist in very many places very effectively," says Katherine P. Boles, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former lead teacher in Brookline, MA. "The big issue for teacher leadership is changing the culture of the school." Because the teaching culture is not typically hierarchical, says Boles, "it's hard for teachers to imagine assuming a leadership role if we're all equal."

University of Illinois researcher Mark Smylie says this sense of equality and collegiality has been a major impediment for lead-teacher programs. For a 1997 article in the International Handbook of Teachers and Teaching, Smylie analyzed 208 studies on teacher leadership programs before 1996 and found that their effect on school culture was mixed. Some studies found lead-teacher programs led to "new cooperation, collaboration, and collegial spirit among teachers and administrators," while others reported increased "tension and conflict." Effective programs included clear job descriptions understood by teachers, administrators, and union leaders; release time from the classroom for lead teachers; and a precedent for teacher leadership in the school. Successful mentoring programs required training for mentors, matched them with interns in the same grade level and subject area, and recruited senior teachers who could balance mentoring work with their own classroom work.

However, Smylie also found that many lead-teacher programs were undermined either by oppostion from principals or the discomfort of teachers, especially about mentors' roles in evaluating teachers. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers recently proposed a career-ladder program similar to Rochester's, which is being piloted in District 27 in Queens. The administrators' union, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, filed a grievance to stop the pilot program. Union president Jill Levy argues that teachers are taking over principals' jobs: "This is nonsense. It undercuts our authority. If they want to do administrative work, they should become principals."

In Rochester, 2nd-grade teacher Lynn Gatto raises a more fundamental question: If the best teachers are mentoring, who's teaching the kids? Gatto—winner of a 1997 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching and is active in the reform movement—has not pursued a mentor position because she believes her skills are best used in the classroom. However, lead teachers say they can benefit their students in other ways than direct teaching. "When I taught, I felt I only affected the kids in front of me. With this, I affect five times as many kids," says David Gizzi, himself a former intern.
That kind of challenge can help keep talented teachers from burning out, which is a primary goal of the Milken Family Foundation's Teacher Advancement Program. The program, being piloted in five Arizona schools in the 2000-2001 school year and another nine in South Carolina in 2001-2002, includes six different types of teaching positions, an hour a day for professional development work, monetary bonuses linked to student performance, and part-time teaching opportunities for professionals from other fields. The career program's top rung is occupied by master teachers, who are paid an additional $7,000 a year and are in the classroom half-time. The rest of their day is spent leading teachers in their subject area in daily "professional-development blocks," where teachers conduct peer reviews or try new curriculum materials. "For a long time, the same teachers took on leadership roles with no economic compensation," says Linda Califano, the principal at Madison Rose Lane Elementary School, a pilot school in Phoenix. "Now they're saying, 'You're going to pay me for that?' It's an incentive for people to remain in the profession."

Of course, while such programs sound good, many argue they should also be judged by how well they affect children's learning. Mark Smylie found that in several surveys conducted of teachers and administrators, the majority reported positive effects on student achievement. Similar findings were released by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Of Missouri's 524 school districts, 309 participate in a career-ladder program, which requires teachers to work a certain number of hours outside the classroom. Researchers compared the standardized test scores of schools with at least three years in the career-ladder program to those that didn't participate. In the 1999-2000 school year, "the schools that have career-ladder programs had a significantly higher percentage of students in the top two levels for elementary school students in math, science, and communication arts than the non-career-ladder schools," according to the researchers.

In Rochester, the district's department of Research, Evaluation, Testing and Records tracked student performance on the New York State English Language Arts 4th-Grade Assessment. It found that students with "mentored teachers had ... a higher English Language Arts performance, even after controlling for teaching experience and the 3rd-grade performance of the students." Plus, the number of first-year teachers in the 4th grade increased from nine to 31 over the past two years, "while student performance on the English Language Arts assessment has substantially increased."

Many educators are disappointed with the Rochester experiment because so many of the original positions have been cut. Still, there's evidence that Rochester's Career in Teaching Program has improved communication among teachers and between teachers and administrators, who treat each other more like colleagues than they used to, says program director Carl O'Connell. "When they're sitting on [an evaluation] panel, you can't tell the administrators from the teachers," he says. "They argue about their philosophies rather than their job descriptions."

At one time, O'Connell says, becoming an administrator was the only way talented teachers could advance their career. Now he hopes a growing number of them will find those opportunities within their own profession.

Education writer Karen Kelly is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Education Letter.

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.

Milken Family Foundation
, 1250 4th St., Santa Monica, CA 90401.

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.