Novice-Teacher Support Programs Aim to Stem Attrition at Low-Performing Schools

By Daniel de Vise and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 27, 2009

In previous generations, the induction ceremony for a new teacher in a low-income part of the Washington region might have consisted of a handshake from the principal and a handoff of classroom keys.

Today's novice, by contrast, gets an outpouring of support: a week of new-teacher seminars, regular follow-up meetings with a trained mentor, even cash incentives to stay at the school.

At Flower Valley Elementary School in Rockville, Koko Lawrence was a typical first-year teacher: good at some things, shaky at others, full of potential but lacking confidence. About Thanksgiving, she met with her mentor, Theresa Nebel Robinson, in her darkened kindergarten classroom, the desks covered with crumbs from snack time.

"How is your class doing?" Robinson asked.

"Okay," Lawrence said. "Still chatty."

The support initiatives have appeared in the past two decades and have steadily expanded, although they now appear vulnerable to shrinking budgets in some places. They aim to address the cycle of attrition that fills some of the neediest schools with some of the least-prepared teachers.

A Washington Post analysis shows students in the region's poorest communities are almost twice as likely to be taught by a first- or second-year teacher as those in the wealthiest communities, mirroring a national problem. Research shows beginning teachers are often less effective than tenured veterans.

"Our new teachers have to learn quickly. They have to learn everything quickly. They have no time to ease into it," said Sharon Hodges, coordinating supervisor for teacher leadership in Prince George's County schools, where more than a quarter of teachers are in their first or second year.

The Prince George's and Anne Arundel county school systems, both with large concentrations of new teachers in low-income communities, offer extra pay to teachers willing to work in certain schools that are low-performers or hard to staff. D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee proposes an ambitious incentive: as much as $20,000 a year for raising scores in a low-income neighborhood school. Together, the three school systems account for 92 of the 93 schools in the region where at least 30 percent of teachers were found to be in their first or second year, according to The Post's analysis of 2007-08 data. (The 93rd is Key Center, a special needs campus in Fairfax County.)

Nationwide, schools in low-income communities lose 21 percent of their teachers every year, while those in more affluent areas lose 14 percent, according to the Education Department. Academic malaise and discipline problems drive many teachers out of schools in low-income areas. Half of all teachers quit within five years.

Mentoring is an unheralded but pervasive reform that has swept public schools during the past 20 years to stem the exodus.

In the District and Montgomery County, full-time mentors are dispatched from the central office to observe a new teacher's lessons and to offer tips on how to decorate a classroom bulletin board or build a class library. In Fairfax, Prince William and Arlington counties, the mentor is a specially trained teacher at the school.

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