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June 27, 2008

The Importance of Getting the Right Mentor

Jonah Rockoff
Assistant Professor, Finance and Economics
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While the No Child Left Behind Act gets most of the spotlight these days, there are many new strategies for improving our public school system that have been implemented in recent decades. One strategy that has gained popularity over the last ten years is mentoring for new teachers, which aims to increase teacher retention by pairing rookie teachers with veterans who can ease their transition.

In an effort to reduce turnover, the NYC Department of Education established a formal teacher-mentoring program several years ago based on a nationally recognized model. Recently, I studied the effects of this program on New York teachers.

One of the most interesting findings was that teachers were more likely to return the following year if they were assigned a mentor that used to work in their school. In contrast, it did not seem to matter whether their mentors had many years of experience, used to teach the same subject as them, or had a similar demographic background — things that you’d think might be characteristics of an effective mentor.

What this signals to me is that what is important in the mentoring process in regards to retention is providing employees with what economists call location-specific or firm-specific human capital. Learning how to navigate the local environment seems to be an important issue for new teachers, whether it is dealing with the school administration, connecting with the particular kinds of students at the school or understanding other local institutions. Mentors can even help provide some of the small details that make life on the job easier, like where to get a good, inexpensive lunch or how to shorten the morning commute.

Finding policies that reduce teacher turnover are important for two reasons. First, research that I and other economists have done shows that more experienced teachers are more effective at raising student achievement. Second, turnover is typically highest in the schools serving the most disadvantaged kids. Quite simply, more experienced teachers tend to migrate to schools with fewer poor and low-achieving students. So, the benefits of increasing retention among new teachers are going to accrue to the children who need the most help.

Turnover is an important issue that all firms face, not just in teaching, and the lessons from my work with teachers in New York can also apply to professional development and training in other industries and occupations. One way to reduce turnover is through financial incentives, but another important tool is giving employees the support that makes their job more pleasurable and less stressful. Mentoring — with an eye towards local issues — is a policy worthy of attention.

Yesterday was the last day of school in the New York public school system.