Bob Love, a retired Chicago Bulls star, stands chuckling on stage at Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square, a chain of plastic links stretched across his exceptional armspan. A 3rd-grade boy calmly holds up one end; a 2nd-grade girl strains on tiptoes to hold up the other.
“We’re going to measure Mr. Love’s armspan and height,” lab teacher Raquel Gonzalez announces to an auditorium packed with primary students. “I need everybody to count with me.” Gonzalez points to each link while the kids count aloud. A gasp goes up at the total. “Sixty! Whoa!” Love’s height turns out to be nearly as impressive—a whopping 59 links.
Love’s visit to Brentano is the grand finale to a schoolwide science project aimed at learning a scientific concept: the human body is mathematically proportioned. During the project, students also learned about the scientific process as they predicted outcomes of their experiment, accurately measured a partner’s arm-span and height and communicated findings with a graph.
Just a few years ago, math and science at Brentano was “no fun” at all, according to Principal Reynes Reyes. Teachers lectured, students answered textbook questions. But after Brentano brought in the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science (TAMS), a local non-profit agency, teachers began replacing lectures with hands-on activities. With TAMS, teachers got in-depth courses, coaching in the classroom and time to collaborate—the kind of professional development that experts advocate to improve teaching nationwide.
TAMS cost Brentano substantial time and money, $25,000 in training and another $25,000 in materials. The payoff, says Reyes, has been no less impressive: better-skilled teachers, more enthusiastic students and substantial gains in scores on standardized math and science tests.
Nationally, there is growing recognition that professional development is an essential element of school improvement. Since the early 1980s, the country has sunk millions of dollars into creating higher standards for all students, tests to measure student learning and new classroom technology, “but no money on assuring our teachers have the skills to use them,” according to Terry Dozier, the Secretary’s Special Advisor on Teaching at the U.S. Department of Education.
“People are beginning to realize that if we don’t focus on teachers’ knowledge and skills, all those other improvements are going to buy us very little,” she says.
Locally, the story is much the same. To break the inertia that gripped Chicago’s public schools, the 1988 Reform Act shifted power from central office to local school councils. Some schools leapt to improve teacher training, but most grappled instead with more obvious needs such as organizing council meetings or improving school safety. Now, observers note a sharpened focus on staff development, spurred either by national attention to the issue, new foundation dollars or the threat of probation—depending on whom you ask.
The need for better staff development appears acute. A 1992 survey conducted by the independent Consortium on Chicago School Research found that a third of elementary school principals believe that half or fewer of the teachers at their own schools have a good grasp of language arts instruction, which includes reading and writing. Even more principals cited teacher deficiencies in math, social studies and science.
Meanwhile, a 1997 Consortium survey of teachers suggests that while they spend a great deal of time on professional development, it doesn’t amount to much. For one, many schools seem to be sampling from a smorgasbord of programs, with no coherent plan and too little time devoted to any one topic.
“I think all of us have been in schools where it’s clear that the staff are working very hard, but their efforts aren’t adding up to real change or improvement,” says Consortium Study Director BetsAnn Smith.
Among experts, a clear consensus has emerged on what it takes to build a skilled faculty. First, professional development should be part of a long-term, schoolwide plan focused on specific goals for improving student achievement. Second, teachers need sustained learning in both content knowledge and teaching strategies. Third, as teachers hone their skills, they need both coaching in the classroom and time to discuss instruction with their peers.
Teachers and experts alike denounce what traditionally has passed for staff development—districtwide inservice days where teachers sit for hours listening to experts lecture on topics chosen by district bureaucrats.
“If you wanted to evaluate the quality of staff development nationwide, you would find it was one of the most poorly done activities,” says Margaret Harrigan, a former Chicago principal, district superintendent and human resources director who is now on the faculty at the DePaul University School of Education. “Somebody decides [that teachers] need to be fixed, and so they arrange for a fix. And it isn’t meaningful.”
Staff development tends to be most meaningful when organized with teacher input by schools themselves, with districts playing a guiding and supporting role, experts say.
In Chicago, reform helped shift professional development efforts to the school level. Prior to 1988, subdistricts controlled staff development money. While some distributed those funds directly to schools, most subjected teachers to workshops of the traditional sort.
The 1997 Consortium survey found that teachers now receive most staff development through their schools rather than from courses organized by central office, universities or the Chicago Teachers Union. Most teachers surveyed gave high marks to their staff development experiences; however, a third said they did not address the needs of their students. Harrigan believes many principals still fail to seek teacher input.
The professional development that teachers pursue on their own also may fail to address their students’ needs. As a rule, school districts give pay increases for coursework beyond a bachelor’s degree but set few restrictions on the kinds of courses that qualify. In Chicago, only courses in medicine, law and religion are off-limits; virtually anything else may count toward so-called lane credit. An 8th-grade science teacher, for instance, could move up a pay lane with graduate courses in fine arts or business—provided they were offered through an accredited institution.
Classroom teachers earn degrees in counseling and administration far more often than they do in English, history, math or science, according to Harrigan. “Very few teachers take courses in the subject areas in which they are teaching,” she says.
About half of Chicago’s some 27,000 teachers have earned raises based on additional study. This school year, those lane credits will cost at least $47 million in salaries alone, according to a CATALYST analysis of School Board data.
Even when teachers do take courses related to classroom teaching, they may not receive the necessary support at their schools to adopt new practices. For example, one 1st-grade teacher at a South Side school earned a master’s degree that focused on “cooperative learning,” a teaching strategy that can boost student achievement. Back in the classroom, she couldn’t figure out how to keep kids from copying each other’s work, and there was no one around to help her. Now, her students again sit in rows and work alone.
No one is suggesting that teachers should stop doing graduate work, says Barry Bull, a researcher at the Indiana Education Policy Center at Indiana University at Bloomington. “But that kind of individual improvement doesn’t add up to school improvement,” he says. “It’s simply too fragmented.”
Instead, professional development choices should be tailored to priorities for raising student achievement at a particular school. A school team should then draw up a long-term plan for what teachers need to learn in order to move students ahead.
Pursuing professional development as a team also can boost teachers’ camaraderie and commitment to reaching common goals, Bull believes. The team approach makes it easier for teachers to help each other, too. With long-term planning, teachers can be assured sufficient time for mastering new strategies. And a focused plan keeps a school from taking on too many improvements at once.
Typically, school reforms are driven by fads rather than long-term plans, and schools hop from program to program in search of a quick fix for low achievement. As a result, teachers may grow cynical and reluctant to try new ideas.
“Teachers have been trained very well to hold their noses, close their eyes, shut their doors and wait until ‘this too has passed,'” says Judith Rényi, executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education at the National Education Association. “If teachers are going to go to the trouble of learning something new, they have to know it’s going to stay around.”
TAMS Executive Director Lourdes Monteagudo has found that schools making the best gains with the program are the ones that concentrated all their efforts on it. “The worst schools are the ones that have 20 things going on, and they can’t focus on any of them,” she notes.
At Brentano, focusing on TAMS meant dropping lots of smaller math programs that a number of universities were piloting at the school. “With so many programs running simultaneously, it was hard to measure which programs were helping students’ achievement and which weren’t,” notes Principal Reyes.
Selecting a single professional development program for math and science put everyone on the same page, he says. “It made it easier for teachers to collaborate, it made it easier for me to supervise the programs, and it made it easier for the students–[giving them] more continuity from grade to grade.”
A 1995 Consortium survey found half of Chicago’s elementary teachers felt that programs at their schools were at least somewhat uncoordinated; 43 percent reported so many programs they couldn’t keep track of them. Almost half said programs tend to come and go.
Typically, professional development programs are judged by “the happiness quotient,” or how well teachers enjoyed them. Experts say a school instead should use hard data such as standardized test scores, attendance rates and samples of student work. If professional development is not leading to increased student learning, a school needs to determine why and revise its long-term plan accordingly.
Some professional development programs do produce better results than others. Many educators have found that general teaching strategies, such as how to reach children with different “learning styles,” tend to be less effective than those that address a specific content area at a specific grade level. In addition, most teachers need more study in content areas, experts say.
To win certification in Illinois, elementary teachers are required to take only six semester hours of math and 12 of science; they often choose the watered-down courses aimed at education majors. In the primary area of reading, only two semester hours are required.
Through TAMS, Brentano teachers took 60 hours of courses that covered scientific concepts such as ecosystems, adaptation, mass and weight. Sixth-grade teacher Marianne Shimkus says she’s now able to teach some of these concepts in greater depth. “It makes us more confident,” she says of the TAMS training. “One thing about students—they know if you don’t know. And nobody can put you on the spot like an 11-year-old.”
TAMS instructors also covered the nitty-gritty details of instruction, such as how to ensure that each student masters a particular skill. For example, the first time 2nd-graders measure objects in the science lab, they generally come up with the wrong numbers. Before TAMS, says lab teacher Raquel Gonzalez, “I would have said, ‘That’s not how you do it.’ I would have done it myself and left it at that.” Now she has her students repeat the experiment and coaches each pair.
Gonzalez says her undergraduate education classes tended to overlook the practical details. For instance, she learned to design science units that would “wow” her students but not how to teach them to a class of 30. “I have units from school that are just sitting there because I don’t know how to get them together,” she says.
Undergraduate education courses have long been criticized as more theoretical than practical. In response, many Chicago colleges of education have upgraded their programs to include more classroom skills and more hours of student teaching. But even a solid undergraduate program doesn’t eliminate the need for ongoing teacher learning, experts say.
As with most undergraduate programs, there isn’t enough time in initial teacher education to cover all that a professional needs to know, let alone ensure that they can expertly apply what they learn in any given environment. Further, research continues to produce new knowledge about teaching and learning. “What’s competence today won’t be competence five years from now,” says Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council.
Unfortunately for schools, researchers are not of one mind in many areas; their disagreements are especially intense in the area of early reading instruction. Some experts argue in favor of packaged programs that produce replicable results in many schools and classrooms; others encourage teachers to innovate in response to individual children’s needs.
Harvey “Smokey” Daniels of National-Louis University favors innovation. The goal of professional development, he says, is to produce “a powerful, unique, idiosyncratic professional.” Through the university’s Center for City Schools, teachers try out strategies they can incorporate into their own classroom programs. For example, teachers participate in literature circles, or small-group discussions of a book selected for independent reading.
Daniels finds that the vast majority of teachers are capable of designing learning activities tailored to the needs and interests of their students. Packaged programs should be the refuge only of “the least competent and least committed,” he says.
Advocates of packaged programs argue that teachers cannot possibly craft instructional materials and teaching strategies with the same attention to detail as can a team of researchers. “When would they have time to teach?” asks Marsha Berger, deputy director of the Educational Issues Department at the American Federation of Teachers. She notes that Direct Instruction and Success for All, two elementary school reading programs AFT supports, have been tested and refined for more than a decade.
Professional development centered on learning “the tried and true” leaves teachers more time to collaborate on materials for enriching the core program and to discuss individual students, she says.
Schools that opt for packaged programs can move more quickly, according to an ongoing study by RAND Corp., a research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif. RAND is studying implementation of seven school reform designs sponsored by New American Schools, a non-profit group based in Arlington, Va.
Schools can successfully implement packaged programs within a year, RAND found; other programs “unfold at a slower rate,” says RAND’s Susan Bodilly. “Teachers need more time, not only to learn new ideas but to come up with practices.” The study hasn’t yet determined which reform models lead to the greatest gains in student achievement.
Regardless of what approach a school chooses, teachers need support. Research has shown that teachers are much more likely to pursue new teaching strategies when they have shared planning time and classroom coaching. Without these two supports, one study found, fewer than 10 percent of teachers put strategies learned in professional development into classroom use.
By and large, Chicago teachers lack the support they need to improve instruction. The 1995 Consortium survey found only 55 percent of Chicago teachers work with colleagues to design instruction. The 1997 survey found 68 percent of teachers get meaningful feedback from a colleague less than once a month; 25 percent reported they had never visited a colleague’s classroom.
Brentano teachers rarely spent time collaborating until TAMS helped the school rearrange its schedule. Now teachers at each grade level have a common prep period once a week while their students go to gym or other “specials.” Planning together helps ensure that everyone covers all the skills and concepts for their grade level; it also has improved relations among teachers. “Everyone gets along a little better,” says 6th-grade teacher Marianne Shimkus. “There’s more sharing of ideas.”
A TAMS consultant also has spent time in each teacher’s classroom, first modeling lessons, then co-teaching, and now observing and providing feedback. Coaching is an expensive support—roughly 25 percent of the program’s cost—but a crucial one.
“You can take teachers and give them all the workshops you want,” says Gonzalez. “But if you don’t come back to the school and help them out with it, and show them how to do it, it’s not going to work,” she insists. At her previous elementary school, professional development programs often went by the wayside. “Some won’t try [new techniques] because they’re afraid. Some want to go with the old way because that’s what they feel comfortable with.”
Coaching “makes a world of difference,” says Gonzalez. “She shows them, ‘Hey, this is simple,’ and models it, so then they’re not afraid anymore.”
To be successful, even the best-designed staff development program needs fertile soil. In the Consortium’s view, the key element is trust among the adults who work in a school.
The 1995 Consortium study found that trust correlated with a school’s test score gains more strongly than did any other factor, including a school’s poverty level, parents’ education or how low test scores were at the beginning of reform.
Not surprisingly, the study found that distrust undermined professional development efforts. Teachers who reported low levels of trust were far less likely to learn new teaching methods or to seek constructive criticism from colleagues, the study found.
Schools with a history of low student achievement, ineffective leadership and failed reforms tend to have the lowest levels of trust, says Consortium Director Anthony Bryk. But he adds that some low-achieving schools that have developed high levels of trust.
What usually makes the difference, he says, is a new principal with a new vision who makes the effort to “counsel out” low-performing teachers and attract motivated ones.
Building a professional community, like any significant change, takes time and perseverance; there are no short-term solutions, says Bryk. “To really build social trust, people have to [join] together around work they feel is important and eventually achieve some success at.”
|Years of experience|
|Average:||14.7 years *|
|0 to 5 years:||27%|
|12 or more years:||45%|
|Race, ethnicity *|
* Excludes counselors, coordinators and other non-classroom teachers.
Source: Various Chicago school officials
Chicago teacher salaries
Average, 96-97: $45,508
Base salary ranges, 42-week year:
Master’s plus 15 semester hours
Master’s plus 30 semester hours
Master’s plus 45 semester hours
Doctorate (Ph.D. or Ed.D.)
Note: Within each so-called lane, salaries depend on the number
of years a teacher has worked. Teachers with at least 12 years of
experience get the maximum in each lane.
Source: Chicago Public Schools