Wrong route to high standards

The current focus by the Chicago Public Schools on raising standards for student learning has the potential for creating communities of teachers and students committed to achieving a first-class education for every child in Chicago. The challenge for teachers and administrators is to build a common understanding of what standards mean. Only broad-based collaboration can create a climate where everyone involved will take the risks and put forward the effort necessary to reach the goals. Issuing mandates, orders or threats will not create the educational climate necessary for broad-based change. The rush by the administration of Paul Vallas to dictate programs of study to teachers will not close the gap between current classroom practices and the goals established by the state and city for a core educational experience for all students. Rather, teachers must become familiar with the standards and discuss ways to create more student-centered, engaging classrooms. Such dialogue is essential to their envisioning classrooms where students actively develop their ability to communicate ideas.

The current administration, however, continues to base decisions about a school’s probation status strictly on scores on the Iowa and TAP tests, which focus on a limited range of routine skills. It is a particular shame to see precious resources being invested in the development of detailed lesson plans. Administrators hope that telling teachers exactly what to do each day will result in a standards-based education. It won’t.

Further, high-quality curricula and instructional materials cannot be produced on demand, in such a limited amount of time, by a handful of educators at Pershing Road. For example, it took eight years and significant investment from the National Science Foundation and many private foundations for math educators and mathematicians to develop the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), one of several exemplary, standards-based high school mathematics curricula.

There is no shortcut to widespread change in the city’s classrooms. Teachers in every discipline must become actively involved in ongoing professional development that is based on state and city standards and uses a wide range of exemplary materials now available. Our experience with mathematics teachers has shown that engaging professional development can provide a context and motivation for teachers to try new approaches and materials in their classroom.

Margaret Small

Teacher, Foreman High School

Co-director, Chicago Interactive Mathematics Program

Ask the teachers

Your call for another education summit is well taken. (“Punching up reform,” What Matters Most, November 1997) But I believe there is a major flaw in your conception. You treat teachers as if they were sick and incompetent and therefore unable to speak for themselves. After 10 years of “educational reform” in Chicago, the powers that be are still unable and unwilling to “hear” the teachers.

This is not a new issue, as Kate Rousmaniere’s new book, City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective, documents. Her story about New York city teachers in the 1920s reminds me of the blind men and the elephant. Whereas administrators and reformers perceived the reforms as creating order and progress, teachers perceived them as chaotic. The New York teachers spoke out, but as Rousmaniere says, “They talked into an echoing silence, the validity of their perspective ignored by those who controlled their working conditions.”

Perhaps we can learn something from history. In 1997, Chicago schools have many of the same problems and outlooks as New York schools did in the 1920s. The questions that are asked and who is asked will determine the validity of the solutions. Of course university professors, reformers, etc. have much to contribute, but there will be no real change unless the professionals who work in the classrooms everyday are included.

If you are really serious in finding ways “to improve the skills and knowledge of the adults who work with the kids,” ask teachers for their ideas and call for an open summit that provides ample opportunity to consider teachers’ real classroom experiences and needs.

Paula Baron

Supervisor of student teachers

Northeastern Illinois University

Another important source of support

Following up on Grant Pick’s February piece (“Learning the Ropes”), I would like to point out another important source of support for principals. The Small Schools Principals’ Circle is a network of more than 45 CPS principals whose schools are engaged in Small Schools restructuring. The Principals’ Circle has been meeting for a year and a half with support form the McDougal Family Foundation. Membership is voluntary. Participating principals have received mentoring, participated in action research projects including the making of a video on new approaches leadership in small schools. For more information on the Small Schools Principals’ Circle including a schedule of upcoming events, call (312) 413-8066.

Michael Klonsky

Co-director, Small Schools Workshop

University of Illinois at Chicago

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