Half-baked idea opens a door

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In the most touted speech of his re-election campaign, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced creation of the National Teaching Academy of Chicago. It would be a new, $30 million school staffed by “master teachers” who would not only teach kids but also train new teachers and retrain old ones. In doing so, Chicago would become known “not just for its reforms, but for translating these reforms into meaningful improvements in the classroom.”If Chicago is going to put itself on the map for improved instruction—a spectacular goal—it needs a far better plan than the mayor unveiled.

When it comes to updating the skills of current teachers, the research is quite clear: Professional development must center around individual school faculties, not individual teachers. Teachers learning new skills need the support of their schools and their colleagues. Sending teachers off for training one by one isn’t bad; it’s just not very effective. When it comes to especially poor teachers, some of the more successful school districts have used peer evaluation and support to bring them to an acceptable level or get rid of them. A committee to study peer evaluation is part of the soon-to-expire teachers contract with the School Board, but nothing has come of it, and the new contract doesn’t mention it.

As for new teachers, the school system, in cooperation with the University of Illinois at Chicago, already has launched a program that holds much more promise for recruiting and helping new teachers than a single laboratory-type school would. Current teachers are being trained to serve as mentors for new teachers in their own schools. That program could stand a boost. Currently, only about a third of new teachers are being served, and the mentor training is pretty thin. Student teachers would indeed benefit from working alongside master teachers. However, working in a whole school of master teachers won’t prepare them for the real world.

As Debra Williams reports, the mayor’s announcement threw Chicago’s education community for a loop. One educational leader said that calling the idea half-baked was too kind. “The oven hasn’t even been turned on,” she said. Indeed, weeks later, the people stuck with pulling this thing off—capable women all—sounded like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant, with one saying one thing and one saying another as they try to make sense of the mayor’s proposal.

Mayor Daley did himself no immediate good among thoughtful educators. However, by putting the preparation and professional development of teachers front and center, he potentially has done a lot of good for the school system and the children who attend it. Until now, the mayor’s school leadership team has paid scant attention to upgrading teachers’ skills, opting instead to give kids more time in class through summer school and after-school programs. Two years ago, the Reform Board approved a $150,000 contract with a prominent consulting firm to make recommendations for a more effective staff development program. The administration put the results on a shelf, refusing to make them public.

To be sure, there is a lot of professional development work going on in the system, some of it initiated by the board but most arising from the private, non-profit sector. Much of it falls short of what is needed in both quality and quantity. If Chicago’s kids are going to have any hope of reaching the high standards the School Board has set for them, those shortcomings must be overcome. Because it is a Daley campaign promise, the National Teaching Academy of Chicago no doubt will become a reality in some form. Over all, the goal should be to enhance and expand the professional development work already under way and provide leadership for best practice. Chicago has a wealth of talent, knowledge and ideas about how to improve teaching. Other cities offer lessons, too. No handful of experts knows it all. If the School Board and administration shrink from the challenge of thinking big and reaching out, the non-profits should take it up. The mayor provided a great opening.