Reform bubbles up to teacher ed

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Sometime around the dawn of school reform in Chicago, an education college administrator who worked in inner-city schools said it was easier to change those schools than it was to change his own institution. Many faculty members were so long and far removed from real schools, he said, that their courses did little to equip future teachers for the challenges of urban classrooms. The recent ed-school graduates interviewed by writer Grant Pick for this issue of Catalyst say that’s still true.

However, Pick also discovered that reform finally has begun to bubble up into higher education. Chicago State University, for example, has set up shop in Van Vlissingen Elementary School to start 25 Chicago State juniors on the road to teaching. The students do some tutoring every morning and debrief every Friday. “We talk about what went wrong and what went right during the week,” reports Sandra Westbrooks, the professor who coordinates the program. Typically, education majors don’t see any action until senior year. Further, Chicago State faculty members come to Van Vlissingen, which is on the state’s educational “watch list,” to teach their courses; so perhaps they too learn a little more about teaching today. The program is an experiment funded by $200,000 in foundation grants.

University of Illinois at Chicago offers a cost-free example of reform: It assigns each student to a single school for both observation—the state requires at least 100 hours—and student teaching, a practice that gives students a firmer launching pad. Befitting UIC’s urban mission, every assignment is to a Chicago public school.

But as UIC Professor Michelle Park points out, the public schools themselves have a role to play in developing good teachers. No matter how good their college education, teachers don’t emerge full blown on graduation day. They need guidance and support from colleagues who themselves have made a commitment to lifelong learning—veterans who are set in their ways need not apply. Aware of the newcomer’s plight, the school system’s Human Resources Department is planning special workshops and a pilot mentoring program. The challenge here is to make new-teacher development part of the life of a school—not simply an outside service—without indoctrinating the newcomers into practices of the past.

Human Resources also has vowed to go after the best and the brightest ed-school graduates; as evidence, it notes increased efforts to recruit from such prestigious institutions as Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. That’s worth doing. But less selective universities will remain Chicago’s primary suppliers of new teachers. Human Resources could add a little fire to their reforms by issuing report cards. In response to a Catalyst request, the department disclosed how many new teachers it had hired from each institution. Three years from now, it would be good to see how many from each institution remain in Chicago classrooms.

MOBILITY FOLLOW-UP The lead article in our April issue on student mobility and the map that showed the hundreds of student transfers in and out of Swift Elementary School will be reprinted in the next issue of American Educator, the highly regarded journal of the American Federation of Teachers.

AWARD WINNERS Catalyst has received two Distinguished Achievement Awards in the 1995 contest of the Educational Press Association of America, one for our February 1995 issue on the first five years of Chicago school reform and another for Dan Weissmann’s engaging and ongoing “School Chronicles” series. In addition, freelancer Greg Jacobs’ account of the development of the nationally ranked chess club at Orr Community Academy High School is a finalist in the Peter Lisagor Awards Contest sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club.