Mayor Daley’s recent announcement of plans for a National Teaching Academy of Chicago has created considerable interest among educators, the public and the press. As questions are being raised about the specifics of the plan—specifics that have yet to be worked out at this early stage—the wider context of that plan has been lost. While some would like to suggest that the plan’s context is political, this ignores evidence that the mayor and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are focusing on something very different: the urgent need to support teacher development in every classroom in Chicago.
Retention programs, local school governance and other elements of the successful CPS efforts to improve our schools are very valuable but can only go so far. The mayor recognizes what is becoming increasingly clear at the national and state level: The single most important ingredient in student learning is the quality of teaching. With the right kind of teaching, and the right kind of support for teacher development, we know that all children can learn—whether they come from low- or high-income homes, two-parent or one-parent families, bilingual or monolingual households.
The mayor’s announcement isn’t simply a spur-of-the-moment idea; it reflects an already ongoing commitment to teacher development in the CPS. The best piece of evidence for this is that a CPS Teachers Academy for Professional Development has already been in operation for three years. Its goals are entirely consistent with the notion of a National Teaching Academy such as the mayor announced. The goals of both are to put a certified, qualified teacher in every classroom in Chicago—a goal that we are currently some distance from reaching. The CPS Teachers Academy has been serving thousands of teachers with a variety of professional development programs. Its efforts are targeted at both beginning and experienced teachers, high schools and elementary schools, reading enhancement and character education, and at teachers who are known for their effectiveness and teachers in need of assistance and renewal.
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reports that money spent on teacher development is the most cost-effective way to improve student learning at the school system level. Business and industry have long recognized that employee development is cost-effective, and the private sector spends many times more dollars per employee on training and development programs than school systems do for teachers. Chicago has begun to show national leadership in this area.
The CPS Teacher Academy Renewal program, for example, is a site-based program for teachers needing assistance in the areas of teaching reading, writing and classroom management. The academy’s Teacher Induction Program has been operating for three years and has helped reduce the rate of new teachers leaving the system each year.
Next year, with continued support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the McDougal Family Foundation and the collaboration of the Chicago Teachers Union and the University of Illinois at Chicago, the CPS Teachers Academy will provide well-trained, experienced teachers as mentors to every new teacher hired by the Chicago Public Schools, thus expanding site-based mentoring to all schools in the system. And, as they have for the past three years, every new teacher will be required to attend a series of workshops on effective instruction and classroom management. This approach, based on national teaching standards and the newly approved Illinois Professional Teaching Standards, is one of the most innovative and intensive programs for new teachers anywhere in the nation. In a 10-year span, 10,000 to 12,000 teachers will benefit from this leading-edge program.
To those of us who have been working in the trenches of teacher support and development, the mayor’s announcement does not come out of the blue. Anyone who supports improved student learning in Chicago schools should be supportive of every effort to support teacher preparation and development. The proposed National Teaching Academy is one such effort. While there is much yet to work out in the fundamentals of the plan, the academy will be a welcome addition to the necessarily wide range of efforts that must be made to support teacher growth and development.