Will new-teacher fast track leave students behind?

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For the past seven years, a program called Teachers for Chicago has been training career changers to teach in Chicago’s public schools.

It’s a two-year process that combines night and summer school courses at area teacher colleges with full-time teaching in Chicago public schools. Participants are assigned to schools in groups of four so they get support from each other, as well as from a mentor teacher. In the end, they earn a master’s degree in education and a state teaching certificate.

Now, a new program called Golden Apple Teacher Education (GATE) will put career changers with math and science backgrounds on a fast track.

The only coursework will be done this summer, but it will be intense and draw on Northwestern University’s Master of Arts in Teaching Program, says Dominic Belmonte, director of teacher preparation for the Golden Apple Foundation. NU faculty and Golden Apple Award-winning teachers will be the instructors.

During the school year, the teaching neophytes will receive support from mentors in their schools and other new teachers trained in the GATE program. Under a state law enacted last year, participants can earn their Chicago teaching certificates within 15 months. After that, GATE will continue to work with its new teachers to help them obtain state certification.

“The most commonly stated need in the CPS over the next five years is secondary math and science teachers,” says Belmonte. “The most compelling reason for the Golden Apple program is the traditional reluctance of scientists and mathematicians to go the traditional route to the classroom, which they see as too long, too cumbersome and of questionable relevance.”

However, one of the country’s leading authorities on the teaching profession contends that GATE’s shortcut will shortchange children. “There have been some good alternative certification programs, but I don’t think the Golden Apple [initiative] fits that model,” says Linda Darling-Hammond of Columbia University in New York. “Usually, they are at least nine to 12 months long, and they don’t shortcut the training. One summer is not enough.” More time is needed, she says, not only to teach participants about teaching but also to reacquaint them with high school-level math.

Darling-Hammond cites a program at California State University that recruited retiring engineers from the aerospace industry. Most of them could not pass a basic math examination, she says. “They are so many years away from algebra and geometry,” she explains.

“You also have to acquire knowledge about curriculum and teaching concepts so kids actually learn. You need to know a lot about child development. They find out that when you yell at kids to sit down and be quiet, they don’t necessarily do it. What happens when they don’t have the tools, is they go in, have unhappy experiences and high attrition rates. There have been studies and studies on this; [abbreviated programs] are penny-wise and pound-foolish,” she says.

Belmonte counters that GATE is significantly different from other alternative certification programs. “Two major differences are how we select people in the beginning and how we mentor them in the middle,” he says. “To say we’re going to be more careful in our selection is a matter of proving it, but if one believes that selection is 80 percent of the success of any program, that’s what we’ll lean on.”

GATE mentoring will be along the lines Darling-Hammond herself has suggested, he continues. For example, the mentors will spend some time each week teaching alongside their charges. Belmonte acknowledges this will be difficult in elementary schools, where teachers typically are in the same class all day, but he says a proposal to address the problem is in the works.

“We believe teachers should teach the next generation of teachers,” Belmonte asserts. “We have recognized that in the city we dearly want to serve.

“When Dom [Belmonte] started the GATE program, there was some resentment from some universities, but the way we feel is that if there’s something else that may work, give it a try,” says Frank Tobin, recruitment director for Teachers for Chicago. “We support GATE. Summer is a good time for this to happen.”

“The colleges themselves are starting to recognize the need to retool,” Belmonte says. “The Council of Deans was against the program when we first proposed it, but I think that stance has softened somewhat. It seems now the attitude is, ‘Let’s let them start and see what happens.'”

“We do need to find ways to take advantage of mature, capable people who would like to be teachers but who find the current certification system so cumbersome, they can’t financially afford to drop out of the workforce,” says Steven Tozer, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But he warns, “You can end up penalizing kids to attract new people. You don’t want their first two years to be such an intense learning experience that you sacrifice kids in the classroom, and there is evidence that that is the case.”

Belmonte acknowledges the pitfalls. “In my Rolodex, I have hundreds of scientists and mathematicians who would be interested in working in schools, but not via the traditional route. We understand that a fraction of those may really be interested in teaching, and a fraction of that fraction may actually be good enough to teach.

“I know scientists and mathematicians who have gone into schools for one day, and they come out screaming, ‘How can you stand the pace, the pressure, the questions?’ But we have put together a process of examining candidates to identify those who would have a strong possibility of success.”

Beyond the particulars of alternative programs, Darling-Hammond sees the reliance of urban districts on alternative certification as a form of racism. The National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future concluded in its November 1997 report that “on virtually every measure, teachers’ qualifications vary by the status of the children they serve. Students in high-poverty schools are still the least likely to have teachers who are fully qualified, and are most likely to have teachers without a license or a degree in the field they teach.” Darling-Hammond is the Commission’s executive director and the report’s author.

Golden Apple’s response to that is twofold. “One is that if we had a battalion of math and science teachers coming out of educational programs to fill positions where the need is greatest, I would be doing something else,” Belmonte says, adding, “If our program is good enough for Chicago, it will also be good enough for Naperville or Glen Ellyn.”

Second, the Foundation had hoped the Legislature would make the program available to other school districts. “All our programs go beyond Chicago,” says Penny Lundquist, director of the Golden Apple Academy. “We operate in three counties; we give awards to public, independent and parochial school teachers; we bring people together.”