A culture of learning for teachers

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

In the education plan it released last summer, the administration of the Chicago Public Schools set some ambitious goals for itself, not the least of which is building the district’s capacity to develop and sustain high-quality teaching.

While a lot of things count in education, nothing counts more than the knowledge and skill of teachers. So the administration’s new investment in professional development is right on the money.

In this issue, Catalyst examines the district’s three professional development schools, a model that marries teacher preparation with practice by partnering colleges of education with individual schools. Two of the schools began training new teachers in September. The dazzling National Teachers Academy (NTA) is a site for traditional student teaching, while The Chicago Academy provides yearlong residencies to career changers who are working toward a master’s degree in education. Both pair novices with mentors who are master teachers in their fields.

A third professional development school, the 5-year-old North Kenwood-Oakland Charter, focuses on experienced veterans, who go there to pick up new research-based strategies to teach reading, then return to their schools to train their colleagues.

While NTA and The Chicago Academy no doubt will produce better teachers, such schools have their limits, which are written in dollar signs. The pricetag to build NTA was $47 million. Estimated costs for stipends and tuition for The Chicago Academy’s 31 residents are $1.1 million a year. These expenses will more than double when the program opens another site next year and expands to 76 residents.

A less expensive experiment developed by CPS provides an important complement. In this experiment, the district’s new area instructional officers are pairing schools with strong academic programs with schools where curricula and instruction are weak. The idea is for the stronger school to serve as a resource and for the arrangement to bring together teams of teachers to collaborate with principals and each other, says Professional Development Officer Al Bertani.

This model, as well as the North Kenwood-Oakland Charter, potentially has the added benefit of providing continuing support for new teachers who bail out of teaching in alarming numbers. Even well-trained teachers might call it quits if they are not in a supportive environment. Indeed, a number of recent studies have identified teacher attrition as a large part of the teacher shortage problem. (See Catalyst, September 1999)

“Usually new teachers are thrown in schools and left to sink or swim,” notes Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch, who says schools need resources for mentoring and induction.

Since 1999, CPS has required that new teachers participate in an induction program that includes orientation, ongoing workshops and being paired with a mentor teacher. But a few key components were missing—leadership at the school level, for instance, and preparation in classroom management, a common problem for new teachers.

This spring, CPS plans to bolster its teacher induction program with an initiative requiring each school to select a teacher to serve as lead mentor and to devise a new teacher support plan. And Area 8 elementary schools on the West Side are slated to participate in a pilot to test a classroom management and student discipline program. Called Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline, the program is credited with reducing student behavior referrals.

Illinois lawmakers also are catching on to the importance of new-teacher support. Recently, they made it possible for teachers to count participation in induction programs toward the professional development credits needed to get full certification.

Given the sorry state of public finance these days, it is essential that all of these new-teacher efforts be carefully monitored and researched. If the results are less than expected, the programs can be fine-tuned. If the results are positive, they can be used to show the public and lawmakers that their money is being well spent.