Staff development a low priority here

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The central administration of the Chicago public schools has never paid much attention to the professional development of its teaching force. The current administration is no exception.

For this year’s budget, for example, the administration redirected $8 million in so-called STIR funds from staff development to extended-day and summer school programs.

“The loss of STIR money has been very detrimental to staff development,” says Rachel Resnick, principal of Field Elementary School, which lost $26,000 and, as a result, the services of some National-Louis University consultants who provided classroom coaching.

The cut left the school with about $10,000 in funds earmarked for the professional development of its 57 teachers, $4,457 from the federal Eisenhower grant for math and science and $5,331 from a state block grant. “What we currently have in the budget is woefully inadequate for what we need to provide for our teachers,” says Resnick.

Most new education spending by the Paul Vallas administration has gone for additional teaching time rather than improved teaching. “When you buy extended day or summer school, that’s all you get,” notes Anthony Bryk, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. In contrast, upgrading teachers’ knowledge and skills ultimately will have an impact on every hour of the school day, he says.

Adding teaching time may bring quicker gains in test scores, Bryk says, but professional development is likely to bring larger gains in the long run. “It’s a long-term investment in the quality of your human resources.”

Meanwhile, teachers themselves have little time to work together to learn new skills. The Chicago Teachers Union contract provides for 30 minutes of prep time every morning and up to an additional 45 minutes four days a week.

“It’s hard for people to share, it’s hard for people to visit other classrooms,” says Molly Carroll of the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, which provides professional development services. Collaborative efforts tend to be “half an hour here and 30 minutes on Tuesday, and then that gets canceled because somebody’s sick.”

Since the School Reform Act allowed for some flexibility in scheduling, 266 schools have adopted restructured days, where some of the morning prep time is traded for two hours of schoolwide planning or professional development every other Friday.

Teachers also get five professional development days each summer, but these tend to be used for classroom set-up.

Giving teachers more time for professional development is one recommendation in a just- completed professional development report central office commissioned last school year. Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney, for one, would like to add several hours to teachers’ work week and an additional week in the summer, reserving both for professional development.

No cost figures were immediately available. However, when the board added a week of professional development in 1994-95, the cost was $26 million. Adding an hour each week would have cost at least as much. Buckney notes, too, that there would be complications at schools with summer school or year-round schedules.

“These are not very simple things that are going to be easily resolved,” she observes.

In the meantime, the board is laying plans to monitor how schools with restructured days are using the time; Buckney suspects that not all of them are using it for professional development. Some schools have had restructured days for years with no change in teaching practice or student achievement, she notes.

Staff development advocates say that school efforts suffer from unsteady funding, too. The only money schools can count on are the small Eisenhower and state block grants. Schools are free to use state Chapter 1 and certain federal funds, but these can vary from year to year, and sometimes schools are forced to redirect them. Many schools apply for special grants, but they can’t always get them to match their particular needs.

“A school will have staff development in science because that’s what they got money for, rather than because a need was clearly identified and addressed,” says BetsAnn Smith, who directed a Consortium study of professional development.

Without a steady stream of money, says Smith, staff development programs tend to have a “boom-and-bust quality to them.” She urges central office to “address staff development as a general operating function and cost of a school, rather than something you attempt to fund through some huge patchwork of special, temporary monies.”

Central office also should develop a long-range plan for increasing the amount of help available to schools, adds Bryk.

With the reduction of the central bureaucracy under school reform, schools have turned to outside consultants for staff development. Similarly, the Vallas administration has relied on outside vendors, principally universities, to help schools on remediation and probation, picking up the full tab at the outset and then shifting costs to individual school budgets.

However, these staff developers do not have the capacity to cover the entire system and are unlikely to scale up without a stronger financial commitment from central office, Bryk contends. “We have not built the infrastructure to do professional development in a serious way,” he says.

Barbara Radner, a DePaul University education professor who has long worked in schools, has another take on capacity. The biggest problem with professional development is that what teachers learn in workshops is rarely implemented in the classroom, she says. Teachers often request but rarely get coaching in their own classrooms, she notes. Principals are busy with administrative tasks, and teachers promoted to positions such as instructional coordinator often end up doing paperwork and administrative functions, too, she observes.

Radner suggests that central office train the coordinators to provide classroom coaching and to guide staff development. “This can really make a major difference,” she says.

She adds that central office also could help schools organize their professional development plans.

As a first step, Radner says, the administration should set clear standards for professional development, just as it recently did for student achievement. “What we’re looking for here is not dictation,” she emphasizes, “but coherence.”

San Francisco Unified School District has moved on both fronts—helping schools with planning and building teacher leadership. For one, the district worked intensively with 26 schools to create exemplary professional development programs. These “model schools” then assisted other schools with planning. In Chicago, Vallas scrapped a similar program initiated by his predecessor. San Francisco also appointed outstanding teachers to five-year stints as professional development consultants for schools with low test scores. (For additional details, see related story.)

San Francisco now devotes nearly 5 percent of its total budget to professional development in core academic areas, according to district officials.

Under Supt. Anthony Alvarado, New York City’s District 2 also has made professional development a top priority, providing long-term training in core subject areas and extensive opportunities for teachers to visit other schools. The district spends about 3 percent of its budget on a comprehensive staff development program. Under Alvarado, District 2 moved from 10th to 2nd place in reading achievement among the city’s 32 elementary districts.

At Catalyst’s request, Chicago’s central office tallied the amount of money budgeted for staff development this school year. The total, $75 million, is about 2.5 percent of the district’s $3 billion budget. However, it includes professional development in a host of programs, including drivers education and ROTC. The largest item by far is $7.2 million for “learning technology,” which includes some equipment as well as teacher training.

A few steps in the right direction

While professional development has not been a top priority of schools chief Paul Vallas, his administration has taken several steps to improve teaching. A new Teachers Academy for Professional Growth offers a number of programs. Most notable is a mentoring program for new teachers, which uses veterans at the teachers’ own schools.

The Academy also screens each school’s plans for professional development funds from the federal Eisenhower grant for math and science and from a state block grant. The goal is to ensure that schools use the money to support their goals for student achievement.

The Academy also prods schools to spend those grants. Before monitoring began, 35 percent of the state money went unspent, according to Teachers Academy Director Judith Foster.

The Division of Program Improvement offers an 18-hour course on teaching critical thinking, which has reached 1,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers at 50 schools.

The university professors and other outside partners paired with schools on probation also provide professional development for teachers, though the amount and quality are believed to vary widely. In December, the Reform Board contracted with Northwestern University to conduct an in-depth investigation of the high school partners; it will include group interviews with teachers and observations while consultants conduct teacher training. The Office of Accountability is now seeking foundation grants for a similar study of elementary school probation partners.

Chicago also is part of a multi-city initiative of the National Science Foundation that began in 1994; the foundation is providing the school system up to $15 million over five years. Called the Chicago Systemic Initiative, the local program currently includes help for 325 schools to plan and select staff development for math and science.