Educating inner-city teachers

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Recruiter Frank Collaso

Photo by Jason Geil

Recruiter Frank Collaso

Three years ago, the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago discovered a troubling pattern: Very few graduates accepted first teaching jobs in poor, underachieving schools in African-American communities, and very few were being trained in those schools.

The college’s graduates were most likely to accept teaching positions in schools with the same racial or ethnic mix as the schools where they had done their student teaching.

“We had a lot of relationships with schools in Latino communities, but not enough in African-American communities, especially on the West Side—and that’s where we are located,” says Victoria Chou, dean of the college.

Yet, for years, the college’s mission has been to serve all urban schools. The finding was a wake-up call and sparked targeted recruiting of minority teacher candidates, strengthening student teacher placements and more relationship-building with African-American schools. The college also rewrote its mission statement to reflect its commitment to the city’s public schools.

“We wanted to say out right that we are paying attention to Chicago Public Schools,” says Chou.

UIC’s efforts are part of a trend taking shape in other schools of education across the country, reflecting a need for better training for teachers headed into struggling urban schools.

Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California at Los Angeles and Trinity University in Texas have all revamped their programs, says Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford.

And a study released two years ago by Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, strongly suggested that teacher education programs nationally need to do more and make changes in order to produce quality teachers that impact student achievement.

Faculty commitment

A key part of UIC’s new strategy, says Chou, has been to “grow a faculty who believe that our students need to be” in underachieving minority schools.

Getting faculty to commit to that goal proved tricky. Faculty members posed a series of questions among themselves: Should students be placed in struggling schools that lack the essential supports—for instance, a strong school leader—that are considered key to creating a successful school? Should students be sent to schools without strong teacher-mentors? Why should good schools, schools rich with resources, be excluded from the student-teaching pool?

Indeed, some of the faculty did not fully embrace the college’s mission. Eventually, some of them were encouraged to “self-select out,” says Chou, who is steadfast about the college’s goal and what it takes to achieve it.

“You have to place students in the places where you want them to ultimately teach,” says Chou. “We are explicit about what we are doing here.”

To help build commitment, UIC has taken up the task of educating faculty members about communities, families and urban schools. School staff and community residents have been invited to faculty meetings to talk about their neighborhoods and their issues.

In January, residents who live near the National Teachers Academy in the Near South Side neighborhood (as well as the school’s principal, assistant principal and teachers) sat in on a meeting and talked about their families and what was happening in that neighborhood. Representatives from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization have met with faculty to talk about the impact of gangs in Chicago. The college is also considering hosting a session with community members from the Austin neighborhood.

“We will be talking about what urban [life] has to do with [teaching] practice—what are we ignorant about that we need to know,” says Chou.

Walking the walk

In the late 1970s, UIC placed its student teachers in the suburbs as well as Chicago. Now, all student teaching happens in Chicago public schools.

College of Education staff members have been visiting city schools to create new relationships that benefit student teachers and schoolchildren alike. For instance, two years ago, UIC began working with Smyth Elementary on the Near West Side: One day a week, UIC professor Adrian Capehart takes one of his junior classes to the school and teaches his class there instead of at the university. When the school day ends, Capehart’s students are dispatched to classrooms to talk to Smyth teachers.

“We have a classroom just for UIC,” says Smyth Principal Ronald Whitmore. Capehart’s students “get a feel for what a day of school is like. Afterwards, they get to meet with teachers, get questions answered and voice concerns.”

“My students talk to teachers about what made them decide to teach, how they organize their classrooms and how they handle classroom management and discipline,” explains Capehart.

Eventually, Capehart would also like the class to do classroom observations there, as well.

Whitmore’s ultimate vision is to have Smyth add high school grades, to give UIC students the chance to receive training in elementary and high school settings. Plus, Smyth students would be prepared to attend UIC.

“My goal is to have this revolving door with UIC,” says Whitmore. “If you can teach at Smyth, you can teach anywhere in America.” The school serves mostly low-income African-American students.

In all, UIC now works with about a dozen schools, says Chou. “We’d like to get into more.”

UIC staff members have also been paying close attention to the education curriculum, making sure it includes lessons in diversity.

“Cultural issues are an important part of the curriculum,” says Karen Sakash, a UIC professor who trains prospective bilingual teachers. “And we want our faculty to be sensitive to these issues.”

One example: Sakash has observed white teacher candidates working with Latino children without any background in the students’ culture—and the lack of knowledge shows. “Sometimes it is a communication style or a cultural style that is perceived different,” says Sakash.

In this case, Caucasian teachers may not be aware that a Latino child considers their tone of voice as yelling. And the teacher probably doesn’t know that a child who has just arrived from Mexico will stand up when asked to read aloud, since that is the classroom tradition in that country.

“We have to pay attention to the connection between strong knowledge of subject matter and strong knowledge of the students,” says Chou. “It’s important to have faculty that understands both.”

Darling-Hammond agrees that new teachers have to be taught to work with a variety of children who are on a variety of levels.

“The nature of the coursework is important,” says Darling-Hammond. “But [new teachers] have to understand how people learn differently. And when you see nothing is working, you have to be able to design lessons that will work.”

At UIC, one professor created an assessment tool and guide for student teachers to help them gauge whether they possess qualities that are often associated with being a good teacher such as being patient, flexible, adaptive and taking risk. And the tool lists specific actions that candidates should do to help them develop these traits.

Recruiting, retaining candidates

In 2006, the college hired a recruiter to attract more African-American students. And Marvin Lynn, director of elementary education, is focusing on African-American males in particular.

“What are the best ways to recruit them into teaching, and retain them? What form of support does the university need to supply to make them stay?” are two questions Lynn is seeking to answer. He has been working with the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Blacks, a group of African-American staff from various departments at the university.

The college has also found that prospective teachers need academic and financial support.

Administrators discovered that many prospective College of Education students couldn’t pass the math portion of the basis skills test, which they need to pass to be accepted into an education program.

“Our undergraduates, especially the ones from City Colleges and CPS, need extra support. However, a lot of [courses], like remedial math, are not under the control of the College of Education,” says Chou, who worked with departments outside of the college to give students additional support.

And after many discussions across several university departments, such as math and the office of undergraduate affairs, UIC changed some of its math courses to better support new students.

“Basically, we designed a better math course,” says Lon Kaufman, vice provost for undergraduate studies. “We looked at what had been on the books forever and said “how can we make it better for students to learn?” ”

Kaufman says that out of 3,000 incoming freshmen who need to take math, 1,500 typically qualify for pre-college math. The pass rate for entry-level courses was just 30 to 50 percent.

“It was stuff they’d seen in junior high and in high school, but they’d take it and fail over and over again,” says Kaufman. “Some students would take it seven or eight times, and they were eating up their financial aid.”

Typically the course was 15 weeks long for four hours a week, with lectures. Two years ago, the course was shortened to seven weeks, is computer-assisted and each class only has a maximum of 15 students.

“They get more attention and they get the best TAs [teaching assistants],” says Kaufman.

The attendance rate is now close to 95 percent and the past rate is 90 percent. “And we have found that these students do equally well in the next math course. So they are not just passing it, they are learning it. It is becoming a part of them.”

Around the same time, UIC also began offering a free five-week math workshop to incoming freshman during the summer before they begin college. If students pass this course, they can skip the pre-college math course and move right into the first college level math course.

While Chou says she is pleased with all the work the college has done to support its student teachers, she conceded there is still much to be done.

“We don’t have all the answers,” she says. “We still have more to do.”

For instance, money continues to stand in the way of students getting through the doors and ultimately into the college. As a first step, Chou says she has hired a consultant through a grant just to see what kinds of student financial aid is available.

“The demographics we want to support need financial aid,” says Chou.

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.