More subject knowledge, better teaching? Chicago policy suggests “yes”

Print More

Three-fourths of math and science teachers in grades 6 through 8 – as
well as about one-half of language arts teachers and one-quarter of
social studies teachers – are still working to earn endorsements that
the district says they must have by next year.

Three-fourths of math and science teachers in grades 6 through 8 – as well as about one-half of language arts teachers and one-quarter of social studies teachers – are still working to earn endorsements that the district says they must have by next year, according to data from the 2009-10 school year.

Due to a recent Chicago Public Schools policy, by fall 2011, middle-grades teachers will be required to have endorsements in all core subjects they teach. Getting an endorsement requires several college-level classes in a given subject, plus coursework on the developmental needs of middle-grades students.

Since teacher’s content-area knowledge is believed to be related to their effectiveness, state regulators are considering similar changes. Some school administrators say the CPS policy has already improved instruction.

At Addams Elementary, Assistant Principal Ruth Martini credits the change with boosting math and science test scores.

Teachers are “confident that they can look at what students need” instead of feeling overwhelmed by the need to understand material well enough to present it, Martini says.

But it has also given principals less flexibility with teacher assignments, particularly because of the low number of teachers with math and science endorsements.

In addition, 31 elementary schools that were not able to find teachers who were working toward the required qualifications received waivers from the district last school year. (See a map of the schools that received waivers.) CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan says the district has “reached out to all of the schools asking them how they plan on coming into compliance.”

The list of waivers from last year shows no clear pattern in terms of the type or location of schools that requested them.

“We are focused on the schools meeting the requirements, and it is too early to consider any extended or new waivers,” Shuftan says.



Bass Elementary Assistant Principal Carol Covington, who has gone back to class for a middle-grades math endorsement, says the adolescent development coursework has helped her get a better understanding of middle-school students’ needs.

“You have to challenge them and come up with things that will hold their interest,” she says, often by using multidisciplinary instruction developed in collaboration with other teachers. “They’re not going to do it because you tell them to.”

Content knowledge is also important, Shuftan says, because it allows teachers to explain a concept in different ways.

“Unfortunately, the generalist is often limited by how the topic is treated in the curriculum, and if that doesn’t help the student understand, then he or she is often out of options,” Shuftan explains.

    

But getting an endorsement, particularly a science endorsement, is no picnic.

Teachers can count classes they took in college toward the requirements. But because of paltry undergraduate science requirements, many elementary-education majors graduate with just two science classes under their belts, leaving four additional classes teachers must take.

“The problem can be compounded if the teacher doesn’t have the right mathematics prerequisites [for science courses] – often, calculus,” Shuftan says.

There is also a ‘fear factor’ involved, Covington says.

“Math and science have a bad reputation,” she says. “Most of the time, our children are afraid of math. … I think we all are.”

The Museum of Science and Industry and Illinois Institute of Technology have just expanded a program that aims to help teachers – and, by extension, students – overcome that fear.

Museum staff first began offering for-credit science classes for teachers in 2007. “Many of the teachers approached us because they were teaching out of their content area,” said Bryan Wunar, who was director of teaching and learning at the museum at the time Catalyst spoke with him. “They weren’t necessarily looking for a degree or endorsement. They were looking for support. But as we went on, the teachers began to see themselves as science teachers.”

Last fall, the museum launched a pathway for teachers to earn a middle-grades science endorsement. The number of teachers served by museum classes is slated to increase to nearly 200.

Science courses are offered at the museum, and the Illinois Institute of Technology provides classes in topics such as adolescent psychology. By adding on three more courses, teachers can spin their endorsement into a master’s degree in middle-grades science education.

Each course is offered during six full-day sessions (during the school year) or five consecutive days (in the summer).

The tuition, which is reduced, runs $1,200 to $2,400 per class. The program pays for substitutes to cover teachers’ classes, and participants in each course get to take home about $800 worth of classroom materials and 80 lesson plans. During the school year, they also get funding for a museum field trip.

Evaluations of some of the courses have found positive results: Teachers felt more comfortable with science content, and with using different science teaching methods.

“Being able to build the confidence of those teachers that they can take on science… offers them the opportunity to strengthen their background and think differently about how they are teaching,” Wunar said. 

Elizabeth Alvarez, the assistant principal of Dore Elementary, says the policy gives schools less discretion in teacher assignment. Only those teachers with endorsements can be assigned to 6th through 8th grades, and in some cases, teachers end up stuck in the middle grades when they want to teach at a different grade level.

 

Yet, Alvarez notes that earning a science endorsement has improved her own teaching. Now, she says, she is incorporating more writing and reading in class, partly through having her students keep a journal and read scientific articles.

“My whole pedagogy has changed completely,” she says.