Better Teacher Training - Better Student Performance: Development should focus on training faculties

Feb 1, 2001

It was a teacher's dream. Ray Ulrich arrived last fall for his first day of class at Farragut school in Joliet to a classroom full of motivated students. But this wasn't a batch of fifth-graders. Instead, Ulrich, a teacher training specialist from the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science in Chicago, faced Farragut's own math and science teachers. His job was to help them improve the way they teach math to their elementary school pupils. Just two weeks into the school year, and without having seen the program materials they would be using, the Farragut teachers were raring to go. "We've been waiting for you," they said, telling him how they had been devising ways to get moving on the lessons they'd heard about. "Their enthusiasm was amazing," says Ulrich. "It was like they were starving for a program like this."

Education, of course, begins with the teacher. Because of that, it's often the teachers who take the blame when test scores reveal that only one of three students is meeting state-dictated expectations. Yet Ulrich's experience underscores an important truth: teachers care about teaching and they care about teaching well. As a result, more Illinois schools are realizing that effective teacher training is an investment they can't afford to pass up. And finding the right way to help teachers do a better job is something that Ulrich and his colleagues at the Teachers Academy have been doing for the last 10 years.

There's good reason. Over the course of a career, one good teacher holds the power to motivate, captivate and engage thousands of students. But one ill-equipped teacher can send students out of the classroom disinterested, disengaged and disinclined to harbor a passion for learning. Given that curriculum is cumulative, even one year of a poorly equipped teacher presents a danger. 

Policy-makers and the public generally agree that teacher training is valuable. But agreement ends when it comes to figuring out how best to train the state's educators. Many expect new teaching recruits to arrive in the classroom - just out of college and with a smattering of student teaching under their belts - ready to go. They expect teachers to be armed with the right tools and skills, but reality has taught us this doesn't happen. 

As with any profession, mastery comes with practical experience. In fact, new teachers face a staggeringly high rate of attrition. Within five years, half will leave the classroom for good. A better support system for new teachers could go a long way toward improving their chances for success.

Even when teachers are encouraged to improve their methods, the tendency on the part of policy-makers is to place the emphasis squarely on the shoulders of individual teachers rather than to develop a comprehensive program for an entire faculty. The state's newly implemented teacher recertification process, in fact, reinforces this approach by requiring teachers to develop an individual Certificate Renewal Plan.

Under the certification renewal plan, each teacher designs his or her own course of professional development. The kindergarten teacher may choose to focus on developmental learning. The first grade teacher may pursue a reading program. The second grade teacher may work to improve cooperative learning skills. There's a good chance that these pursuits will make each a better teacher, but this is no way to ensure that students will be able to achieve the standards that Illinois has imposed on them. Until Illinois implements a quality improvement plan that regards each school as a whole - rather than as the sum of its parts - the chances for engineering lasting results will be slim. 

Last year, our legislators budgeted a $24.3 million block grant for professional development efforts. But instead of directing these funds into intensive programs that yield measurable results, school officials, without realizing it, diluted these dollars by spending them on a fragmented array of one-day workshops and seminars. The cost of putting a typical K-6 math and science faculty through a program like the one offered by the teachers academy is $5,000 a year. But those investments are yielding measurable results. Test scores of students at "academy schools" are rising at a pace more than double that of the Illinois average.

And that's important, particularly with subjects like math and science. Professional development for those teaching the basics in these areas is critical if students are going to excel in a world that relies on high-tech innovation to fuel its economy. Yet without a collective effort to change the way we approach effective teacher training, American students are slipping further behind the curve when compared to young people in other countries. According to the 1999 Third International Math and Science Study, American eighth-graders ranked 12th among 17 countries in tests measuring math and science abilities. Statistics like these have grabbed the attention of policy-makers, who are beginning to recognize that a better way to prepare our students is to prepare our teachers.

As Illinois officials set out this year to revisit plans for improving schools, we believe efforts such as those of the teachers academy can serve as an example of what works best for revamping and retooling the classroom experience.

An intensive professional development program for teachers at the elementary level can elevate the quality of instruction in our public schools, school by school. For example, the academy provides a content-based, two-year program for teachers from pre-K through sixth grade. Teachers study math, science and technology and learn research-based teaching methods. They get support inside the classroom and out from a network of staff, parents and administrators. When it's all over, they are better teachers, plain and simple. The program, put to work by more than 4,000 teachers in more than 120 Illinois schools since 1990, is rooted in a model we believe is critical for success.

The first dictate of that model is that the process must be a collective effort. The transformation must involve the whole school and must have the support not just of school administrators, but of the teachers themselves. In order to enroll in the academy's program, a school must secure a commitment from at least 80 percent of the teachers responsible for teaching math and science. That's because teachers do better when they tackle this assignment as a team.

More important, we have found that a collective effort to improve the skills of the teaching workforce translates into better student outcomes. 

Teachers in the academy program participate in 60 hours of instructional sessions each year. Professional development instructors work closely with each group of teachers and rely heavily on incorporating the use of "manipulatives." Manipulatives can best be defined as hands-on learning materials that can be used in a variety of ways to teach a multitude of lessons. Manipulatives, such as pattern blocks - colorful geometric shapes like triangles, trapezoids and hexagons - are used to demonstrate such basic math operations as addition, as well as more complex concepts such as fractions and ratios. Science manipulatives include measuring equipment that allows teachers to engage even young students in performing experiments rather than teaching solely from the textbook.

Instructional sessions give teachers time to master content and to explore the materials they will be using with their students. Teachers collaborate with one another to devise ways in which the manipulatives can be applied to illustrate key concepts for students. Academy staff then join the teachers inside their classrooms to assess how the new learning tools and exercises are being applied for the benefit of the students.

Extending academy-like programs to a broader public in districts across the state will require a radical shift in thinking from Illinois policy-makers. First must come a realization that systemic change is possible, but that teachers cannot do it on their own. Next must come a change in how we spend our teacher training dollars. We must train faculties, not just individual teachers. Finally, the plan for improving schools must provide not only the resources but the time to bring about lasting change.

What becomes so apparent to professional developers like Ray Ulrich is that well-trained faculties, armed with a better understanding of the material and the ways it can be taught, have greater confidence and creativity. Classrooms become centers of inquiry and enthusiasm for both teacher and student, improving the experience for everyone. 

Lean Lederman, founder of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science, is a Nobel Prize-winning specialist in high energy physics. He headed up the director's office at Fermilah and has served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lourdes Monteagudo is executive director of the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science and a member of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. She is a former principal and has served as Chicago's deputy mayor for education.