A Threatened Pittsburgh School Becomes a Center for Renewal
Pittsburgh--Beginning next September, 50 high-school teachers in the Pittsburgh public-school system will check out of their home schools and spend nine weeks, with pay, at a teacher center rejuvenating themselves and their teaching techniques.
Eventually, all 750 of the district's high-school teachers will participate in the inservice program, which will be housed in one of the district's high schools. And while they are away from their regular teaching duties, their classes will be covered by a trained corps of replacements.
This extensive inservice-training program, approved by the city's superintendent and school board, is believed to be unlike any other in the country.
Up to now, Pittsburgh's secondary-school teachers have had to refresh their knowledge and techniques on their own time, with their own money. It has been left to each teacher to evaluate and apply what he or she learns. Now, the city school system will provide a high school to use as a "laboratory," time, expertise, and most of the money.
A $119,000 grant from the Ford Foundation paid for the teacher center's planning stage. When the center opens next September, the school board expects to pay the $1 million to $1.5 million per year it will take to keep the center operating. Richard C. Wallace Jr., the city's superintendent of schools, says the board is looking to local industries to provide some financial help.
"We're going to give teachers nine weeks to rejuvenate themselves," said John Young, principal of the Schenley High School Teacher Center, as the school has been renamed. "Many people don't know what this is like. We're talking about teachers teaching teachers--colleagues, not administrators, teaching each other."
'Teaching Toward' Objectives
The center's goal is to make teachers aware of such fundamentals as identifying an objective and "teaching toward" it; monitoring students' responses and adjusting instructional techniques accordingly; and recognizing the sequences in the process of learning.
When Schenley High opens next fall, its faculty will include a resident staff of "master teachers" who will handle regular classes. Visiting teachers will attend their classes to observe and learn. Each day, the master teachers and visiting teachers will participate in seminars on techniques. As the nine-week session progresses, each visiting teacher will take over classes, which will be videotaped and discussed by their senior colleagues.
"This approach is giving people feedback on what they do well, so that they do it consciously," said Judy Johnston, director of the teacher-center component of the school. "We will try to make teachers remember when they said 'very good,' and the students responded well--then we will try to get teachers to practice it."
"I hope also to provide each teacher with the time to do independent research," Ms. Johnston added. "If a teacher wants to learn something like technical writing, then the center will make contacts and arrangements for that person to work at a university or company."
The center's resident staff and visitors will work with a theory called the Pittsburgh Research-Based Instructional Supervisory Model, or prism Mr. Young was one of four people who developed the plan, which is based on the principles of observing, planning, conferring, teaching, and coaching.
The most important phase, he said, comes at the end, when the teachers return to their home schools and attempt to apply what they learned.
He drew his theories from research based on effective-teaching principles developed by Madeleine Hunter, a principal and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. The Pittsburgh center is structured along the lines of the Harvard-Lexington program in Massachusetts, in which Superintendent Wallace participated. It was his idea to establish the teacher center in Pittsburgh.
"I think almost everyone who went through the [Harvard-Lexington] experience came out a different person. Teachers are creative with the right kind of support," said Mr. Wallace. "I think the teacher center is it."
Teachers were able to transfer to their classrooms what they learned in the program, Mr. Wallace said. "We will also be talking here about very basic instructional techniques. We will be making sure [teachers] have explicit objectives, that they are checking for student understanding, and that they will teach students at appropriate levels. We will be raising the level of demand on students in terms of quality work and the level of dialogue in the classroom, so that students will be prompted to think."
The center evolved not only from a desire to improve instruction and student achievement, but also with the goal of saving Schenley High--a school suffering a 32-percent dropout rate and destined to close because of migration to the suburbs. The district will add three new magnet programs to Schenley in an effort to attract white students to the school, which is now 86-percent black. One magnet program, in health careers, is already in place; international studies, classical studies, and high technology will be added.
The establishment of the teacher center, by creating a need for the ''replacement corps," will also keep on the payroll 50 junior teachers whose jobs might otherwise be in jeopardy because of the future closings of three other schools.
The "replacement staff" will be the first group of teachers to go through the center; they will move from one school to another every nine weeks while other teachers take their sabbaticals.
Ms. Johnston said the replacement group's experience at the center is crucial. "If they blow it, it could be critical to the success of the program. They are a very important group of people."
It will probably take four years for all the city's secondary-school teachers to move through the center. After that, the program may be opened to elementary- and middle-school teachers.
Mr. Wallace said the district decided to start with secondary teachers because they traditionally have not been urged to improve their teaching techniques. "They tend to be oriented more in content than instruction," he said. "From my point of view, there has not been a change in secondary-teaching techniques in the past 25 years."
This past summer, all of the district's senior-high principals attended a seminar using the prism theory. "We found this to be positive where the principals were teaching principals," Mr. Young said. "They taught classes so that they will know what to look for in a classroom and a teacher. Principals have been known to come into a teacher's room and comment on a window blind or what was on the board, but now they will watch for instructional techniques."
Some of the principals came into the program afraid they were going to be told how to do their jobs, according to Mr. Young, and some teachers have expressed the same concern. But their fears are unfounded, he said. The center's goal is not to produce factory-molded teachers, he said, but to reinforce their resourcefulness and to demonstrate up-to-date theories and practices.
George Miller, who has taught math-ematics and computer science for six years at Schenley, is applying to be on the resident staff. "There will be some restaffing involved," he said, "and for those of us from the present staff staying on, it will be a challenge. I want to hang on to learn as much as to teach."
Elizabeth Haley, an English teacher from Schenley, said she has had to rely on herself to be "motivated to learn how to motivate students."
"I think the teacher center is good," she added. "For once, teachers will be with other teachers sharing ideas."
Ms. Haley and Mr. Miller agreed that there is some uncertainty and anxiety among teachers about the program. Daniel Easley, who teaches science in the health-career magnet school, is one who is concerned.
"I hope it will work," he said. "Conceptually, it sounds nice, but to me, they are treating the symptom and not the disease. To get 'up' for five [different groups of students] a day is not easy. In fact, it's exhausting, especially when you teach the prism way. The teacher center is fine; it's what comes after that I'm concerned with. A teacher's day needs to be restructured."
Nevertheless, Mr. Easley said he looks forward to the center with "anxious excitement."
Mr. Wallace said that he and the center's planners are also concerned with "what comes after." The center will try to bring half the teachers in one department of a school--in English, for instance--through the center during each nine-week period, so that when they return to their school, they will be able to continue the prism dialogue.
"We are not just leaving this to chance, either," Mr. Wallace said. "We will be sending some staff from the center to watch the teachers to see if they are continuing what they learned."
When Mr. Young and Mr. Johnson told student-council representatives at Schenley about the changes coming to their school, some students thought the center was replacing the school and would be for teachers only, and that the Schenley students would have to go to another school. But Mr. Young told them that the students were essential to the center and that their participation would not compromise their education. More effort would be put into both teachers and students, he said.
"We are not trying to experiment with students," he said. "My primary concern is quality instruction for the kids."