N.Y.C.'s District 2 Gives Top Priority to Educators' Learning
NEW YORK--As the cab he is riding in darts through morning traffic in lower Manhattan, Anthony J. Alvarado is expounding on his favorite topic: helping people learn to teach better.
Talking as rapidly as the passing stream of cars is moving, the superintendent of Community School District 2 is trying to convey the passion he and other educators in his district here feel for delving deeply into questions of teaching and learning.
Mr. Alvarado has hung on to his enthusiasm over a 17-year career as an administrator in the New York City schools, including a stint as the chancellor of the citywide system. Over that time, he estimates, he has sat through 150 meetings of top-level supervisors, where, he says, "the talk is never about curriculum and instruction. It's turf, administration, budgets, and power.''
But under Mr. Alvarado's leadership, District 2, at least, has managed to put instruction at the heart of everything it does. In doing so, it has attracted the attention of researchers and policymakers who want to find better ways for teachers to develop their knowledge.
Rather than viewing professional development as a project, notes Milbrey W. McLaughlin, a professor of education and public policy at Stanford University, Mr. Alvarado has "larded and threaded it throughout the district.''
And he has managed to do so, she adds, despite New York City's tough budget problems.
"It's everyone's responsibility to get better at what we do,'' Mr. Alvarado explains. "Everything we do in this district is geared toward the issue of teaching and learning in the context of professional development.''
Early Reading and Writing
When he became the superintendent of District 2 in 1987, Mr. Alvarado set out to systematically improve instruction, starting with encouraging children to read and write as soon as they enter school.
Gradually, the emphasis on using whole-language methods spread to the upper-elementary grades. Last year, principals and teachers in some junior high schools began creating interdisciplinary lessons built around literature.
Teachers also are working on their mathematics teaching, using the standards and methods recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
What is notable here is not so much what is being done, though, as how it is being done.
"A lot of the teachers you see who are good, two years ago you would have held your breath,'' Mr. Alvarado says. "That's the idea of professional development. You can't take the attitude that all kids can learn, and not adults.''
Seeing It Firsthand
The cab arrives at Public School 1 in the heart of Chinatown. What is happening at the school this day in mid-June is typical: Marguerite Straus, the principal, proudly tells her visitors that 10 teachers are out of the building, visiting other teachers.
At the same time, eight teachers from other schools are exploring P.S. 1 with Diane Snowball, an Australian expert on language and literacy who works full time with District 2.
The teachers, dressed casually in keeping with the warm day, roam through a classroom with notebooks, jotting down how the teacher has organized her materials and reading the children's writing that hangs from clotheslines that crisscross the room.
Some of the work, they learn, was written by pre-kindergarten children whose first language is Chinese.
Later, over a lunch of dim sum at a nearby Chinese restaurant, the teachers talk enthusiastically about changing their teaching methods and visiting other teachers' rooms--a crucial strategy in encouraging change here.
"Going out and seeing it firsthand and talking to colleagues, seeing their successes, is so exciting,'' says Annie Lue-Yen, a teacher at P.S. 42.
Mary Beth Kern adds that after 17 years in the classroom, she has learned to view education in a new way. "It is looked at as a process now,'' she says, "not just, 'This is what you have to produce.'''
Competition for Jobs
District 2, which includes a good chunk of Manhattan, serves 20,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 9th grade. They come from military families on Governor's Island, immigrant tenements in Chinatown, upper-middle-class apartments on the Upper East Side, and depressed neighborhoods in Harlem and East Harlem.
When Mr. Alvarado and Elaine Fink, the deputy superintendent, arrived in District 2, Ms. Fink recalls, "this district was covered with workbooks and worksheets.''
"They believed that this was how children learn,'' she continues. "We know better, and we have to teach them that.''
The way to accomplish that goal, the pair believed, was to hire principals who are deeply interested in curriculum and instruction and who would serve as models for their teachers.
Today, 20 of the 28 principals here have been in their schools for less than five years.
Each went through a rigorous screening process: District 2 administrators visited candidates' home schools and then invited them to observe classes in the district. The candidates were asked how they would change the schools if they were appointed to run them.
"If they have no sense that something needs to be changed,'' Ms. Fink stresses, "then we are not going to have them as the head of a school.''
The competition for principalships is stiff. There were 190 applicants for the principalship of P.S. 116, notes Anna Marie Carrillo, who got the job a year ago.
Praising and Pushing
In District 2, principals are expected to practice what they preach--they are regarded first and foremost as master teachers. They attend summer institutes, workshops, and lunch-time instructional talks alongside their teachers.
Frequently, principals give demonstration lessons, sometimes in other schools. That way, they are not asking more of teachers than they can do themselves, and teachers know it.
"To see a building move, you really have to be there for it,'' Ms. Carrillo says. "Teachers have to know I am willing to cover a class for them. When it comes from the principal, that has special meaning.''
When they visit classrooms here, Mr. Alvarado says, principals aren't just "making the rounds.'' They are expected to take every opportunity, he says, "to praise and push.''
"If a principal sees a teacher ask a weak question,'' explains Ms. Fink, "they will ask one to take the discussion to the next level.''
Mr. Alvarado and Ms. Fink also visit schools frequently; they keep a chart showing each school and when it was last visited. They know the strengths and weaknesses of every building, right down to which teachers are unlikely to improve and will need to be weeded out.
Indeed, much of what has been accomplished here since Mr. Alvarado's tenure began could be attributed to simple good management. Expectations are high and clearly communicated, and everyone is given ample opportunity and support to succeed.
"What works is consistency,'' says Bea Johnstone, an educational-initiatives specialist. "We don't speak with 20 tongues. There is one focus, and every initiative we have is congruent with it.''
Rather than feeling pressured by the expectations, principals say they thrive on the challenge. They also point out that they are given plenty of help and are encouraged to ask questions. New principals, for example, are paired with "buddy'' principals.
District supervisors also try not to waste time on administrative issues; these are communicated in writing rather than in meetings, where the focus is on instruction.
But that does not mean principals have no paperwork to do--they just squeeze it in. Ms. Carrillo says she spends every Saturday morning at her computer doing administrative work.
The district's monthly principals' meetings are held out in the schools, not at the administration office. Principals visit classes, discuss pedagogy, and talk about the practices and approaches they see that would be useful in their own buildings.
"It breaks down the building walls,'' Ms. Straus, the P.S. 1 principal, says, "and opens up the whole district.''
"I can say to my teachers, 'I saw wonderful things going on, and I'd like you to go and observe those things and come back and talk about it,''' she adds.
Principals also have formed study groups to look at issues together.
"We are encouraged to say, 'I don't know how, and can you show me someone who does,''' observes Gloria Buckery, the principal of P.S. 198 in East Harlem. "We don't for a moment hesitate to get on the phone and say, 'I was at your lecture, and I'm lost.'''
The newer principals also meet regularly with Ms. Fink in a support group to talk about where they want to take their schools. They are given research, professional literature, and strategies for reaching their goals. They talk about how to organize their schedules to free up teachers.
A Pedagogy for Visits
When they are released from their classrooms, teachers in District 2 often visit other schools. These "visitations,'' as they are called, are an important part of life in the district and have a pedagogy of their own.
Before leaving for a visitation, a teacher meets with her principal to discuss what she is going to see. When she returns, the two sit down to talk about how the teacher can implement what she observed.
This approach, Mr. Alvarado says, keeps the learning "focused.''
After a teacher tries out a new technique or approach, she evaluates her progress with the principal and they decide how it could be improved.
Some of the longest visits take place when teachers participate in the professional-development laboratory, which allows them to spend three weeks working side by side with an exemplary teacher.
Teachers who leave their schools are replaced by experienced teachers who have spent time getting to know their classes and can continue instruction without interruption. After the three-week cycle has ended, the master teachers who have hosted a visiting teacher return to her classroom with her for a few days to help her put the changes she has planned into action.
"You have time to evaluate yourself and think about what you need and what your weaknesses are,'' explains Laura Schwartz, a 1st-grade teacher who spent three weeks with a master teacher. "I don't know how people teach and not get involved in this kind of thing. I would be bored out of my mind.''
Scores Up, But Played Down
One-shot workshops and seminars are held in low regard here. The goal is to offer teachers multiple opportunities to learn new methods, always with feedback and follow-up. What teachers need, Ms. Fink says, is in turn determined by asking, "'What do these kids need, and what are the kids doing?'''
Although the word "program'' may be the most ubiquitous in education, people in District 2 never use it because they believe it connotes a fragmented, uncoordinated approach to schooling. Another frequent topic for educators also is not mentioned here: students' test scores.
But the fact is that students in the district are scoring better in reading than they were before the literacy push began. Mr. Alvarado says District 2 now ties for fourth place among New York's 32 community districts in reading, up from 10th place about five years ago.
"Principals do feel the pressure of reading scores,'' the superintendent says. "I tell them, 'Do the right thing educating kids and reading scores will follow. If you try to get reading scores up, education doesn't follow.'''
Introducing children to books early and encouraging them to begin writing is a high priority. Leslie Zackman and Laura Kotch, two full-time staff developers hired from another New York City district, work intensively with teachers in six schools to help them strengthen their reading and writing programs.
"Everything we do with teachers,'' Ms. Kotch says, "is directly applicable to what they do with kids.''
An Australian Import
But it is Ms. Snowball's work here that illustrates the lengths District 2 administrators will go to to find expertise. The Australian educator, an authority on literacy, came to administrators' attention when she was a visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University.
The district could not hire Ms. Snowball because she has no work permit, but Mr. Alvarado got around the problem by persuading New York University to make her a visiting scholar. District 2 pays her salary.
Ms. Snowball works regularly with pre-kindergarten to 2nd-grade teachers in nine schools. She gives demonstration lessons, offers advice on strengthening pedagogy, and even helped one teacher rearrange her room so she could get started with a new way of teaching. She also works with a study group of principals and holds after-school and summer workshops.
"I'm very, very focused on why we do things,'' Ms. Snowball explains. "It's not just, 'Here's a fancy thing to do.'''
'Few Competing Interests'
The hard work that goes on in the community district all year long does not end when school lets out.
This summer, Mr. Alvarado says proudly, more than 60 percent of the district's 1,000 teachers will attend seminars on literacy and mathematics. The math consultant will provide six months of follow-up work next school year. Teachers from some schools also will spend three days planning for next year.
This kind of professional development obviously does not come cheap.
When asked how the district manages to pay for professional-development opportunities, Mr. Alvarado says it is simply a priority.
"When you have a very, very clear focus, you recognize what's important and all the other stuff becomes not important,'' he says. "There are few competing interests.''
District 2 spends about $2.6 million on professional development, much of it from state and federal money, out of a total budget of $80 million.
And individual schools have a lot of flexibility in deciding how they will spend their money. They can decide to increase class size slightly or cut an administrative, clerical, or counseling position to pay for professional development.
Ms. Fink goes over every budget with the principal. She does not hesitate, she says, to question expenditures that do not appear targeted toward the goal of improving instruction.
The challenge now, educators here say, is in finding more expertise, developing leaders in the district, and finding the time and money to pay for everything they want to do.
"The more we do and the better it gets,'' Ms. Fink says, "the more teachers want and we want.''
"We know we have to keep getting better.''