Review Threatens Teacher-Training Institute in Chicago

By Peter West — September 23, 1992 5 min read
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Two years ago, the Nobel-laureate physicist Leon M. Lederman was able to persuade Congress, in near record time, to fund a promising teacher-training academy designed to upgrade the mathematics and science skills of Chicago’s public school teachers.

Today, a federal interagency review of the academy’s operations is so unflattering that the U.S. Energy Department is threatening to pull the plug on future funding.

Officials of the department’s office of university and science education warn in a letter to the academy’s executive director that unless the school can provide evidence by Sept. 30 that it is complying with the panel’s recommendations, the department “will not consider additional funding beyond its [fiscal] 1993 commitment.’'

Since it opened its doors for a pilot project in 1990, the academy has received $5 million from the Energy Department and roughly $3 million from the National Science Foundation, as well as $1.25 million from the state of Illinois.

As originally conceived, the academy would train a cadre of substitute teachers to take the place of public school teachers so that they could immerse themselves in math and science instruction at the academy.

The academy hoped eventually to train up to 3,000 teachers each year at an annual cost of $32 million.

Mr. Lederman, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, conceded in an interview last week that that approach proved to be too expensive and impractical and will have to be largely scrapped.

But both Mr. Lederman and Jon Thompson, the academy’s executive director, contend that many of the conditions laid out in the Energy Department letter have already been met, and that some false starts are to be expected in such an undertaking.

The federal agencies that cooperated on the report “have some serious concerns, but we have them too,’' Mr. Lederman said.

“We’ve been open for two years, and in two years we’ve ‘done,’ ‘trained,’ ‘reached,’ whatever word you want to use, 30 schools and 700 teachers,’' he added. “And, God knows, we think that’s an enviable record.’'

Steven Fried, an Energy Department spokesman, said that academy officials are scheduled to respond to the report, which has yet to be made public, at a closed hearing in Washington next week.

A ‘National Laboratory’

The concept for the academy was formulated by Henry Gordon Berry, a senior physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, and Priscilla and Henry Frisch, researchers at, respectively, the University of Chicago and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., who were active in the grassroots effort to improve the Chicago schools.

And while the thrust of the project was to eventually provide intensive instruction to each of the roughly 18,000 Chicago educators who teach math and science, the project also had far more ambitious goals.

A proposal drafted by Fermilab staff members refers to the academy as a “national laboratory’’ for math and science teaching, whose approaches could be modified and adopted by other large urban districts.

The proposal was exciting enough that officials of the Chicago Teachers Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and numerous Chicago-area teacher-training institutions supported it.

Nevertheless, the concept lay moribund until Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins, as part of his effort to support precollegiate science and math instruction, discussed with Mr. Lederman ways to improve the teaching of those subjects in Chicago. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

Mr. Lederman was then recruited to act as a high-profile spokesman for the reform project, though some observers say he has had little to do with the program’s operations.

Even as late as last February, in a paper presented at the A.A.A.S. annual meeting in Chicago, Mr. Berry, who was the academy’s interim director, argued that the project could have the potential for national leadership.

In a recent interview, however, Mr. Berry said he was disappointed in the direction the academy has taken.

He said the program seems unlikely to grow to train the number of teachers each year originally envisioned and that there is little involvement by minority scientists or educators in the program.

“I’m still on the board and I’d love the project to be successful,’' he said. “But they’ve got to come up with some changes in the program. It’s not a national example, you can see that now. But it was when we started.’'

Department’s Demands

In his July 6 letter to the academy, Richard E. Stephens, the director of the Energy Department’s education office, indicates that both the department and the N.S.F. have made previous, unsuccessful requests for change and have laid out specific timetables for reform that have not been met.

The letter refers specifically to recommendations made following an interagency site visit to the academy in December 1991 by a team of investigators from the Energy Department, the N.S.F., and other institutions.

Officials at the Energy Department referred requests for a copy of the program’s review to the N.S.F., which last week was considering whether to release it.

But in his letter, Mr. Stephens writes that for the academy to continue to receive federal funds, it must develop a “vision and strategic plan ... based on the best available research and practice’’ that will lead to a new organization and curriculum for the effort.

The memo also calls for a new agreement with Chicago schools to address liability issues involving academy-trained substitutes.

Mr. Thompson said that such an agreement has been in development for the past 18 months and is on the verge of being adopted.

Dorothy S. Strong, the school system’s manager of mathematics support, said that district officials have approved the agreement in principle and that the school board is expected to formally adopt it this month.

In particular, as requested by the Energy Department, the agreement ensures that substitute teachers employed by the academy will be qualified to teach under the district’s contract with the teachers’ union and will be covered by liability insurance.

Relying on Substitutes

Beyond the conditions laid out in the letter, Mr. Thompson said that academy officials this summer devised alternatives to the original “inefficient’’ idea of replacing classroom teachers with academy-trained substitutes. One such idea is to deliver instruction during summer sessions.

Mr. Lederman said the academy also probably will now use teachers from the district’s pool of substitutes as replacements.

Adrienne Bailey, the district’s deputy superintendent for instructional services and a member of the academy’s board of trustees, also faulted the original approach.

“It’s a wonderful idea when you say ‘Free teachers up,’ but freeing teachers up for 15 days per semester is a very expensive proposition,’' she said.

She and other academy officials contended that, while the questions raised by federal officials are cause for concern, the project has made sufficient progress that a loss of federal aid is unlikely.

“It would be a terrific blow,’' Mr. Lederman said. “But I don’t believe it’s going to happen.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1992 edition of Education Week as Review Threatens Teacher-Training Institute in Chicago


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