Staying Focused

By Ann Bradley — September 01, 1993 7 min read

As the cab he is riding in darts through morning traffic in lower Manhattan, Anthony 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 speaks of the passion he and others in his district feel for professional development. “Everything we do in this district,” he explains, “is geared toward the issue of teaching and learning in the context of professional development.”

Under Alvarado’s leadership, District 2 has attracted the attention of researchers and policy- makers who are looking for better ways to help teachers. Rather than viewing professional development as a project, notes Milbrey McLaughlin, a professor of education and public policy at Stanford University, Alvarado has “larded and threaded it throughout the district.”

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 chancellor of the citywide system. During that time, he estimates, he has sat through approximately 150 top-level meetings where “the talk is never about curriculum and instruction. It’s [about] turf, administration, budgets, and power.”

When he became the superintendent of District 2 in 1987, Alvarado set out to systematically improve instruction, starting with encouraging children to read and write as soon as they enter school. Gradually, his emphasis on whole language spread to the upper elementary grades. Last year, principals and teachers in some junior high schools began creating interdisciplinary les- sons built around literature. Teachers also are working on their mathematics instruction, using the standards and methods recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

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.

These teachers roam through a classroom with notebooks, jotting down how the teacher has organized her materials and reading the children’s writings that hang from clotheslines crisscrossing the room.

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 in District 2. “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.

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.

Deputy Superintendent Elaine Fink recalls that when she and Alvarado arrived, District 2 “was covered with workbooks and work sheets.” The teachers, she says, “believed that this was how children learn. We know better, and we have to teach them that.”

One way to accomplish that goal, the pair believed, was to hire principals who were deeply interested in curriculum and instruction and who would serve as models for their teachers. Today, 20 of the district’s 28 principals 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. “If they have no sense that something needs to be changed,” Fink stresses, “then we are not going to have them as the head of a school.”

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, they give demonstration lessons, sometimes in other schools. That way, they don’t ask more of teachers than they can do themselves, and teachers know it.

When they visit classrooms, Alvarado says, principals aren’t just “making the rounds”; they are expected to take every opportunity “to praise and push.”

Alvarado and 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 replaced.

Indeed, much of what has been accomplished in District 2 since Alvarado’s tenure began can 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 are given plenty of help and are encouraged to ask questions. The district’s monthly principals’ meetings are held out in the schools, not at the administrative office. Principals visit classes, discuss pedagogy, and talk about practices and approaches that would be useful in their own schools. “It breaks down the building walls,” Straus, the principal of P.S. 1, says, “and opens up the whole district.”

Principals also have formed study groups to look at issues together. “We are encouraged to say, ‘I don’t know how; can you show me someone who does?’” observes Gloria Buckery, principal of P.S. 198 in East Harlem.

Like the principals, teachers in District 2 often spend time at other schools. These “visitations,” as they are called, are an important part of school life and have a pedagogy of their own. Before leaving for a visitation, teachers meet with their principal to discuss what they are going to see. Then, when they return, they sit down with the principal again and talk about how they can implement what they’ve observed. This approach, Alvarado says, keeps the learning “focused.” After teachers try out a new technique or approach, they evaluate their progress with the principal and discuss 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. The teachers are covered by experienced colleagues 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 go back to the visiting teachers’ classrooms to help implement change.

“You have time to evaluate yourself and think about what you need and what your weaknesses are,” explains 1st grade teacher Laura Schwartz, who spent three weeks with a master teacher. “I don’t know how people teach and not get involved in this kind of thing.”

In District 2, one-shot workshops and seminars are held in low regard. The goal is to offer teachers multiple opportunities to learn new methods, always with feedback and follow-up. What teachers need, Fink says, is in turn determined by asking, “What do these kids need, and what are the kids doing?”

Although the word “program” is ubiquitous in education, people in District 2 almost never use it because they believe it connotes a fragmented, uncoordinated approach to schooling. Another topic seldom discussed is test scores.

But the fact is that students in the district are scoring better in reading than they were before the literacy push began. 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 instruction. “Everything we do with teachers,” Kotch says, “is directly applicable to what they do with kids.”

Obviously, such programs do not come cheap; 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. When asked how the district manages to pay for it all, 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.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Staying Focused