Teaching and Learning

February 21, 2001 9 min read
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Professional Development Wanting
In Chicago, Report Says

Seventy-five percent of Chicago’s teaching force receives professional development that is deficient in important ways, although the overall quality of the program appears to be improving, a report concludes.

The study of more than 23,000 educators during the 1996-97 and 1998-1999 school years, conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research and the Chicago Annenberg Research Project, set out to define effective professional development, understand how teachers experience it in Chicago, identify the weak links in the district’s system, and assess the support needed to make such programs effective in all districts.

Researchers found 25 percent of Chicago’s teachers received “high quality” professional development—defined as a program that is sustained and focused, and that includes reflection, exposes teachers to new academic content, and involves collaborative work, among other traits.

Another 50 percent of the teachers took part in programs of “moderate quality” that lacked some of those characteristics. Twenty-five percent, however, underwent training of “low quality,” according to the report, which was released last month.

Those who received low-quality professional development were more likely than their other colleagues to be teaching in large schools or at the high school level, said Mark A. Smylie, a co-director of the consortium and the director of the Chicago Annenberg Research Project. Both efforts provide research for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a program established to improve urban education.

The quality of professional development did improve “substantially” between 1997 and 1999, the study says. Improvements were seen mostly in elementary schools.

Reading Gains: Chicago pupils taught with an off-the-shelf, multimedia reading program showed significant improvement in basic reading skills, according to a recent independent analysis.

In a study of 12,000 students in preschool through 3rd grade, test results showed gains, in some cases up to a full grade level or more, in phonemic awareness, spelling, and decoding skills. The study was conducted by RPG Consulting of Jacksonville, Fla.

For More Information

Information on registering for a free copy of the “Chicago Public Schools Research Report” is available from Cognitive Concepts.

The program, called Earobics, combines print materials, the Internet, computer software, and teacher professional development in a push to build students’ phonemic awareness—the understanding that words and letters are made up of sounds. Phonemic awareness has been identified by national panels of experts as an essential initial skill for learning to read.

Children in more than 450 classrooms in 99 public schools in the Chicago system were taught to use Earobics for 20-minute sessions, three times a week, for 10 to 12 weeks. They were tested on phonemic awareness, spelling, and decoding skills before and after using Earobics. Improvements were documented for all the grade levels studied. Third graders in the study, for example, improved their spelling skills by a full grade level, and showed even greater improvement in phonemic awareness.

“Teachers reported that they liked the product and were committed to using it. That in and of itself makes it effective,” said Ronald R. Whitmore, who directs research and curriculum for the district’s office of language, cultural, and early-childhood education. “But the question was, ‘Does it work?’ The answer is, ‘Yes.’

Earobics, a product of the Evanston, Ill.- based Cognitive Concepts, is used by about a dozen districts and many individual schools around the country. The company is sponsoring a similar study, this one using a control group, in Newport News, Va.

Heterogeneous Assignments: Successful middle schools combine students of varying ability levels in classrooms and hold all those students to high academic standards, a group working for the improvement of the middle grades argues.

In the first of a series of policy statements it plans to publish, the 6-year-old National Forum To Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform says that the best middle schools have fair student-assignment policies and ensure that every student is taught to high standards with challenging academic content and high-quality instructional materials.

“In high-performing schools, heterogeneous assignment of students is the norm,” the statement released last week notes.

Student-assignment policy is one of the most divisive issues facing middle schools, with views on the issue ranging from the approval of student tracking by ability to the promotion of more diverse groupings of students. Members of the forum—researchers, educators, state and regional school leaders, and representatives of several national education groups—generally advocate more open grouping policies. They vary, though, in their opinions about whether some groups of students, such as the gifted or those whose first language is not English, should be pulled out of their regular classrooms to receive special services.

After months of debate, the forum concluded that student assignment should aim to reduce disparities among students. But in cases where students are grouped by ability levels, the assignments should be temporary and be based on a variety of factors, not solely on test scores, the forum says.

“All students deserve to learn from a curriculum that is based on high standards, but when students are grouped and regrouped [to better serve their individual needs] the purpose is to get them back to a heterogeneous grouping."said Joan Lipsitz, a member of the forum and a longtime middle school reformer.

While the policy statement is somewhat short on detail, in part because it represents a consensus of the diverse views of the forum’s members, schools and teachers will be able to find further guidance on the forum’s Web site,, beginning next month.

Learning Through Vices: Schools can use science courses to teach middle school students about the dangers of drug abuse, and math classes to explain the odds against winning a lottery, with the help of new materials written by Harvard Medical School researchers.

For More Information

More information on the addiction curricular material is available from the Harvard Medical School, Division on Addictions, 180 Longwood Ave., Suite 330, Boston, MA 02115; (617) 432-0058.

The school’s division on addictions has published two sets of curricula that teach typical middle school coursework by using real-life examples from the group’s research.

In the science materials, for example, a section on neonatal development explains the impact of drugs or alcohol on the fetus. While the students learn the subject matter typically taught in the units, they also learn about the dangers of drug use by pregnant women, the project’s director said.

“The implicit message is: Be careful,” said Howard J. Shaffer, an associate professor at the medical school and the director of the addiction division.

Likewise, the mathematics lessons compare the chances of winning lottery games with the amount someone could earn in interest by putting the money in a bank account instead of buying tickets.

Louisiana is piloting the math program this year. The state is required by a 1999 law to offer education about the perils of gambling. Many other states with legalized gambling and lotteries are reviewing the math program because they have similar laws, Mr. Shaffer said.

“If we can make science and mathematics inherently more interesting, we think we can have as a byproduct less drug, alcohol, and gambling problems,” he said.

The classroom materials are available free to teachers and curriculum directors.

Focus on Engineering: New science and technology standards will require Massachusetts schools to incorporate principles of engineering into their instruction.

Starting in kindergarten, children will be encouraged to build devices using such simple tools as rulers and hammers, and to construct such objects as hamster houses, according to the standards for science and technology adopted by the state school board.

By the time they reach high school, students will be expected to devise technological solutions to problems by applying their science and math knowledge. They also will be expected to solve problems using the same methods that engineers use: drawing plans for their inventions, creating prototypes of them, and making presentations explaining their purposes and benefits.

Massachusetts is believed to be the first state to integrate specific engineering principles into its standards, according to Ioannis Miaoulis, the dean of Tufts University school of engineering in Medford, Mass., and the chairman of the standards-writing committee.

Perks To Teach: Newly hired teachers in the Johnston County, N.C, schools, located in the Research Triangle area of the state, can look forward to a few unusual fringe benefits designed to help them settle in to the area.

A free spinal exam from a local chiropractor and a free ring cleaning from a nearby jeweler are among the services offered in a coupon booklet handed out to new teachers in the 21,000-student district. “It is used to welcome our employees into the community,” said Crystal Roberts, a spokeswoman for the district. “This is so they can become more familiar with the lay of the land.”

The book also includes discount coupons for a local pharmacy, grocery store, hotel, bank, printing company, and newspaper. District officials partnered with local businesses to create the coupon booklets, which benefit everyone involved, according to Ms. Roberts. “The businesses see it as a way to serve their customers,” she said.

The district, which hires an average of 500 teachers a year, has instituted a $3,000 signing bonus for math and science teachers.

The new coupon-book program is a work in progress, Ms. Roberts said. “We’re working to massage that program,” she said, “so that we can have something that is really practical for our new employees.”

Pitching In for Math: Two companies and a private donor have pooled $10 million to improve math instruction in the San Diego public schools.

The grants will establish the Foundation for the Improvement of Mathematics and Science Education, a nonprofit group that will work with the city schools and San Diego State University. The foundation will buy textbooks and other instructional materials, pay for teachers to attend university courses to improve their academic knowledge and instructional skills, and help those teachers become mentors for their colleagues.

QUALCOMM Inc., a San Diego- based manufacturer of wireless-communication devices, will make grants totaling $6 million over the next three years to the project. Applied Micro Circuits Corp., a manufacturer of computer equipment also based in the city, will chip in another $3 million, and the Waitt Family Foundation, a North Sioux City, S.D., grantmaker, will add $1 million.

—Julie Blair, David J. Hoff, Michelle Galley, & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teaching and Learning


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