Teaching & Learning Update

March 10, 2004 7 min read
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Is Staff Training Being Neglected?

The professional-development provision of the 2-year-old No Child Left Behind Act remains largely opaque to educators, a survey of more than 2,000 teachers and administrators suggests.

Nearly half of those responding to the online survey believed that portion of the law was having “no discernable effect” on training. More than a third said the survey was the first time they had heard of the provision.

The survey was conducted between December and last month by the nonprofit National Staff Development Council, which promotes and provides school professional growth. Though it did not draw on a representative sample, the poll tapped educators in all regions of the nation. Sixty-three percent were teachers.

Although the federal law’s definition of professional development discourages short- term workshops, 34 percent of the educators surveyed said such activities were about as frequent as two years ago, and 11 percent reported they were more frequent. On the other hand, 22 percent said there were “significantly fewer” short-term activities than in 2002.

Half the educators said the districts or schools they knew best were providing about the same amount of training as they did two years ago, while 30 percent reported more professional development as a result of the legislation.

M. Hayes Mizell, the council’s distinguished senior fellow who coordinates its No Child Left Behind task force, said that at the very least, the results sounded a warning bell. “Given the challenges that educators are under as a result of NCLB, we’d hope that school systems would see the need for ... more effective professional development,” he said, but it appears that many have not.

The survey indicated educators were feeling the strain, with 40 percent of respondents saying the major effect of the federal law was to produce implementation pressures that negatively affect educators’ morale or performance. Just 18 percent said the requirements were beginning to help teachers and others think and act in new ways that “may ultimately result in more students performing at higher levels.” Another 11 percent said most work in schools was unaffected.

Claudette Rasmussen, who directs the John Edward Porter Professional Development Center of Learning Point Associates, in Naperville, Ill., said the findings were particularly worrisome because those who responded to the survey probably were better informed about professional development than educators in general. What should be communicated, she said, is this: “Here’s what powerful professional development means, here’s the high- priority place it has in the law, and here’s how money will flow to support you as you engage in professional development.”

Unfortunately, she said, that’s not the message many teachers are getting.

Coming Together

The nearly three dozen reading researchers who gathered on the campus of the National Institutes of Health recently have not always seen eye to eye on the best methods and applications for scholarship in the field. In fact, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the International Reading Association have been known to criticize each other over their sometimes divergent views on the value of various types of research and how they should inform instruction.

But civility was the protocol for the two- day workshop for the invited scholars, as they worked to outline an agenda for future research on how best to teach and promote reading comprehension for the nation’s schoolchildren.

Representatives from the NICHD and the IRA meeting in Bethesda, Md., Feb. 24-25 discussed past research findings, ongoing studies, and critical questions for guiding future investigations.

“Ultimately, this was a design discussion,” said IRA President Lesley Mandel Morrow, a reading researcher at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Researchers from opposing traditions—including those known for their commitment to experimental or scientific studies, and others who rely primarily on observational or ethnographic techniques—discussed ways to join forces and combine methods to strengthen their studies. Such interwoven research, while costly, could help paint a clearer picture of how practices proven effective in controlled, clinical settings might affect classrooms in general, some participants said.

The organizations are planning two additional workshops, one to discuss early literacy and the other to weigh multiple-language literacy. Dates have not yet been set.

Textbook Critiques

The nation’s top U.S. and world history textbooks rate high on visuals, but the content, while vast, is shallow, dull, and sometimes inaccurate, contends a review by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

“If history textbooks are not consistently interesting and enlightening, they won’t do a good job of teaching history to their readers,” Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian and the lead author of the report, said in a statement. “This review, we hope, helps to explain why students aren’t learning much history.”

“A Consumers Guide to High School History Textbooks,” released last month, includes critiques by U.S. and world history scholars and educators of 12 widely used history textbooks. The reviewers looked at the latest generation of texts, most of which were published after Sept. 11, 2001. The report is particularly critical of how the books present information about the terrorist attacks on the United States on that day.

Read “A Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks,” from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

“The reader would scarcely learn that anybody in particular had organized these savage attacks on innocent Americans and citizens of 80 other nations, much less why,” Fordham’s president, Chester E. Finn Jr., writes in the foreword.

In testimony before a U.S. Senate committee last fall, Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, explained that while the texts may be imperfect, they are written to meet the demands of state academic standards and detailed textbook content guidelines.

Mall Meetings

With 850 students, the teachers at North High School in Akron, Ohio, have a lot of parent conferences to schedule. But attendance at those periodic conversations about student achievement hasn’t always been as high as school leaders have hoped.

So Principal Larry Weigle came up with a new approach this year: moving the meetings from the cafeteria, where they typically are held, to the local mall.

While shoppers browsed through the Gap and Foot Locker recently, about 45 teachers, some with lattes from Starbucks, stationed themselves at tables in the main concourse at Chapel Hill Mall to meet with parents and students about their progress at this point in the school year.

“I would say we definitely had more people,” Mr. Weigle said. For some parents, he added, it was more convenient to combine the meetings with their shopping errands.

But he doesn’t want to take complete credit for the concept. He said he got the idea after attending a conference and hearing about a high school that held its parent-teacher conferences at the local Wal-Mart.

Although conferences at the mall may not become the norm at North High School, Mr. Weigle said he would probably continue to use the venue once a year.

Evolution Aid

As the debate over how to teach evolution continues to pop up, the National Science Teachers Association has published a book that tries to provide educators with resources they need to address the issue and defend instruction on evolution.

Read an online version of the book “Evolution in Perspective: The Science Teacher’s Compendium,” or order a print copy for $15.95 from the National Science Teachers Association store.

The Arlington, Va.-based organization compiled 12 articles that were originally published in the association’s periodical The Science Teacher. Rodger W. Bybee, the executive director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, in Colorado Springs, Colo., edited the book.

It’s divided into three sections: the scientific perspective, which includes articles by scientists; the educators’ perspective, which discusses how evolution fits into the NSTA’s national science standards; and the science teacher’s perspective, which covers how educators can lead class discussions on evolution.

“We’re arming the teacher with the knowledge and background they need to answer questions from students and parents,” said Cindy Workosky, a spokeswoman for the NSTA.


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