Teachers Centers May Collapse When They are Needed Most

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Political conservatives have called them "taxpayer-financed union halls." Others claim they are important grassroots efforts to improve day-to-day instruction in the classroom. Teacher centers are controversial, often misunderstood, and struggling for survival at a time when, many educators say, they are most needed.

New technology, an aging teaching force, and an increasing number of curriculum mandates have contributed over the last decade to an unprecedented need to update the skills of practicing teachers.

But a number of educators believe that the type of "in-service" training most commonly used by school districts to address the problem has been woefully inadequate. As Gary Sykes, a research associate at the National Institute of Education (nie), describes it: "Most 'in-service' training is nothing more than a string of one-shot workshops or lectures imposed on teachers by administrators. They lack credibility and do nothing to meet the concrete daily needs of teachers."

Teacher centers were developed in the late 1960's and early 1970's, in part to help teachers respond to the shift to an "open-classroom" style and a broader school curriculum. Today, there are about 300 such centers around the country, run by teachers and offering a range of services from photocopying to graduate courses for their colleagues in the classroom.

Participation in the centers is voluntary, and it is this principle of "teachers helping teachers," advocates say, that distinguishes teacher centers from school districts' in-service programs and makes them so valuable.

Computer Bank of Resources

Centers vary widely in organization, size, and sophistication.

The nation's largest program, the New York City Teacher Centers Consortium, has a full-time paid staff of 23 master teachers serving the entire city school system. It offers dozens of teacher-taught courses for college credit and has an extensive computer bank of resources that teachers may use in curriculum development. The New York City Consortium estimates its centers cost $12 per teacher or $1 per student to operate.

But most centers are more modest, commonly offering advice and materials for classroom use, and occasionally workshops. Some centers have 24-hour telephone "hot lines."

Some are located in unused classrooms within schools, others in storefronts. In rural areas, teacher centers are frequently mobile, and the staff travels from school to school. Some school districts share centers. They are usually open at night and on weekends as well as during school hours.

Although comprehensive information on the use of teacher centers is unavailable, two members of the education-school faculty at Syracuse University who surveyed 37 federally sponsored centers estimate that 215,000 teachers used the 99 centers that received federal support in 1980-81.

Teacher centers play several important roles not duplicated elsewhere in education, supporters say. They offer teachers immediate practical help with the difficult day-to-day problems encountered in the classroom; an uncommon opportunity to exchange ideas and seek help in an "unthreatening" environment; an inexpensive way to identify and study the curriculum material they believe is most important to their work in the classroom; and a respite from what is sometimes described as the demoralizing isolation of the classroom.

"They fill a tremendous gap," said Sally K. Mertens, a co-author of the Syracuse University evaluation of the centers. "They give teachers help when they need it from a credible source. There has been very little cake-baking and macrame going on."

Says Myrna Cooper, a former teacher and now director of the New York City consortium: "Only teacher centers offer assistance at the classroom level, and that's where the action is."

Gaining Momentum

But in recent years, the teacher-center movement has become mired in politics, and is in danger of collapsing, just as it has begun to gain momentum.

The movement got a boost in 1976, when, after vigorous lobbying by the National Education Association (nea) and the American Federation of Teachers (aft), President Gerald R. Ford signed legislation providing three-year federal grants for 108 projects (200 centers) over the last four years at a cost of $45 million. The principal sponsor of the legislation was then-Senator Walter F. Mondale, whose brother is an nea official.

The legislation gave teachers control of the councils that were to set policy for each federally supported center by authorizing the local union bargaining agent to appoint teachers to each center's policy council.

However, the highly visible role of the teachers' unions, in what Mr. Sykes and others have described as a divisive Congressional debate over the legislation, not only made many school administrators leery of teacher centers, but also provoked stinging attacks from conservatives. That criticism may have figured in the demise, under the Reagan Administration, of the federal-grants program.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public-policy research organization, said federally supported teacher centers "by and large ... function as taxpayer-financed union halls."

The charge has been repudiated as "a blatant lie" by nea spokesmen and as "a serious misreading of teacher centers" by Ms. Mertens, the Syracuse University professor of education.

The federal teacher-center program, funded at $9.1 million this school year, was removed from the Higher Education Act last year by the Reagan Administration and placed into the 1982 education block grant.

The 72 centers receiving federal support this year will receive no more direct federal grants after next summer, although some states and school districts are moving to keep them open with money from state and local sources or with federal block-grant funds.

Three information-sharing networks among the teacher centers, sponsored for several years by the nie, will also be closed this year.

Allen A. Schmieder, who directed the teacher-center program at the U.S. Department of Education, said teacher-union participation in the federal program was needed to win teachers' support for the concept. "The unions gave us a lot of credibility fast," said Mr. Schmieder, who expressed bitterness about the Heritage Foundation's characterization of teacher centers.

"Our real strength is also our Achilles' heel," admitted Patricia J. Weiler, director of the aft's Teacher Center Resource Exchange. "Teacher centers would not be as successful as they are without the involvement of the unions, but the centers have suffered because they have been so closely identified with the unions."

Politics have distorted the role of teacher centers, according to Sam J. Yarger, associate dean of education at Syracuse University and co-author, with Ms. Mertens, of the study of federal teacher centers.

"They are hardly doing wild and radical things," he said. "The things they offer are really very conservative. It is hard to believe a superintendent would object to a teacher working on curriculum development."

Teachers Working Together

However, many superintendents do look on teacher centers warily. "They associate them with teacher radicalism, largely because they are not used to seeing teachers come together on professional issues except to negotiate collective-bargaining agreements," said Kathleen Devaney, director of the Teacher Center Exchange, a nationwide network sponsored by nie and based in Berkeley, Calif.

"This is why teacher centers are an important development," Ms. Devaney continued. "Before them, there was no tradition in this country, as there is in Japan and England, countries with extensive national teacher-center programs, of teachers working together to improve learning." (Japan recently opened a $38-million center that will focus on mathematics and science instruction.)

Some superintendents and school-board members have been reluctant to endorse federally supported teacher centers because of the requirement that each center have a policy board with a majority of teachers on it. When the New York City Board of Education agreed to take over the teacher-center consortium's budget last fall, it required teachers to give up their majority on the consortium's policy board.

The future of the teacher-center movement is uncertain, those close to it say.

Mr. Yarger and others predict many federally funded centers will close because school districts will have higher priorities for their block-grant funds. "Most superintendents will try to save Title I programs; teacher centers will get very little money. The holy grail simply is not in the cards," said Mr. Yarger.

Added Ms. Cooper, the director of the New York City consortium: "There will be very hard times for the next few years; all the education constituencies will be at each other's throats for the same money."

However, there are some signs of a brighter future for teacher centers. The National School Boards Association recently endorsed them, and the New York State legislature last week passed legislation granting $300,000 to the New York City consortium.

In addition, Florida and Michigan have statewide teacher-center networks. Legislators in Iowa, Mississippi, and Texas are considering similar measures, according to Mr. Schmieder.

Also, some school districts will support teacher centers. Bill B. Meadur, superintendent of the Grand County School District in southeastern Utah, said his district plans to spend all of its federal block-grant money on its teacher center. "We'll get more bang for our bucks by improving the performance and morale of our teachers," he said.

Forgoing the Union Image

Many agree that teachers need the services provided by teacher centers. But if they are to survive--many of the 150 to 200 centers that did not receive federal support are operating on a shoestring budget--they will have to shed their union-activist image, both supporters and opponents agree.

Said Superintendent Meadur, speaking at a recent meeting of 300 teacher-center leaders in Arlington, Va.: "Teacher centers have to bend over backwards to prove to superintendents and school boards that they are allies, not adversaries."

Vol. 01, Issue 22

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