'A Bold Step From the Ivory Tower'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

David O. Dickson, the superintendent of schools in Hammond, Ind., paces the floor of his spacious office as he discusses one of his district's major concerns: finding talented young teachers willing and prepared to work in an urban setting.

Many recent teacher graduates, he says, come in for an interview and sign a contract before they look around the area.

"We have the same experience over and over again,'' he complains. "They go back home, call us the next day, and say, 'I've rethought things. I don't want to teach up there in the city.'''

Others, he notes, actually come and teach, but leave after one or two years. "They just can't cope,'' he says.

"It is very difficult for a young person who has grown up in the lily-white corn fields of Indiana to interact with economically disadvantaged or minority children,'' Mr. Dickson says.

"I don't mean they are biased or prejudiced,'' he adds. "I mean they simply have never interacted, or had the opportunity to interact, with people like this. They are unaccustomed to the urban environment.''

Like many educators, Mr. Dickson lays much of the blame on schools of education, which he claims are not adequately preparing teachers to work with the diverse student population found in an urban setting.

But now school and teacher-union officials here and in Gary and East Chicago--two neighboring urban communities that are also struggling to attract and retain young teachers--have joined forces with Indiana University Northwest to tackle this problem.

Their goal is an ambitious one: To design and create a new school-based system that will train teachers for urban schools.

If they succeed, local officials assert, the three districts should receive a steady supply of new teachers tailor-made for their needs.

'New Form of Teacher Education'

"We are talking about a new form of teacher education that occurs on the school site and takes a few years,'' says Martin Haberman, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and an adjunct professor at I.U.N.

The program is based on the assumption that prospective teachers could be prepared best by actually working with inner-city youngsters under the supervision and leadership of successful veteran teachers.

To do that, the project's planners hope to shift the professional-preparation component of a future teacher's undergraduate education from the university to the urban schools themselves.

As envisioned, each district would transform one school into a "professional development center'' staffed by a joint school-university faculty, which would be in charge of preparing teachers and, ultimately, recommending them for certification.

These professional-development centers, the planners argue, would offer prospective urban teachers better and more relevant professional preparation than they could receive elsewhere.

Teacher candidates would receive up to two years of supervised on-the-job practice before becoming fully licensed.

"What we hope the program would produce is a more effective practitioner,'' says JosÀe Rosario, associate professor of education at I.U.N. and newly appointed director of the project. "What we are trying to do is create a program that would help prospective teachers understand the problems they are going to face, and give them tools for making better sense of those problems and devising ways to deal with them.''

Although the university has served as the catalyst for the project, it will be teachers--working in conjunction with university faculty members, district administrators, and local parents--who will design the new program and its curriculum.

"The most exciting part of the program is that it will provide us with a steady flow of qualified teachers trained to meet the felt needs of the districts,'' says E. Ann Ramsey, assistant director of personnel for the Gary school system. "You can't beat that.''

The planners hope to develop a program that is so attractive that it will draw prospective teachers from all over the state, even those who initially may not have considered teaching in an urban environment.

They also hope that by improving the working conditions in the schools selected to be professional-development centers--and eventually all the schools in the districts--that more of their own students may develop an interest in becoming teachers.

"I think the very presence of professionals working in these centers will encourage students to look favorably towards education,'' says Lewis M. Ciminillo, chairman of the division of education at I.U.N. "We would hope that some of these kids would then say, 'O.K., this is a good [field], we are going to stick with it, we are going to become teachers.'''

A Shared Vision

At this point, all the participants have is a shared vision.

But those sitting on the project's policy board--the superintendents of the three districts, the presidents of the three local teachers' unions, and several university officials--say they are fully committed to turning that vision into a reality.

The most immediate goal, according to Mr. Rosario, is to craft a blueprint detailing how such a program would work, what would be taught, and how it would be implemented. The board will then present that blueprint to the Lilly Endowment in hopes of obtaining a grant to carry out the project.

The endowment has already awarded the project a $384,000 planning grant, which should cover roughly half the costs of developing the final proposal, says Mr. Rosario.

The remaining costs of planning, he adds, will be divided between the university and the three school districts.

"I would say, aside from what is just on the face of it--the fascinating coming together of these different people and the vision of what urban teacher preparation can and should be--that we are captivated by the energies of the people involved,'' says Joan Lipsitz, the Lilly Endowment's program director for education. "It is wonderful when you see such energy being brought together on behalf of urban kids, and that was the reason for the planning grant.''

The endowment, she notes, will now "watch and see whether the various parties continue to buy into the idea and how much the districts will contribute toward this effort.''

"We will need to make decisions down the road about continuing our support,'' she adds.

50-Percent Turnover

The three districts are located in the northwest corner of the state, an area that has been particularly hard hit by the decline of the steel industry.

Each city's student population is distinct, both in size and composition.

Gary, for instance, has roughly 23,000 students, while Hammond and East Chicago are decidedly smaller, with 14,000 and 7,500 students, respectively.

While minorities make up roughly 30 percent of the student population in Hammond, more than 90 percent of the students in Gary and East Chicago are minority.

But the districts have in common an aging teaching force. Within the next five years, according to Mr. Rosario, each expects to lose roughly 50 percent of its teachers to retirement.

With a growing need for new teachers and a mutual belief that schools of education are not producing what they need, officials in each of the three districts jumped at the opportunity to get involved in the preparation process.

"The new teachers we get in are just not prepared to teach in the urban environment,'' says Ms. Ramsey, who is Gary's administrative liaison to the project. "We hope the program is going to provide us with teachers who are prepared to teach in a multicultural society and who better understand the urban child.''

Underlying the university's involvement in the project was a growing concern among both faculty members and administrators that the institution was not meeting the cities' need.

Away From the 'Ivory Tower'

"Schools of education are doing a pretty good job of training teachers for the suburban and rural areas,'' says Mr. Ciminillo. "The question is, are they doing an effective job of training teachers for the urban schools?''

"I don't think they are,'' he asserts. "They are not doing a good job because they are really not involved in the urban settings themselves.''

"We may be physically present,'' he adds, "but we do things in isolation from what is really going on out there.''

So university officials set out to break down the barriers between the institution and the three school districts by inviting the superintendents and the elected representatives of their teachers to sit down as equals and design a new teacher-training program.

Spearheading the proposal was Peggy G. Elliott, chancellor of I.U.N. and a former professor of education at the university.

Ms. Elliott was not available for comment last week, but those involved in the effort agree that she has played a pivotal role in bringing the various players around the planning table.

"It has always been assumed that the certifying agency has to be the university, and that the university and its professors know best what urban teachers need to know,'' says Mr. Haberman.

But Ms. Elliott, he says, has been willing to challenge those assumptions. "She understands that what teachers need to know to teach in urban schools has to be planned and developed by teachers themselves,'' he says.

"What the university is trying to do is create a climate for collaboration,'' says Mr. Rosario. "The way we are approaching this is by asking, 'What do we collectively need to do to address this problem?'''

School officials and teachers involved in the project say the planning has been truly collaborative, and have praised the university participants for their "openness.''

"I was skeptical at first,'' says Janette T. Whelan, a teacher involved in the early planning process. "I was afraid the university was just going to hand us something, but I have been pleasantly surprised. There is really an effort to build consensus. It hasn't been top-down.''

University officials "have taken a bold step away from the ivory tower,'' says Patrick O'Rourke, president of the Hammond Federation of Teachers.

"They have said, 'We don't have all the answers' ... and they recognize that teachers have something to contribute.''

As a result, he says, teachers will be "empowered'' to assert "greater control over their profession.''

"The ultimate reward,'' he adds, "would be to observe more effective teaching going on in these cities.''

Building Consensus

Although the participants have a general idea of what they want the program to look like and how they want the training to occur, most of the details still need to be worked out.

A "core planning group''--made up of one teacher from each of the school districts, one university faculty member, and Mr. Rosario--has been working since January to develop a detailed time table and an intricate consensus-building process to guide the planning.

This month, three "consensus groups'' will be formed and assigned specific planning tasks. One will be charged with developing a curriculum plan delineating how a prospective urban teacher admitted to the program would be socialized into the profession.

Another will devise the rules, regulations, and standards for deciding who should enter and exit the program. And the third will prepare an implementation plan specifying how, where, and when the instruction and training will be delivered.

Each consensus group will be composed of seven teachers, one central administrator, one building administrator, one university faculty member, and one parent.

Review groups made up of teachers, administrators, parents, and other community members will advise the consensus groups and offer reactions.

Forty teachers have applied to sit on the consensus groups. The superintendents and union presidents from the three districts will screen the applicants and make the final decision on who gets appointed.

From next September to next June, the groups will meet once a week in full-day sessions to work on their assigned tasks. Release time will be provided for the teachers.

Those involved in the program argue that this extensive planning period involving a wide range of players in the educational process is crucial if the program is to succeed.

Differences 'Will Be Reconciled'

"I have been involved in many programs where we had an idea and then ran out and immediately implemented it,'' says Mr. Ciminillo, "only to find that we didn't have anybody wanting to follow along, because we hadn't done any of the consensus-building either in the public schools or in the community.''

"We wanted the people who are going to be involved in this program to make the decisions,'' he says. "If they are the ones making the decisions, we have a much greater likelihood for success.''

Mr. Ciminillo and others involved in the planning concede that the path toward consensus is strewn with hurdles. They note, for example, that changes in state-certification requirements and existing collective-bargaining agreements may be needed.

School and union officials in Hammond have established a fairly collaborative relationship, but the relationship between their counterparts in Gary and East Chicago has been decidedly adversarial in the past.

The arrival of a new superintendent in Gary has improved the situation there, according to Sandra Irons, president of the Gary Teachers Union.

And Norman Comer, the new superintendent in East Chicago, says he also is working to build a more constructive relationship with the local union.

Still, a dispute over the appointment of that district's teacher member in the project's core planning group led the local union's former president to pull the organization out of the program. The issue has been resolved and the union is back in the project, but the uncomfortable moment gave the consensus-builders a renewed sense of the delicacy of their enterprise.

They say they are convinced, nonetheless, that they will be able to resolve any problems that arise and will have a mutually agreed upon plan by July 1989.

"We have our differences, but they will be mediated and reconciled,'' says Mr. Dickson. "I think that all the key players feel that the importance of this program to the future of education is far bigger than any grievance one particular group might have.''

Vol. 07, Issue 39

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories