Schools Take Fresh Look at Bolstering Teachers

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It's time for midmorning common planning, and the team of 6th grade teachers at James P. Timilty Middle School gets down to business quickly.

Trey Pope, the team's leader, asks for an update on the progress of a male student. "OK with me," reports one teacher. "He still needs work on basic skills," says the math teacher. "He's improved," chimes in social studies, "but he claims he handed in a report I can't find."

Teachers at Timilty enjoy two periods of shared planning time each day, allowing them to monitor their students closely. They also have three hours for professional development every Friday afternoon, when they share their ideas and expertise.

As the school's collection of national awards testifies, the formula has been a success since its creation nine years ago by then-Superintendent Laval S. Wilson. The middle school, which draws students from throughout Boston, has a waiting list for this coming school year of more than 600 6th graders.

Principal Roger F. Harris has fought to give his teachers the tools they need to succeed. According to the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, it's a battle worth waging. In its report last fall, the commission called for the creation of schools that are "genuine learning organizations."

"Our schools need to be redesigned so that they honor teaching, respect learning, and teach for understanding," the commission said, recommending that schools rethink their schedules, restructure time, and reorganize their staffs. ("Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push," Sept. 18, 1996.)

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the executive director of the commission, says people are "intrigued, but disbelieving" at the commission's call to put teaching at the heart of schools.

Nationally, the proportion of school staff members who are classified as teachers has steadily decreased as add-on programs and mandates have increased. Since 1950, the share of school personnel who are teachers has dropped from 70 percent to 53 percent, the commission found, only three-fourths of whom teach regularly.

"Creeping bureaucratization has happened so invisibly," Ms. Darling-Hammond said. "We're all stuck with regulations that have to be peeled back like layers of an onion."

Targeting Resources

But rigorous new standards for students, which provide educators with much clearer goals, are giving schools a fresh impetus for reorganizing their use of time and resources.

Rising enrollment and financial belt-tightening also are forcing administrators to take a hard look at how they use their teachers, support professionals, and technology, according to a forthcoming paper by Ms. Darling-Hammond and Karen Hawley Miles, an education consultant.

Their paper examines five high-performing schools--two small high schools in New York City and elementary schools in Boston, Cincinnati, and Memphis--and how they use their staffs.

Each of the schools has carefully targeted its resources toward its goals, Ms. Miles said. In some cases, that means lowering the student-teacher ratio for core subjects.

"They have a plan about when they have small group sizes and what those small group sizes are intended to achieve," she explained. "That plan almost never has to do with the particular program or label that the student has."

In elementary schools, these lower ratios are achieved when schools reduce pullout programs such as Title I, special education, and bilingual education and create more generalized roles for all teachers.

Because they're departmentalized, it's easier to see dramatic changes when high schools reorganize their staffs, Ms. Darling-Hammond said.

In New York, many of the dozens of small high schools that have opened in the past few years use their staffs in novel ways. Central Park East Secondary School, for example, combines academic work into two two-hour classes each day in humanities and math/science, contracts with outside providers for language instruction and electives, and has no guidance counselors, assistant principals, supervisors, or department heads.

These roles, which the paper says "deflect resources away from teaching positions in the traditional school," aren't necessary when teachers' student loads are very low--36 per term at Central Park East.

Cincinnati is another district encouraging schools to rethink their staffing patterns.

This fall, eight schools will gain new powers as "team-based schools," in which three to five teachers will stay with a group of students for two to three years.

The teams will determine their own instructional methods, decide how to schedule and group students, and control money for instructional assistants and any supplies.

In turn, the schools will be governed by instructional-leadership teams that will decide what to spend for assistant principals, some clerical workers, and such specialists as art, music, and physical education teachers.

After securing the approval of the school's decisionmaking council and a majority of its faculty, these schools will be able to convert money for specialists or support services to other instructional purposes.

Although staffing issues are "inherently sensitive," said Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, the governance arrangement "is what we've been fighting for and dreaming of for two decades."

'True Reinvention'

Schools here in Boston are grappling with how to meet the city's new academic standards for students.

Ms. Miles is working with the 21st Century Schools, a group of 23 schools that have received grants from the Boston Plan for Excellence, a local education fund endowed by the business community. The project's goal is to devise whole-school reform initiatives.

The schools have committed to taking a close look at how they use their time and their staffs. They'll work closely with four "lead schools," including Timilty Middle School, to figure out a central instructional strategy and organize their resources to support it.

The principals of the 21st Century Schools are using a guide that Ms. Miles wrote to study how they organize teachers in core instructional areas, examine student-grouping practices, and scrutinize teacher-student loads.

Although people in the schools seldom feel as though they have all the tools they need, Ms. Miles' research suggests that Boston schools are "relatively rich."

In 1995, she published a study of the district that analyzed the gap between the districtwide average of 13.2 students per teacher and regular classrooms with 23 to 33 students each.

The answer to the puzzle, she found, lay in the large number of specialized teachers working outside regular classrooms; in the practice of providing teachers with short fragments of planning time that required coverage by other teachers; in the formula-driven, rather than school-based, process for grouping students for instruction; and in the splintered schedule of secondary schools.

Rethinking all of these practices at once, she wrote, "could create opportunities for true reinvention of schools."

That's exactly what Mary C. Nash did in 1992 when she opened the Mary Lyon Model Elementary School here. Ms. Nash built her school around 30 emotionally disturbed students who otherwise would have been placed in private schools. Each of the five classes at the school has space for just 15 students--five special-education and 10 regular-education students.

The school is open from 7:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, run by three different shifts of teachers and assistants.

While some of the school's practices are a result of its distinctive population, two could be copied anywhere, said Ms. Miles, who studied the school for her research paper with Ms. Darling-Hammond.

First, Ms. Nash got a waiver from the Boston Teachers Union to use teacher education students from local colleges as assistant teachers, rather than hire paraprofessionals for the jobs.

The aspiring teachers are paid $10,000, instead of the $18,000 in salary and benefits paid to paraprofessionals, who typically have modest educations. Graduates of the program are then dually certified in regular and special education--training that is highly marketable.

The school also uses the money allocated to it for art and music teachers to contract with Boston organizations to provide those services. The arrangements can give schools more flexibility in arranging common planning time for teachers.

Ms. Nash, who chairs a task force on special education in Boston, says that as students get older, class size decreases for regular education and increases for special education.

"The old paradigm was a sorting mechanism," she said. "We're now asking teachers to work with each other as professionals in a collegial relationship and to look at children differently."

Silencing the Bells

At Timilty Middle School, teachers and students aren't ruled by bells. Teachers can arrange students' time flexibly around their specialty classes, although 42-minute periods are still typical.

This fall, teachers will break down into teams of four, responsible for about 70 students. Principal Harris said he will expect each team to complete an interdisciplinary unit every month.

In this respect, the school is in sync with many of the the national commission's recommendations.

But Mr. Harris isn't eager to restructure the jobs that don't involve dealing directly with students. He has two assistant principals who, he says, are busy all the time. And when the school lost 12 teaching positions last year, the faculty members decided to increase class size to keep three nonteaching coordinators, one for each grade level.

The coordinators work on curriculum, handle discipline, and keep in touch with parents. Mr. Pope, who works with the 6th grade, said the arrangement "allows for the best communication within a school I've seen in my career of over 20 years."

But taking the teachers' planning time to another level isn't easy.

Jonathan Cooper-Wiele, who teaches critical thinking and has been frustrated with the slow pace of change, is looking forward to doing "more systematic" curriculum planning in next year's smaller teams.

"It requires more than just time," Mr. Cooper-Wiele cautioned. "The additional ingredient may be more of a format for us to know how to do it."

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