'Everyone Can Raise Their Hands'

Building a Better Teaching Force

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It's 10 p.m., and Maralee Clark's household is finally quiet. As her 8- and 10-year-old children sleep, she steals a moment to log on to the computer in her spare bedroom.

At her fingertips, she finds a community of teachers with a shared interest: learning more about the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. What connects them is Mathline, a professional development service offered by the Public Broadcasting Service.

To Clark-a former mortgage-loan officer who switched to teaching five years ago---Mathline is a source of ideas for the classroom, practical advice, and support for using new strategies.

What's more, it helps her interact with her colleagues in a way that traditional workshops can't match. Instead of being a face in a room of 300 people, "everybody has a chance to participate," Clark says of Mathline. "This is staff development where everyone can raise their hands."

Proponents of on-line professional development say it can overcome several barriers that often inhibit teacher learning. Among them are a shortage of time and the fact that many workshop and courses lack follow-up.

As Clark's late-night study habits show, Mathline and other on-line professional development projects allow teachers to control when and where they'll take part. These "virtual communities" also are much less expensive than paying for the food, transportation, lodging, and substitutes that are required to take teachers out of their classrooms for extended periods.

Most important, supporters say, on-line professional development makes it possible to link teachers' learning experiences directly with the instruction going on in their classrooms.

"This is the most exciting thing happening in education," says Robert F. Tinker, the president of the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit research and development firm in Concord, Mass. "We can double the amount of teacher professional development we offer for the same dollars nationwide, by going on-line. We can offer special information and specialty material that no school could possibly afford."

The Concord Consortium developed one such service: the International Netcourse Teacher Enhancement Coalition, or INTEC, which offers a 125hour, on-line course for secondary-level math and science teachers focused on increasing the use of student inquiry.

Intec requires that at least four teachers from a school sign up together. The course is organized like a graduate seminar, with assigned readings, videotapes to watch, and classroom activities to try out. Teachers are assigned to groups of 20 to talk together about their experiences.

The consortium also runs the Virtual High School project, which teaches teachers how to offer courses over the Internet.

Other sources of on-line professional development include the Mathematics Learning Forums, run by Bank Street College of Education in New York City. These forums provide teachers with activities designed around particular topics, such as using manipulatives, working cooperatively in groups, and helping students learn to talk about mathematics.

Teachers are encouraged to modify the activities to fit their own students and curricula, and to discuss the results with their colleagues. A member of the Bank Street faculty facilitates the on-line courses, for which teachers can receive credit.

Collegial conversation and learning grow directly out of teachers' experiences with their students, says Margaret Honey, the deputy director of the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology, based in New York City. The center worked with Bank Street to develop the course.

"It makes complete sense," Honey says. "It's utterly relevant, and related to what they're doing in the here and now."

Researchers at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif, also are bullish on technology as a way to tackle longstanding problems with professional development. Three years ago, they created TAPPED IN, an "on-line teacher community" that they liken to a virtual office building.

Merely combining e-mail and World Wide Web sites falls short of creating a true on-line community, argues Mark S. Schlager, the assistant director of SRI's Center for Technology in Learning. In other professions, he notes, people learn by interacting with one another daily in informal ways. Because they have no time or offices, teachers must rely on more formal workshops and courses.

But TAPPED IN lets teachers log in and communicate in real time with others in the "building." They can establish their own office space, where they can store documents and leave messages. The building has tenants, many of which are nonprofit groups that work with educators, such as the Lawrence Hall of Science and the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Teachers can enter the building, look around, and click where they find something interesting. And if they get stuck during business hours, they can get instant help from someone who is logged on to the site. The program had 1,399 individual members as of last summer and is gaining between 50 and 100 new members each month.

The Internet is also helping foster professional development simply by offering teachers a wealth of information that would be difficult to access any other way.

For example, Impact II- The Teacher Network, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that supports innovative teachers, maintains a Web site called TeachNet. The site includes 500 teacher-designed classroom projects across all subject areas; hints on grants, contests, competitions, and fellowships; a network bulletin board, called Let's Talk, with discussions on educational policymaking and teacher leadership; and "daily classroom specials" offering ideas for the classroom.

Some sites are targeted toward helping teacher learn more about using technology itself. The Milken Exchange on Education Technology, based in Santa Monica, Calif., plan to unveil an on-line self-assessment system for teachers that will allow them to gauge their progress in using technology.

The project, to be tested this fall, is designed as a "professional competency continuum" to help teachers move through four stages, ranging from being a novice with technology to using it to transform their instructional methods, says Ed Coughlin, an education technology specialist with Milken.

Once teachers are assessed, the site will offer them resource for further growth, arranged according to their grade level, subject, and geographic location.

In its five years, more than 5,000 teachers have signed up for Mathline, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education. It is the nation's largest technology-based professional development program for math teachers.

Schools typically pay the $399 fee for the first teacher on the faculty to join the program; the fee for each additional teacher is $299. Participants receive a set of videotapes of classroom teaching geared to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' math standards and a password to get on-line for the year.

Facilitators, who receive a stipend, moderate on-line discussions among small groups of teachers. Participants conduct their discussions through posted messages, which they can answer at their leisure. To reach a wider audience, Mathline teachers can tap into a bulletin board that connects them with educators across the nation.

For Clark, who joined Mathline during the 1996-97 school year, the program provided new ideas that she could try with her 4th graders, like the "sand babies" exercise. Students filled plastic bags with sand to match their own birth weights and then weighed them. Via Mathline, she queried other teachers about where to find an infant scale to use in the exercise.

"The kids were really motivated to understand what math is all about," recalls Clark, who teaches at Owings Mills Elementary. "You don't realize that when a baby is born, that's math."

Mathline isn't without problems, Clark says. The service switched last school year from a conferencing software called First Class to the Internet, which she says complicated life for participants. Some teachers sent e-mail to the wrong address, while others didn't have the computer capability to make the best use of Mathline on the Internet.

Last year, Clark became her school's Title I resource teacher, a responsibility that took her out of the classroom. But she stayed with Mathline, signing up in January to facilitate discussions of teachers in her geographic area. Of the 12 in her group, only about five have been active in the discussions of lessons. Clark thinks that's because she got started in the middle of the school year, when it's harder for teachers to change their routine.

Independent evaluations of the program, which serves teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, show positive results. "The combination of viewing, communicating, and doing seems to have resulted in substantive changes in teaching," concludes an evaluation of the middle school math project during the 1994-95 school year, conducted by the research and evaluation firm Rockman Et Ai in San Francisco.

"Teachers tell us over and over that having this long period of time tends to really stick with [them]," says Sandra Welch, the executive vice president for learning services at PBS, based in Alexandria, Va. "The fact that they constantly talk to other teachers and get reinforced and re-encouraged is a real advantage over single-shot workshops."

Vol. 18, Issue 05, Pages 45-47

Published in Print: October 1, 1998, as 'Everyone Can Raise Their Hands'
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