Her tabletop is crowded with test tubes and zipper-lock bags. Her book bag is stuffed with pamphlets for this morning’s presentation, and the one to follow this afternoon.
Sixth grade teacher Nancy Kerr sits in a room with about 20 other classroom instructors from across the country, listening to an Iowa high school teacher talk about density, mass, and volume, and how to introduce those scientific principles to elementary and middle school students.
Her day began with a speech from a top federal education official; it will end with a tutorial on the No Child Left Behind Act. In between, she’s attending seminars like this one, on how to improve her classroom teaching. Ms. Kerr is one of more than 200 instructors from 31 states who gathered here July 28-30 for a “teacher to teacher” workshop, one of seven such conferences being staged by the Department of Education this summer.
Department officials say the workshops are designed to offer teachers advice on how to improve their instruction, using effective research-driven techniques. In addition, they hope the sessions will help defeat what they say are misconceptions about the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been greeted with suspicion and hostility by many teachers.
For Ms. Kerr, who drove 2½ hours from her home in Thebes, Ill., to St. Louis, the workshop offered the opportunity to pick up ideas for the classroom—and tips on applying for federal grants, a topic of one seminar she attended.
She has plenty of company. Education Department officials say 1,400 spots in the seven workshops—also held in Denver; Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; Orlando, Fla.; Anaheim, Calif.; and most recently, Boston—filled up within 11 days of their announcement. Another 7,000 teachers were on a waiting list, according to department officials, who say this was the first time they have offered direct teacher-to-teacher professional development aimed at helping K-12 instructors understand and meet the requirements of the federal education law.
“I don’t consider myself to be a great teacher—I’m just mediocre,” said Ms. Kerr, who has 15 years of classroom experience. “But there are so many great teachers here you can learn from.”
One instructor she turned to was Shannon C’de Baca, who led a session titled “Taking the Dense Out of Density.” The topic was especially relevant to Ms. Kerr, who teaches 6th grade science at her southern Illinois school, along with English and mathematics.
Ms. C’de Baca, a high school teacher from Council Bluffs, Iowa, reviews scientific concepts on an overhead projector and offers the teachers simple classroom experiments that she believes will make those topics understandable for elementary and middle school students.
Science and Standards
Some exercises are basic. Ms. C’de Baca has the teachers poke through the zipper-bags on their tables, filled with polished rocks and plastic trinkets, and describe those items’ physical characteristics. “Smooth,” Ms. Kerr writes on a notepad. “A cylinder.” Making those observations, Ms. C’de Baca explains, is a fundamental step for students’ scientific analysis.
When it comes to a common formula—density equals mass over volume—she offers a memorization trick. Some students remember the formula when it’s drawn inside a heart shape, where the “M” and the “V” align with the top and bottom of their sketches.
Ms. C’de Baca kids the teachers about their accents, which include a brand of Minnesotan and a Texas twang, and later tells them, “You all don’t have to be quiet; some of you teach junior high.”
But she also reminds them of the practical reasons for making sure students grasp this material: The standards in the states where many of the teachers work demand it. Still, needing to meet standards and working to improve student test scores don’t mean teachers have to cast aside fun and creative classroom techniques, she says.
“We can guarantee some concepts get across,” she says, “but don’t lose your passion.”
The Education Department recruited Ms. C’de Baca and other presenters from schools around the country, taking recommendations from district officials, among others. Teachers leading the workshops are paid $1,000 for each conference they attend, with additional bonuses for higher workloads. The department covers two nights’ hotel costs, and travel expenses for instructors coming long distances. There is no registration fee for instructors or participants.
As many of the teachers at the workshop know, the emphasis on standards became more immediate in schools when President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002. The law requires states to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and mathematics, with the goal of having 100 percent of them “proficient” in those subjects by 2014. Soon, students’ mastery of science will have to be tested as well.
The law has been criticized by some federal and state lawmakers and by teachers’ unions, which have accused the Bush administration of underfunding it and heaping unrealistic expectations on schools and teachers.
A spokesman for the National Education Association said its opposition was an outgrowth of complaints from the classroom.
The workshops aren’t likely to change teachers’ dim view of the law, according to Daniel Kaufman. “We see this as another token gesture that doesn’t really address the legitimate concerns … about the law and the lack of resources to make it work,” he said.
The St. Louis’ workshop included sessions on phonics, spatial reasoning, examining students’ work through standards, helping struggling students catch up to their classmates in reading and language arts, tracking student progress through data, and strategies for teaching specific lessons—from fractions and the Pythagorean theorem to civil rights and government.
While he did not question the focus on data and research at the conference, Mr. Kaufman noted recent controversies over how best to teach reading and mathematics, and said the department had a responsibility to promote a “full array” of classroom techniques.
Rob Weil, a deputy director of educational issues for the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, credited the department for holding the workshops, but questioned how effective a handful of summer sessions could be. “There needs to be a much larger effort at high-quality professional development,” he said.
Education Department officials said they had no estimate of how many attendees were union members, but they believed many took part. Raymond Simon, the assistant secretary for the agency’s office of elementary and secondary education, said the department purposely chose to have teachers lead the workshops, a decision he believes gave the sessions credibility in the eyes of participants.
Among teachers, “optimism [about the law] is there,” Mr. Simon said. “They’re saying, ‘We just want to be able to do our jobs.’” The waiting list, he added, “tells you a lot.”
Not all the attendees at the St. Louis event were converts to the law. One of the more heated discussions took place during a session titled “The Basics of No Child Left Behind,” in which department officials Carolyn Snowbarger and Réne Islas led a far-ranging presentation touching on the law’s requirements. Among the assembled teachers, understanding of the law varied greatly.
“What’s AYP?” a teacher asks at one point, referring to the shorthand for “adequate yearly progress,” a central tenet of the law. Others seem familiar with deadlines and specific mandates, nodding their heads or asking pointed questions, when Mr. Islas covers matters such as special education and student proficiency.
Mr. Islas traces the law’s history, explaining that the No Child Left Behind Act is a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and notes that the current law passed with bipartisan support. The requirements for yearly progress, he says, are not new. States were required to set definitions of yearly progress in the 1994 version of the ESEA.
Tough Sell for Some
The goal of 100 percent proficiency is a necessary one, Ms. Snowbarger says at one point. Improving proficiency to 50 percent or 60 percent of all students isn’t good enough, she adds.
But what about students with disabilities, one teacher asks. An instructor can devote countless hours trying to lead a handful of such students to proficiency, rather than working with an entire class.
“A community is involved in raising a child,” another teacher interjects. “When they talk about ‘failing schools,’ they never talk about parent accountability. It’s all about schools.”
And teachers today are being asked to do more with less, a Missouri instructor says.
Lean state budgets are a factor, Mr. Islas acknowledges. But at the federal level, education spending has increased steadily under the Bush administration, he points outmore money is available than ever.
“Not in our district,” a teacher retorts.
Mr. Islas later points to success stories, such as Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., where 3rd grade reading proficiency, for example, has increased dramatically.
Nancy Kerr, the Illinois 6th grade teacher, sits in on the session. She credits her district with supporting teachers. Her school, Egyptian Middle School, had not been labeled as needing improvement under the law, she said. But she is also familiar with many of the doubts voiced by other teachers about the mandates. She believes the workshops are easing the fears of some of her colleagues.
“We’re understanding more of what they’re going through, and they’re understanding more of what we’re going through,” she said of the federal officials sponsoring workshops. “Every state should have something like this.”