Teacher Preparation

Model Districts Embed Professional-Development Schools in Systems

By Bess Keller — October 01, 2004 3 min read
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The nation’s leading group for accreditation of teacher education has an idea for urban superintendents looking for ways to get and keep the best teachers and perhaps help the ones they already have: Dot their districts with schools designed to train teachers as well as teach students.

The idea is not new, but three districts—Denver; Duval County, Fla.; and Waco, Texas—have been working for the past year on expanding the number of such schools in their systems, thanks to a project sponsored by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and a $150,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Project organizers say the goal is to bring more teachers into the profession through experience in “professional-development schools,” much as doctors train at teaching hospitals.

Proponents of professional-development-school networks say they stand a good chance of closing the “teacher gap” for districts largely serving poor and minority children, which have trouble attracting and keeping the skilled teachers they need.

“The existing system too often gives them teachers not yet ready for prime time,” NCATE President Arthur E. Wise said at a press briefing here last week. “This is the most promising strategy we have for … improving student achievement” in such districts.

Three Visions

Too often, professional development schools have been isolated from others in the district and haven’t been a top priority of district administrations, said Marsha Levine, who led the project for NCATE. But the three model districts have laid plans for overcoming those problems and putting the schools at the forefront of efforts to raise achievement.

In Waco, the smallest of the three districts, with 16,000 students, Baylor University joined with the district and the local teachers’ union to add nine professional-development schools in the past 18 months to the single existing one. As a result of the expansion, aspiring teachers at Baylor routinely spend time in one of those schools each year of their college careers. Those experiences culminate in a yearlong internship when they are seniors. The university and the district divide the cost, about $450,000 a year.

The planning team in the 72,000-student Denver system focused on rookie teachers in the 35-school subdistrict with the lowest student achievement and the most teacher turnover. Eleven schools are to be structured to provide professional development under the auspices of the University of Colorado at Denver, and every new teacher hire in the subdistrict must teach in one of those schools her first year. Some of the rookies would then disperse to other schools in the subdistrict, but continue to get support from their professional-development schools. The regular schools would pitch in part of their budgets to make the operation possible.

Florida’s Duval County district, which includes Jacksonville, and its main university partner, the University of North Florida, decided to use professional-development schools to raise the number of high-quality teachers at levels and in subjects where the district has traditionally had trouble meeting its needs.

One aspect of the plan calls for “inquiry science center” schools that would help train students who want to be science teachers and improve the skills of teachers of that subject already in the classroom. Any teacher in the 128,000-student district could observe classrooms in the centers.

While a network of professional-development schools does not come cheap, Ms. Levine said, it would produce savings by reducing the costs of turnover. Teachers who learn how to be effective in an urban environment and get support for their work are much more likely to stay put, according to Ms. Levine and Mr. Wise.

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