Federal Education Officials Hope Teacher-Led Conferences on the No Child Left Behind Act Will Soften Opposition.
The tabletop in front of 6th grade teacher Nancy Kerr was crowded with test tubes and small objects in zipper-lock bags. It looked like a setup for a scientific experiment, and it was—the props belonged to Iowa high school teacher Shannon C’de Baca, who was about to lead an inservice workshop on how to teach density, mass, and volume to elementary and middle school students. But it was also a setup for another kind of experiment: to see if teachers would swallow the requirements of No Child Left Behind more willingly if fellow teachers presented them.
Her book bag stuffed with pamphlets for the July session’s morning presentation and one to follow in the afternoon, Kerr sat in a room with about 20 other classroom instructors from across the country listening to C’de Baca. Kerr’s day began with a speech by a top federal education official; it would end with a tutorial on the No Child Left Behind Act. In between, she attended seminars like this one on how to improve her classroom teaching. She was one of more than 200 instructors from 31 states who had arrived in St. Louis for a "teacher to teacher" workshop, one of seven staged this summer across the country by the U.S. Department of Education.
All told, some 1,400 spots in the workshops, which were also held in Denver; Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh; Orlando, Florida; Anaheim, California; and Boston, filled up within 11 days of their announcement. An additional 7,000 teachers were on a waiting list, according to education department officials, who said this was the first time they haveoffered direct teacher-to-teacher professional development aimed at helping K-12 instructors understand and meet the requirements of a federaleducation law.
The St. Louis workshop sprinkled NCLB-compliance instructions among more traditionalinservice sessions. Teachers getting caught up on phonics, spatial reasoning, or strategies for teaching the Pythagorean Theorem could wander next door and find lessons under way on examining student work through standards or tracking progress through data. But along with offering advice on how to improve instruction, federal officials hope the sessions will countervail what they say are misconceptions about No Child Left Behind, which many teachers have greeted with suspicion and hostility.
Representatives of teachers’ unions were skeptical that the workshops would change teachers’ view of NCLB. "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," said Daniel Kaufman, a National Education Association spokesman. Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for the 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.
Raymond Simon, assistant secretary of the education department’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the department purposely chose to have teachers lead the workshops, a decision he believed gave the sessions credibility in the eyes of participants. The waiting list, he said, "tells you a lot."
For Kerr, a 15-year classroom veteran who drove two and a half hours from her home in Thebes, Illinois, to attend the St. Louis workshop, it offered the opportunity to pick up ideas for the classroom—and tips on applying for federal grants, a topic of one seminar she attended. And C’de Baca’s workshop, titled "Taking the ‘Dense’ Out of Density," was especially relevant to Kerr, who teaches science along with English and mathematics. C’de Baca, a high school teacher in Council Bluffs, Iowa, reviewed scientific concepts on an overhead projector and offered her colleagues simple classroom experiments. But she also reminded them of the practical reasons for making sure students grasp the material: Performance standards in the states where many of the teachers work demand it.
The education department recruited C’de Baca and other presenters from schools around the country. Teachers leading workshops were paid $1,000, with additional bonuses for higher workloads. The success of the program indicated that "optimism [about the law] is there," Simon said. "They’re saying, ‘We just want to be able to do our jobs.’"
Sessions that focused more directly on NCLB, however, showed that not all attendees were converts. A heated discussion took place during one in which department officials Carolyn Snowbarger and René 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 asked at one point, referring to the acronym for "adequate yearly progress," a central tenet of NCLB. Others seemed familiar with deadlines and specific mandates, nodding their heads or asking pointed questions as Islas covered matters such as special education and student proficiency. The goal of 100 percent proficiency is a necessary one, Snowbarger said at one point—improving proficiency to 50 percent or 60 percent of all students isn’t good enough.
"A community is involved in raising a child," one teacher interjected. "When they talk about ‘failing schools,’ they never talk about parent accountability." And teachers today are being asked to do more with less, a Missouri instructor added. Lean state budgets are a factor, Islas acknowledged. But at the federal level, education spending has increased steadily under the Bush administration, he pointed out, adding that more money is available now than ever.
"Not in our district," one teacher retorted.
Kerr sat in on the session. Her school, Egyptian Middle, has not been labeled as needing improvement under the law, she said. But she was familiar with many of the doubts voiced by other teachers about the federal mandates, and she believes the workshops are easing the fears of some of her colleagues. "We’re understanding more of what they’re going through," she said, "and they’re understanding more of what we’re going through."
Vol. 16, Issue 2, Pages 13-14Published in Print: October 1, 2004, as Peer Review