TRUE school reform is about improving the quality of teaching. But that simple fact can get lost in the push to transform a complex school system.
More parental involvement, after-school academies, smaller class size, new books -- as valuable as they all are -- will not improve student performance if there's ineffective teaching in the classroom. These other elements complement, but do not substitute, for good teaching.
Nationally, there is a growing recognition that on-the-job teacher training, also known as professional development, is key to improving student performance.
However, experts say professional development programs must be improved to become more effective tools for teacher training; the typical off-site, one-shot workshops covering a variety of the latest topics don't improve a teacher's effectiveness.
Instead, effective programs are held at schools, where professional development staff members visit classrooms to coach teachers in their use of successful teaching methods.
This approach is gaining endorsements from a range of people involved in school reform. A recent national poll of school, university and public officials ranked professional development as the most effective urban school reform strategy. The poll, conducted by the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 50 big-city school systems, surveyed 235 people, including mayors, school board members and private-sector partners of urban schools.
School reform has been successful in big-city school systems that have made a significant investment in professional development. For example, for the past seven years, New York City's Community District 2 in Manhattan has focused on improving literacy by making professional development for teachers and principals a priority. The results are impressive: The district has moved from 16th to second in reading and writing comprehension among the city's 32 community districts.
Steps to reform
District 2's professional development program incorporates several key steps:
Teachers and principals participate in rigorous seminars designed to improve student performance. Principals are the instructional leaders in schools and must know what teaching strategies work best so they can help teachers be more effective.
The professional development staff is not at school district headquarters. Each professional developer is assigned to two or three schools where he or she is on site for one to three days a week throughout the year. They are among the best in their field; some are recruited from as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
Student performance, not the latest fad, dictates what the teachers will be taught. Teachers learn how to get the lowest performing students to improve, and how to persist until all of their students achieve at expected levels.
Teacher-principal discussions don't center on discipline problems. Instead, they focus on honest discussions about student work and strategies for improving student performance.
It would be a mistake to imply that professional development for teachers by itself can deliver student success. Effective professional development is one part of a whole that includes high academic standards for all students, an effective curriculum, continuous and meaningful student assessment and teacher accountability.
But it's clear that effective professional development must be a high priority.
New York's Community District 2 invests 3 percent of its budget in professional development. Translated into Baltimore budget dollars, that's $24 million. It's difficult to determine how much Baltimore spends on professional development because money comes from several departments. However, it is clear that a critical analysis must be made of Baltimore's master plan budget and the overall operating budget for 1999 to ensure that enough is invested in the priority that would best reform education.
Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, says that most education reform efforts never reach, much less influence, the practice of teaching and are largely pointless if their intention is to improve student learning.
Baltimore needs to invest much more in the professional development of teachers and principals to deliver academic excellence.
Rosemarie Nassif, SSND, is president and executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence.
Pub Date: 5/14/98