Change of Pace, the Good News about Teaching

By Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Change of Pace, the Good News about Teaching


Gail Russell Chaddock, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


If you just follow headlines or this season's political campaigns, it looks as if it's time to get tough on teachers.

Low scores on a recent test for prospective teachers in Massachusetts prompted acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) to propose statewide testing to drive poor teachers out of the classroom. And across America, candidates vie for the number of times they can combine the words "tough" and "education" in a 30-second TV spot.

But back of the tough talk, states are realizing that the business of improving teaching will take more than a big stick. The underreported side of this story is how states and teachers are succeeding in ratcheting up the quality of teaching one classroom at a time.

Nearly all 50 states have or are developing standards for what is taught at each grade level and assessments to measure whether schools are meeting them. The next wave of lawmaking will be to make sure there are teachers in the classroom capable of teaching to higher standards.

"To have people say that what's wrong with our schools is that the teachers are idiots is very offensive. That attitude won't make much of a difference to a very poor teacher, but it could drive a very wonderful teacher out of the profession," says Cathy Hammond, principal of Allenbrook Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C.

Some 18 states have already enacted laws to reward successful teachers, and more are targeting incentives for hard-to-staff districts and subject areas. In North Carolina, the Senate is proposing $98 million for incentives to teachers in schools that meet or exceed student achievement goals.

Last year, North Carolina teachers were stunned to learn that the Legislature wanted to test all teachers in the state's 123 low- performing schools. In addition, assistance teams were sent into the 15 lowest schools, where student achievement had actually declined. The team observed classes, reviewed lesson plans, and worked with teachers one-to-one to boost teaching skills.

"It was a total shock that a state team would come in, but once they did, we built a bond with them," says Bonnie Gathman, a fourth- grade teacher at Allenbrook Elementary. She credits the team with focusing the whole school on improving the teaching of writing.

The effort paid off: Last week, North Carolina announced that 14 of the 15 targeted schools had met or exceeded the goal of a 10 percent increase in the percentage of students at or above grade level. The Legislature shelved mandatory testing, but extended the requirement for evaluations to staff in all low-performing schools.

"What we are up against in these schools goes beyond holding people's feet to the fire," says John Dornan, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit policy group based in Raleigh. "There must also be incentives to allow these schools to compete for a high-quality faculty."

Other states are stepping up efforts to attract new people into the profession. Last week, Massachusetts Democrats proposed a $20,000 bonus for new teachers. Baltimore schools are offering $5,000 home- buying grants to draw teachers. Some states forgive student loans in exchange for commitments to teach.

Lawmakers are also paying more attention to ensuring professional development for teachers already in the classroom. …

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