On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001

Voices from the National Community

Editor's Note:

The Second Annual Conference of the National Demonstration Project: was held in New Haven on October 13-14, 2000. Each of the four new Teachers Institutes had been encouraged to send to this Conference three current or future seminar leaders, seven current Fellows, and its Director. The program included several sessions on the process of establishing and sustaining Teachers Institutes, the mounting and leading of seminars, and the writing of curriculum units. We include here excerpts from a few of the contributions.

A DIRECTOR: A business executive said to me, “What do you have to demonstrate that your program works?” And I said that it was self-evident that when teachers sit down, read, and study with a professor, and get enthusiastic about the subject, they are going to be more effective, and that enthusiasm will overflow. The Institute helps teachers, and if it helps teachers, then it is going to overflow and help students.

A FACULTY MEMBER: Universities have become somewhat narrow places in that we serve our own professions more than we serve the greater community. I think the Teachers Institute is a program that could satisfy a lot of faculty who want to break out into a community service for a larger community. The public schools have a lot of people who are hungry for some subject matter, who were forced to take a lot of education courses for professional certification but who did not necessarily have the opportunity to study our traditional subject matter. I want my children’s teachers, whether it’s fourth grade or college, to know as much as they can know about what they’re teaching. I don’t find that desire met by a lot of American public education. It is met by this program.

A FELLOW: When we began this Institute, we wrote into our description for the curriculum units that they must be aligned with district standards. This past year, we added a requirement that there be an appendix that contains all the standards met by the curriculum unit, and how they were met. This has been a tremendous asset in producing pieces that any teacher can use to come up with interesting material that helps meet the standard. And we can certainly get hard data on assessment. The unit contains a rubric, with rigorous standards they have to meet, and these are scored from 1 to 4. Also they have to score well on their new state exams; we could keep track of that and pattern some of the assignments after they’re going to get on their state exams. Also, any students working with one of these units may want to expand it, to do further research, and this could help than with the graduation project, which is a new thing in our district.

A SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR: The Institute has helped our Fellows grow. We have many Fellows who are now administrators in the public school system, and these are our human resources. The Institute has helped them with their own leadership experiences. They’ve been helped to bring the experience of the Institute into their classrooms, and to be the leaders in carrying out those units, and sharing them with their colleagues. As Roland Barth said, if students are to grow and to learn, everyone in the building must be growing and learning, and the Institute has helped our Fellows do that.

A FELLOW: I think that the Institute is primarily about professional development. When we start getting entangled in quantitative assessment of students, and control groups, and so on, in the end those tests will take over the program, and in that way you will lose the support of the universities, because certainly most are not going to want to get involved in something where the prime objective is always meeting some particular state testing standard.

ANOTHER FELLOW: But is quantitative assessment the only form of assessing students? There are other ways to showcase what our students are doing, besides quantitative assessment.

ANOTHER FELLOW: One form of assessment that we have is a portfolio system that the English teachers are in charge of monitoring, but the entries into the new portfolios can come from any subject area in which the students are involved.

A FACULTY MEMBER: Even though it’s true that our focus is on professional teacher development, we do accumulate evidence of student work in curriculum written in Institute seminars. Teachers I’ve worked with have sent me things they’ve done; and though it is not systematic, quantitative evidence, if you’re seeing lots and lots of good work coming out of students who are facing plenty of obstacles in learning, then accumulation of those examples leads you to think something good has happened.

ANOTHER FACULTY MEMBER: For all approaches, reliable empirical assessment of any educational reform is hard to come by. A lot of the quantitative studies that purport to show their impact are quite vulnerable because you just can’t control all the variables. So we shouldn’t be too discouraged by the fact that there isn’t any strong quantitative evidence. On the other hand, we should compile as much as we can of the kind of evidence we have been mentioning: about how teachers associated with the Institute are getting recognition for the performance of their students and for their contributions; about how they are going into leadership roles; about how they are designing units that are meeting state standards and include methods of assessment to show that students are meeting state standards. If you have a substantial body of evidence over time that shows that teachers who are high performing are working with students that are doing much better in meeting state standards — in place after place, over time — that is an important correlation. We don’t really know everything that leads to success, but if something is consistently associated with success, you’d better bet on it. So I hope, despite the problems of empirical assessment, we will accumulate as much of that evidence as we can.

A FORMER FOUNDATION ADMINISTRATOR: I just want to stress that I’ve been on both ends of this. I’ve been with a foundation for a number of years and now I am doing work for an Institute, and have written some proposals and reports. I agree that we should count everything we can count. So keep very good records over the years, but then also make sure you systematically collect all these anecdotes — because if you can demonstrate that systematically you get reports of this kind, and you keep them together and report what you can from them, I think that can be persuasive.

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© 2001 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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