Let's help the teachers...


LAST MONTH on this page, contributor Howard Bluth complained loudly about the days city schools are called off for "staff activities." He called this "inexplicable" and recommended that so-called "rescheduled days" be stricken from the calendar.

But Bluth is wrong. Though such activities are woefully inadequate in their present form, the need for them is irrefutable.

Gene Maeroff of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching puts the case clearly: "In their many calls for higher student achievement, school reformers sometimes forget that changing students depends to a large extent on changing teachers." Teachers who are asked to change must be given the necessary opportunity and support. In the judgment of Maeroff, school districts "ought to incorporate in-service education into the regular working day (with released time from classes) as well as schedule it during the summer and other free times (with appropriate compensation)."

In a provocative and closely argued comparison of "low performance" and "high performance" schools, John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe of the Brookings Institution assert that "perhaps the most important source of school effectiveness is teachers who operate as a true community of professionals . . . In the better schools teachers spend more time meeting with one another to coordinate instruction and matters related to it . . ."

Indeed, reform in education inevitably fails when it is imposed from outside and when teachers are not meaningfully engaged in the process. We should be catching on to this in Baltimore. The complaint of African-American families in 1990 that social studies instruction does not reflect their heritage was in fact addressed in 1972, when the school board approved the present multi-cultural, multi-racial curriculum. But at that time James Griffin, a school board member, warned that "the weak links in the program are teacher retraining, teacher attitude and teacher behavior."

Obviously, neither Griffin nor anyone else in the school system managed to provide teachers with adequate opportunities for retraining and adequate resources to permanently integrate new perspectives into their teaching.

Now we have a task force promoting "Afro-centric curriculum," as city and state teams revamp all curriculum, redefine "learning outcomes" and develop new batteries of "criterion referenced tests." When and how are teachers going to come to grips with these extensive changes: in the four half-days that Bluth begrudges them? (In truth, those days are now largely wasted, because staff training seldom "takes" when it is sporadic, fragmented and presented ex cathedra.) In faculty meetings at the end of the school day, when teachers (particularly urban teachers) are dead tired?

There are models of successful "staff development" in schools. Some employ qualified substitutes to provide released time for regular classroom teachers. Others reschedule the school week, extending the hours of instruction four days a week in order to free up one afternoon for staff meetings. (In some schools where this approach is taken, students have more time in class than their counterparts in schools operating on a standard schedule.)

Working together, the principal, faculty, staff and parents of any school can design a schedule that promotes teamwork, reduces extraneous interruptions and is acceptable to -- and valued by -- parents. The issue is not really how to save or avoid losing some abstract percentage of time. It is how to make the most of the leadership of the principals and the knowledge and talents of the teachers to whom we entrust our children.

Jo Ann Robinson, a long-time parent activist in Baltimore schools, teaches at Morgan State University.

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