Center Focuses on Teachers, Not Test Scores

Nona Florence, a teacher at Garfield Elementary, participates in a summer seminar in best practices by the Center for Inspired Teaching, a D.C.-based training effort. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2007

Standing in a circle, three dozen teachers listened to an instructor rattle off a math problem. "The square of 4 times 3 plus 5 times 7 minus 8."

They attempted to calculate it in their heads, but not everyone got the right answer, and it wasn't because they couldn't do the math. The teachers realized that not everyone accurately heard the instructions. Some thought the instructor said -- or meant to say -- square root of 4, rather than the square of 4. (So their first calculation was 2 instead of 16.)

"It may seem simple, but this is why it is so important to be sure that you and your students are on the same page," Aleta Margolis, founding executive director of the nonprofit Center for Inspired Teaching, told the D.C. teachers attending a summer workshop. "If teachers can get confused, think about what happens with children."

Relating to students, handling difficult administrators, designing inventive lesson plans and working well with colleagues are among the topics hundreds of teachers are tackling as part of a training effort by the D.C.-based center, which was founded to help teachers become better at what they do.

Its mission is to improve student achievement by concentrating on the development of teachers, keeping new teachers excited about their profession and reinvigorating veterans through intensive training. The approach is unusual in the world of school reform, where efforts often focus on curriculum, administration and standardized testing, education reform experts said.

But it seemed elementary to Margolis, a former classroom teacher who opened the center in 1995 and has in recent years expanded its services from training individual teachers to whole school partnerships.

"The most important thing that happens in a school is the quality of instruction," Margolis said. "If you want to influence that, who do you work with? Of course you work with teachers."

This approach is coming at a pivotal time in school reform.

On Capitol Hill, legislators will soon debate changing No Child Left Behind, President Bush's landmark education law, with provisions that could alter the emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing in favor of an assessment regimen that uses multiple factors to measure student performance. This, and a controversial proposal to award performance pay to teachers, will focus attention on the art of teaching. Furthermore, new D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee previously led an organization that recruited and trained new teachers. She has said she wants to continue efforts that empower teachers.

Educators say that teaching teachers how to teach well has never been more critical, a sentiment that persuaded Michelle Pierre-Farid to bring the center into Tyler Elementary School in Southeast Washington three years ago. That's when she became principal at the school, which was then considered the lowest-performing in the city, with a badly demoralized staff.

"Most studies show that teachers are the ones that make change in schools," she said. "Not parents, not administrators. It's the teachers. They are on the front lines, and you have to put a lot of time and money into teachers."

She invited the center to retrain her staff, with a goal of shaping the teachers into a group that would set high expectations for students, design creative lesson plans, work as a team and begin to enjoy their jobs again.

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