September 12, 2001
A teacher re-certification system, under which public school
teachers take special "development" courses to boost their knowledge
and teaching skills, was started a year ago in Illinois. It is part of
a plan that began six years ago amid the national push to reform
Investigative reporting by the Chicago Tribune has just discovered
that teachers are claiming "professional development credits" for
gambling at the racetrack, enrolling in Tai Chi classes, and learning
to give massages. I'm not making this up; stay tuned.
On a hot Saturday in July, 45 Chicago-area teachers assembled at
the Arlington Park race track where they had lunch, placed bets, and
cheered for their favorite horses. The afternoon of gambling was part
of a two-day, 15-credit hour class called "Probabilities in Gaming."
The teachers learned how to read the racing guide and calculate
the payout. Before placing their bets, they discussed betting odds and
how to pick a winner, such as considering the age of the horse and the
days since his last race.
The final assignment was to create a math problem for their
students and discuss it. When the teachers departed, however, the
classroom math problem had not come up.
Nevertheless, David Spangler, the professor who taught this
course, claimed that a day at the race track gets teachers excited
about math. "The goal is to take math out of the classroom. This is
math in the real world."
The high school and middle school educators enrolled in the class
said it was a beneficial professional development tool. One teacher
commented, "I think it's boost to a classroom when you have active
stuff kids can do."
Another teacher, however, had misgivings. He admitted that, "when
I told my wife I was going to Arlington racetrack, she didn't believe I
was going to a professional development class."
Other "development" courses were held earlier this year at
Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Teachers earned
"development" credits for Tai Chi and massage therapy classes.
A masseur calling himself "Magic Fingers" taught 25 teachers the
finer points of back rubs, including how to knead kinks out of necks
and lower stress levels. In another course on the university campus,
Tai Chi expert Al Lawrence led 30 teachers through a Tai Chi workout.
The rules for teacher re-certification specify that teachers must
accumulate a prescribed number of credit hours. Other activities that
can fulfill the requirement include attending workshops, serving on
statewide committees, writing magazine articles, and participating in
Local committees decide whether the credits claimed by the
teachers should count, but the teacher unions dominate those committees
and the appeals committees. The State Board of Education is supposed
to oversee the program, but the Board does not even know what classes
are being taken for credit.
Nationwide, comprehensive school reform is taking a variety of
other forms. It is estimated that more than 8,000 schools will spend
$1 billion this school year on school reform models.
Reform can mean anything from tossing out almost everything a
school does to implementing a "model" recommended by an outside
consultant. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently listed ten expensive
models that are used in St. Louis schools, including one that brings
the school up to $1,000 per student in extra federal dollars.
The federal government is spending $260 million a year on the
Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration program, which gives schools
three-year grants if they sign up to use a reform program. The law
says that grants will be awarded only for programs that have been
proven effective, but the law also says it's OK to fund any of the 17
programs designated on the government's approved list, even though they
are largely untested and researchers question their value.
The American Institute for Research found that only three of the
17 programs could produce some evidence that they work. University of
Arizona professor Stan Pogrow, a national critic of comprehensive
reform, says legislators and educators are swayed more by aggressive
lobbying than by sound research.
U.S. schools don't need billions of dollars of federal money or
high-priced consultants to design comprehensive reform with lots of
bells and whistles. They just need to teach first-grade children how
to read by the proven phonics method.
At the start of World War II, the U.S. illiteracy rate was 4
percent for whites and 20 percent for blacks. At the end of the 20th
century, the National Adult Literacy Survey and the National Assessment
of Educational Progress reported that 17 percent of whites and 40
percent of blacks can't read.
The hope for all these illiterates is not in more federal spending
or phony "reform." Their only hope is for someone to teach them how to
read, and it doesn't look as though that someone will be the public