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History, English Receive $920,000 Improving Teacher Quality Grant

Published: October 1, 2010

A four-year $920,000 Improving Teacher Quality grant from the California Post-Secondary Education Commission was awarded recently to the Departments of History and English and the College of Education to support teacher development at the Long Beach Unified School District’s Cabrillo and Jordan High Schools. The grant will provide teacher training during summer institutes and release days to enable teachers to deepen their content knowledge, learn discipline-specific literacy and pedagogical strategies, and collaborate within and between departments in refining instruction.

Improving Teacher Quality grants are designed to increase student achievement by enhancing teacher effectiveness.

“The grant focuses on professional development,” said Project Co-Director Dave Neumann, Director of the History Project, housed in the History Department. “The grant covers three years of professional development beginning in 2011 followed by a year of data assessment and dissemination. By improving teacher practice, the program should affect student performance, including performance on standardized test scores and constructed responses.”

Neumann believes the key to the grant lies in embedding literacy approaches into key subject areas where literacy is developed most significantly, such as English-language arts and history-social science. “We want to make the case that literacy ought to be seen in the broadest possible sense, which includes working with sophisticated concepts, developing verbal communication skills, reading challenging texts, and learning to write persuasively.”

Given that understanding of literacy, professional development will include discipline-specific approaches to improve teacher content knowledge as well as literacy acquisition. “The whole purpose of these grants is to create a heavily researched and evidence-based method of professional development,” said Tim Keirn, principal investigator of the grant, who holds a joint appointment in History and Liberal Studies. “Ideally, history teachers instruct with a learning outcome that is more focused on historical thinking as opposed to memorization of facts and dates,” said Keirn. “It is a natural spinoff from the engagement of students with asking historical questions that their expository reading and writing skills will improve.”

Co-Director Carol Zitzer-Comfort of English and Liberal Studies will partner with Neumann and Keirn by providing development for English and Social Studies teachers at Cabrillo and Jordan High Schools to help them develop better strategies for teaching expository reading and writing. “Teaching writing effectively requires grounding in composition and rhetoric, which not all teachers receive. I will also work with teachers on developing strategies for handling assessment of writing, which can be difficult with 200+ students each day.” Zitzer-Comfort has already directed several Reading Institute for Academic Preparation (RIAP) grants, which provided teachers across disciplines with training in teaching expository reading and writing.

One of the aspects of the grant that pleases Keirn the most is its partnership between the College of Education and disciplines in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). Simon Kim from the College of Education, and a number of other faculty in the departments of English, History, Liberal Studies and Teacher Education will also be involved in the project. “This grant demonstrates the importance of CSULB’s commitment to having many disciplines strongly involved in teacher preparation,” he said. “What is unique about secondary teacher education at CSULB is that secondary credentials and certification in housed in their respective disciplines. For example, the Language Arts credential is housed in the English Department. The history and social science credential is housed in the History Department. They are aligned through the Single-Subject Credential Program within the College of Education. In this sense, the training of secondary teachers at CSULB is a truly university-wide effort. Effective pre-service training requires grounding in the discipline. It is a distinct advantage to this university to have this unique relationship between the College of Education and the various disciplines. Without that, this kind of grant — and others we’ve received in the past — wouldn’t happen.”

Zitzer-Comfort sees that partnering with LBUSD is an ideal match. “Several CSULB colleges (CLA included) prepare teachers for LBUSD, and CSULB faculty have a history of collaborating with teachers and administrators in the district.” Zitzer-Comfort underlines the importance of the grant to Cabrillo and Jordan High, schools where the achievement gap is the greatest. “These two campuses demonstrate great need in terms of academic performance; yet, they also demonstrate great potential. It is important to all of us who are collaborating on this grant to work where students really need strong teaching,” she explained.

All three faculty members agreed that the ultimate goal of the project is to improve student performance through shifts in teacher disposition and practice. “I’ll know the program has been a success if the teachers who go through it come out with the theoretical and practical underpinnings they need to teach expository reading and writing well, to develop more critical content knowledge and to assess writing in both English and history,” said Zitzer-Comfort. “I’d like to see changes in history teachers’ practice so that they teach history with great emphasis upon authentic disciplinary practice and critical thinking, as opposed to having students memorize one fact after another,” said Keirn. “I’d also like to see the history teachers understand the connection between historical thinking and teaching expository reading and writing.” Neumann believes the grant’s success will be proven in the long run. “We’d like to see evidence that improvement is sustainable,” he said. “We want to know that after the grant is over, they continue to teach that way because they recognize its effectiveness.”