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Published in Print: December 12, 1990, as Award Heralds Recognition of the Role of Teachers as Researchers

Award Heralds Recognition of the Role of Teachers as Researchers

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In a move that some educators say heralds a growing recognition of the role of teachers in education research, the National Council of Teachers of English has for the first time awarded its highest research prize to a classroom teacher.

Nancie Atwell, a former 8th-grade teacher in Maine, last month won the 1990 David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English for her book, In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning With Adolescents.

NCTE officials insist that the award was based on the merits of her book, and was not a "political" move to honor teachers. But several observers--and Ms. Atwell herself--say the prize conveys a message that teachers can have a role as researchers.

In her acceptance speech, Ms. Atwell described her award as representing an acknowledgment that the "observations and reflections of classroom teachers count as research."

"When the knowledge that informs our profession comes from many quarters," she said, "when research is seen as an inclusive, rather than an exclusive process, everyone benefits, but children benefit especially."

With the increased interest in teacher professionalism, along with reforms in school structure and assessment, educators note, a growing number of teachers are undertaking critical analyses of classroom practices. In many cases, those teachers are also writing and reporting on their findings.

Such efforts, teachers say, have given them a deeper understanding of how students learn and how teachers can contribute to such learning.

"It was the first time I ever felt like a mentor," said Ms. Atwell.

University-based researchers say they share the teachers' goals of ensuring that instruction is informed by an understanding of effective practice, and indicate that they welcome teachers as collaborators in their work.

They caution, however, that many classroom-based studies may lack the rigor and objectivity needed to produce high-quality research.

"There is a need for a knowledge base for effective teaching," said Gerald E. Sroufe, director of governmental and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association. "Teachers need a consensus of research, an understanding of research, and ways of making use of research."

"But having teachers be researchers," he continued, "is not all that laudable."

Todd Endo, director of research and policy analysis for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools, said such opinions reflect too narrow a view of the nature of research. For many teachers, he said, the kinds of "ethnographic" studies of students that their classroom colleagues conduct are more useful than the quantitative analyses that dominate university departments and research journals.

"I think one of the basic things wrong with education is the kinds of courses, paradigms, and frameworks education students are subjected to in graduate and undergraduate courses," Mr. Endo said. "If that's what anybody means as research, teachers aren't doing it--thank God.''

What teacher-researchers are doing "is gathering data and coming to conclusions," he continued. "They do that well. It's very clear teachers need to do more of that."

The new interest in teacher research--or, as it is often called, "teacher-led inquiry," or "action research"--reflects a resurgence of a view of teaching that was prominent at the beginning of the century, according to Marsha Levine, associate director for education issues of the American Federation of Teachers.

"There was in the Progressive Era, through the work of John Dewey and Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a sense of the importance of teachers as reflective practitioners," Ms. Levine said. "Research was part of the teaching act."

That view waned in recent decades, she added, as teachers came to be seen as vehicles to deliver curricula.

"Research was conceived of as important," she said, "but was not part of the teaching process itself."

But educators have begun to rediscover the role of teachers in research as part of a growing movement to turn teaching into a profession like medicine or law, noted Arthur E. Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

"It is important that members of a profession, generally, be able to read and analyze emerging research findings," he said. "That has become an expectation for members of an established profession, that they keep up with literature and be appropriately guided by emerging findings in their fields. That has not been an expectation of teachers in the past."

The interest in teacher research also reflects changes in research methods, Ms. Atwell observed. Citing the work of Donald H. Graves, a University of New Hampshire researcher who has studied writing instruction, she said researchers are increasingly gathering data by observing actual classes, rather than by analyzing statistical models.

"If Donald Graves can come into Mary Ellen Giacobbe's class and study her methods, she can do that too," Ms. Atwell said.

The school-restructuring movement, which decentralizes authority to the school site, has also contributed to the growth of teacher research, argued Miles Myers, executive director of the ncte Teachers involved in restructuring experiments must be able to create new forms of assessment, collect and analyze data, and conduct experiments to test new forms of school organization, he suggested.

"If you decentralize to site-based decision making," he said, "and you continue to monitor schools the same way--use the same assessments, goals, and objectives--a lot of the possibility for creativity in site-based decision making is going to be lost."

Led by such renewed interest, a number of organizations--including the AFT and the NCTE--have created grant programs to sponsor teacher research.

The AFT's decade-old program, launched by a federal grant, is aimed at disseminating research knowledge to teachers, explained Lovely Billups, the program's director. As a "spin-off," she added, the union provides funds for teachers to conduct their own projects.

"Not every teacher wants to go out and do her own research, and not every teacher wants [only] to get research from other people," Ms. Billups said.

The U.S. Education Department is also considering a program to fund teacher-research projects, according to Nelson Smith, director of the office of programs for the improvement of practice in the department's office of educational research and improvement.

Mr. Smith noted that the OERI hosted a conference, held in Washington last week, to examine teachers' needs for such a program.

Several local districts have also sponsored research by teachers. In Fairfax County, for example, the district has offered interested teachers in six schools both the opportunity to conduct experiments in their classrooms and release time to enable them to analyze their results.

Among other projects, the teachers have experimented with cooperative learning and tried different methods of grouping students, according to Mr. Endo. Others have followed a small number of students over the course of a year to determine when students are paying attention in class and are motivated to learn, he said.

In addition to the school-based project, the district has teamed up with eight neighboring districts and George Mason University to create the Center for Applied Research and Development. Teachers involved in the project meet with university researchers to plan projects--such as studying the effects of implementing cooperative learning or collaborative decision making--and then carry them out in their schools, according to Mr. Endo, who serves as the center's associate director.

Although there is little hard evidence about the success of such efforts, the teachers involved say they have been effective.

"They are doing things differently [in their classrooms] than they did two years ago," said Mr. Endo.

Ms. Atwell, whose book outlined her efforts to create "literacy environments" to promote 8th graders' reading and writing abilities, said teacher research has benefited students, teachers, and the profession as a whole.

"It made [students] interesting to me," she said. "I fell in love with my students, and I had been teaching for 10 years. I learned what they could do."

At the same time, "kids have the benefit of seeing teachers as learners," she added. "They never stop being curious."

Teachers also gain by being able to contribute to the knowledge base, Ms. Atwell said.

"We're not waiting for someone on high to tell us what research shows," she said. "It's the perfect antidote to teacher burnout."

Despite such enthusiasm, however, teachers continue to face numerous obstacles in trying to conduct studies in their classrooms.

One problem is that most teacher-preparation programs provide little training in research, noted Ms. Levine of the aft

"There are vast disjunctures in the way teachers are educated and acculturated in the school system, and the expectations we are talking about," she said. "There are some examples of places that have tried to educate teachers in different ways, but we have a long way to go in teacher-education programs. They were designed for a different model."

School administrators often fail to allow teachers the flexibility to try new methods, said Ms. Atwell, who this fall started a new private school intended to serve as a research and demonstration center. (See story, this page.)

"My principal listened," she recalled of her previous school experience. "He believed in teachers as learners. That's not a common characteristic among administrators."

Perhaps the greatest handicap to teacher research is the lack of time needed to record data and analyze it, said Charlotte Higuchi, a language-arts teacher at Farmdale Elementary School in Los Angeles, who conducted several studies with grants from the AFT and the NCTE.

"I could not ask [all teachers] to spend the money, time, and energy it takes to do this," she said. "It's two jobs."

But Ms. Levine said that improvements in teaching that research can produce more than make up for the time it takes to conduct the experiments.

"The economies of teaching are so poor that any strategy to improve it is worth doing," she said.

In addition to facing institutional constraints, teacher-researchers also face skepticism from much of the research community.

Reflecting a common view, Mr. Wise of NCATE--who was for years a prominent researcher for the rand Corporation--said it would be unrealistic to expect all teachers to be able to conduct research.

"That's not a realistic or necessary course of action to pursue, any more than it is to expect all physicians to do research," he said.

Teachers can play roles in research by helping disseminate research findings, noted Mr. Sroufe of the American Educational Research Association.

"You can't do research to improve education that's independent of the education system," he said. "No matter how good it is, if it's inaccessible to teachers, it will have no effect."

One way of aiding dissemination, he suggested, is to have teachers serve as "brokers" to communicate research findings to the rest of the faculty.

"Having AERA journals in the faculty lounge isn't going to do much,'' he said. "We need a broker. Teachers can do that."

Teachers are also ideal collaborators in university research projects, added Andrew C. Porter, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Mr. Porter recalled that, as co-director of the Institute for Research on Teaching at Michigan State University, he frequently asked teachers to join with researchers on a number of studies.

"The university brings to the table the knowledge of the discipline and research methodologies," he explained. "The teacher brings to the table the wisdom of the practitioner."

Such collaborations enhanced both the quality of the research project and its usefulness to practitioners, Mr. Porter said.

"They made especially important contributions at the time of evaluating and interpreting the data at the back end," he said, "and in identifying important research issues--and making sure they were tied to practice--at the front end."

'Soft Data'?

Many researchers draw the line, however, at having teachers conduct formal studies themselves.

"Research in the classroom is not the most fruitful," said Mr. Porter.

There appears to be some "perestroika" in the research community, observed Gerald W. Bracey, director of research and evaluation for the Cherry Creek, Colo., school district. But many traditional psychologists, he added, consider teachers' work "not research."

Frequently, Mr. Bracey noted, teacher-researchers use a kind of qualitative analysis that describes in detail student behavior, rather than methods that depict statistical links between instructional practices and student outcomes.

Compared with research on a large data base, such studies provide a limited perspective, said Mr. Sroufe. As a result, he maintained, teacher-generated studies can seldom be generalized to apply to other schools.

"High School and Beyond data is based on 90,000 students, and it has 123 variables you could study on computer tape and analyze," Mr. Sroufe said, referring to the federally funded longitudinal study begun in 1980. "In a school, you can have a few ideas and demonstrate them. That's important, but it's only one part of the research enterprise."

Teachers also lack the kind of objectivity needed to study classroom practices, said Mr. Sroufe.

"Schools tend to be advocating things," said Mr. Sroufe. "It's hard to be objective toward something you're advocating."

But while such concerns may be valid, they are not unique to teacher-led inquiries, responded Sharon Robinson, director of the National Education Association's National Center for Innovation in Education.

"Biases are unavoidable," she said. "Your perspective gives you one no matter what."

Ms. Higuchi of Los Angeles also argued that teachers' data are often more valid than the kind quantitative researchers use.

"The criticism that this is 'soft data' amazes me," she said. "It's the same kind of data Dian Fossey used with gorillas. It's rich, it's diverse, and it captures what happens in a classroom."

By contrast, "a standardized test is information gathered on a particular day, using a single number," Ms. Higuchi pointed out. "It misses so much."

Ms. Atwell said that the response she has received from her award-winning book suggests that her style of research is valid, and applicable to a wide range of classrooms.

"My book sold well over 100,000 copies," she said. "I don't think teachers, or people interested in research, see it as limited. I've gotten letters from thousands of teachers, from kindergarten teachers to professors of law. They are learning from what my kids taught me."

"Some people prefer teachers to be filters or screens for the work of grownups," she continued. "I don't think it's debatable. The quality of the work teachers have conducted is compelling evidence to me. You have to call what teachers do research."

Vol. 10, Issue 15, Pages 1,36-37

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