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Q&A: Researcher Recounts a Short History of a Reform That Failed

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Is a school reform success/hi or not? The answer sometimes depends on whom you ask, a recent article suggests.

Writing in the November 1991 issue of the Harvard Educational Review, Marjorie Godlin Roemer, the director of freshman English at the University of Cincinnati, recounts an attempt to develop a method of assessing writing through portfolios in the Cincinnati Public Schools. She considered the effort a failure, but teachers involved in the project saw it as a success.

The problem, she writes, was in the different perspectives of the school-system "insiders"--teachers and school administrators and "outsiders"--the university researchers. The insiders hoped that the experiment would result in concrete products--the new method of assessment. Since it did, the teachers and administrators regarded the experiment positively.

But the researchers intended the project to engage teachers in a discussion of their goals and expectations for students, a conversation that never occurred. As a result, Ms. Roemet writes, the portfolios fell short of their potential for empowering teachers. "A potentially liberating design was domesticated in a strictly hierarchical, utilitarian fashion," she writes. "To the extent that much reform follows this pattern, it is often about change without difference."

A better way of bringing teachers and university researchers together, Ms. Roemer suggests, is along the lines of the National Writing Project, which provides educators an opportunity--away from the daily pressures of the classroom--to reflect on their practice.

Ms. Roemet discussed her article, and its implications for school-university collaborations, with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. Why do you think the "insiders" and the "outsiders" had such divergent perspectives on the purposes and the outcomes of the project?

A. I think it was our position, our orientation.

I think public-school teachers are working under trying conditions, and they really don't have the luxury to reflect, to experiment, to explore. They feel pressed .... The kind of conceptions some of us [university researchers] had wasn't feasible. University researchers could afford the luxury of a reflective stance.

Another piece [of the difference] was the antagonism and suspicion that developed {over the course of the project]. There was a sense among high-school teachers that people can't know what pressures they labor under.

Q. Isn't it possible that you are selling the reform short, and that the project may be successful, over time, as the teachers implement the portfolios?

A. It's possible. Some writing will get done, and some teachers said students really are taking writing seriously. There is some real change there.

I suppose that the project fell far short of my desires for it. I would have liked the process itself to create something empowering for the teachers. I would have liked it to be their project, in a richer way than it was.

But something in the experience drained what meaning there could be. That's irrecoverable.

Q. Would the divergence in perspectives be true in any collaboration, or can you see ways of bringing the two groups together?

A. I ended by feeling that, for me, it would be more satisfying to work with the National Writing Project model .... That calls for a break in the routine, to build a new community to reconceptualize [teaching].

There might be circumstances where one could overcome the inside-outside split. We didn't give enough thought to what the problems might be, and ways around them.

It would take more time, more money, and more trust in teachers.

Q. In the examples of successful collaboration you cite, you write that there is time for "thoughtful consideration of practice." In those instances, is there evidence that the reforms are implemented in a way that produces "real change?"

A. I think so. You have to change the way teachers think. That's what didn't happen {in the Cincinnati experiment]. They got a process to monitor student performance. We didn't see changed consciousness.

A. There is a trend now of teachers' conducting their own research. Does that help merge the differences between the insiders' and outsiders' perspectives, or do such efforts rob experiments of the perspective a university researcher might provide?

I'd like to think there is a place for university-school collaboration. But I am very much in support of the teacher-as researcher movement.

I want university people helping, not being the experts, the repositories of knowledge. That was my frustration. That was the way we were perceived, whether we liked it or not.

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