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By Asking About 'Context', Center Moves to the Cutting Edge of Research

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When Milbrey W. McLaughlin and Joan E. Talbert launched their five-year study of the factors that influence high schools and teachers, they began, like most researchers, with a set of assumptions about what would be important to ask.

But when they started interviewing teachers, the Stanford University researchers quickly learned that they were wrong.

"What teachers taught me in the first year--much to my horror--was that we absolutely had to redo it,'' Ms. McLaughlin says.

Not surprisingly, the researchers had framed a set of questions that worked logically out from the classroom to touch on school, district, and state policies that might affect teachers' work.

Teachers, they soon learned, "just don't see the world that way,'' Ms. McLaughlin says.

What the teachers wanted to talk about were the things that most directly influenced their work, like students and subject matter. So, the interviews were changed to let teachers tell their own stories, an approach the researchers call a "teacher's-eye view'' of schooling.

In reframing their methods, the Stanford researchers moved to what observers call the "cutting edge'' of social-science research. And their findings centered around the importance of relationships, organizations, and issues that are typically overlooked or taken for granted by traditional academic studies.

Most notably, the studies by the federally funded Center for Research on the Context of Secondary School Teaching, completed last year, revealed that teachers' participation in a "professional community''--whether through their academic department, school, or a network of like-minded colleagues--had a powerful effect on how successfully they were able to adapt their instructional strategies to meet their students' needs.

While other academicians have written about the importance of community for teachers, the center's studies were the first to look at communities as a specific context of teaching and to find a link between participation in a community and successful teaching, observers say.

Innovative Methodology

In using the term "context,'' the researchers refer to all of the variables that influence teaching: students, subject matter, academic departments, schools, parents, higher education, and the like.

By examining how these contexts are "embedded'' in one another, says Ann Lieberman, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and member of the center's national advisory board, the center's work highlights the complexity of the environment that teachers and students work in.

"If we're serious about change and understanding how it takes place,'' she notes, "we have to understand context in a far deeper fashion.''

The studies, she adds, also provide a "serious look at how teachers see change.''

"That's a perspective that has long been absent'' from education research, Ms. Lieberman continues, "and I don't think has ever been looked at in quite so thorough a fashion by people using an array of methods.''

In fact, it was the innovative methodology used to conduct the research, Ms. Talbert says, that made some of the findings possible.

To generate its primary data base, the center conducted in-depth field research at 16 high schools in seven school districts in California and Michigan. Twelve of the schools were regular public schools, one was an alternative public school, and three were independent schools.

Almost 900 teachers in the high schools were interviewed each spring for three years. The center's researchers collected records from the sites and observed schools and classrooms.

Various kinds of data also were collected for 48 students.

The studies generated voluminous data from the sites over the three years, including feedback from the teachers who were studied.

In an approach that the center's directors say is unique, the researchers then built "bridges'' between the field data and two national longitudinal studies: the 1984 High School and Beyond surveys of teachers and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.

The marriage of these two kinds of data is reflected in the center leaders' backgrounds: Ms. McLaughlin, the director, is a field researcher and education-policy analyst, while Ms. Talbert, the associate director, is a sociologist who does large-scale quantitative analysis. The people who conducted the center's various research projects also hailed from a wide range of disciplines, including anthropology, curriculum theory, political science, and teacher education.

"We all saw something different,'' Ms. McLaughlin says. "We had multiple lenses of different disciplines and perspectives.''

'Crest of a Wave'

The "bridges'' were constructed by replicating some of the same questions used on the national surveys in the field interviews, Ms. Talbert explains.

That way, the researchers could gauge how representative the schools, departments, and individual teachers in their 16 schools were.

The NELS:88 survey asked about such factors as collegiality, workplace climate, and leadership.

So, for example, if the field data showed big differences between academic departments in terms of collegiality, the results could be checked against the "yardstick'' of the national surveys to insure that all attitudes would be represented in the study.

Because the 16 schools that were selected for the field study were chosen for specific purposes--and were not intended to be a representative sample of U.S. schools--using the national survey data also "lets us have it both ways,'' Ms. McLaughlin says.

Gerald Sroufe, the director of government and professional liaison for the American Educational Research Association, calls the study's use of field data and national surveys "cutting edge.''

The research, he says, is "on the crest of the wave of combining qualitative and quantitative data to get a rich new perspective on things.''

The center's findings will now have to be "tested through other measures to see how much you can generalize about it,'' he says.

'Dialogue' Between Data

The new methodology helped reveal the importance of "learning communities'' for teachers.

"It was really very much through the dialogue between the quantitative surveys and the interview data,'' Ms. Talbert says, "that we began to see a lot of variation among teachers in the sample and their access to or participation in collegial groups that could support them.''

In conducting their interviews, the researchers used what they called a "student-decline scale'' that was derived from comments they heard from teachers. The scale included such assertions as "students don't try as hard as they used to'' and "students are not able to master the material.''

Within a school, academic departments with different degrees of collegiality turned out to contain teachers with very different scores on the student-decline scale, Ms. Talbert says.

Teachers in departments with low levels of collegiality, they found, tended to have more negative views of students.

Similarly, teachers who had made the most successful changes in their practice and had more positive views about their students' capabilities turned out to have one thing in common: belonging to an active professional community that encouraged and enabled them to transform their teaching.

Rather than adhering unswervingly to rigorous standards and failing many students, or resorting to "dumbing down'' their instruction, these successful teachers found ways to actively engage their students in learning.

"These healthy, positive professional communities have said, 'Hey, let's stop trying to fit the kid to this, and fit what we're doing to the kid,' '' Ms. McLaughlin explains.

Revealing Research Limitations

By adopting the perspectives of classroom teachers, the study also revealed some of the limitations of current education research, the center's directors say.

Many studies look at entire schools, Ms. McLaughlin points out, which is too large a unit of analysis to pick up the differences among departments and classrooms that are central to the center's findings.

They also learned a number of things that contradict the way questions typically are framed in education research. Teachers are often asked about their sense of efficacy in their jobs, for example. But the center's work found that teachers' perspectives about themselves change depending upon what class period they are teaching: first period might be a breeze, but second period might be a constant struggle.

What those attitudes reveal, Ms. McLaughlin says, is that students are one of the most important contexts in teaching.

As commonsensical as the notion sounds, she adds, "the policy world doesn't consider that at all.''

But finding ways to help teachers deal with those contexts by creating professional communities may not be easy.

"You can't command community,'' Ms. McLaughlin says, "and you can't concoct collegiality.''

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