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'School-Based' Master's Degrees

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How do you improve education? There are two obvious answers to that question: Control teachers more effectively, or find ways to enhance teachers' professionalism, creativity, and autonomy. Control implies tighter accountability (through merit pay, state or local mandates), and treats teachers as technicians implementing the political will. Autonomy implies trusting teachers and having systems (for example, in site-based management) that give them opportunity and incentive. It assumes teachers are morally committed professionals. The dominance of the "control" ideology is mirrored, however, in many professional-development programs, typically in the short, in-service programs that instruct teachers in the latest fad. So we have few examples of what professional development based on the importance of teacher autonomy would look like.

Master's-degree programs for teachers exemplify the control ideology, and are a primary link between teachers and academics. In 1990-91, the most recent federal accounting, there were 88,904 master's degrees awarded in education. Many university faculty members see them as a sorting mechanism for education doctorates. Implicit in the degree structure, in fact, is the view that theoretical knowledge is developed in the university and passed on to technician-teachers to implement in their classrooms. Treated as isolates in their workplace, teachers take courses which may, or may not, have an impact on what they do in classrooms or how they view their work. Programs usually demand evening attendance after a heavy day's work. They seem to pay little attention to teacher wisdom, and may retain their popularity more because of their cash benefits than because of the benefits flowing from any serious study of individual classrooms and work situations. The structures themselves may have longevity also because they match an overall university degree system.

We must completely reconstruct the university's relationship with the teaching profession, beginning, I think, with the master's degree. To do this, we need to be committed to the importance of teachers' autonomy and moral agency. We must recognize at the outset that we don't know what professional development can be because we have no idea what a 25-year career in the classroom ought to look like. Without some overarching conception of an "ideal" career and its professional-development needs, how can we determine what an academic program should look like?

Over the last two years, my university in Fairfax, Va., has been trying to develop ideas within a radically different master's degree--and we are just beginning. We aim to end the disconnect between degree programs and the teacher's work, and we believe we have found a way to do that, consonant with quality. There are seven major features of what has come to be called, at George Mason University, the "school-based" master's degree. The seven features reveal the radical and ambitious character of what we seek to do and may be a model for others:

  • We don't recruit any individual teachers; we select teams from schools. We may be the first program in the country to do this, but whether or not that is true, we have been amazed by the impact of this relatively simple innovation. Teachers tell us of the importance of our inviting them to discuss individual draft assignments with members of the team before submitting them to us. They develop extensive and profound professional and personal relationships driving their work that replace the isolation they felt as "a colleague" who vaguely knew what others were doing. They work intensively at teaching and studying their teaching together. While mutual support is always important, making an impact on a school culture with a team that reaches out to other faculty members is seen by these degree candidates as an essential duty. This team intimacy has also had marked influence on how they view their students and the way knowledge is generated and transmitted within a school culture. We have now come to believe that the premier way to end the isolation of teachers and to promote changes in school culture is to invite teachers to study their practice intensively in teams.
  • We commit half the formal structure of the degree to school-based work. This recognizes the teachers' expertise as professionals because we at the university level define ourselves as "coaches" assisting them in working with the research techniques they have learned. This means we often have to be in schools, too, and we have developed, in addition, extensive e-mail links to keep the interaction constant. The fact of our students' doing research on their teaching also seems to recast the relationship with students in the classroom. Teachers report that the adoption of the role of teacher-researcher changes their approach to pedagogy. It becomes questing, rather than authoritative, and this finds its place in getting students to be reflective learners.
  • We have abandoned entirely the semester-credit-hour structure in terms of the character of master's-degree candidates' learning experience. We still have the formal "catalogue description" of the degree with its 10 courses and 30 credits, but this gives no guide to the scheduling. We work with what we dub "short-fat" and "long-thin" courses, weaving a coherent pattern of learning across the two years (plus a summer workshop) of the program. This means we have also junked the evening work; we have three summer workshops and release days and Saturdays to bring us to equivalence with other master's programs. Yet that equivalence is illusory. Most teams spend at least three additional hours a week on their work. Everyone starts and finishes at the same date. Thankfully (as we haven't worked out what would happen), no one has tried to transfer to another program. The retention rate through the program (completed in July 1994) was 97 per cent; only four out of 143 teachers dropped out.
  • We are creating a teaching partnership of depth between academics and practitioners. We have used one of our faculty slots to hire an outstanding practitioner with years of teacher-research activity behind her for a period of four years. Our summer workshops have a teaching team of four other practitioners and two or more academics. Where possible, these practitioners have also developed a role as coaches in one or more of the 32 schools with which we are partners. We have been training teachers as facilitators for discussion groups, thereby developing an additional resource for a school.
  • Casting aside evening teaching and working with daylong intensity has forced us to design a new pedagogy which focuses more rigorously on our own teaching and engages the members of the program in that adventure. We began by thinking of the day in four blocks and felt the need to have the third block devoted to some kind of non-sitting activity. After much discussion, we came up with what we call the pasca pedagogy: Presentation, Analysis, Strolling Critique, and Collaborative Argument.

    The whole group of 140 teachers attends the presentation, breaking then into five cohorts (with six or seven teams, integrated by school division and grade-level work) for analysis and the establishment of questions and problems. The "strolling critique" segment (in school teams) is usually done after lunch and enables the students to walk around and talk together, specifically defining their agenda for the final session. That session, "collaborative argument," is where we are trying to use Richard McKeon's ideas about "the architecture of learning" in a pluralist framework.

  • We are searching for a new assessment system which overcomes one huge obstacle to profound change: the grading system. We have not yet succeeded in breaking the stranglehold conventional grading has on the psyches of everyone who has ever been to school, especially teachers. But we are struggling with what we call "targets of quality," described in a matrix of five areas and three levels of understanding, against which we invite teachers to assess their own work. We take the assessment process very seriously, writing copiously and carefully about each candidate's work, and using the "targets" to make a judgment. The basic drive, of course, is for continuous improvement, and we have found many of the ideas from the Total Quality Management movement useful, especially in our own self-evaluation.

But the base on which this began was a partnership with four Virginia school districts--Fauquier County, Manassas City, Manassas Park, and Prince William County--and the creation of a contract degree. Upon that initial base, we are building a collegial community.

For us, rethinking professional development has been a process of accelerating fast-tracking. We design as we build. In business terms, our goal is a better product at lower cost. In moral terms, we seek to enhance teacher professionalism and emancipate teachers from the dogma in which they are ensnared. In practical terms, we are creating a framework schools can palpably touch, as they witness the effect it has on their teachers.

While our school is pleased with what we have accomplished so far, we realize it is only a beginning. We are convinced that the approach we are using could have much wider implications for degree programs in other professions, so we are planning a new degree structure for that purpose and are also expanding the role of technology. We are wrestling with issues of principal involvement. Our sense is that if we want to transform the university's relationship with the teaching profession, all of us, teachers and taught, have to treat the degree as if it were an extensive partnership research-and-development project. The intensity and the excitement of the venture is richly rewarding.

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