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From Dissonance To Harmony

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There is, first of all, the painful history of past attempts at cooperation. Few elementary and secondary educators have escaped being demeaned by universities during their careers. Expectations have been held out and violated at the preservice and inservice levels and in courses, workshops, consultations, and evaluations. And few university faculty members who have worked closely with schools have escaped being scratched up in the briar patch. By and large, schools are unforgiving, inhospitable places for academics. Thus, both school and university people harbor antibodies they have built up to protect against the other. It seems to many in the university that school people want to improve things without changing them very much; to school people, university folks seem to offer to change things but without improving them very much.

A second roadblock to university-school engagement is the little dance we perform around the question, "Who initiates and who responds?'' Each player wants to have the other's cards on the table first. The university says, "Tell us what you need and we'll see if we can or want to provide it.'' School people say, "Tell us what you've got and we'll see if we want any.''

A third barrier is the muted voices of schoolteachers. It's astonishing that teachers have yet to join more fully in the debates swirling around American education. Professional journals, research agendas, and even conversations between school people and university people are dominated by university voices. It's unthinkable that any other profession undergoing close scrutiny would find critiques of its practice and prescription for change coming largely from outsiders.

The problem is not that teachers know little of value. It is that there is a need to create conditions under which teachers will reveal their rich knowledge and extraordinary insights about their craft. To help teachers' views become part of the discussion of school improvement, universities must engage in conversation with those who work in the schoolhouse. Until dialogues replace monologues, conversations between university people and school people will have all of the resonance of one hand clapping.

A fourth impediment to fruitful interaction between the worlds of school and university is that neither does much to reward those crossing the border between them. Few professors ever work in public schools, and few school people ever work in higher education. Academics are not promoted for talking to PTAs or consulting with classroom teachers. And few teachers receive time off so they can study and reflect at universities. Indeed, at many schools, to reveal oneself as an adult learner is considered both self-indulgent and an admission of deficiency.

Yet another obstacle to university-school cooperation lies in the widely held, but simplistic and disturbing, notion that theory resides in universities and practice resides in schools. Theories about instruction, parental involvement, curricular improvement, and motivation abound in schools. Indeed, I know of no schoolteacher who does not work from some organizing principle that, in university language, would be called a theory. Theories are the source of much discussion and tension among teachers, principals, and parents. Some of these schoolbased theories are good, some fragmentary, some implacable, and a few elegant.

Conversely, most of my Harvard colleagues do more than theorize. Academics run schools of education, departments, committees, and research projects. Most also practice as classroom teachers. A professor is no less a practitioner than a schoolteacher. Some are good practitioners, some bad, some modest, many immodest, and a few elegant.

Having faced up to these impediments, how might school people and university people overcome them? Most researchers already work under the assumption that school practitioners will welcome and accept new knowledge and put it to some kind of use. I believe academics can also contribute to the improvement of our nation's schools by helping teachers clarify and communicate their own rich thinking. Making a teacher's knowledge of craft visible dignifies and benefits the individual, other school people, and schools.

School people need not only to inhabit the university but also to be engaged actively there as teachers and researchers. And academics need not only to associate frequently with school people but also to assume some kind of residency in the schools. The experience of the few who have risked citizenship in the other realm suggests that it is possible for schools and universities to become part of the same world.

Another way to bring school people and university people closer together is through writing. In academia, writing is generated, edited, discussed, critiqued, celebrated, published, and disseminated. Reputations are built, and promotions are denied, based on it. Those in universities may not know much about classroom discipline, but they know a great deal about the written word and its relation to clear thinking. And clear thinking bears a close relationship to improved practice.

Writing about school practice offers considerable rewards for practitioner, author, and reader alike. But few of the nation's teachers write about their important work. Often what they lack in order to set pen to paper is the "handle'' for a manuscript or an article--something distinct about teaching that can provide the occasion for writing. Universities can be helpful here, since professors are good at finding conceptual frameworks that can organize a confusion of data. The university can also offer schoolteachers a protected setting conducive to writing--a library, colleagues who regularly read one another's papers, and distance from distractions.

Another promising way to encourage writing is to pair a university researcher and a school practitioner as coauthors, sharing the responsibilities of writing and the professional rewards and satisfactions. For example, I know of a principal now presiding over the closing of her school who has formed such a partnership with a university researcher examining such closings. The researcher gains the insights that only an "insider'' can provide. The principal and teachers, on the other hand, receive from the researcher valuable knowledge about school closings that help them with their difficult situation. And with the assistance of the university person, the school people become more confident about how to transform the raw experience into prose.

My experience suggests that perhaps the most influential contribution a university can make in assisting teachers and principals is to convey to them prestige and respectability. Those in higher education can legitimize the efforts of school people and communicate in a thousand ways to the outside world that what goes on in schools is important, that those who work in schools are important, and that their writing and their craft knowledge are important to schools and universities alike. At one school where I was principal, we contracted with a university to cooperate in its undergraduate teacher-certification program. About a dozen university students were placed with as many of our teachers. Each year, a group of teachers ran what we called "university seminars'' for the student teachers. They enlisted fellow teachers as faculty. Topics included discipline, observing children, record keeping, curriculum, and getting a teaching job.

These teachers were modestly paid to share their knowledge with the students. More important, they became, in a real sense, university faculty. The opportunity conveyed an important message seldom communicated to teachers: "We are aware of and value the many good things you are doing, and we believe others would benefit from knowing what you are thinking and doing.'' When teachers receive this kind of recognition, they go to extraordinary lengths to justify it. They reflect on their practice, translating intuitive behavior into more conscious, visible information that can be useful to others. This results in extraordinary learning and classroom improvement for teachers and for students of teaching. Recognition these days is the commodity in greatest supply in universities and in shortest supply to teachers.

There is a prevailing view among many in government and universities that schools are not capable of improving themselves. This has led to a long history of proposals for change made by outsiders. But there may be an alternative to these lists and prescriptions for how students, teachers, and principals should behave. Both schools and universities can confront the many sources of dissonance between us, acknowledge the many opportunities that now present themselves, and think freshly about our relationship so that together we can strengthen the schools.

Roland Barth is a senior lecturer on education at Harvard University. This article is based on material presented in his new book, Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference (Jossey-Bass Inc.). .

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