A Revolution of Rising Expectations

By Lynn Olson — September 01, 1989 22 min read


When Tom Buschek began teaching 22 years ago, someone handed him a roll book and a reading list and pointed to his classroom door. After that, he was alone. “They told you what to teach,” he recalls, “but they didn’t tell you how.” Like most teachers, Buschek learned how the hard way. Today, he is using what he has learned to ease the way for others. As a “teaching colleague” in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the 44-year-old social studies teacher divides his time between teaching students and working to improve the skills of educators like himself. He also conducts research, prepares instructional materials for use by other teachers in the district, and observes and assists his peers. This fall, he will be working with student teachers from area universities who come to Pittsburgh for training.

Buschek’s job description is far from typical. It marks a shift away from the top-down management of the past to a new arrangement of shared power. After a decade in which teachers took the blame for the “rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s schools, leaders of the reform movement are now looking to teachers to turn the tide. The way to do that is summed up, increasingly, in two words: teacher empowerment. For most educators, who still spend their time behind closed doors, empowerment is just a buzz word. Their duties remain much the same, whether they have taught for three years or 30. And they have little to say about what happens in the school as a whole. But Buschek is one of a growing number of teachers who are breaking out of that mold. From Pittsburgh to San Diego, from Indianapolis to Miami, educators are assuming greater responsibility for the performance of their peers, promoting new approaches to teaching and learning, and making decisions about school policies and programs. “It is far too early to say whether teacher empowerment will ultimately improve schools, whether those teachers who acquire and exercise influence will be able and committed enough to make it work to the benefit of children,” says Harvard education professor Susan Moore Johnson. “But,” she adds, “there is the possibility.”

As a possibility, teacher empowerment has been a long time coming. The idea of enabling teachers to play a greater role in schools harks back to philosopher John Dewey. In the early 1900’s, the University of Chicago professor argued against reforming the curriculum without the participation of teachers, “who alone can make that course of study a living reality.” As part of the progressive schools movement of that time, teachers were encouraged to gather and discuss their practice and to become students of teaching.

But that vision has never become the norm. As writer and educator Theodore Sizer notes: “Teachers are often treated like hired hands. Not surprisingly, they often act like hired hands.” He points out that individual educators rarely decide what to teach, how long to teach it, or what textbooks and materials to use. Most of those decisions are handed down by school boards, school administrators, and others, often with elaborate teaching guides.

Ironically, while teachers tend to have a limited say in how schools operate, their position as those closest to children has made them a handy scapegoat for education’s ills. During the first part of this decade, policymakers who doubted the quality of the teaching force made it harder to become a teacher. Because they often distrusted the ability of teachers, they also reduced their power to fix the schools.

By 1986, nearly half the states had adopted minimum-competency tests just to ensure that teachers could read, write, and compute at a high school level. Stiffer standards for teacher training and licensing, controversial proposals for performance-based pay, and state mandates that told teachers what and how to teach spread nationwide. The result was a steep decline in teacher morale, and a sharp increase in frustration. In 1988, a national survey of teachers conducted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching concluded that the teaching force was more “dispirited” and “less empowered” than it had been five years earlier.

Even today, finding ways to give teachers a stronger voice in schools remains the “greatest test” of the school-reform movement, says Carnegie President Ernest Boyer. “To put it simply, as the expectations and the pressures on education build, teachers are feeling less and less confident and more and more alienated from their jobs,” he says. “They’re the ones who are being held accountable, but they are not given the authority. We haven’t gotten to a situation where teachers have a sense of control.”

Prominent educators such as Boyer argue that schools will not improve without the active support and involvement of teachers. But only in the last few years has their message been heard. Since the mid-1980’s, reports from the National Governors’ Association, the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, and the business-affiliated Committee for Economic Development have all warned that lasting reforms depend on the good will and expertise of the teaching force. Notes the CED report, Investing in Our Children, “We are calling for nothing less than a revolution in the role of teachers and the management of schools.”

And slowly, society’s view of teachers seems to be changing. “I think the common wisdom six years ago was that teachers are poorly trained people with no interest in schools and school reform, and the best thing we could do is get rid of them,” says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. “I think the common wisdom today is very different. It’s that teachers need to be empowered, that teachers have an enormous ability to bring about positive changes if treated properly, and that the teachers’ union is an ally and a partner to that process.”

Partly in response to such shifting attitudes, a handful of states have begun to take action. Both Washington and Maine have offered teachers and administrators money and waivers from regulations if they jointly can devise plans for improving learning at the school site. President Bush has proposed loosening federal regulations in some low-income communities in return for improved student achievement. At least a dozen districts, such as Pittsburgh, have created new roles for teachers and new avenues to involve them in decisionmaking.

Clearly, a new era of experimentation is under way. According to some people, its emergence was inevitable. “I think it’s a natural outgrowth of two things,” says Hudson Institute scholar Denis Doyle. “All the horror stories to the contrary, we probably have a better teaching force than ever before in our history. So I think one of the reasons that teachers are doing more and are expecting to do more is that they’re smarter and better educated and have a clearer sense of their own self-interests.

“I think another part of it,” he adds, “is that teachers realize they simply can’t presume to call themselves professionals and work within a conventional management structure. Teachers are chafing and bridling at the notion of managers running roughshod over them.”

The result is that in a number of places, teachers and administrators are joining forces to create more flexibility in school governance and increase their ability to make a difference.

Helping Their Colleagues. Peer Review in Toledo.

For the last eight years, teachers in Toledo, Ohio, have taken leaves of absence from their classrooms to observe and evaluate their colleagues and offer advice. Under the peer-review program, veteran teachers leave teaching for up to three years to work with new teachers in the school system and with experienced ones who are having trouble. “We guide their professional growth, serve as a resource person, and evaluate their work,” says Richard Fisher, a peer reviewer with 20 years’ teaching experience. “We are not administrators, but we are fellow teachers who are interested in helping them.”

Consultants such as Fisher work with each teacher for approximately two semesters, during which time they recommend to a review board whether the individual’s contract should be renewed. Usually, their advice is followed. As a result of the program, approximately 830 Toledo teachers have received help that was previously unavailable. About 5.5 percent have not returned to the Toledo public schools.

Says Dal Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers: “We felt that before teaching could become a profession, teachers had to have some responsibility and voice in determining who was good enough to become a practitioner.” Since 1981, peer-review programs have spread to such places as Rochester; Dearborn, Mich.; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; and Poway and Santa Cruz, Calif. Fisher, who will resume teaching next year, says the experience has benefited him as well as his charges. “I’ll return with many new ideas that I’ve picked up from my fellow consultants and from veteran teachers who are new to the community,” he says. “I’ve developed a network of sorts with these people that will continue through the rest of my career.”

Sharing Decisions. School-Based Management in Dade County.

Teachers at 100 schools in the Miami area have gained unprecedented control over how they spend money, allocate staff, and organize instruction. Known as the “School-Based Management/ Shared Decisionmaking Program,” the effort is the brainchild of the Dade County, Fla., public schools and the local teachers’ union. Within a few years, it should operate districtwide.

The initiative assumes that teachers with greater autonomy will create better and more stimulating schools. The only requirements are that teachers and principals find ways to run the schools together. And any changes they make must have a measurable benefit for students. As Pat Tornillo, president of United Teachers of Dade, argues, “We are convinced that kids are going to get a better education when the decisions that affect them are made in the schools they’re attending, by the people who are there in the classroom.”

Each school receives its budget in a lump sum, which the faculty can spend as it sees fit. Teachers can carry money over from one year to the next, spend it on equipment and supplies, or hire several teachers’ aides to replace an assistant principal. In addition, the district will waive rules and regulations that stand in the way of change, such as: mandated class sizes, the number of minutes per subject, and the length of the school day.

As a result of the program, teachers in Miami have experimented with a variety of reforms in how schools operate. Some schools stay open on Saturdays to teach children in a more informal setting. One site has contracted with the Berlitz School of Language to teach its students Spanish. Another has created a developmental program for 5-year-olds that includes monthly “hands-on” workshops for parents.

At other locations, teachers meet daily with a small group of students to talk about their concerns: suicide, drug abuse, and stress-related problems. They also have created career ladders and peer-review programs at their own initiative.

Since the program began, the district’s dropout rate has decreased from 29 percent to 24 percent. Student attendance and parental involvement in the schools are up. And teacher morale is on the rise. Assistant Superintendent Gerald Dreyfuss says the district receives nine applicants for every job opening because of its reforms. “Teachers love the idea that they’ll have some say about what happens at the workplace,” he asserts. “To many of them, that’s more important than the salary increase. They don’t just want to be cogs in a machine.”

The county has launched several other programs to professionalize the teaching force. The Dade Academy of the Teaching Arts provides educators with nine-week sabbaticals to conduct research, develop new methods of instruction, and trade ideas and techniques with colleagues. “Satellite schools” allow children to attend class at their parents’ workplace. The schools are run by teachers and are located in private businesses. Teachers in Dade also help select new principals and design new school buildings.

Before such programs began, “teachers were basically in their own little shells,” says Amelia Scott-Bell, a music teacher at Little River Elementary School. “Children didn’t really exhibit a lot of school pride. But then, I didn’t see the teachers exhibiting any of that pride either.”

Now, she adds, “We’re realizing that it all starts with us and that we’re the answer. Everybody else is going to tell us what we need, but we know what’s best for our students.”

Creating New Structures. Middle-School Reform in Louisville.

In Jefferson County, Ky., the school system has launched a multifaceted campaign to improve teaching and learning. A continuing-education center for teachers and principals, known as the Gheens Professional Development Academy, oversees the district’s reform efforts. It includes a library, a computer room, and a grantsmanship center for teachers.

The county is also creating a network of “clinical schools,” where new teachers will be trained under the guidance of seasoned veterans. A number of the district’s high schools belong to the Coalition of Essential Schools—a national consortium that is working to redesign education at the secondary level. And the district is cooperating with the University of Louisville to reconfigure the education and training of future elementary teachers.

But nowhere is the change in attitudes more apparent than in the district’s middle schools. For nearly a decade, some of these schools have been broken up into smaller units composed of interdisciplinary teams of teachers and students. Within each team, teachers help determine the curriculum, set discipline policies, schedule classes, and allocate funds.

This past year, teachers at Lassiter Middle School created a multi-age team that eventually will include students in grades 6-8. Within the team, students are grouped by skill level rather than age. Innovative instructional techniques, such as peer tutoring and cooperative learning, encourage students to learn from each other.

The teachers have also instituted a policy in which students are simply not allowed to fail. Instead, students receive “incompletes” for any work left undone and attend a special summer session to master the skills needed for the upcoming year. Teachers on each team meet daily in joint planning periods to discuss children’s needs and modify their teaching.

As part of the changes at the school, teachers experimented with doing away with the role of assistant principal. Instead, each grade level at Lassiter has a “dean” whose responsibilities include discipline and counseling. Each team also has one extra teacher who is not assigned any classes. Known as “cooperative teachers,” these individuals can step in for classroom teachers who want to pursue special projects, provide wake-up calls for students who are habitually late to school, and call up those who fail to attend class entirely.

Each cooperative teacher negotiates his or her time on a periodic basis with the team leader. They also write and administer grants and take on other quasi-administrative roles.

Linda Shelor, one of the cooperative teachers at the school, quit public school teaching 15 years ago because she said there was not enough room for creativity. But the changes in Louisville brought her back to the classroom. “I took quite a cut in pay to come back to teaching,” she says, “and I did that because I cared. But until I thought that I could make a difference, I was smart enough to feel, `Why should I bang my head against the wall?”’

In her new role as cooperative teacher, Shelor can negotiate her own schedule, teach classes in different subject areas, and do research on topics that interest her and the school. This fall, she will return to the classroom full-time so that some of her colleagues have a chance to become cooperative teachers.

Changing Instruction. Creating Schools From the Ground Up.

Children at the Key School in Indianapolis take their share of regular academic subjects, such as math and English. But they also receive almost daily instruction in physical education, music, art, Spanish, and computers.

The school’s varied curriculum is based on Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner argues that human beings possess not one, but seven, relatively autonomous intellectual abilities. In addition to the verbal and logical skills usually stressed in schools, these include musical intelligence, spatial intelligence, the ability to use the body in highly skilled ways, and a well-developed understanding of one’s self and others.

The Key School is an example of changes in teaching and learning that began at the school rather than being mandated from the district. Eight Indianapolis teachers came up with the idea for the new magnet school and convinced the district to fund it.

The Key School curriculum is tied together by themes, which span all grades and subjects and change every 12 weeks. At the beginning of last year, for example, students focused on the connections between people and their environment. At the end of the 12 weeks, students produce projects of their own design that illustrate the theme.

Four days a week, children gather for part of the day in small, multi-aged classes that emphasize work in a particular cognitive area. They also can participate in such after-school electives as photography, computer graphics, and gymnastics. Starting this fall, the school will move to an ungraded structure throughout the school day.

At the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, teachers created a program from scratch, based on the ideas of educator Theodore Sizer. Students’ days are divided into large time blocks, such as a two-hour class in humanities or math and science. If students want to take a foreign language, they come for an hour before school begins. If they want to participate in extracurricular activities, such as dance or computers, they stay on after the school day ends. All students take the same core curriculum, although they may read about a topic from different sources, based on their abilities.

The course of study is built around central themes, chosen by the teachers. Within the school, students are assigned to “houses” of approximately 80 youngsters each, so that teachers and students have a chance to know each other. Students also gather once a day in “advisory groups” of up to 15 teenagers, where they can discuss topics ranging from current events to test-taking. Instead of standing at the front of the room lecturing, teachers “coach” students on how to pursue their own learning.

Michael Goldman, a former humanities teacher at the school, says the small classes and advisory groups enable teachers to do “a lot of talking one-on-one with children. I can’t see where else you could walk around and talk to kids individually.”

Conducting Research. Teaching the At-Risk in California.

Several years ago, University of California at Los Angeles professor Rhona Weinstein was worried that the low expectations teachers held for students were limiting achievement. Based on her research, she identified eight factors that might help students succeed, such as flexible grouping patterns, an emphasis on more challenging tasks, and cooperative learning strategies that enable youngsters to work together. But Weinstein knew she couldn’t bring about such changes in schools without the help of teachers. “There was no way we could prescribe a curriculum and ask teachers to implement it,” she recalls. “Teachers and administrators, working with us, would have to help create ways to use this research in the classroom. We would need to learn from teachers’ expertise and they would need to learn from us.”

She found a willing ally in Joan Cone, an English teacher at El Cerrito High School who was taking one of Weinstein’s classes. The urban teacher asked the psychologist to work with a group of educators at the school to make learning more effective for its lowest performing 9th graders.

Teachers and researchers met once a week for two hours to discuss research, observe their practice, and design alternative teaching techniques. Some teachers agreed to share the teaching of a group of struggling 9th grade students so that instruction would be consistent from class to class. Then they began to change the way they taught.

Teachers asked students to write on a daily basis. They required them to read at home for 15 to 30 minutes a night, five nights a week. They read aloud to youngsters. They gave them books such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Elie Weisel’s Night—books that had once been reserved for honors classes. They encouraged students to participate in extracurricular activities. And they planned lessons around the students’ own interests.

Teachers also made regular phone calls to parents, sent home newsletters about classroom activities, and held small conferences with groups of mothers and fathers. They complimented students as often as possible, reinforced the same demands from one class to the next, and tried to incorporate conflict-management techniques into their teaching that would help students cope more constructively with anger and frustration. Throughout all this, the teachers kept detailed notes of their meetings, completed surveys of their beliefs and practices as they changed over time, and kept track of students’ learning. Last year, they presented their findings at the annual meeting of educational researchers—the American Educational Research Association.

Since then, they have taken their project on the road by helping teachers at other schools in the Richmond Unified School District understand and carry out the lessons learned from their research.

Ninth graders in the program had better grades in English and history than a comparable group of students from previous years. They had fewer disciplinary referrals. And they were less likely to leave or transfer out of the school. Some students even advanced into higher tracks within the school. Others received college-preparatory credit for classes that were once considered remedial.

Michelle Mehlhorn, one of the teachers involved in the project, says she used to distrust educational research. “I may have been typical of teachers in that I was often too busy or skeptical to pay attention to research until its results were so obvious they could not be ignored,” she recalls.

Now Mehlhorn and her colleagues are research fans. Research has been the basis for reforms at El Cerrito High. It has also been a way to bring teachers together.

“The four teachers who have been involved in this project from the beginning feel very close,” says Cone. “We don’t feel alone anymore. We don’t feel as if we’re voices crying in the wilderness. When we started this project, it was about kids,” she adds with a laugh. “And what we know now is that it’s about us.”

Despite such success stories, expansions in teachers’ roles and responsibilities are not widespread. “There are still a fairly small number of places that are engaged in the real process of change,” says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “I’m disappointed with the pace at which things are moving.”

One problem is the lack of incentives for teachers and school administrators to alter long-entrenched practices. Traditionally, educators have been rewarded for maintaining the status quo rather than for venturing in new directions.

In inner cities, in particular, teachers lack basic supplies that would make more ambitious reforms possible. A study conducted last year of urban teachers found that many were struggling with inadequate resources, substandard facilities, and a lack of support that would not be tolerated in other professions. Says the study’s director, Thomas Corcoran: “If you have schools where people lack basic things like textbooks and paper—just the basic materials that they need to carry out instruction—then proposals to involve them in decisionmaking” may not seem very immediate.

Time is another major problem in schools. Teachers complain that they already are overworked without taking on additional responsibilities. But so far, no one has restructured schools in a way that gives teachers more time to perform their new roles. Instead, most schools have asked teachers to take on new tasks without relieving them of the old ones. “I think it’s one thing to expect my colleagues to change,” comments Buschek of Pittsburgh. “But they have to be given the tools. There are far too many teachers who are overloaded with clerical work, large classes, and poorly disciplined students.”

To make matters worse, many teachers have grown accustomed to a narrowly defined view of their roles. Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, says, “Teachers tend to teach the way they have been taught. Deep down inside, teachers—like the general public—hold suspect any school that does not resemble the school that they remember. We are victims of our own experiences,” he sighs. “And that, I think, is the biggest obstacle.”

As part of a new union contract in Rochester, teachers have agreed to take on many new responsibilities—such as counseling and peer evaluation—in exchange for higher pay. Senior teachers in the district eventually could earn up to $70,000 per year. But they would have to teach wherever they are needed in the school system. They also would have to be more accountable for their school’s results.

Urbanski says that although many teachers have agreed to the changes in theory, others are still resistant. And reforms within individual schools are not coming easily.

Even when teachers are given the opportunity to radically alter the way schools operate, they may focus on the day-to-day details of lunchroom duty and hall monitoring rather than on more fundamental changes in instruction. Those teachers who do want to change may find themselves hemmed in by education’s reliance on standardized tests and simplistic learning measures. “How can we encourage teachers to cultivate professional judgments if we’re going to hand them a basal reader, say `teach to the test,’ and so on?” asks Michigan State professor Gary Sykes. “That drives out the potential for alternatives.” As long as teachers are held accountable in ways they distrust, experts suggest, they’re unlikely to venture far outside the classroom.

What’s more, teachers and administrators who take risks need to know that the school district is firmly behind them. Because, assuredly, there will be some failures. Experience shows that a real sea change in schools requires not only support and diligence, but a willingness to stumble and fall that extends from the statehouse to the classroom. So far many states, districts, and teachers have been tentative about taking that first, frightening step. But while change is slow, painful, and uneven, at least some people contend that there is no turning back. “The most powerful revolutions are revolutions of rising expectations,” says Rochester’s Urbanski. Clearly, some teachers have raised their sights and their aspirations beyond their individual classrooms. The question now is whether others will join them to transform teaching into a true profession.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as A Revolution of Rising Expectations