Education Commentary

Teachers Can Be Trusted To Reform Their Profession

By Barbara Scott Nelson — February 25, 1987 7 min read

In a Commentary last fall (''A Case for Trusting Teachers To Regulate Their Profession,” Oct. 8, 1986), Arthur E. Wise urged policymakers to create state-level boards composed of teachers with the power to establish and enforce standards for obtaining a license to teach. Mr. Wise argued that it is teachers themselves who should be most trusted with the job of operating such boards of licensure, since all other parties that might operate them are susceptible to pressures that might militate against maintaining high standards of teacher quality.

He concluded by pointing out an interesting paradox: If the state retains control of licensure because it is afraid to trust teachers, the standards will fall. If the state trusts teachers and delegates control to them, the standards will rise.

This argument was made by analogy with other professions and left the reader to search the landscape for instances in which trusting teachers has had the desired effect. Such evidence can be found in a series of projects supported by the Ford Foundation to improve mathematics teaching in inner-city schools--the Urban Mathematics Collaborative initiative.

Mathematics collaboratives now exist in 11 localities--Cleveland, Durham, N.C., Los Angeles, MinneapolisiSt. Paul, Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, and St. Louis. The collaboratives have two goals: to improve math education in their respective cities in the short run and to address structural impediments to professionalism in the everyday work of teachers in the long run.

In each city, the project aims to support the joint efforts of virtually all high-school I math teachers and mathematicians from higher education and private industry, and thus encourage teachers to enter into the larger mathematics community.

The specific activities in which the collaboratives are engaged include summer courses, internships in industry, seminars and follow-up workshops, teacher-resource centers, minigrants, and opportunities to attend professional workshops and association meetings around the country.

Although many of these program components are readily available in almost every city, in the mathematics collaboratives they have been packaged together to make an integrated professional experience that focuses the energies of a specific group of people--high-school math teachers--for a period of several years.

It is the combination of duration, intensity Of focus, and the encouragement of teachers’ professional initiative that gives these projects their unique function as a lens on the issues of teaching.

In the context of the mathematics collaboratives, we can see new forms of responsible professionalism being invented by teachers. This creativity takes both concrete and abstract forms.

At the concrete level, initial activities are modified or adapted to speak to deeper issues in the teachers’ lives--issues that they often were not able to articulate at the outset. For example, in the first project year, I teachers attended tours of local industries and dinner seminars with industry-based mathematicians. They had asked for-and I received-a broad-brush view of mathematics in the world of work as it existed in their communities.

Many then asked, “So what’s next? How do we turn this experience to benefit the classroom?” The response, designed jointly by teachers and their out-of-school colleagues in Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, has been to arrange deeper, continuing work projects that teachers and industry-based mathematicians will do together--in effect, curriculum-development efforts that have their origins in teachers’ need for concrete applications of mathematical ideas.

A second concrete example derives from teachers’ complaints about textbook-selection processes in their school systems and from the observation by collaborative organizers that teachers often were not critical participants in lectures and professional conversations. From this is developing a variety of activities that have as their focus opportunities for teachers to develop as intellectual critics.

These activities take different forms in different cities. In San Francisco, the teachers work with instructors in a local science museum. In Pittsburgh and Cleveland, they are pilot-teaching textbooks and studying their comparative effectiveness; they also review materials of their own making, for inclusion in mathematics teachers’ resource centers.

Through these and other activities, teachers’ perspectives have broadened. Many of them are now aggressively searching out the best ideas in mathematics education for adaptation and use in their schools. The point is that once teachers see that thoughtful and responsible expectations can be met, they are energetic and imaginative in their ideas about what would enhance their work.

At a more abstract level, the collaboratives have begun to bring to the surface and deal with some of the deeper structural problems of teaching that derive from outmoded, turn-of-the-century models of teaching, learning, and schooling. These are institutional divisiveness, teacher isolation and instrumentalism, and misplaced accountability .

Institutional divisiveness. A classic difficulty faced by programs whose goal is to deliver services to teachers is teacher cynicism-teachers have seen many programs come and go, but schools stay the same. Such cynicism is the result of years of frustration from failure in attempts to make things work better, because the system is unresponsive in important ways. The reasonable reaction to continual frustration is anger, apathy, and cynicism--much of which gets focused against the school administration. An “us versus them” mentality develops. Administrators, on the other hand, often feel that teachers do not fully appreciate how constrained they are in making decisions.

Collaborative projects acknowledge this reality of teachers’ and administrators’ worlds, support the perception that schools need not remain the same, and help school people figure out ways to make things change. Teacher participation in the piloting of textbooks, for example, not only includes them in the decisionmaking, but does so in a way that gives credence to the relevance of their daily experience.

The possibility of such activity owes much to the vision of those school principals, mathematics supervisors, and school superintendents who saw that active and involved teachers would be an asset.

Their first step was to trust teachers and share power. If the mathematics collaboratives are to serve as laboratories for reworking parts of a profession, it is important for such acts of faith to occur.

Teacher isolation and instrumentalism. School is scheduled so that teachers have little opportunity to talk with each other, to learn, or to think on any sustained basis. Teachers are paid to be in classrooms--to be task-oriented. Exceptions are break periods in the teachers’ room, or “in-service” or “professional” days.

However, we repeatedly find in the collaborative projects that teachers are aching simply to talk with each other, to watch each other teach, to enrich the web of social and professional interaction that supports each mathematics classroom.

The larger issue here is the degree to which, in general, teaching has been conceived of as an activity that is narrowly instrumental and improvable by specific technical fixes, rather than an activity that is open-ended, rich in ideas and relationships, and conducted by people who think broadly and creatively about their subject and the learning and teaching of it.

Good thinking, learning, and exploration can only be done under conditions of high expectation, firm support, and adequate time to struggle with ideas and talk about them with others. After this has occurred, good creative work can be done.

Intellectual responsibility and accountability. One of the observers of the collaborative projects noted that the prevailing view of teacher accountability is well captured by viewing the teacher as a factory foreman-responsible for efficiently maintaining the smooth flow of a production line, making products of someone else’s design. But there is no accountability for the nature of the work that they do.

A different view of accountability would hold teachers responsible for being knowledgeable about both their subject matter and the teaching and learning of it, and would have them contributing to school decisionmaking on the basis of that expertise.

The adjustment of this social relationship among professionals in a school need not await the specification of the knowledge base of the profession. Indeed, waiting for teachers to be so educated simply reinforces the sense teachers currently have: namely, that their professional judgment is not respected.

In the mathematics collaboratives, teachers and their colleagues are beginning to work out in greater detail some of the features of a reconstituted view of teaching. By trusting teachers and providing them with encouragement, support, and stimulation, the collaboratives are helping them make changes in their schools and are showing which parts of our problem need not await the development of new modes of pre-service training or national and state boards for teacher certification. Thus, we are finding that teachers can do now much of what needs to be done to enhance their profession.

A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 1987 edition of Education Week