Researcher Discusses Role of ‘Classroom Crucible’ in Policy

April 10, 1991 3 min read
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Policies aimed at changing school practices are destined to fail because they ignore the unique character of individual classrooms, according to Edward Pauly, a political scientist formerly at Yale University and the rand Corporation.

In a new book, The Classroom Crucible, Mr. Pauly argues that teachers constantly adapt policies to meet the needs of their own students. Rather than issue directives all teachers should follow, he proposes, researchers and policymakers should consider “pluralistic” policies, such as those that affect classroom “membership” and that support teachers’ powers.

Mr. Pauly, now a senior research associate for the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, discussed his conclusions with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q. You say that policymakers have tended to focus on school policies because those are ones they can control. Why have education researchers also focused on such policies?

A. Both, historically ... have looked for consistent approaches that lots of schools and teachers can do the same way. That’s been the goal for policymakers and schools of education. It hasn’t worked out that way. [Teachers] are constantly altering and adapting their day-to-day practices. Relationships are more important to them than any policy can be. Not surprisingly, they pay more attention to them than to policies.

Q. How do your findings about differences among classrooms square with research by John I. Goodlad and others that found quite a bit of similarity in what goes on in classrooms?

A. Goodlad found similarities in teacher reports about what they do. He also found that teachers adapt their methods.

When I pressed teachers, I heard an outpouring of stories of major changes--differences from one year to the next, forced on them by different mixes of kids, unanticipated events day-to-day in the classroom. Classrooms are intense, alive, vulnerable places. All of them are constantly responding to the vulnerabilities they feel every day.

Policy researchers forget--if they ever knew--how highly emotionally charged classrooms are. They fail to take that into account when they expect teachers to carry out policies without alteration.

Q. You recommend that policies should allow teachers flexibility. How can those be reconciled with pressures to set standards and hold teachers and schools accountable to those standards?

A. The basic problem facing school leaders is how to help troubled classrooms improve. That will require different strategies in different classrooms. It may mean differential training in one; a mentor relation in another; in a third, it may require transferring a couple of kids to another classroom. ...

If policies don’t help teachers and students in each classroom do their job more successfully, they are failing the only test that matters.

Q. Some research-based policies that reformers are recommending--such as eliminating tracking--appear to conflict with your notion that policies should change “classroom membership.” Are these unwise?

A. I don’t see a conflict. Having the ability to place students in a classroom where they will be most successful is consistent with eliminating tracking. As long as there are several classes in a grade level, it’s possible to mix and match students.

Shockingly, many schools now assign kids to classes randomly. It wastes an op6portunity to find out which class a child will flourish in. Teachers know a great deal about the situations a child will flourish in.

Q. In describing “the Newton solution” [a program in Massachusetts that allows parents to choose their children’s classes], you write of a degree of involvement in schooling that many parents--particularly in low-income families--seldom display. Wouldn’t such a program widen the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students?

A. No, because middle-class parents are already asking principals for classroom assignments for their kids to help them succeed. What I argue is that all parents should have that opportunity. ...

[My proposal differs from school-choice plans.] School-choice advocates are looking at the wrong kind of choice. It’s really classrooms that matter. Parents can get more information about classrooms in their neighborhood schools than they can about schools in different neighborhoods. It’s more practical. And it already exists.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 1991 edition of Education Week as Researcher Discusses Role of ‘Classroom Crucible’ in Policy


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