Pre-Crafted Reform?

Despite Calls/or Better Input From 'Experts; School Improvement Ultimately Will Depend on Classroom Teachers

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It is not universally appreciated that teachers must be centrally involved in implementing school reform. I am reminded of this by a recent column by Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in The New York Times (May 12, 1996). Titled "Lots of Bull But No Beef," it calls for expert knowledge generated outside the classroom. Mr. Shanker used his widely read column to quote University of Arizona professor Stanley Pogrow that teachers need "technology" to break "the cycle of reforms that fail" ("Reforming the Wannabe Reformers," Phi Delta Kappan, June 1996). According to Mr. Pogrow, "technology is not just equipment," but "highly specific, systematic, and structural methodologies with supporting materials of tremendously high quality."

While I disagree with this perspective, which demeans teachers by assuming that they do not create knowledge in their own classrooms and can be plugged into interchangeable slots without regard to their particular contexts, individual strengths, and potential for growth, it is not teachers Mr. Shanker or Mr. Pogrow means to skewer. It is the reform/academic/research community, or, to use the acronyms ubiquitous to the field, REAR. Mr. Pogrow argues that this REAR entity is "strong on philosophical principles and advocacy but weak on figuring out how to put their ideas into the classroom."

"[R]eforms these people come up with," he writes, "seldom attempt to deal with the details of classroom instruction." This is true, but not for the reasons cited. Teachers are missing from their picture of reform.

When Albert Shanker asks, "[H]ow do you know a theory is worth anything until you grapple with the details of putting it into practice?" he is right. But how can reformers outside classrooms know those details? Teachers, after all, are the only ones besides parents who have an up-close opportunity to know--really know--individual children. Teachers have an understanding of what happens each day in classrooms. They recognize the importance of differences among students, see the limits of generalization, and have mastered the details of classroom life that cannot be captured by standard instruments. University-trained faculty members do not always see the classroom through teachers' eyes. Therefore, what teachers contribute is essential knowledge.

Mr. Shanker suggests that practitioners are asked to do the hard work of implementing reform in the name of respecting their autonomy, but goes on to reject their professionalism by quoting Mr. Pogrow's analogy that expecting teachers to develop their own interventions is like asking an actor "to perform Shakespeare--but to write the play first."

The analogy is wrong. Good teaching is much more than reading a script, no matter how skillful the playwright. Classrooms are living, breathing entities (or should be), requiring moment-to-moment decisionmaking about the next thing to say and the next step to take. Teaching a pre-crafted body of knowledge and delivering it ready-made into students' heads is deadly for students and teachers alike. Engagement in what is taught and what is learned matters, and it matters for teachers just as urgently as it matters for children.

What the REAR community misses is not the chance to be even more prescriptive about teaching, but the fact that teachers are creating knowledge in their own classrooms and the academy doesn't always know it or value it. In this respect, I join with the Shanker and Pogrow criticism that many in the research and academic community do not consider the details of classroom life. I would add to their criticism that researchers tend to leave out discussion of teachers' insights, knowledge, and experience.

Perhaps my own proximity to this reform/academic/research community makes my arguments suspect or self-serving. A K-8 teacher for years, I now write about classrooms and teaching at the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, a bona fide REAR effort. Certainly it behooves members of this community to resist an academic preoccupation with theory and large-scale studies, and their propensity to talk mainly to each other while they ignore real schools and real children. But there are many REAR opportunities to make "teachers' voices audible," to document what teachers know and how they build new knowledge. A key reason why teachers need not be so limited as Mr. Shanker and Mr. Pogrow suggest is that teachers do not have to create new knowledge alone.

Here is one small, but important example from my notes of how the REAR community collaborates with teachers, listens to them, and offers a perspective that is helpful in the classroom.

The setting is a summer institute. Twenty-six K-12 teachers, researchers, and university professors from all over the country crowd into a small University of Washington conference room. Those who don't fit at the table sit on the floor or lean against the wall. All eyes are on 8-year-old Sophia's 14-by-20-inch painting, propped up against the blackboard. Steve Seidel, a Harvard University Project Zero researcher, prompts us to describe what Sophia has put down on the newsprint.

Sophia's 2nd-grade teacher, Cathy Skowron--an artist herself--explains how Sophia came to produce this response to a March night sky in Provincetown, Mass.:

I looked with my class at the solar system in books, models, and films, and then we met one night after dark to observe the night sky. The next day I introduced a book of Van Gogh's work, including "Starry Night," and noticed the children's interest in how Van Gogh's painting changed as he aged. I then showed a five-minute segment of a Public Broadcasting System video on artists and mental illness, which moved my (by then) teary-eyed students to ask about Van Gogh's life. Children began to think more about why Van Gogh painted the way he did. When the moment seemed ripe, I asked the children to visualize the night sky as they saw it on the field trip and paint 10 responses. In art school, we always had to do more than one; sometimes we did 100. I thought 10 was an appropriate number for 2nd graders to try out various solutions.

"When the moment seemed ripe ..." is not a phrase that would appear in Mr. Shanker's or Mr. Pogrow's constrained and technological world. Nor would the recognition of this teacher's special expertise: "In art school, we always had to do more than one. ... I thought 10 was an appropriate number for 2nd graders."

Not only is Cathy Skowron developing her own curriculum, but she is thoughtful about how she assesses it. She explained the "work receipts" she requires each day, where Sophia wrote about how hard it was to get the Provincetown Monument brown she wanted two days in a row and how she learned to paint a comet. These "work receipts," which contain Sophia's interests, thinking, and reflections about false starts and successes, eventually find their way into the portfolios each child keeps.

Cathy Skowron's "Starry Night" lesson is a complex effort that has gone into combining the child's creative process with specific content and assessment. Other teachers would do it differently; replication is not the point. Teachers do become better practitioners when they have a structure for a forum and respectful university colleagues to help them, as Ms. Skowron says, "put language to practice." This eight-day Four Seasons Summer Institute on Authentic Assessment--convened to explore the knotty issues of assessment--includes teachers from three collaborating national reform networks: Harvard's Project Zero, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and Foxfire. Multiply this effort by many teachers in this national reform network and multiply that by other networks, and this is the stuff of significant school change.

Energetic, thoughtful, serious teachers have always inhabited classrooms, but the press, the public, and the REAR community have often focused on burnout and deteriorating competence, the "rhetoric of decline," as Mike Rose calls it in Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), where he describes teachers whose classrooms are alive with their own inquiry and knowledge-building. The aura of failure hangs over reform partly because stories of school change are not linear or smooth, and here again I agree with Albert Shanker that members of the reform/academic/research community are too far away from the details. The distance and knowledge of the observer matter. It is easy to fall into the trap of too-systematic thinking about what isn't able to be systematized.

So much at the heart of school change is messy. As parents, researchers, policymakers, administrators, and teachers undergoing change, we don't always know where to cast our eye first, and philosophical clarity is barely emerging. Yet grappling with the mundane but ever-important details of implementing reform, as well as the hard philosophical dilemmas of practice in the midst of daily classroom life, is an ongoing process. Mr. Shanker is right that such work is hard and right that research divorced from the classroom is not helpful. But teachers must be at the center.

No one has certain answers to how children learn and how we teach them. We need more philosophical clarity, more knowledge, and more teachers' speaking out in policy and research settings. But what we do not need is Mr. Shanker's call for the members of the REAR community to develop a body of technology to hand over to teachers--"a carefully structured, day-by-day curriculum, complete with strategies for presenting the topics, examples, and questions for teachers to use." We need to honor the more often mysterious nature of individual human growth and what Patricia Carini calls "the big questions which impel humans to seek and make knowledge ... the world of human works ... filled with our conflicting wills and passions." Only teacher autonomy and professional knowledge will accomplish that. Those members of the reform/academic/research community who know this can indeed be partners to real reform.

Vol. 15, Issue 38, Page 41

Published in Print: June 12, 1996, as Pre-Crafted Reform?
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