Milestone or Millstone?

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After 10 years, a galaxy of articles, and 600 professional-development schools later, the innovation also known as a PDS remains as mysterious to a majority of the education community as a UFO.

What is this PDS thing, and why do some professors participate? They assume work overloads for little or no pay, have less time for research, and incur resentment from colleagues irked by this upstart competitor for resources.

Two years before NASA expanded our horizon in space by rocketing Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969, Robert Schaeffer conceptualized a vision of American education in his book The School as a Center of Inquiry. "The school," he wrote, "must be a center of inquiry--a producer as well as transmitter of knowledge." The imagined became real 20 years later, when the Holmes Group--now the Holmes Partnership--generated professional-development schools.

While schools as places are the prominent feature in the PDS picture, a professional-development school is not simply a particular school. The name is misleading. A PDS is a unique college-school partnership, and a concept, that spurs cooperation among professors, teachers, student-teachers, and yes, youngsters. Reform is cultivated in colleges as well as schools. The PDS enthusiast values the team theme that has sparked change in business, engineering, and medicine. In these fields, as in professional-development-school alliances, teamwork is essential to professional practice. This approach is uncommon in traditional professor-teacher relationships. As a colleague explains, "While it is possible for me as a university-based teacher-educator to work in cooperative ways with schools and teachers who are not part of our professional-development school, the PDS effort provides unique opportunities for a more extended relationship than we can have with other schools."

This teacher-educator is referring to her work at Public School 87 on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a partner school with Teachers College, Columbia University. The relationship has included on-site weekly seminars, a supervision course for cooperating teachers, and student-teacher internships that add a minimum of eight weeks' full-time teaching. Several teachers have been adjunct instructors in Teachers College's preservice core seminar. The other schools are Middle School 44, PS 165, and The Beacon High School, all on the Upper West Side, and PS 207 in Harlem.

The nature of a professional-development school offers new worlds to research. A universe of possibilities emerges from a host of formal and informal meetings. Schools become electric with mind-jogging conversations--in corridors, lounges, and at copier machines. Professors gain a comprehensive view of schooling because gatherings include teachers, school and district administrators, and union representatives. College and school faculty meet as colleagues, so conversations are frequent and spirited. Professors and teachers co-teach courses, co-author articles, and attend and present together at conferences.

These schools have diverse populations, and 70 percent of the students are below the poverty level. MS 44 has several mini-schools in one building. PDS-ers believe both "action" research and formal research can make valuable contributions to education. They point out that research projects often have limited practical value because their distance from difficult school realities assure their success. Climbing a hill does not demonstrate as much achievement as failing to scale a mountain.

The focus of the PDS movement is on public schools. Jonathan Kozol, who depicts in Savage Inequalities injustices to public schools, has said this about the money spent on New York City schoolchildren (The Nation, Feb. 17, 1997): "[C]hildren in the South Bronx will get less than $7,000, while children in the richest suburbs will continue to receive up to $18,000 yearly. But they'll all be told that they must be held to the same standards and they'll all be judged, of course, by their performance on the same exams." And for visitors to PS 207 in Harlem, seeing the surrounding burned-out buildings and the pained, lost "hard cases" in the streets is an eye-opener. Our children live here, and teachers and administrators are there every day and many evenings. The image provides perspective when headlines blare that reading scores do not show enough progress.

The professional-development school is an interactive community of learners.

Public schools are one of society's few integrating influences in our drift toward separatism, and they need support. While professional parity is a principle of professional-development schools, professors are able, because of their experience, to provide leadership when needed and lend status to the enterprise. They are in an exceptional position to light the proverbial lantern, being adept at conceptualizing, having a broad perspective, and knowing how to frame research projects. And they oversee perhaps the most undervalued resource in education, student-teachers. The professional-development school offers these student-teachers exceptional preservice preparation, while they in turn give schools what they need: a novice's ideas, enthusiasm, and presence.

We have observed that cooperating teachers with at least one student-teacher are more likely to favor hands-on, constructivist projects. An example is "The January Experience" at MS 44, a program designed by a former Teachers College professor, Jean Lythcott, in 1991 and still humming in a modified format. Interdisciplinary teams of student-teachers combine with interdisciplinary teams of regular teachers to form expanded teams, resulting in a dramatic change in teaching styles. Having many student-teachers at a single site also simplifies supervisory logistics, saving time and cutting cost.

Cooperating teachers have been serving as Teachers College adjunct instructors. Because of a pooled-credit arrangement, scores of teachers take courses at Teachers College that provide them with new skills and knowledge. Teachers play multiple roles in the professional-development-school setting--as teacher, mentor, mediator, organizer, manager, and team leader. A fine weaving of people, roles, and perceptions permeates the buildings.

Yet, to be or not to be PDS remains a knotty question for professors of education. The road to promotion, tenure, and prestige, after all, is still paved with research and its dissemination. And because the professional-development school is an interactive community of learners, people who work there spend time reflecting on their own practices. This can be disconcerting for professors, even though the literature of change is filled with insights on the need for leaders to examine their ways of thinking and doing. The Holmes Partnership, in fact, has urged colleges, in "Tomorrow's Schools of Education," to probe their research and preservice programs to see how they benefit schools and youngsters. But suggesting change in others is not difficult. Questioning our own contributions can be discombobulating.

A seesaw mechanism also may be operating. If action research becomes more valued, will formal inquiry be diminished? If more preservice preparation shifts to teachers and school sites, will the professor's role be reduced? Are jobs and status on the line?

Times, they are a-changing, and that road to reward is being resurfaced. The Holmes Partnership report suggests "a different sort of reward structure" that includes pay and perks. Colleges are including PDS qualifications in their ads for new staff members. Systematic action research is becoming more respectable. When lexicographers revise dictionary definitions, they rely on patterns of current usage. Similarly, the widespread feeling that formal inquiry has not provided enough usable new knowledge is changing the meaning of "important" research.

The disconnect--often a chasm--between colleges and schools is recognized as a basic reason why each wave of alleged school reform has ebbed to an imperceptible ripple. Thus, the professional-development school has evolved from a vision to a reality that may finally shatters the exasperating conundrum noted by Gerald W. Bracey: "On the one hand, we have practitioners busily practicing, and, on the other, 'knowers' [college faculty] producing knowledge to be ignored. This leaves scholarship to drift along toward irrelevance and practice to drift along toward incompetence."

School systems bear the principal responsibility for educating youngsters, of course. Because competent, inspiring teachers are the key to systemic school progress, teacher-educators must necessarily be an integral part of any enduring solution. They can make outstanding contributions while enhancing their professional expertise. Too many professors and teachers have wandered off course while striving to arrive at the same ultimate goal: improved learning strategies for youngsters. By traveling together, college and school faculty members will not lose sight of each other, and perhaps can learn how to enable all youngsters to have a fair chance to reach for the stars.

Writing in the June 1997 Phi Delta Kappan, one professor, John H. Clarke, said it best: "In a professional-development school, teaching, research, and service become one act."

Frank Schwartz is the project director of New York City's Professional Development School, a collaborative project of Teachers College, Columbia University; Community School District 3; and the United Federation of Teachers.

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