School & District Management

Inquiring Minds

By Debra Viadero — October 01, 2002 4 min read
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Teachers want to know what methods work best in the classrooms and why. Some of their colleagues are providing the answers.

Michelle Greaver and Kristina Hedberg, teachers at Deer Park Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia, wanted to figure out how their 2nd graders who were not native speakers of English could catch up in reading. The two noticed that the most successful students generally were those whose families helped them practice reading at home, but they knew that many parents lacked the English skills necessary to offer this support.

So with the help of some grant money, Greaver and Hedberg bought tape recorders and created a library of books on tape. Then they asked students to check out the materials and listen to the tapes at home while following along in the text. The teachers also embedded the new routine in an instructional program that relied heavily on trained parent volunteers to give students even more support in the classroom.

In the end, they concluded that their strategy worked. And it wasn’t just a hunch. Throughout the project, they kept records of students’ improvement, tested the class, and surveyed kids about their progress. These teacher-researchers aren’t alone in their analytic efforts: The two are part of a growing breed of classroom teachers who take a hard, systematic look at their own practice.

Greaver is confident that this project—and other studies she’s conducted—improved her teaching. “I think you really analyze your own practice when you have to sit down and write a paper,” she says.

Known variously as practitioner inquiry, action research, or collaborative inquiry, research by teachers has existed for decades. One of the better-known exemplars of the craft is Jonathan Kozol, the former Boston public school teacher who documented inequities in urban districts. Experts say teacher research underwent a rebirth of sorts about a dozen years ago—in part because of grassroots efforts to encourage teachers to look reflectively at their practice, such as the National Writing Project and the Bread Loaf School of English. Now, communities of teacher-researchers operate in school systems across the country.

In Greaver and Hedberg’s district, the 161,000-student Fairfax County, 11 teacher-research teams operated in the last school year. And the district provides extensive support: Teachers can get time off from their classroom duties to pursue research and earn points for professional development. The school system also pays $500-a-year stipends to the educators who lead the research groups at their schools, publishes teachers’ studies on its Web site, and helps defray costs for the network’s annual conference.

At Deer Park, teacher research is part of the woodwork of the place, as natural a presence as annual assessments or report cards. The school sponsors a group that meets for half a day every month. These meetings provide participants with critical feedback and introduce them to the mechanics of producing research, an area in which most have only dabbled during graduate school. Teachers appreciate the opportunity the program affords. “I don’t go home every night and read professional journals,” says Deborah Seidel, a kindergarten teacher who joined last year. “Because I have two kids, I go home and read The Hungry Caterpillar.”

Teacher Diane Painter, who leads the group, encourages her colleagues to plumb their own classroom routines for information they may have on hand. “You’re already collecting data on a natural basis, so you just might want to set aside the data that looks at your own questions,” she frequently tells them. “Then you may want to add to that by calling par-ents or doing a student survey or videotaping.”

Since the group began six years ago, 24 of Deer Park’s teachers have spent at least a year in the program. Some come year after year; others drift in and out, depending on whether they have their own, specific questions they want to study. Members present their findings at conferences and publish papers in association journals. At the last faculty meeting of every year, the teachers share what they have learned with the rest of the Deer Park staff.

“It helps me learn how to do things better, how to teach better,” says 5th grade teacher Angie McGlinchey. “Action research is real. It’s not in a book somewhere.”

While few dispute that teacher research can be a useful professional-development activity, some question the academic value of classroom studies conducted by practitioners. That’s because, with few control groups, no random-assignment study, and little quantitative analysis, teacher research often lacks the traditional trappings of scientific experimentation. But educators such as Painter, who has a doctorate, argue that teacher research is valid work. “I always tell teachers, ‘As long as you’re getting your information from multiple sources and you can see it documented from multiple sources, then you can say that it appears that what you’re doing has an effect,’” she says.

Painter admits that the potential for bias is always an issue when someone is studying his or her own efforts. “But it’s also true,” she adds, “that as a participant-observer, you know what’s going on in the classroom, and you also know your kids.” An outsider looking at the same classroom might not know, for example, that little Mark didn’t respond to the lesson because his dog died the day before.

In fact, when it comes to producing knowledge that other teachers will pay attention to, teacher- researchers may have the upper hand. Experts say teachers tend to be distrustful of the studies they find in academic journals, partly because the language is impenetrable and partly because much of it has been conducted in classrooms that may be very distant from their own.

“Here, teachers know they’re getting the straight scoop on their own students,” says Lynn Pope, Deer Park’s principal, “so they’re not guessing, ‘Will it work in my classroom?’”

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