School & District Management

Research: Holding Up a Mirror

By Debra Viadero — June 12, 2002 17 min read
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Teacher-researchers use their own classrooms to investigate education questions.

Diane D. Painter was a special education teacher in the middle of her career when the educational questions that she couldn’t answer started to nag at her. For instance, she wondered, what was it about the new computers in her classroom that seemed to make it easier for her students to learn to write? Painter hadn’t a clue.

The thing to do, she decided, was to go back to school, earn a doctoral degree, and become an educational researcher. That way she could find out for herself the answers to all the pesky teaching questions that popped into her head at night.

Painter was well on her way to doing just that when a professor offered some advice that changed her life. “You know, Diane,” he said, “you don’t have to go through a Ph.D. program to do research.”

Perfect, thought Painter. She could remain in the classroom and do the research she was yearning to do. Now 51, Painter has spent more than half her career straddling both worlds. She is a teacher-researcher, one of a growing breed of classroom-based teachers who take a hard, systematic look at their own practice and report to the world what they find.

This is the story of how Painter brought that practice to Deer Park Elementary School in suburban Fairfax County, Va., and how it became part of the woodwork of the place, as natural a presence as annual assessments or report cards.

Known variously as practitioner inquiry, action research, or collaborative inquiry, research by teachers has existed for decades. Some of the better-known exemplars of the craft are Vivian Gussin Paley, the author of numerous books on her experiences as a kindergarten teacher, and Jonathan Kozol, the former Boston public schoolteacher who documented inequities in urban school systems.

The practice is even more firmly rooted, experts say, in other countries, such as Australia, Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands.

Here in the United States, experts say teacher research underwent a rebirth of sorts about a dozen years ago—due in part to the success of the National Writing Project, the Breadloaf School of English, and other grassroots efforts to encourage teachers to look reflectively at their practice. Now, communities of teacher-researchers operate in school systems on both coasts and some states in between.

The American Educational Research Association, the primary membership group for traditional education researchers, has a subdivision devoted to the practice. The organization’s authoritative Handbook of Research on Teaching for the first time this year included a chapter on the subject.

Teacher research often lacks the traditional trappings of scientific experimentation, but its practitioners dispute that notion that it isn't ‘real.’

Still, most experts view the practice primarily as a professional- development activity, a way for teachers to reflect on what they do and make it better. With few control groups, no random-assignment studies, and few quantitative analyses, teacher research often lacks the traditional trappings of scientific experimentation. It would not meet the federal government’s new criteria for “scientifically based research” in education, and one would be hard-pressed to find it in the kinds of academic journals that typically publish university-based scholars.

So, is teacher research “real” research?

The “real” research question is one that Painter has heard before. “Of course it’s real,” she corrects a teacher who inadvertently refers to the academic model of research as “real” to distinguish it from her own 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,” says Painter, a tall, soft-spoken woman.

Painter stumbled upon teacher research in the right place. By the late 1980s, when she was working on her doctorate, informal teacher- research networks had already sprung up across this part of northern Virginia— many of them inspired by the Northern Virginia Writing Project, an offshoot of the National Writing Project.

Over the years, the networks became more formal. In the 161,000-student Fairfax County district, the nation’s 11th- largest school system, 11 teacher-research teams are operating this school year with district support. County teachers can, for example, get time off from their classroom duties to pursue their research interests. They also can earn professional-development points for the work they do in their teacher-research groups.

The school system pays small, $500-a-year stipends to the teachers who lead the research groups at their schools, publishes the teachers’ work on its World Wide Web site, and helps defray costs for the network’s annual conference, says Denny Berry, who oversees the teacher-research program.

This year’s conference, held in April, drew 250 participants, including many from outside the county.

“We think this is such a worthwhile means of staff development,” Berry says, explaining Fairfax County’s continuing interest in its research network. “But the knowledge base it creates is also important.”

‘If I'm going to be an educational researcher, I want to be in the classroom.’

In addition, George Mason University, the Fairfax-based university where Painter did her doctoral studies, has put together a master’s degree program for teachers that revolves almost entirely around teacher research.

The advice from her professor notwithstanding, Painter did go on to earn her doctoral degree. Still, she prefers the buzz and activity of the elementary school to the quiet pursuit of scholarship behind ivy-covered walls.

“It’s sort of like being an anthropologist,” says Painter, whose license plate, reading “EDUC8TOR,” advertises her dedication to the profession. “If I’m going to be an educational researcher, I want to be in the classroom. I’m not a researcher in isolation here, which is important to me. Plus, I just plain like teaching.”

Time to Meet

It was 1996 that Painter brought the teacher-research idea to Deer Park, a fast- growing K-6 school nestled amid neat, split-level and Colonial-style houses. That year, she and another teacher, Jeanne Shekmer, transferred to the spanking- new elementary school from another school that had already had a teacher- research group in place.

Lynn H. Pope, the school’s principal, remembers feeling a little skeptical when Painter came to her asking to start a research group at Deer Park.

“This was my first introduction to teacher research and, quite honestly, I had question marks about whether this would be the best use of teachers’ time,” says Pope, who has since come full circle on the idea.

The principal agreed, nonetheless, to give the participating teachers a half day of release time each month to meet together and to set aside the last faculty meeting of the year as a time when teacher-researchers could share what they had learned with the rest of the staff.

Since then, 24 of Deer Park’s teachers have spent at least a year in the program.

Each year, the stalwart group ranges in size from six to nine teachers, a number that usually includes one or two teachers from other schools as well. Some of the teachers come year after year; others drift in and out, depending on whether they have their own, specific questions they want to study. Angie McGlinchey, who teaches 5th grade, joined the group in her first year on the job and has remained in it ever since, exploring different questions every year.

‘Action research is real. It's not in a book somewhere.’

“It helps me learn how to do things better, how to teach better,” she says. “Action research is real. It’s not in a book somewhere.”

Besides classroom teachers like McGlinchey, the group has included a librarian, a reading teacher, and an English-as-a-second-language teacher. Veteran teachers as well as novices take part.

“It’s interesting, because it’s kind of shifting and moving,” says Michelle Greaver, a 2nd grade teacher now in her second year with the group. “It’s like a glob of oil moving around and, as it moves, it leaves traces in the classroom where it was before and then moves to new classrooms where it affects new teachers.”


Greaver became involved in a research project for the first time after team- teaching a 2nd grade class with Kristina Hedberg, one of the school’s ESL teachers. They wanted to figure out how the non-native English-speakers in the class could catch up to their peers in reading.

The two teachers noticed that the most successful students tended to be those whose families helped them practice their nascent reading skills at home, but they knew that many of the non-native English-speakers’ families could not provide the same level of home support because their English skills were weak. What could they do, the teachers wondered, to help increase practice reading time for the students in those families?

With the help of some grant money, the teachers bought tape recorders and recorded books until they had built up a library of books and companion tapes. Then, they asked students to check out the tape recorders, along with the packets of books and tapes, so they could listen to the tapes at home and follow along on their own in the books. The teachers also embedded the new routine in an instructional program that relied heavily on trained parent volunteers and guided-reading groups to give students even more supported reading practice in the classroom.

To gauge whether their strategy was working—and that did, in the end, seem to be the case—the teachers kept running records of students’ progress, tested students, and surveyed them on their attitudes toward their own reading progress.

Collecting that kind of “triangulated” data is a key part of the program, says Painter, who now leads Deer Park Elementary’s teacher-research group. She is also the co-leader, with Denny Berry, of the county’s teacher-research network.

In addition, Painter encourages teachers to plumb their own classroom routines for information they may already 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 tells the fledgling researchers. “Then you may want to add to that by calling parents or doing a student survey or videotaping.”

Despite the careful record-keeping, Painter knows that the potential for bias is always an issue when someone is studying his or her own efforts.

‘School boards, superintendents, the federal government—they would all like to see numbers and statistically significant effects, but where's the process in that? Who's reporting the process?’

“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, or that Maria had just moved to the area from El Salvador.

“School boards, superintendents, the federal government—they would all like to see numbers and statistically significant effects, but where’s the process in that? Who’s reporting the process?” Painter says. The missing elements in research that relies on statistical measures of improvement, she asserts, are descriptions of what goes on in those classrooms under the microscope. That’s a knowledge gap, she says, that teachers can best fill in.

Listening to Colleagues

During the year that Michelle Greaver was studying her students’ reading progress, she was also listening to her research colleagues talk about their own studies. One of them was Juliet Mount, the 2nd grade teacher across the hall. Mount was giving her students weekly lessons called “brain bogglers” that were designed to draw out creative thinking. And Greaver couldn’t help but notice that Mount’s 2nd graders had begun producing art work that was richer, more vibrant, and more detailed than that of her own students.

So this year, Greaver decided to build on Mount’s work by giving all her pupils the kinds of lessons that typically go to only the brightest. Working in tandem once a week with the school’s gifted-education teacher, Greaver had her students create their own inventions from trash, make pictures out of alphabet letters, plan the school’s 2nd grade party, and undertake other kinds of activities designed to elicit critical-thinking skills rather than pat answers. To further hone the children’s thinking skills and maintain order when they were working independently on all those different activities, Greaver held class meetings so that her pupils could brainstorm classroom rules and solutions to problems in the classroom.

The time spent in research-group meetings can give teachers critical feedback and introduce them to the mechanics of producing research.

So it went on a visit last month to Greaver’s second-floor classroom, where plans for the party were under way. On the budget committee, four children were trying to decide whether they had the money to buy 30 pizzas or if 30 packages of hot dogs would be the wiser choice. The food committee, in the meantime, was brainstorming ways to prevent their grade-mates from taking more than their share of food at the party.

“You could put a sign out,” volunteered one blonde-haired girl.

“You could say if you go back for seconds, you get extra homework,” added an impish little boy with glasses and buzz cut. His solution was quickly but diplomatically rejected.

The dilemma for the entertainment committee was coming up with an outdoor game that all of the 2nd graders could play at once. The group decided, in the end, to write a letter to the physical education teacher for suggestions.

“This project has been enormously successful,” Greaver writes in a paper summing up her latest yearlong experiment, “and my teaching will never be the same again.” Greaver’s next research topic: how to assess all the unconventional projects that her students are now producing.

For Greaver, who has been teaching for seven years, the research group has provided the structure she needed to take the time to improve her own practice.

“I think you really analyze your own practice when you have to sit down and write a paper,” she says.

The time spent in the research-group meetings also provides the teachers with critical feedback from colleagues and introduces them to the mechanics of producing research, a topic most have only dabbled with in graduate school.

“I don’t go home every night and read professional journals,” says Deborah Q. Seidel, a kindergarten teacher who joined the program this year. “Because I have two kids, I go home and read The Hungry Caterpillar.”

Seidel was attracted to the group, in part, because it offered a chance to talk with other teachers about her work. The teachers hold their meetings in the executive boardroom of a nearby telecommunications company, so they can work uninterrupted for hours at a stretch.

“I was a project manager for a health-care communications company before I was a teacher, and there was always time during the day to talk with adults,” says Seidel, a fifth-year teacher. “Teachers don’t have that opportunity.”

She also wanted help figuring out why her kindergartners were not using the classroom’s literacy center. She began exploring the problem by surveying parents to determine whether children were familiar with traditional fairy tales, whether they could retell them, or whether children from other cultures might have stories of their own that mirrored some of the classic fairy tales.

With a $750 grant, she bought puppets, flannel boards, masks, and a host of other toys to serve as storytelling props for her class this school year. Initially, Seidel simply placed the puppets in the literacy center and waited to see what would happen. The children immediately flocked to the new toys, but their interest waned quickly.

Then Seidel read them familiar stories, such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and asked students to retell them. Although most could manage that task, there were big holes in their narratives. The quickest students, for example, tended to overgeneralize. Struggling learners left out important parts.

Teacher research, says one educational researcher, is a unique research genre—not quite formal academic research and yet not simply stories.

The children’s storytelling improved, though, when Seidel used flannel boards and demonstrated for the children how to use them. One reason for that improvement, she thinks, was that the flannel-board setting gave students clues to use in their storytelling.

That impression was confirmed for her when she asked the children to act out “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” using a wooden bridge. The “goats” didn’t know what to do, she found, after they crossed the bridge. They were able to resume their play-acting again, however, after a classroom aide borrowed a flowered tablecloth for a “meadow.”

With morning and afternoon kindergarten classes coming and going, Seidel was unable to record her students’ progress in daily journals. Instead, she videotaped the activities and took digital photographs to jog her memory later on when she had the time to sit down and make more detailed notes.

In the end, she concluded, her efforts had been successful—even with the four children who had begun the year with no English skills. One boy, in particular, had not spoken to his teacher more than six times throughout the year. Yet Seidel found him lying on the floor one day going through the motions of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” with finger puppets.

“If that is the only thing that comes out of my research,” says Seidel, “that is enough.”

Beyond the Classroom

Yet Painter encourages the teachers she works with to take their research far beyond their own classrooms. Deer Park’s teachers have presented their findings at teacher-research conferences and published their papers in journals produced by the Virginia Society for Technology Education, the International Society for Technology in Education, and other professional groups.

But Painter avoids referring her colleagues to the hard-line academic journals where traditional university researchers publish much of their work.

And that is probably too bad, says Kenneth M. Zeichner, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin- Madison who works closely with teacher-researchers in that community.

“Teachers who do research oftentimes become better teachers because of that, but they also learn things about the particular issues that they do research on,” he says. “I think that knowledge needs to incorporated into preservice education programs and professional-development programs, that policymakers should pay attention to it, and that it should enlighten university researchers to some aspects of classrooms that can be uniquely studied from the inside out.”

To Zeichner, teacher research is a unique research genre—not quite formal academic research and yet not simply stories. The problem, he says, is that the publication outlets for that kind of knowledge are limited.

Other researchers, on the other hand, are less inclined to take the work seriously, says Leo C. Rigsby, who directs the George Mason University master’s program. Rigsby does not count himself among that number. But, as a sociologist by training, Rigsby says he has had to learn over the years to be less of an “expert” and more of a resource to the teachers pursuing their own research questions in his program.

“Generally, education professors are trained in quantitative methods and come with educational psychology perspectives,” he says. “And, generally, people who have those perspectives are unlikely to pay much attention to Mrs. Jones’ 3rd grade class in Arlington.”

For the most part, experts say, teachers tend to be distrustful of the studies they find in academic journals.

The irony is that, when it comes to producing knowledge that other teachers will pay attention to, the teacher-researchers may have the upper hand. For the most part, 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 and perhaps different from their own.

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

“We’ve become a curious community now,” she says.

Pope chatted last month as teachers were readying the library for the culminating session of their yearlong teacher-research group. At this meeting, each of the researchers present her findings to the rest of the faculty in informal roundtable sessions.

Greaver is here to talk about her experiences with gifted lessons and differentiated instruction. Seidel offers her findings on storytelling in kindergarten. Mount, the teacher who experimented last year with “brain bogglers,” presents a study examining how telling stories about her own life and modeling writing affected her 2nd graders’ creative writing. Painter describes the learning that occurred through a yearlong classroom computer exchange with a school in Didcot, England. And McGlinchey shares the news that a county-mandated unit on nutrition seemed to have had little effect on her 5th graders’ eating habits. She’s not disappointed, though. The findings have inspired her to find a way to persuade the district to improve the lessons.

The rest of the faculty circulates among the tables, occasionally taking notes and posing questions. Afterward, when the teachers have begun to filter out of the library, two faculty members remain deep in conversation.

“So what do you think of that idea, Mary?” one of the women asks, winding up the conversation. “We could do it as a teacher-research project ...”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Research: Holding Up a Mirror


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