Want a Revolution?

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TEACHING IN AMERICA: The Slow Revolution, by Gerald Grant and Christine Murray. (Harvard, $26.) TEACHERS: Transforming Their World and Their Work, by Ann Lieberman and Lynne Miller. (Teachers College Press, $16.95.) THE TEACHING GAP, by James Stigler and James Hiebert. (The Free Press, $23.)

In Teaching in America, education professors Grant and Murray show us that this powerless teacher is now more myth than reality. Analyzing how teaching has changed over the century, they argue that teachers in recent decades have begun to take control of their work and profession. In an increasing number of districts, they point out, experienced teach ers have responsibility for evaluating and mentoring peers, and in many schools teachers work together to map out the academic program. Some individuals may feel disaffected and powerless, but teachers as a group, the authors assert, have largely shed their weakling status.

In many ways, this "slow revolution," as Grant and Murray call it, mirrors the more rapid revolution that changed the American university in the early part of the century. Just as professors threw off the yoke of presidential and trustee control to determine for themselves the nature of their work and study, so teachers, albeit more cautiously, are redefining their own professional roles.

Indeed, the crux of the argument in Teaching in America is that "the essential acts of teaching"-knowing, motivating, and evaluating students-are basically the same for all teachers, no matter what the level. To perform these acts well, the authors hold, prac tition ers must control their craft. The 1st grade teacher, then, needs the same kind of professional autonomy that a professor leading a graduate seminar enjoys. Teachers-not administrators and school boards-should determine for themselves how best to teach their students.

This argument, though emotionally compelling, is somewhat flawed. Professors teach young adults, while classroom teachers teach kids whose parents want and deserve some say over their children's schooling. As a result, teachers can never possess the kind of academic freedom and professional autonomy that professors enjoy. And while teachers certainly have gained power and status through their unions and professional organizations, it is also true that they have lost autonomy on other fronts. For example, many states and a number of districts have adopted academic standards and assessments that largely dictate what and how teachers should teach. In Chicago, district officials actually pass out scripts for teachers to use in their classes.

Then there is the question of just how much professional responsibility teachers really want. To their credit, the authors raise this issue. In one case study, they examine Rochester, New York, where in the late 1980s teachers were given dramatic raises for taking on additional responsibilities. But now, more than 10 years later, little has changed in the district. Although the local union leadership continues to push a professionalization agenda, many Rochester teachers remain opposed to crucial provisions like peer review and pay for performance.

Grant and Murray acknowledge the occasional backsliding-the profession, they say, has taken one step back for every two steps forward-but they insist that teachers have made solid gains over the past three decades. This argument is reinforced by Lieberman and Miller in Teachers: Transforming Their World and Their Work, a follow-up to their 1984 book, Teachers: Their World and Their Work.

In the earlier volume, the authors, both longtime observers of education reform, portrayed teaching as lonely, uncertain work-"an art forged in isolation and invisible to the world of adults." But in their new study, Lieberman and Miller say that they see "emerging norms of collegiality, openness, The disaffected teacher, ubiquitous in movies and on TV, has become an American stereotype. Isolated and powerless, this individual hangs on for the paycheck and little else, the blush of idealism long replaced by a brooding cynicism. and trust among teachers." Increasingly, they write, "teachers come together to decide on common goals, develop integrated programs of study, craft shared assessments, or examine student work."

Drawing from case studies of schools in transition, the authors assert that the nascent collegiality has fostered a new concern among teachers for the whole school, not just their individual classrooms. This in turn has caused them to explore new forms of teacher leadership and participatory decisionmaking.

Unfortunately, the profession's newfound autonomy and collegiality, detailed in these two books, too often have failed to produce widespread improvement in classroom teaching and student achievement-a point Stigler and Hiebert drive home in The Teaching Gap. As part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the researchers' team of videographers taped dozens of 8th grade mathematics lessons in Germany, Japan, and the United States. From the tapes, Stigler and Hiebert conclude that American teachers of mathematics teach the way they always have, focusing in struction on a nar row band of procedural skills rather than on real-world applications and problem-solving. Although Stigler and Hiebert focus only on 8th grade mathematics-they do not at tempt to draw conclusions about other subjects or grade levels-their underlying message is clear: It's busi ness as usual in the American classroom.

Teachers may have more say and autonomy now than they did 30 years ago, but these gains carry little weight without corresponding improvements in instruction and achievement. Indeed, the whole point of the professionalization movement is to strengthen teaching and learning. A slow revolution may well be changing the nature of teaching, as Grant and Murray argue, but at this point the emphasis must be on the word slow.

--David Ruenzel

Vol. 11, Issue 4, Page 54

Published in Print: January 1, 2000, as Want a Revolution?
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