Original Source: http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/knew9812.htm

No longer available online from Kappan - published in Kappan - Dec 1998 p: 288-296.

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We Can't Get There from Here

Critical Issues in School Reform

Illustration © 1998 by John Berry


By Judith M. Newman

That first morning, another teacher successfully inducted Darlene into the culture of their school. Will having had an opportunity to examine factors that affect her teaching help Darlene do something different? Ms. Newman is not at all optimistic that it will.

FOR MORE than 20 years I've been involved in the professional development of teachers. And after all that time, I think I can safely say that much of my work as a teacher educator has largely been a waste of time. In spite of 50 years of research insights into instructional contexts that support student learning, I visit classrooms today and witness instruction very little different from that of the 1970s, when I began collaborating with teachers.

I have taught one-day inservice training workshops, two- and three-day workshops, two-week summer institutes, and yearlong graduate and professional courses, and I have concluded that, in spite of my best efforts and what appear to be high levels of enthusiasm for what the teachers say they are learning, not much changes in classrooms. I ask myself why this is so. What is it about the lives of teachers, about the culture of schools, that makes changing what happens in classrooms so difficult?

It's not that we don't know a lot about the conditions that support students' learning. Over the past three decades we've learned an enormous amount about how children learn language and many other things before they have any contact with formal schooling. Many people have been attempting for many years to implement those insights in classrooms, reasoning that the conditions that make it possible for children to become language learners before school should help students continue developing as language and literacy users. But these folks -- such researchers as Kenneth and Yetta Goodman, Jerome Harste and Carolyn Burke, and Frank Smith -- haven't gained much ground.

The kind of teacher change I'm attempting to inculcate is fundamental. Like my colleague Diane Stephens, I, too, have strong ideas

about the teaching practices I consider to be effective, ethical, and humane and those I consider ineffective, unethical, and harmful. I have tried to help undergraduate students and teachers construct beliefs and build practices that fall into the former category. However, I have been frustrated because I don't know how to be consistently helpful. I experiment with method, with organization, and with content, but still, I end each semester wondering what kind of difference I've really made and how my classes impact on teachers' beliefs and practices.1

Both Stephens and I and many other teacher educators have worked hard to create contexts in which teachers can learn about such things as learning, literacy, and children's language development in order to help build theoretically grounded instructional experiences for students. We've engaged both novice and experienced teachers in self-directed inquiry to help them identify the contradictions in their teaching. But, by and large, when people return to their classrooms, something is lost. It is as if our classes had never happened.

Stephens and I are attempting fundamental reform -- trying to help teachers change their beliefs, assumptions, and values. But what we see, with few exceptions, are merely incremental shifts in practice. Larry Cuban distinguishes between incremental and fundamental changes in the following way:

Incremental reforms are those that aim to improve the existing structures of schooling. The premise behind incremental reforms is that basic institutional structures are sound but need tinkering to remove defects and make their operations more effective and efficient. . . .

Fundamental reforms, on the other hand, are those that aim to transform and alter permanently those very same institutional structures. The premise behind fundamental reforms is that basic structures are irremediably flawed and need a complete overhaul, not renovations. . . .

[However, many innovations] have become, instead of fundamental changes, modest additions to existing practices or have slipped away leaving few traces of their presence.2

This puzzling phenomenon of fundamental reforms that are being transformed into incremental changes -- or having no impact at all -- is what Cuban is attempting to understand. He wonders how this happens and why.

Why, indeed? I ask, too. I have worked with teacher collectives and with entire school faculties only to find that, although people's knowledge of curriculum implementation and their understanding of the issues and tensions of teaching may be comprehensive, something else is going on that militates against the transformation of classroom practices.

Recently, I led a group of experienced teachers in a seminar that lasted through a weekend. The teachers and I were ostensibly engaged in inquiry into the role of writing in action research. My covert agenda, however, was to help the teachers examine contradictions in their instructional practices. Later, as I was reading their written reflections, I was forced once again to think about the complexity of "teacher change." About halfway through the pile of written reflections I came upon the following comments.

After three years of waiting, I have finally signed a probationary contract. I'm bursting with excitement. On my first day at school, in the midst of my musings about how I can transform my classroom into an exciting place, a colleague drops by and introduces herself. We chat for a few minutes about her background and about the school community before she asks about some materials I've got laid out on a nearby table. I launch enthusiastically into an account of portfolio assessment. My colleague listens with the odd "uh-hum" and nod, and then she finally speaks.

"We don't do stuff like that here. We'll hate you if you do because then we'll have to start doing the same thing." I chuckle nervously not knowing whether she is joking or being serious. Our chat ends soon after that.

That was the first day. Four months later, I still have not implemented my portfolio plan. (Darlene Fraser, written reflection)

I set aside this piece of writing to photocopy. I recognized it as a powerful commentary. It was only after I had reached the end of the pile of reflections, however, that I realized that Darlene was offering me highly relevant evidence pertaining to my own inquiry into teacher change. I immediately reread all the reflections. I selected several excerpts, each describing a different tension that teachers and administrators face as they attempt to change their professional practice. Collectively, these reflections raise important questions for me as a teacher educator.

As a teacher educator, I believe that my role is twofold: first, to help both novice and experienced teachers think about substantive elements of curriculum and instruction; second, to support them as they invent/reinvent their practice. I have been moderately successful in helping teachers examine their assumptions and the theories underlying their instructional practices and making them aware of alternative theoretical perspectives. I have engaged them in exploring method, organization, and content. What Darlene forced me to see was that knowledge about method, organization, and content, while necessary, is not sufficient to ensure implementation.

There are many barriers and tensions that initial preparation and continuing professional development, as traditionally "done," fail to account for. What are some of the factors that prevent teachers from implementing curriculum that we know will support students as learners? Darlene clearly names one: fear of censure. Although she believes that having her second-graders compile portfolios will be beneficial for them and for her and although she knows how to go about setting up a portfolio assessment system, her desire not to be different from the other teachers on the staff, particularly because she is a probationary teacher in the school, prevents her from acting on her theoretical understanding and professional know-how. Four months into the school year, she has done nothing about her plans. A single comment by a colleague on that first day completely undermined her desire to try something "innovative."

In spite of the fact that Darlene has supportive colleagues with whom she meets regularly, she is unable to move toward developing instruction for her students that she knows would benefit them. Instead, she reverts to the norm of the school, engaging in instructional practices that she knows to be less likely to help her students become effective readers and writers. In her own words:

I have really been reflecting on myself and my teaching. As I reread my incidents it became clear to me that opposition from outside made me afraid to take risks. Over the past year and a half I have read numerous articles about encouraging my students to take risks and about taking risks myself, and yet when it came right down to it, I couldn't do it. When it came to really putting myself on the line for what I truly believed was right, I couldn't do it. I tried to rationalize this by telling myself that I am a new teacher and I can't burn any bridges before I get a permanent contract. I know I've been stalling for time. I need to take action, and I need to do it now. It is with great disappointment that I look back on the opportunities I had to make a difference for my students, and I didn't take them because I was afraid. (Darlene Fraser, written reflection)

Right now, Darlene is uncomfortable with her acquiescence. She wants to have the courage to act. Two or three years from now, however, it is quite likely that she will have forgotten her desire to try portfolio assessment. She'll have become one of the staff, complacent about what she's doing and dismissive of professional development sessions that raise questions about instruction and assessment practices. That first morning, another teacher successfully inducted Darlene into the culture of their school. Will having had an opportunity to examine factors that affect her teaching help her do something different? I'm not at all optimistic that it will.

The fear of censure -- from peers, from administrators, and from parents -- affects many aspects of teachers' lives.

The Christmas concert is a big deal at my school. I decide I don't want to do the same old thing this year. After some research I put together a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony with readings and dance to offer a different but related holiday experience. I begin preparations with the children.

Two days later Marita, a friend on staff helping me put together this production, sits me down for a chat. She alerts me to what "the others" have to say about my idea. "How could she think of presenting a Jewish tradition at Christmas?" one teacher apparently said to her. Another teacher is "appalled" and "outraged" that I would use Christmas to introduce a "foreign" culture. I am stunned. I don't understand the resistance, and I don't know where to go from here.

I approach my principal for guidance the next day. She leaves the decision up to me but says I will need to be strong to stand up to criticism from both teachers and parents later on if I decide to go ahead with my plan. I'm afraid. I finally decide to do something else for the Christmas concert. (Carmen Delacorte, written reflection)

In addition to meeting disapproval for doing something different from the rest of the staff, Carmen is also encountering anti-Semitism. Were she to proceed with her Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony, she would be openly challenging the anti-Jewish views of some of the people in her school. She is surprised and angered by the overt anti-Semitism expressed by colleagues, but she doesn't feel powerful enough to tackle that issue on her own. Although her principal does not express these disturbing sentiments herself, she makes it clear that Carmen will have to be prepared to defend her more open views on her own. It should not be surprising, then, that Carmen, though she is an experienced teacher, decides "to do something else for the Christmas concert."

Swimming against the tide is difficult. Without a great deal of support, doing something different is very risky. Carmen's principal could have provided such support. She could have indicated that she thought the Chanukah pageant had merit and that she would be there to run interference for Carmen. Without that kind of support, Carmen quite rightly knows that she's out on a limb. Why should she place herself in such a vulnerable position when she already knows the others on the staff oppose what she wants to do with her students?

So forget fundamental reform! However, even incremental reform requires some administrative support. While it's essential for teachers to take some initiative for curriculum change, without administrative support such change is doomed from the outset. As in Carmen's case, it simply never gets off the ground. The role administrators play in setting the climate for teacher exploration and development was made quite clear in another teacher's written commentary.

This year has been very difficult for me. I was one of several teachers who volunteered to open a brand-new school. We met with the principal in May and June before the new school year was to begin. She seemed so wonderful. . . .

[This fall] we found out something else. She is the most difficult and demanding, unfair and unapproachable administrator I have ever worked for. She tells us at staff meetings that our job "is to make her look good." She says that if we don't like her she would be happy to show us the door. She tells us that we will be transferred if we don't do things her way. She has the vice principal monitor us. . . . Oh, sure, we can complain to our union, but where is that really going to get anyone? Is the principal going to be fired? Is she going to get management training courses? No! What she will get is very, very angry, show us the door, and blacklist our names. For any teacher, that is a very uninviting proposition. (Marlene Wilson, written reflection)

Marlene's perception is that she's expected to toe the line. She senses inordinate pressure to conform. I infer from her account that there doesn't appear to be much negotiating of issues going on in her school. Whatever the principal's agenda, it's not being worked out in conjunction with the teachers. Certainly Marlene doesn't see it as a collaborative venture, and in what she perceives to be an oppressive climate she's not about to take risks with her teaching; she's not likely to attempt new curricular initiatives or new ways of working and interacting with her students. She's also likely to resist any innovation brought forward by the principal.

We don't know, of course, what story Marlene's principal has to tell. What kind of change is she attempting? What obstacles is she encountering? It's important to remember that administrators attempting to implement change encounter barriers, too.

Rereading my three critical incidents yet again has not been a happy experience. Why did I choose to write about them? I tried not to write about them, but they are definitely the incidents that have shaken me. . . . In each case, some of the tension I experienced was due to my role as principal -- or my interpretation of the role. On one hand, an administrator is expected by staff, students, and parents to uphold the rules of the school; on the other, he is expected to act in the best interests of each child. There is a real and sometimes terrible tension between these two expectations. I need to find a way to reconcile them. (Paul Thibault, written reflection)

As an administrator, Paul is expected to act as an advocate for his teachers. However, he is also an agent of authority. Furthermore, he sees himself as responsible for supporting students. This is tough territory to occupy. He explains:

It incenses me that we still segregate kids along socioeconomic lines. Sure, we can get subsidies when we know the right buttons to push, but that's not the point. Is it fair to plan activities which we know a number of the families can't afford? It also infuriates me when teachers resort to control tactics rather than looking at a child's real needs. Why is it so important that every last assignment be handed in when a kid is obviously not well? Whose ego is at stake here? Finally, I find myself raging at the way our society and our system handle our "special needs" kids. Here we are with the best of intentions, labeling the kids, ghettoizing them, and then suspending them when they go nuts. Fair? I think not. (Paul Thibault, written reflection)

While Paul doesn't spell it out, I sense tension between him and some teachers. He would like to act as a curriculum leader, but he's meeting resistance. His efforts to raise questions about equity, about student-centered learning, about flexible expectations, and about continuous progress are not producing the kind of conversation he'd like to launch. A principal's life is not necessarily a happy one. While the position affords an opportunity for initiating and sustaining change, there are a great many obstacles, many of which may seem insurmountable. Administrative support is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, as was true of Marlene's situation, administrators can be perceived as creating barriers to teacher-initiated change; on the other, administrators like Paul may be meeting resistance to their efforts to help teachers question and improve their instructional practices.

Amid the rhetoric boasting that schools and districts are strengthening the learning environment, administrative decisions sometimes make a mockery of such claims. As serious budgetary constraints sweep education, administrators have been attempting to maintain the status quo by stretching resources as far as possible without regard for what makes sense in a teacher's life. In Stephen's case, that has meant having to commute some 40 minutes at the end of the school day to another school in order to teach French to a very uninterested group of eighth-graders. Stephen explains:

My battle begins at 13:35 every day. I attempt to muster up the courage to face another day on the front. I gear up. Hat? Check. Coat? Check. School bag? Check. Survival gear? Check. Punctually driven by the siren, I begin my mission, to boldly go where no sane person should have to go -- a grade-8 core French classroom at a school 40 minutes away.

I drive the distance blindly, going over in my head how this mission is going to be different from the last. I will have control. I will have control. Who am I kidding? Twenty kilometers to go and the stress migraine I get every day at this precise time strikes.

When I arrive someone yells out, "Oh, no . . . it's French time!" A plethora of groans and spine-chilling wails permeate the room and escalate my headache. I come armed with wishful thinking worksheets which the students only toss into the return box at the end of class. I coax myself, today will be different . . . today will be different. Wrong. I'm like Sisyphus doomed to push the rock up the hill every day only to have it roll down the escarpment for the next day's toils. I scream silently, "It isn't fair!" (Stephen Vincent, written reflection)

While I might encourage Stephen to examine the instruction he's offering his students, even with the best will in the world and an armory of wonderful instructional techniques, the chances of making this situation an engaging learning opportunity are slim. In their efforts to make do, the administrators in Stephen's school district have chosen to undermine a teacher to the extent that not only this class but probably most of his classes are not being served well. If Stephen dreads this class, I'm betting that he spends a good deal of his time feeling trapped. It has to sap his energy and his enthusiasm. If he's in a state of anxiety most of the time, what can he possibly give to any of his students? How do we help administrators think about using the resources they have differently? How do we keep the needs of people -- students and teachers -- in the forefront of our planning?

Isobel raises another important issue: making knowledge personal.

For some reason this group of readings helped me understand that I have to make ideas my own -- I have to develop my own ideas, questions, pedagogy -- and this will all come from my involvement in a process, in inquiries that will take time -- a lot of time, years. When reading through these articles I saw myself focusing on the journey taken by these teacher/researchers and the length of time it took them to be able to arrive at something that sounds like a very basic viewpoint. I realize that without my own personal involvement in inquiries, critical incidents, and teacher research, I will always be struggling to understand someone else's great discoveries instead of using the results of their critical moments to bring me closer to my own. It would be much easier to continue to be a follower and recipe-user; however, for the first time, I feel like I am able to use the tools that I've had all along to be a leader. (Isobel Carlyle, written communication)

Life in a classroom is life in the fast lane. Given the way most classrooms and schools are structured these days, interruptions are common. Teachers and students have to run fast just to stay in place. By the end of a day, most people are just too tired to take courses, read professional articles, or write brief reflections in a journal. As teacher educators we, too, push our own agendas without giving people time to consider the nature of the task they are undertaking. Building or rebuilding practice is a slow endeavor. Isobel is right: it takes years, and it takes a continual construction of personal knowledge. The attempt to achieve a quick fix is doomed to failure; it just can't work. "Nifty tips" aren't going to do it either. They rarely work even in support of incremental change, and they have absolutely no value when it comes to fundamental institutional reform.

Arthur raises a further concern: collaboration. His is a special situation in that he's a resource teacher who needs to communicate with a classroom teacher. However, the kind of difficulties he has encountered are the same for all educators in situations in which people are operating from different theoretical perspectives.

I work with Geoffrey, a seriously visually impaired child, integrated into Mrs. Talbot's regular kindergarten classroom. I visit him a couple of times a week. It was not until the end of October, however, that I realized there were some conflicts between Mrs. Talbot's beliefs and practices and mine. One day she said to me, "We need to talk about Geoffrey. I don't think there should be any adult intervention for him when he is playing. I believe in Piaget's theory that children need to explore and experiment by themselves."

"Yes, I agree," I said. "However, it is very difficult for Geoffrey to observe and imitate what and how his friends are playing. He has very limited vision. It is important to set up the situation and leave him to play with the others. A lot of times I see him by himself, and I need to intervene -- to set up a play situation to make him feel comfortable and then to invite one or two children to join him. He needs to be shown how to play."

There was no further argument, but I knew I had not convinced her to see my point of view. (Arthur Kenniston, written reflection)

The challenge is, How do we get quite different, sometimes opposing, views on the table in such a way that a healthy dialogue ensues? Mrs. Talbot is right about the desirability of having children explore freely on their own. They do need to learn a lot through personal hands-on experience. However, Arthur is right that Geoffrey needs some adult involvement in both his solitary and group play, at least for a while, in order for him to make the most of those experiences. Fortunately, this conflict resolved itself when Mrs. Talbot began watching Geoffrey closely.

"Arthur, you're right about Geoffrey. Yesterday I tried to move him to another center, and he felt very insecure. I realize some adult intervention is necessary to help him settle," she said to me last week. (Arthur Kenniston, written reflection)

Generally, theoretical differences aren't so easily resolved. As a teacher educator, I have to be sensitive to different points of view. I have to be open to teachers whose views about teaching are not the same as mine. My strategy is the same as Arthur's: encourage people to observe the learning situation more closely and to use their students as informants. Doing that almost always nudges them to see what kind of support will help students and what activities, assignments, and expectations will shut them down. I try to help people learn from their students. But sometimes this strategy backfires.

I'm working in a challenging grade-4 special education class. One of my goals for these children is to have them do a response/reflection as a daily homework assignment. These students are often reluctant to read and write. They need practice. . . . However, chasing the homework quickly became a chore. . . . Then I remembered another teacher who seemed able to motivate students; they completed assignments for her. She always rewarded them with stickers and gum. At the time, I didn't think much of using rewards like this -- I considered the rewards a form of bribery. . . .

Finally, I gave in with my grade-4 students. I purchased some small treats -- gummy worms, mini-chocolates, and stickers. After several weeks the students regularly completed the reading and writing assignment.

I laughed to myself one day when I overheard Christopher talking to Jeff. He had just written a nine-page response for me. "Ha, ha! Mrs. Lumsden doesn't know I only do it for the treats!" Ha, ha, Christopher. You don't know it, but I only give the treats to get you to work, I thought to myself.

What did I learn from this experience? I think that if you have something you want done, providing incentives seems to work. Instead of chasing students and hounding them for assignments, it's more effective if you sweeten the pot in a positive way. I don't consider it to be bribery any longer. I consider it to be more of an incentive for the students to try their best and make progress at the same time. (Virginia Lumsden, written reflection)

What can I do about this experience that, in my estimation, takes Virginia's teaching backwards? Instead of empowering learners, she is now making them more dependent on external rewards. Christopher has it right: he's working for the payoff. What will he do when there isn't one? My concern is how to help Virginia see the contradictions in values and practices operating here. How do I help her take a critical look at the instructional tasks she's offering the kids in the first place? Her personal experience, her kid-watching, has validated her shift in stance. It's entirely likely that I won't be able to get her to look for evidence that would let her question her new beliefs.

Another obstacle to real reform is government and school district policy making that is having a significant impact on teachers' decision making. Consider the following reflection:


As I look at my grade-12 students, I can't help thinking about the provincial exam they will face in January. I've taught some of these students before; others I am just getting to know. These first few weeks have confirmed what I already knew: that their abilities and interests range as widely as the prairie a few miles away. I have begun with a thematic unit on "risk" and am introducing journal writing, discussion techniques, text annotation, and group dynamics, but a month is almost past, and I know that while I believe what we are doing is helpful, some of my students are not prepared for the exam. I have fewer than 12 full weeks of class. The exam will assess reading comprehension and essay writing. It is worth 30% of their final grade in this course. I know I can drill basic essay structure and mechanics and most of them will learn enough to pass the exam. So far I am resisting the pressure to do that. (Barry Marcheson, written reflection)

Barry's facing that familiar Catch-22 of teaching: Do I do what's best for the students or do I teach to the test? For the past few years he's been working hard to get more in tune with his students, but the looming standardized test has him feeling insecure. His reflections continue.


We are studying Hamlet, and my students are considering the possibilities within the text. Did he overhear Claudius' conversation with Polonius? Does he really love Ophelia? Does he have a "thing" for his mother? How old is he, anyway? They know about stepparents. They understand Ophelia's actions. Even if they wish she would stand up for herself more, they know why she doesn't. We are having fun, and my students talk about acting out some scenes or making a film. "What kind of project are we gonna do?" they ask. It's almost report card time. We have done one essay, and too many students had difficulty with the assignment. Missy has never written an essay. Her participation in class discussion is insightful, but she tells me she "can't write." Louellen writes in what she believes is a formal voice, but it doesn't make sense, it isn't her own, and afterward she can't tell you what she meant. Steven doesn't know there's a difference between narrative and exposition. Based on the provincial marking guide, most of my students would score below satisfactory on organization, style, and mechanics. I sacrifice the project for an essay assignment which they may write, have marked, then rewrite. We are all disappointed.

Why do I bend to the pressure of the provincial exam? I do not believe it has validity. I do not consider it a useful "learning experience." Why do I sacrifice my program to it? I cannot administer it falsely. I will not lie about my students' term marks, and the provincial mark is worth too much. These students will be measured by these numbers which I know have little real meaning. They will be judged; money and opportunities will be given or withheld from them, based on these numbers, their marks. They are under pressure from their parents, from postsecondary institutions, and from the dynamics of the exam itself. I feel compelled to help them succeed in this exercise, and I must somehow manage my classroom to accommodate two very disparate goals. Plan a program which I hope will help prepare them for life? Or one which prepares them for an exam? I must somehow do both to the detriment of us all. (Barry Marcheson, written reflection)

In the end, it would seem, political pressure for standardization compels teachers to act in ways they know won't further their students' learning. Barry is a strong teacher, but he's also realistic. It seems pointless to resist.

SO WHAT DO these narrative accounts mean for me as a teacher educator? Where do I go from here? It's clear to me that changing teachers requires more than just offering them information about method, organization, and content. Any fundamental reform effort has to include a healthy measure of discussion about the values underlying the everyday instructional decisions teachers and administrators make. What Linda Darling-Hammond has said resonates for me.

Rather than seek to make the current system of schooling perform more efficiently by standardizing practice, school reform efforts must focus on building the capacity of schools and teachers to undertake tasks they have never before been called upon to accomplish. . . . Reforms that rely on the transformative power of individuals to rethink their practice and to redesign their institutions can be accomplished only by investing in individual and organizational learning, in the human capital of the educational enterprise -- the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of teachers and administrators, as well as those of parents and community members.3

I became a teacher educator in the first place because I thought I could improve the school lives of many more students by working with teachers rather than by teaching children myself. By helping teachers examine their own learning to discover what engaged students and what shut them out, I believed teachers would be able to think about instruction in new ways. For me, those new ways had to involve students in their own learning, had to give them a real voice in decision making. Moreover, there had to be flexibility with regard to content, individual expectations for student achievement, and reasonable consequences for noncompletion.

I began to explore ways of creating learning environments that put learners in the driver's seat. I started to negotiate the learning situation with my students.4 For many years, I thought I was making headway. The number of teachers attempting to negotiate curriculum with their students grew. Then came a series of economic crunches and with them the pressure for standardization and conformity in schooling.

I had a whiff of the changing winds when I read Stephen Ball's discussion of the politics of policy making in education in Great Britain during the Thatcher era.5 He examined several policies that led to Britain's national curriculum. When I first read the book in 1991, I could already see the winds of conservatism blowing across the Canadian landscape. Within two years, a national program of achievement testing had been put in place, and the foundations of a national curriculum had been laid. While provincial governments have refrained from calling the various new regional curriculum documents a "national curriculum," the standardization of curriculum across Canada is now a fact.

This new curriculum standardization, coupled with both national and provincial standardized testing, had become a strong force pushing teachers to abandon learning from their students. Forget fundamental reform; there isn't even much incremental change. Without a radical philosophical shift and a shared understanding of the need to negotiate curriculum with students, the reform efforts we make are mere tinkering. In the end, I have come to realize that we simply can't get there from here -- at least not by means of institutional actions.

Undaunted, however, I continue to listen to the voices of teachers and to think about how we might shape the education of both new and experienced teachers. I know from firsthand experience that it is possible to help people become reflective practitioners.6 I am cheered by teachers such as Claire, who have developed both the professional knowledge and the personal conviction to resist curriculum standardization and who do what they can to make learning an exciting adventure for their students.

I have been teaching half time in kindergarten for one year. There is a new position in our school, because our population is growing. It's a full-time grade 1 position. I want that job, even though I have had no practical experience in grade 1. In order to get the job, the division will have to increase my contract time -- something that is unheard of. All my friends with first-year contracts are being laid off. For some reason, my principal seems to like me: it's an advantage I can ill afford to lose. He makes several trips to the division office to plead my case. In late June he announces that the job is mine! I am given $1,000 to spend on that new classroom, and I make up my list: blocks, $250; play stove and fridge, $250; math materials (cubes, pattern blocks, rods, dice), Legos, water table, $300; a few books, $200. A few days after, I place the order on the secretary's desk, and the principal calls me into his office and closes the door. When I sit down across from him, I gaze into a stern face. He is holding my orders.

"Are you trying to turn the new grade 1 class into a kindergarten?" he demands in a fearsome voice I have never heard before. I am taken aback for just a few seconds, and then I launch into a philosophical defense of my choice of classroom items. I know that I talk about the children's need to play and to work with real materials. I hear myself quoting a line about play and imagining that I know comes from Wayne Serebrin, one of my professors. I end up talking about the children's need to read real literature and tell him that in fact I will need more money for books. His face gradually relaxes as I talk, and at the end breaks into a smile. "It's good that you can explain," he says, "because you are going to have to be able to explain this to your parents." I can do that, I say. (Claire Sutton, written reflection)

Four years later, Claire is continuing to explore ways of engaging her first-graders with their learning. She constantly resists the pull to conform and works to maintain congenial relationships with the other teachers and the administrators in her school.

Claire is but one of many people with whom I've worked over the years who have taken on the struggle to become better, more responsive teachers. Like countless others, she battles with herself daily about how to respond to her students, about what invitations to extend them, about what to say to fellow teachers and parents. Having seen the power of her students as learners, she resists the pressure to comply with policy directives that undermine their learning.

I've also been conversing with Barbara Graham as the writing of her case study of school reform has evolved. She has been examining the impact of "cultural, structural, and political changes on the working contexts and professional practices of five teachers as they adjust and adapt to important changes in district policies."7 She concludes from her conversations with the teachers and from other data from the district she studied that

teacher growth can only occur when teachers view themselves as active participants in the educational enterprise. . . . Personal perspectives are permeable, but new perspectives are fragile and must be nurtured. New perspectives and changed practices do not suddenly appear but occur after a process of assimilation, adaptation, and transformation. The process involves the conscious reconfiguring and restructuring of knowledge structures and perspectives by individuals in order to incorporate and adapt both the new material and existing structures into a new structure. . . .

Teachers, by being encouraged to reflect on their practice, to reinterpret their personal experiences, and to discuss their reflections with colleagues, have demonstrated that they can indeed look at their worlds as if they could be otherwise.8

That, in a nutshell, is the reality: change in education comes about only when teachers are helped to change themselves. Talking about "school reform" makes no sense, for there is no such thing as "school" reform. Schools are made of bricks and steel, and they don't reform themselves. It's the people, the teachers and administrators who live and work in schools, who change or don't change. As a teacher educator it makes sense for me to contemplate how I can work with teachers to help them reflect on their practice, reinterpret their personal experiences, and discuss their reflections with colleagues. When I consider the kind of fundamental reform I'm interested in, I can think about teachers, but only one by one, not as a collective, not as a school staff. That is because change doesn't happen to collectives; only individuals change. And I can't change them; they must change themselves.

I can't change education; I can't change schools. I can only converse with individual teachers about the things they care about -- about problem students, about staff conflicts, about ways of dealing with nonsupportive administrators, about how to comply with new government policies without seriously harming students.

As Frank Smith concludes in Whose Language? What Power? "The underlying problems in education . . . are essentially political, not educational, and the only resolution must be political, at many levels." 9 My recent experiences with teachers cause me to conclude that the underlying problems in school reform are also essentially political, not educational. Thus any efforts at resolution must also be political.

I can't bring about education reform as long as I keep thinking about education as an institution. I can't get there from here. But there are bridges that can be built and crossed; individual teachers and administrators can be helped to think about the nature of their work. Together, we can slowly change who we are as individuals and thereby change the collective. It's not something we can do quickly; there are no neat recipes for reforming the institution of schooling. Fundamental change simply doesn't happen that way.

1. Diane Stephens, "Learning from Four Teachers," unpublished manuscript, 1997, p. 1.
2. Larry Cuban, "What Happens to Reforms That Last? The Case of the Junior High School," American Educational Research Journal, vol. 29, 1992, p. 228.
3. Linda Darling-Hammond, "Reframing the School Reform Agenda," Phi Delta Kappan, June 1993, p. 754.
4. Judith M. Newman, Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection (Toronto: OISE Press; Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books, 1991).
5. Stephen J. Ball, Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology (London: Routledge, 1990).
6. Judith M. Newman, ed., Whole Language: Theory in Use (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books, 1985); idem, ed., Finding Our Own Way: Teachers Exploring Their Assumptions (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books, 1990); and idem, ed., Tensions of Teaching: Beyond Tips to Critical Reflection (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1998).
7. Barbara Graham, "Changing Cultures, Changing Teachers: A Case Study of Mandated Structural and Cultural Change," unpublished paper, Simon Fraser University, 1997, p. 6.
8. Ibid., p. 4.
9. Frank Smith, Whose Language? What Power? (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), p. 171.

JUDITH M. NEWMAN is an education consultant who lives in Halifax, N.S. ©1998, Judith M. Newman.

Last updated 6 January 1999
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