Original Source: http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/knew9812.htm
No longer available online from Kappan - published in Kappan - Dec 1998 p: 288-296.
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
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
JUDITH M. NEWMAN is an education consultant who lives in Halifax, N.S. ©1998, Judith M. Newman.