an example of how research positions teachers…

In the quasi-rant about educational research that I posted last evening, I mentioned that I thought the research I was asked to read and study during the first year of my doctoral program (and use as an example of quality educational research) tended to position teachers in such a way that devalued them as knowledgeable professionals possessing valuable expertise.

I read a research article today that I see as an example of this. The Educational Researcher (a research journal of AERA) that came into my mail box here at school yesterday contains this: “Creating Shared Instructional Products: An Alternative Approach to Improving Teaching” by Anne K. Morris and James Hiebert. I was intrigued because the title presented some hope that this article might bolster the argument I’ve been making to my district about how to handle the new state mandate to use quarterly “interim assessments.”

I was hoping the “instructional products” the title mentioned included common assessments.

I’ve been pushing for teacher-built common assessments for courses (at the high school level at least–not sure if this is the best approach for elementary and middle schools) that would happen at least quarterly INSTEAD of externally constructed, mandatory interim assessments. I argue that developing and evaluating these common assessments from year to year could be a meaningful professional development opportunity. For example, get all the teachers who teach American Literature across the district together in the fall to review the course’s curriculum and to come to agreement on four common assessments that every teacher will use. Then pull the teachers together mid-year to compare assessment data and talk about what’s working (or not) in their classes. And then get everyone together at the end of the year to again compare assessment data AND make a plan for common assessments for the next school year. The benefits? Teachers will talk to each other and learn from each other and teachers will craft shared vision toward assessment targets. This better insures that students across the district will have access to a guaranteed set of outcomes from the course. This is something that our district cannot currently guarantee.

So this article’s title–“Creating Shared Instructional Products”–made me think that it might help me argue for the value of common assessments as a way to improve teaching and learning INSTEAD of externally built interim assessments.

And there is a lot in the article to consider. I’m not writing off this article. I’ve already suggested it to my district curriculum leaders as something to consider as we work on our approach to the new state assessment mandates.

But from the very beginning (the abstract), the article positions teachers in such a way as to strip them of their professional expertise. The abstract begins:

To solve two enduring problems in education–unacceptably large variation in learning opportunities for students across classrooms and little continuing improvement in the quality of instruction–the authors propose a system that centers on the creation of shared instructional products that guide classroom teaching.

The two problems that this research article seeks to address are thus identified as TEACHER problems–things that happen in classrooms that teachers presumably have control over. And the solution offered is a way to “guide classroom teaching”–from the outside? It seems that may be the case. This positions teachers as a problem to be solved and it does not ask them to be part of the solution.

And toward the end of the article after the authors have outlined their recommendations for using “instructional products” to guide classroom teaching, the authors explain:

It is clear that teachers, researchers, and curriculum developers will bring different kinds of knowledge to these tasks. Although the boundaries are slippery, it seems clear that researchers or outside educators will need to fill in subject matter expertise and research design expertise, whereas teachers will need to provide classroom delivery (pedagogical) expertise as well as knowledge of contextual conditions.

Yes, we teachers do have the unique access to pedagogical expertise and knowledge of the contextual conditions of our schools and classrooms. I am pleased to see the authors recognizing this, but why exactly can’t we teachers contribute subject matter expertise to solving the problems identified in this article? And why not research design expertise? There ARE practicing teachers who DO have research training and experience, who have done rigorous research on their own practice. And according to NCLB legislation, all teachers must possess subject matter expertise to be considered “highly qualified.” It’s as if the authors presume that classroom teachers are not experts on the subjects they teach and would be unable build curriculum upon that expertise.

This article–though it admits the “boundaries are slippery”–very clearly demarcates between teachers, researchers, and curriculum designers. I have found that some of the best teachers I know actually move seamlessly between all three of these realms.

This article proposes a problem that is very real but seems to place the blame on teachers. In actuality the gross variations in what students experience from classroom to classroom and school to school have much more to do with things teachers have no control over. Larger societal structures (such as poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor) contribute a lot to the differences between schools, for example.

Regardless of the reasons for the problem outlined in this research article, I think teachers and researchers alike can agree that the problem is there. But I wish the authors would enlist teachers in a more active role for finding the solution. Instead the authors position teachers here as the recipients of what the researchers and curriculum designers and content area experts decide should be the solution.

This was similar to what I found in dozens of research studies I was asked to read in the first year of my doctoral program. The research never said overtly and directly that teachers were not valued as professionals able to work on real solutions to the problems that challenge the system as a whole and our classrooms. The studies simply positioned teachers in ways that suggested they were not seen as agents of change. The studies rarely showed teachers working on viable solutions to the real problems the researchers set out to address with their research.

Slowly this chipped away at my own ideas about my future as a researcher. I entered the program hoping to study education from within the context of K12 practice. I feel unmoored the minute I step away from the classroom and look at it only from the outside. My sense of relevance erodes, thus eroding the relevance of any research I attempt to do. And after reading study after study implicitly devaluing that insider perspective, I began to question the value of it myself. But I wanted to learn how to see the classroom with rigor, especially from my insider perspective. That became my goal and continues to be.

A rigorous, insider voice is more important now than ever (did you see what F. Scott tweeted earlier today? (Right on! – Notice to All Banker Types from a Teacher http://t.co/KtuUhrG)

Thoughts from anyone out there?

Signing off–
M. Shelley

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