John Olson is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Education, Queens University, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He was written extensively on issues to do with the role of teachers in change, most recently as as an editor of Changing Schools/Changing Practices: Perspectives on Educational Reform and Teacher Professionalism (Leuven, Belgium: Garant).
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There is, in the field of education in the English-speaking world, an enduring faith in the capacity of social engineering. Witness the What works syndrome---a quest for assured knowledge to back up pedagogical practice and curriculum-making. The metaphor is that of a machine---a complex one granted---but a machine nevertheless. It is the sort of machine that Norbert Weiner imagined the body to be, or the way organisms interacted, when he developed his cybernetic model. Ironically a key to the way his system worked was negative, corrective feedback---not what works but what doesnt. Positive feedback tended to set systems out of control, he said. We can see the effects of positive feedback in the case of computers which are purchased in great numbers for schools, although little is known about what they contribute to education---and least of all what teachers actually do with them.
Research in education needs to find out what teachers think of reform---to ask those who have intimate knowledge of what happens when grand schemes are launched. Such a need to consult those who do the work can be seen most dramatically in the case of nurses, who, in Canada at least, now are being recognized as sources of important information for purposes of assessing how hospitals work. They like teachers can and will in the future provide the negative feedback most often ignored and perilously so. But does a systemic approach to reform in education appreciate the value of negative feedback. I think not.
The systemic approach to reform recognizes that schools are part of a complex system of expectations and that reform plans must recognize the diverse interests at play in any reform. The idea is that when all the parts are pulling together reform will happen. The assumption is that the purposes for schools can be established, and that the technical means identified to achieve those purposes are known. It is a matter of everyone being on-side. To me this sounds like the roll-call and the rallying of those about to launch a marketing campaign. Where do teachers fit into this model?
Most often teachers are left out of the power process that leads to the roll-out of policy. Those on-side rally round and all eyes are on the positive feedback that is sought. This won't do! The purposes of education, unlike marketing, are constantly evolving in dynamic ways, as are the means to achieve these purposes. What teachers can provide are insights into reform initiatives seen as experiments which probe for the way forward. The process is much more like how traditions evolve than it is like radical shifts due to major breakthroughs. Teachers, like nurses, know what it is like to make the system work under conditions of duress. The systems they work in are subject to stress due mainly to cost-cutting but also as a result of the related attempts to micro-manage the work they do.
Many of those pressures from government reflect cost-cutting measures pure and simple. Do more with less and we'll call it reform and make political capital might be a mantra for what is happening today in Ontario, for example. No doubt it is happening elsewhere. Teachers resist these pressures and receive middling to bad press from the corporate media most interested in seeing industrial models applied to privatized public services, and in the supposed resultant cost-savings. Nonetheless, teachers have to make sense and create coherence out of the contradictory demands of different stake-holders for what are often, in the end, controversial intended outcomes of reform.
Whatever the changes---draconian or Olympian---they challenge teacher survival and craft norms, and their relationship. Craft norms which inhere in practice, and are often not expressed well, are often in conflict with survival norms, and the tension between them not recognized (Olson et al. 1998). Yes, teachers try to do their best, but in an imperfect world where shortcuts are taken. How are teachers norms challenged? What can teachers tell us of those challenges? In what follows I would like to sample recent literature that reflects how teachers are responding to changes in schools brought on by hyper-state intervention, whatever the reason. What happens when the state attempts to micro-manage the school?
The references to the literature that follow are but snapshots which I hope will encourage the reader to look further. What I can say in general is that this literature comprises many countries, many levels of schooling, and many issues. Furthermore the references I cite are but the tip of the iceberg. A review that extended beyond the more academic journals represented here would yield a panoply of concerns and provide rich sources for analysis and contemplation of the models we use to construe change in schools.
While systemic approaches understand that the interaction among factors influencing change are complex and that piece-meal change is problematic, there is a danger that the press for uniformity will be counter-productive. First, the changes may not speak to issues that concern teachers differently in different parts of the system. Within any system school cultures vary. Second, while central administrators may have theories to work with that are well grounded in social science, there are traditional theories that teachers hold which are well adapted to the conditions of practice, but which are not well codified. Third, teachers need to be able to recover these theories in the context of change and to find ways of using them to engage the changes they are faced with. Finally, more dialogue among professional groups is needed if schools are to improve. Let us examine these issues in more detail.
Teacher beliefs are often cited in models for change as superficial if not borderline delusional and, consequently, as elements to be managed. Such beliefs are more coherent and functional than that systemic nostrums would have them. There is a large literature on these issues. Pennell and Firestone (1996), for example, found that how teachers responded to mandated statewide changes in the USA were varied and reflected deeply-held beliefs. Yet what teachers take to be their task, and why they see it in the way they do, are often ignored---and teacher capacity often underestimated in school reform. Indeed, the models espoused in reform are less sophisticated than teacher practice. This is well known, but the process goes on anyway because attention is not paid to what doesn't work.
The search for system uniformity---an element of systemic reform---can be counter-productive. As Bage et al. (1999) found, efforts to impose a uniform system of lesson-planning in the UK meant that teachers did not draw on the full range of their expertise in planning lessons in diverse contexts. The uniform system was less sophisticated than what teachers actually did. Bage et al. called this process teacher deskilling. The opposite can happen as well---teachers can be (and are) asked to implement methods and content for which they are not prepared or supported. We can see how teachers respond to such stresses in certain of the cases of reform in mathematics, science and technology in the OECD countries documented and analyzed in Black and Atkin (1996). Such analyses and others show us that reform can give rise to risks of personal failure, conflict and frustration in situations where support for teacher development is lacking. In the case of imposed curriculum failure is possible, not because teachers lack professionalism, but because, among other things, insufficient is given to the nature of teacher qualifications, the differences in elementary and secondary school cultures, and, more generally, a lack of understanding of what goes on in schools and how reform impacts on them, with what consequences.
Cases attesting to the importance of the latter are seen in Fore (1998) who, in the US, found that imposition of statewide standards without consultation with professional groups lead to many problems in implementation. Spillane (1999) points to the secure spaces teachers need if they are to be able to radically alter their practice. More generally, Anderson (1998) notes that reforms falter if there is no collaborative reconstruction of a new social ground. Reform is risky because there are large elements in teaching which are irrational and ideological, giving rise to impossible promises not realizable in this world. And this is not to mention the problems which arise from under-resourcing.
These studies point us back to the significance of existing practice and the functions of that practice in real places like schools. Teacher practice is more functional than research says it is. But teachers, unfortunately, are not in control, in most cases of the instruments that purvey images of their work, e.g. the daily media which excoriates more often than it informs. The focus on systemic reform in the title of this papaper reminds us that increasingly governments seek to politicize and industrialize schools in the face of global trends to privatize and downsize social services, cut taxes, and reduce wage costs (Eisner 1999).
The demand from the business sector for pre-formed workers is unending, and oftentimes shows up as simplistic lists of employability skills---another example of deskilling through regressive uniformity--- that would make a grade 12 student laugh. These lists are risible. School testing has added pressure on schools as invalid cross-national comparisons are made and politically motivated tests are administered, all crude expressions of a reduced educational provision. National and cross-national test scores put pressures on schools to compete with other countries. Questions of differences in cultural values, norms, curriculum, and school organization are not answered. International testing continue apace. Why?
Teachers work is being evaluated as never before: measures of teacher capacity are gathered; international studies assess outcomes. These data are used to advance theoretical and political agendas that imply images of teacher professional practice as much they do of student achievement. Often the result of these political appraisals of international results is the call for curriculum reform. Reform is often undertaken and curriculum policy is often used to drive it. What teachers know is often left out of the policy making.
For example, Gamoran (1997), in his study of curriculum reform to enhance opportunities for disadvantaged pupils, found that the curriculum policies did affect what pupils experienced in school---opportunity was enhanced somewhat--- but the effects were limited. It was not enough to change the curriculum: teacher practice was also an issue. Gamoran argues that unless teacher development parallels reform, the change will be limited. He also points out that new forms of assessment need to parallel curriculum change and that teacher development in relation to both is needed.
But we need to go beyond such remedies. What must also be said is that it is not a matter of teachers adjusting to the reform but of offering feedback that would make the reform---both teaching and the testing--- valuable and possible. This is a dialectical process we are looking at---not one of accommodation (Olson 1992). Black and Atkin (1996) and Raizen and Britton (1997) found that even though there were diverse approaches to change in OECD countries ranging from support for teacher development to systems of imposed policies directed by educational objectives, these reforms are modified significantly by teachers as they enact those intentions. Other studies have come to the same conclusion (see, e.g.Tyack and Cuban 1995).
One clear theme in reform is that teachers are asked increasingly to offer students more individualized and individualistic instruction, but with fewer resources, or with resources which require new skills---such as accessing the use of new and notoriously cumbersome electronic media. The point of view of the students is increasingly sought in research and in recommendations for practice. In this context of greater attention to student interests and differences teachers are expected, increasingly, to act as clinicians and managers of new technologies as they implement rapidly changing educational policies. Teachers may find that they cannot accommodate these increased demands. For example, Griffin (1998) in Australia found that teachers were expected to give standardized reports about students. They found this onerous and without much benefit, on the face of it, to their students, especially in the light of their knowledge of individual students.
The teaching profession is increasingly challenged by accountability measures adopted by governments. Systemic reform can be seen as a response to these pressures as well as a reflection of what has been learned about the reform process over the last three decades. Measurement of outcomes is a significant part of the systemic reform process---gathering knowledge of the effects of changes in the system (Greenwald et al. 1996). Establishing specific outcomes and mandating them is part of the way change is pressed upon schools.
Clearly one can hardly be against measurement while espousing the virtues of negative feedback. But measurement is a slippery tool well used to promote agendas whose premises are little critiqued. And there is the question of measurement quality. Haertel (1999), for example, notes that measurement-driven reform strategy is problematic not the least because high-stakes assessment is founded on a number of untested assumptions. For example, he notes that portfolios used to assess performance have limited generalizability. If the measurement instruments are weak then the system does not work. Only the façade of rationality is there. Testing can come to be a simulacrum for actual careful assessment and critique. It can be a blunt and powerful tool for shutting off policy critique---silencing teachers, for example.
Where does all this leave us? Strident reform ideologies, disappointing scores on international tests for some and a climate of distrust of professionals generally, to mention only a few trends, challenge teachers to account for themselves by taking up the basis of reforms and questioning their validity in a dialogical way. How are teachers able to assess and question the system?
Attention increasingly is drawn to concepts of self-development, self-assessment, deliberation, reflective practice and collaborative partnership to support teacher participation in practice as well as policy processes These professional practices entail questions about human values, beliefs and moral considerations---questions about tradition. Teachers need to be able to bring such issues to the policy table in the context of systemic reform not so much to join in the roll out as to offer feedback on the purposes and methods themselves.
How can teachers play this role? Teachers are not working in isolation. Those who work with them are caught up in the reform process. The professional self is developed in a community of persons involved in teaching. The process of collaboration in innovation is part of the process of reform; how, and how well, do people collaborate?
Hatch (1998), who studied how teachers collaborated in a major curriculum reform project in the USA, found that differences in teacher theories of action existed in the group and that these differences hindered collaboration. Unless these differences are surfaced and discussed on the table as it were these hidden theories will exert major but poorly understood influences on the collaborative process. Friedman (1997) studied the effectiveness of teacher collaboration. He argues that unless traditional school structures change team approaches may not work. Team teaching, he notes, calls into question the very nature of teaching itself.
Robertson et al. (1998) found that teachers working on an integrated mathematics/science high school curriculum were challenged by the task of teaching across these subjects and tended to retreat to their subject domain where they felt they had control over the pedagogy. A common ground for looking at these subjects in concert was not found, partly because these teachers were coping with destreaming (detracking) at the same time. Too much reform pressure was at work to enable them to find a secure space to consider how their subjects connected. While they may have been able to make progress, given reflection on their experiences, there was no provision for this to happen. Without the needed supports for reflection, reflection remains a wishful nostrum.
How teacher reflection is construed as a professional development strategy is being questioned. Carlgren (1999), for example, notes that there has been an over-emphasis on thinking about teaching after the fact. And one could add during the fact as some have proposed. What about the planning that goes into teaching? What is the quality of that? How well is that done? How much does that planning reflect what teachers have found out from prior experience? Here Carlgren is asserting the importance of didactics, an aspect of teachers work often left out in the quest for reflection on the teaching act itself during and after. And is the reflection, even if undertaken, effective?
There is evidence that teachers have difficulty dealing with negative feedback (Olson 1992, 1998, Lang et al. 1999). Klette (1997), for example, points to difficulties in teacher reflection. When confronted with evidence of a lack of success, teachers , she says, may be inclined to romanticize their work---to discount its realities---or simply ignore them. These responses to make us aware of the problem of finding out what teachers really think of their work and how they deal with negative feedback on a daily basis. Some of what they say when asked to comment generally on their work is intended deliberately to present a certain façade to the researcher. The difficulties of reflection raise questions about the nature of in- service education and teacher- based research that might be needed to confront the challenges of systemic reform.
What role do consultants have to play and supervisors given the traditions of teaching that inform teacher practice and the demands of reform? Greater collaboration amongst these groups and researchers seem called for, with less an emphasis on perfect implementation than on leaning more about practice and the possibilities of reform from some dialogue between them. If these groups could develop common didactical ground then systemic reform might be more productive. (Olson et al. 1998).
Changes in policy, research questions and school practice, as we saw, challenge existing definitions of professionalism. The question of professionalism has always been a thorny one for teaching: when compared to medicine and law teachers have often been assigned to the status of a semi-profession. The degree of independence and specialized knowledge deemed necessary to qualify as a profession is said to be absent in teaching. Yet teachers are asked to take charge of the development of the young from an early age and over many years. It is an onerous responsibility. Teachers do this work largely unsupervised and mostly according to their own lights, efforts to manage their work through curriculum and supervision not withstanding.
Teachers are called upon to be professionals yet there is much in the process of systemic reform that may call into question this professionalism. The role of supervision of teachers arises in the context of systemic reform as elements of the system are assessed for success in implementing system-wide changes. The danger of an over-zealous use of supervision---or an over-standardized approaches---that teachers respond differently to different forms of supervision and here again the urge to create system-wide standards may override approaches to supervision which are sensitive to individual differences. This research makes us wonder what the purpose of supervision is: is it a two-way process? Can it be systematized?
Zepeda and Pontecelli (1998) found that supervisors need to know how teachers make use of critical feedback. The system of giving the feedback may be uniform---but how it is used is not. This question of individuality arises in relation to collaboration, as we saw above, and it arises in the way teacher respond to challenges to their preferred forms of pedagogy.
There is a danger, however, of over-emphasizing individual teacher differences. Teachers share traditions of practice and these play an important role in what happens in reform. These traditions are part of the collective wisdom and need to be understood. Efforts to get around teacher tradition have not been successful (Tyack and Cuban 1995). Take, for example, efforts to drive change through student assessment. Such assessment-driven change comes up against the beliefs that teachers have about what they are teaching and how they teach it. These beliefs are varied and deeply held as we saw. Cheng (1999), for example, found that an effort to change how English is taught by changing the nature of the external examinations ran up against core beliefs of teachers. While teachers modified their practices to accommodate to the exam, few of their core beliefs changed. We might ask What were these core beliefs? What did they have to say to the system? Unfortunately reforms usually are not based on the insights teachers have achieved from practice over time, as the recent OECD study has underscored (Black and Atkin 1996). Atkin (1998) notes that much can be learned from the OECD study about systemic reform. He says that it was evident that teachers played a central role in the 23 reforms studied in the OECD project. Teachers were able to provide input to reformers about the dilemmas of reform.
While governments and the educational systems they control will continue to be concerned about the outcomes of schooling and their political consequences, and thus call for reform, little will be accomplished if teachers do not understand and support these reforms. That is all too clear! However, it should be added and underscored that the quality, indeed the possibility, of those reforms will depend on what can be learned from the systematic examination by all of the experience of teachers---on the negative feedback needed so that the emperor does not show up without clothes.
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