California dreaming

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Milbrey W McLaughlin argues that reforms work best when teachers are their driving force. The perceived mismatch between what America expects and what students and teachers can do unleashed an avalanche of initiatives to raise standards, change curriculum, and restructure schools.

The 1994 Goals 2000 federal legislation calls for "world class" academic standards - for example, to be the first in the world in maths and science by 2000 - and, just as significantly, to provide the most challenging content to all students, not just high-fliers.

New standards for practice are coming from outside the usual policy system, from professional associations of teachers, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, or independent national groups, such as the New Standards Project. These new standards assume students learn best when they can actively construct their own knowledge using higher-order thinking skills. They call for practices more rigorous than that found in most classrooms today.

Real-life classrooms complicate this ambitious agenda. More immigrants have arrived in America's classrooms than at any time since 1900, creating a huge diversity of students, many with limited English. One out of four American children now lives in poverty. More students with special needs are in "mainstream" classes. These stresses defy a formulaic approach to professional development.

The policy problem for professional development is how to support teachers in reflecting critically on their practice and fashioning new knowledge and beliefs about pedagogy, and learners.

Goals 2000 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) acknowledge that teachers' professional development is critical to the key role teachers must play in the reform agenda.

Rather than being directed from on high, teachers are now central players in designing assessments and content standards. In California, the Department of Education established the California Assessment Collaborative, which supports a variety of school and district pilot projects in assessment. Nationally, teachers play a major role in the New Standards Project. Reformers agree that teachers' participation in assessing student work is perhaps the single most potent opportunity for change.

Teachers' work on content standards also occasions reconsideration of practice. New York and California are piloting the School Quality Review, in which teachers alter curricula and assess practices.

Teachers' professional organisations are also assuming a newly central function in fostering critical inquiry among teachers. For example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the American Federation of Teachers are sponsoring regional and national conferences to debate and develop standards; electronic networks, journals; distribution of CD-Roms, interactive videos, and text to help teachers re-think practice.

Learning communities are the key form of support for teachers' learning and change. Researchers at Stanford University found in a sample of more than 900 teachers, that those who could move toward new images of teaching and learning all were in some type of learning community. Teachers working in isolated "egg-carton" settings did not succeed in changing.

Institutes involving school-based teams of teachers, administrators and parents are launching school reforms in Indiana and Kentucky. This type of collaboration is prominent in such successive initiatives as James Comers' School Development Program, and Henry Levin's Accelerated Schools.

Essential to all of these is an outside agent - coach, consultant, advisor - which functions as a "critical friend", providing feedback and new ideas. California has created an organisation which embodies this role, the Center for School Restructuring, whose sole mission is to create these relationships for schools. Whether organised around subjects, pedagogical problems, or a particular school reform, communities beyond school boundaries legitimise teacher dialogue and support risk-taking. Examples include: * School-university collaborations, when they are true partnerships, can produce more practical, contextualised theory, and more theoretically grounded practice.

* Teacher-to-teacher and school-to-school networks enable teachers to work collectively on problems. The success of these networks in the United States demonstrates that help helps: teachers rethink subject matter and student learning.

* Collaborations between schools and the private sector help teachers to acquire new expertise in their subject areas, as well as experience of their students' future workplaces. In California, the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education has given teachers 763 summer fellowships in businesses and government laboratories.

The policy challenge is to foster "bottom up" reform with "top-down" support. Successful professional development policies will stay close to teachers' concerns and experience, while recognising the need for serious intellectual work within supportive communities.

Professor Milbrey W McLaughlin, Stanford University, California, USA.

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