Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Research versus 'Real-Search': A Candid Look at Restructuring and an Alternative Path to Excellence

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Research versus 'Real-Search': A Candid Look at Restructuring and an Alternative Path to Excellence

Article excerpt

To identify the correlates of effective teaching, Mr. Cohen and Ms. Seaman reasoned, why not go directly into the schools, ask faculty members and administrators to point out the best teachers, and then observe them at work? Their visits to 16 teachers in four high schools yielded some surprising findings.

The current literature on education features two dominant themes. First, American education is now regarded as substandard, and second, only a major restructuring of our schools will make us competitive again. Not surprisingly, however, there is broad disagreement concerning how to restructure; problems are typically easier to identify than to solve. The continuum of solutions ranges from calling for national curricula, standards, and testing to eliminating formal curricula entirely in favor of a focus on understanding, problem solving, and critical thinking. A host of other proposed solutions seeks to combine elements from both ends of the spectrum. But is restructuring actually occurring in our schools, and are there other forms of inquiry besides traditional research that might uncover excellent instructional practices?

Frequent articles by researchers about pilot programs suggest that a growing number of schools are actually restructuring and adopting new strategies. Some would argue, however, that there is a difference between research and what we choose to call "real-search," an alternative method for identifying excellence. Would visits to schools actually support what is reported in the literature?

Public school personnel tend to believe that most research is conducted by university-based professors who make occasional forays into the schools. Pilot programs tend to be based on theoretical models that have been developed outside of the schools. For example, a university-based team might hypothesize that interdisciplinary instruction would be a more effective instructional model than the fragmented, discipline-based instructional system used by most schools today. Researchers would then establish pilot programs to validate this hypothesis.

There seems to us to be a more direct method of identifying and disseminating excellent teaching practices. In the 1980s, Ronald Edmonds, Lawrence Lezotte, and others began the Effective Schools movement, which identified common elements - "correlates" - of effective schools. Would it not be equally possible, we wondered, for a team of school-based personnel to observe a variety of teachers noted for their instructional excellence and identify the correlates of effective teaching? These correlates would in no way negate the work of researchers but could reveal an equally important set of teaching skills that might even reinforce some of the changes called for by restructurers. We decided to give it a try.

The Plan

To identify excellent teachers, we relied on what we considered to be an axiom in education: the best and the worst teachers in any school are known to their colleagues. So we decided simply to ask a building principal and the head of that building's teacher association to agree on a small group of teachers deemed to be excellent by all parties, including parents and students. If representatives of both the administration and the faculty could agree on some selections, would this not provide us with a sample of genuinely excellent teachers? And if, for political or other reasons, they could not or were not willing to agree on some selections, would not that school be inappropriate for our study?

We had concerns, though, that the teachers thus selected might not represent a variety of instructional practices. Would principals be tempted to show off the avant-garde? Would officials from the teacher association be inclined to favor the status quo? We hoped that we had built enough balance into our experimental design to guarantee some variety. Besides, we were primarily interested in teaching excellence - no matter from which part of the instructional continuum it came. …

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