A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Systemic Reform: Perspectives on Personalizing Education - September 1994

Teachers' Professional Development in a Climate of Educational Reform

Judith Warren Little

This essay posits a problem of "fit" between five streams of reform and prevailing configurations of teachers' professional development. It argues that the dominant "training" model of teachers' professional development--a model focused primarily on expanding an individual repertoire of well-defined and skillful classroom practice--is not adequate to the ambitious visions of teaching and schooling embedded in present reform initiatives. Emerging alternatives to the training model, though small in scale, embody assumptions about teacher learning and the transformation of schooling that appear more fully compatible with the complex demands of reform and the equally complex contexts of teaching.

The essay begins by posing some of the ways in which current reform movements shape challenges, possibilities, and constraints for teachers' professional development. Section two frames a policy dilemma that revolves around the limitations of the dominant training paradigm for purposes of achieving the reform agenda. A third section introduces principles that seem especially congruent with reform requirements, together with examples of four options that appear to hold promise. The final section outlines selected issues that bear on the fit between reform imperatives and teachers' professional development and that thereby inform the criteria for assessing professional development policy choices.

Two caveats preface the broader argument. First, the discussion concentrates exclusively, or nearly so, on teachers. For principled and pragmatic reasons it places teachers at the center, even while acknowledging the ways in which entire institutions, and all the roles and relations they encompass, are implicated in any reform effort. Second, the essay reflects certain reservations about any stance that places teachers solely or largely in the role of "implementers" of reform. To be sure, reforms pose certain technical demands demands on the knowledge, skill, judgment, and imagination of individuals. In that sense, the implementation problem at the level of the classroom is real. But reforms also convey certain values and world views. They communicate a vision of what it means to learn, and what it means to be educated; they communicate a vision of schools and teaching, of students and teachers. They are to greater or lesser degrees compatible with the organizational structures and cultures in which persons work. In these crucial ways, powerful reform ideas engage teachers in a broader consideration of the educational enterprise both in and beyond the classroom.

Professional development in the service of "implementation" may obscure questions related to purpose, and may mask the internal contradictions and tensions within and across reform initiatives. To make sensible critiques of proposed reforms requires getting at their underlying assumptions, their social and historical context, the degree to which they are congruent or not with teachers' existing beliefs, commitments, and practices, their probable consequences for students, and the ways in which they vary or converge across communities. By this argument, one test of teachers' professional development is its capacity to equip teachers individually and collectively to act as shapers, promoters, and well-informed critics of reforms. The most robust professional development options will locate problems of "implementation" within this larger set of possibilities.

Professional Development and the Reform Agendas

Five streams of reform, both singly and in combination, present complex challenges to teachers as individuals and as members of a wider professional community. Those challenges are illustrated, though not exhausted, in the descriptions that follow. The test of teachers' professional development opportunities resides in their capacity to engage teachers in the kinds of study, investigation, and experimentation required to understand and undertake the multiple challenges described here, and to grasp the relationships among them.

Reforms in subject matter teaching (standards, curriculum, & pedagogy)

Reforms in subject matter standards, curriculum content, and pedagogy increasingly aspire toward more ambitious student outcomes. Among them one would count the shift to a whole language and literature-based approach to language arts, the new mathematics standards, proposals for integrated science curricula and the like. Among them, too, one would place conceptions of "authentic achievement" that require a fundamental change in the nature of students' intellectual tasks and teacher-student relations (Newmann, 1990). These reforms constitute a departure from canonical views of curriculum and from textbook-centered or recitation-style teaching. They demand a greater facility among teachers for integrating subject content, and for organizing students' opportunities to learn. They represent, on the whole, a substantial departure from teachers' prior experience, established beliefs, and present practice. Indeed, they hold out an image of conditions of learning for children that their teachers have themselves rarely experienced.

In addition, individual teachers may be pressed to move on many fronts at once (see Hargreaves, 1990, 1992; Little, 1992a). Elementary teachers must absorb the changes in content and method associated with an entire spectrum of the elementary curriculum. The rotating "curriculum adoption" schedules for the California state frameworks, for example, could keep elementary teachers permanently in "implementation of innovation" mode an exhausting prospect. Secondary teachers are asked to consider possibilities for interdisciplinary curricula at precisely the time they are asked to reconsider their approaches to subject matter teaching the latter reinforced by new state curriculum frameworks, standardized test protocols, subject-specific university admission requirements, textbook design, and the like. Meanwhile, reforms aimed at "critical thinking" sit in tension with the basic skills reforms that began in the 1960s and are still a prominent part of the urban school improvement landscape (Carlson, 1992).

Reforms centered on problems of equity among a diverse student population

Equity reforms respond to the persistent achievement disparities among students from differing family backgrounds, and are aimed at altering both the demonstrated achievement and school completion rates of the lowest achieving groups. Over the past decades, such reforms have centered largely on remedying individual student deficiencies. Although more recent analyses have pointed with increasing specificity and persuasiveness toward institutional structures and norms that define and contribute to student failure (for example, Fine, 1991; Oakes, 1985, 1992), programmatic remedies continue to focus on students' individual skills (and deficits). (We could ask the question, for example, Why does tracking in the high school persist despite so much discrediting evidence?) There are a few exceptions in which reforms in school organization target specifically the structures of students' opportunity to learn; these range from the charter schools experiment in Philadelphia high schools (Fine, 1992) to a single teacher's efforts to "untrack" an Advanced Placement English class (Cone, 1992). By comparison to individualistic remedies (to what is arguably a systemic and structural problem), these efforts are few in number; most school "restructuring" proposals are founded on other assumptions and strategies.

Advances in professional development, too, have centered on problems of diversity and equity in individual classrooms assisting teachers to identify and alter classroom practices that contribute to student failure and that undermine "equal opportunity to learn." The most promising of these efforts engage teachers collectively in studying classroom practices in ways that sometimes lead to more systemic changes at the school level (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 1992; Cone, 1992). They do so by building a norm conducive to the close scrutiny of well-established practices and by building a capacity for organizational change.

Reforms in the nature, extent, and uses of student assessment

Reform proposals argue for more widespread and rigorous use of authentic assessment. Yet the technical advances in assessment have typically lagged behind the formulation of standards and the advances in curriculum design. State and local policy makers continue to judge the success of reform efforts on the basis of standardized test scores. Components of statewide tests that strike teachers as most "authentic" (for example, writing samples or open- ended math reasoning items) are also those most difficult and expensive to develop and to score. In areas other than language arts and math, they may also be relatively underdeveloped especially where they call for synthesis across subject areas, as in the "exhibitions" favored by the Coalition of Essential Schools. At the local level, teachers' expressed interest in and commitment to alternative forms of assessment far exceeds their professed skill and confidence in constructing, evaluating, or incorporating such alternatives and also exceeds the resources presently available from the research and test development communities. Yet local discussions do not and cannot wait upon the psychometricians advances. In schools embarked upon reinventing, redesigning, and restructuring themselves, teachers wrestle with the criteria for good work, and the forms in which it might be expressed.

Reforms in the social organization of schooling

The recurrent strains of criticism throughout the 1980s culminate in the widespread agreement that business as usual will not suffice. The convergence of interest (and funds) around the broad image of "school restructuring" has been quite astounding. The call to more systemic reform permeates initiatives in "school restructuring" supported by states, private foundations, and, to a lesser extent, projects sponsored by teachers' associations in concert with local schools and districts.

The most ambitious of these initiatives have in common that they are oriented toward principles, not programs or specific practices. The Coalition of Essential Schools, for example, is united by a commitment to nine principles for the "redesign" of secondary schools (Sizer, 1992). Predictably, teachers' commitments to these principles are provisional and uneven in that regard, we have what might appear to be a conventional "implementation of innovation" situation. But the dilemma for school leadership and for professional development goes far deeper in this instance: there is no well-developed picture of what these principles look like in practice. In the scramble to define a model, isolated cases of success become the focus of lore Central Park East springs to mind, but few others (Meier, 1992). And no matter how persuasive the precedent set by any success story, broad principles require close attention to each local context. To fit opportunities for professional development to a campaign for the principled redesign of schooling is arguably a different matter indeed from organizing the training and support to implement a program or a set of readily-transferable practices. Yet we lack descriptions of restructuring initiatives that supply a detailed portrait of the learning demands on teachers and the corresponding professional development responses.

Reforms in the professionalization of teaching

The "professionalization" reforms at the national and state levels center on teachers' demonstrated knowledge base (as reflected in standards for preparation program accreditation and candidate assessment), on conditions surrounding teacher certification and licensure, and on the structure of career opportunities in teaching. At the local level, professionalization tends to take the form of extended assistance to new teachers, expanded career opportunities for experienced teachers, and experiments in site-based decision making. For purposes of this paper, these reforms are interesting principally for the way in which they bear upon the four reform movements discussed above that is, for the way in which they equip teachers both individually and collectively to play an informed and active role in defining the enterprise of education and the work of teaching.

This is not the place to repeat all the major arguments surrounding the professional standing of the teaching occupation, although the reforms have spawned a large and growing literature. Two comments seem germane. First, state and local policy makers seem most readily disposed to support appeals to "professionalization" where they see it as (1) sustaining a reasonably well-prepared and stable teacher workforce; and (2) coupled with assurances of local accountability for student outcomes. Second, initiatives that promise "professionalization" of teaching increasingly expand opportunity and reward in exchange for increased obligation. Teachers are expected to contribute to the support of beginning teachers and to participate in other ways in the improvement of schooling and teaching.

These five streams of reform cannot be done well piecemeal, nor are they reforms that succeed if attempted only in isolated classrooms. As Fine (1992) puts it, the present ventures pursue the "big systemic, educational question..." of transforming whole systems into "educationally and emotionally rich communities of learners" (p. 2). This suggests quite a different organization of learning opportunity (and obligation) than one that supplies teachers with measured increments in knowledge, skill, and judgment from a known pool of "effective" classroom practices.


[Table of Contents] [The Policy Dilemma]