The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

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

Chapter 5 - Teachers and the Teaching Profession
in the United States
(Part 2 of 3)

Teachers' Working Conditions

In this section, I describe commonalities among U.S. schools, as well as ways in which teachers—and researchers— perceived schools to differ. The variability is due in large part to the strong reliance on local property taxes to fund U.S. schools. Teachers in low-income schools are shown to face the greatest challenges within the classroom and yet have the fewest resources to address them. Reform efforts, therefore, have differential effects on teachers, depending on the type of school and district in which they work. Also, as will be demonstrated, the effects of reforms initiated at the local, state, and federal levels can be cumulative—and even counter-productive.

In subsequent sections the following questions are addressed:

Uses of Time in the Classroom

United States schools are typically in operation 180 days per year, but teachers are usually expected to work a few days before and a few days after the official school year. All but one of the schools visited—a year-round school—were open from September until sometime in June, a schedule that originated when the United States was predominantly rural and most families lived on farms. The school year is usually divided into two "semesters" (September to mid-late January and late January to June). Virtually all schools we visited operated during the daylight hours, beginning sometime between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. and ending between 2:00 and 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon. Typically, differences in start and end times depend upon bus schedules, i.e., on whether elementary, middle, or secondary students are picked up first or last. Nearly two-thirds of the Case Study teachers reported spending between 7.5 and 9 hours each day at school. A smaller percentage (18 percent) said they spent 6 to 7 hours in the building, while an equal percentage reported being there between 10 and 11.5 hours each day.

Middle and secondary school teachers worked with different groups of students over the course of the day and specialized in particular subjects. Despite their differences, i.e., one "middle" school was located in a K-8 school and another was a "year-round" school, all had shifted from the old "junior high" concept to a "middle school" format in which teachers work in teams. The secondary schools, by contrast, were far more individualized. Teachers belonged to "departments," but their schedules were not coordinated with those of other teachers. Nonetheless, the schedule in secondary schools, orchestrated as it is by bells, which signal the beginning and end of each period, is largely beyond the control of individual teachers. These periods are sometimes referred to as "hours" (e.g., first hour, second hour), although, in the schools visited, a period (except for "double periods") was always less than an actual hour. Typically, students have 4 to 5 minutes to get from one class to another "on time."

Elementary schools. Because elementary school teachers are assigned to one group of students, teachers' schedules among schools and even within schools were found to be highly variable, except for the regulating functions of recess, gym, and lunch. Not only did schools start and end at different times, but teachers also taught subjects at different times of the day and for different lengths of time. In addition, schedules could change from day to day or from one time period to another. Teachers in high-income elementary schools, in comparison to teachers in middle- and low-income elementary schools tended to have the most flexible schedules or the greatest amount of planning/free time, or both.

In every elementary school but one, teachers taught the same group of children most of the day, and they taught all of the principal subjects: language arts, math, science, and social studies. Across elementary schools, math and reading were often—but not always—taught in the morning and science and social studies in the afternoon. In every case, science was scheduled during the last or the second-to-last period of the day. The daily schedule for a fourth-grade class at East Elementary School illustrates a typical schedule at this level of schooling. There were 5 periods in the day ranging from 30 to 80 minutes in length. In addition, there was a lunch break, and the teacher had one planning period a day during which students attended activities outside the classroom, such as physical education, music, art, or library. Math and language arts were taught every morning for 1 hour each. The subjects of science and social studies, however, were taught only 2 days a week each for an extended period of 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Teachers in Rockefeller Elementary School largely ignored state guidelines regarding how time was to be used during the school day. In the classroom of one fourth-grade teacher, I noticed that the schedule on the board was not the schedule she followed. Later, during our interview, I asked her about this, and she laughed, "I see my curriculum as a balanced diet. They won't have everything every day, but, over time, the children get everything they need." This teacher had "planning" time when the students in her class went to other teachers for physical education (three times a week), art and music (twice a week), computer (not every week), library (not every week), and lunch. A math resource teacher also came to work with the class three times a week (for one-half hour each time). The teacher went outside with the children during recess, a time she described as being enjoyable, because it provided an opportunity to speak with other teachers.

In this school, teachers virtually ignored dictates from the state not only regarding the use of time but also regarding testing practices. One teacher commented: "If you are interested in test score results, we are not the best school to look at, because we don't care about that." In another conversation, a teacher bristled: "The stupidest thing they ever did was to concoct state-mandated tests. Don't they realize that kids aren't all the same?"

At Midtown Elementary, time use was dictated both by the state and by the district school board. A fourth-grade teacher graphically described the effect of this regulation:

Teacher: You know the district is saying you need to have this, then you need to have so many hours, you need to have . . . . you know. And I guess the hours are state-mandated and, you know, this needs to be done by this date and then . . . .

Interviewer: When you say hours what do you mean?

Teacher: For fourth-grade level you need to have in your day 170 minutes—is it 175 minutes?—of language arts. Math is 60 minutes, and this is daily, and we're getting all this pushed at us, and it's [voice changes] OK, I'll fit it in here; I'll fit it in here, and . . . . If it's not done, then basically you get slapped on the hand and told, well, you've just ruined everything.

This teacher later explained the frustration of being caught in the middle when the school is promulgating one approach but the state requires that a certain amount of time be spent on each subject:

You have to have these hours and so you have to put them in somehow and you have these minutes, and you have to put them in somewhere. We're trying to go to whole language, but then we have all these structures that are saying, well, you have to use this many minutes. Well, how can you get too many minutes in a whole-language program?

Teachers at Parks Elementary had even less control over time. They had to account for every minute of their day by keeping lesson plans that listed the activity planned for each subject area and the time allotted for it, and these had to be turned in to—and approved by—the principal at the end of each week. Because students are constantly pulled out of classes for second-language instruction or pulled in as part of the "inclusion" program, teachers felt they must teach key subjects when the greatest number of children are present.

Teachers in Rockefeller Elementary taught classes that were more homogeneous; they had smaller classes and more assistance, experienced more control over the curriculum, and expressed more enjoyment in practicing their craft than did teachers in the low- or middle-income area schools.

Secondary schools. As mentioned above, secondary teachers also have their time partitioned over the course of the day, but they specialize in a particular subject or subjects and teach different groups of children as the day progresses. Secondary schools differ in the number—and length—of periods across the school day. For Case Study teachers these ranged from six to nine periods. All teachers had a period for "planning" and a period for lunch.

Most science teachers have "double periods," so that there will be time for laboratory work. When I asked an earth science/geology teacher about the purpose of the double period, he explained it in this way:

To allow you to do a decent lab. You could do labs in 42 minutes . . . . but [a double period] gives you a chance to do some really in-depth labs, some higher-level labs. If you figure a 42-minute period, by the time you've taken attendance, got the kids on to what you're talking about, let's say that's 5 minutes. Then you've got to go through introducing the lab and getting all the materials out and set up. That's at least another 10 minutes. Then they get going on it. Well, you've already lost 15 minutes, so you're down to, what, 30, less than 30 minutes, 25 minutes. Then you've got to have them conduct the lab. Well, if you want to do something scientifically . . . . you want to get as many trials as possible. And if you're only allowing 20—well, you've got 10 minutes for clean up—you're down to about 15 minutes. You can't get anything done.

With extra time, he explained, "you can have more of an introduction and more follow-up afterwards." Lab time was generally valued by the science teachers—and structured into their day. The weekly schedule for this teacher appears in table 3 below.

Table 3 – Weekly teaching schedule of a secondary science teacher

Period Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
1 earth science earth science earth science earth science earth science
2 earth science (prep time) earth science (prep time) (prep time)
3 geology geology geology geology geology
4 geology (prep time) geology (prep time) (prep time)
5 lunch lunch lunch lunch lunch
6 geology geology geology geology geology
7 geology study hall geology study hall study hall
8 geology geology geology geology geology
4 geology (prep time) geology (prep time) (prep time)
NOTE: Two successive periods are lab sessions. This teacher had addtional preparation time allotted because he was responsible for lab work in two subjects.

Uses of Time Outside the Classroom

Supervisory duties. In some cases, teachers performed supervisory duties as part of their teaching load; in other cases, it was for additional pay; in still other cases, teachers were relieved of such responsibilities. Some teachers described supervisory duties that were assigned when there was a reduced academic load.

One middle school science and math teacher explained that because she had a double period off—"no elective this term"—she had cafeteria duty all week. An elementary teacher said that the previous year teachers could volunteer for lunch duty for extra pay. However, this year parent "aides" had been hired to do this work. Some teachers described "bus duty." A fourth-grade teacher said that she had bus duty four times a year. She felt this was "no big deal." She met the children at the bus about 8:00 a.m. and escorted them to the gym where they played until 8:15. Then they were free to go to their classrooms. A middle school teacher in a high-income district described "contract lunch duty" as "a stipend for people who need the extra income." She said she saw value in it when she did have it—"a no-brainer"—but also "value in being in your room at that time, because our kids are so overscheduled outside of school that lots of the make-up time is during lunch." Other teachers had "hall duty," and, in one urban high school visited, teachers on hall duty were expected to "stand guard" for the period. They were equipped with walkie-talkies, so that they could request help.

Interaction with other teachers. Both the isolation of the work and the number of hours that U.S. teachers are scheduled to teach work against the informal collegiality and mentoring that may exist among teachers in other countries. As noted in America's Teachers (USDE 1993a, p. 128):

The isolation of classroom work has been commented upon by a number of researchers who study teachers and their work. Teachers have less contact with their peers than do many other professionals. In fact, some classroom teachers rarely communicate with other adults during the workday, and even fewer teachers frequently consult with peers or supervisors concerning professional challenges.

The average teacher who teaches in a department is responsible for five periods of instruction per day, allowing little time or opportunity for professional interaction. As Louis (1992, p. 150) concluded from results of a study of teachers' work, "What mattered most to teachers was a resource—time—that was, either by policy or by practice, within the discretion of the school. Time was important because it was the backbone for staff development and collaborative work efforts." In a study of teachers' work, Johnson noted that collegial interactions were pushed to the margins of the workday, such as before and after school and while supervising recess, leading to superficial exchanges. "Virtually never did schools reserve adequate time to encourage teachers' continuing collaboration or convey the organizational message that time spent with colleagues was legitimate and would likely improve teaching and schooling" (Johnson 1990, p. 149).

Interviews with Case Study teachers confirmed these research reports. Teachers generally reported that they had little time to interact with other teachers during the school day. Although there was a teachers' lounge in each of the schools visited, none was crowded on the days visited. The ambiance of these spaces varied considerably across schools. In Midtown Elementary, the lounge was used more as a workroom/lunchroom than a lounge. It was filled with long tables and metal chairs, a soda machine, cutting board, and laminating machine. Teachers used the small adjoining kitchen to make individual cups of coffee. In Rockefeller Elementary, the lounge had plants in the window and flowering plants on the tables. A pot of coffee was made, and fresh bread was set out on a table. The room contained comfortable couches and chairs and a profusion of magazines. A telephone and computer were also available, as was a photocopy machine in an adjoining room. In both these schools, however, only a fraction of the teaching staff was observed in the rooms briefly before school and during lunchtime.

In general, there was little time for the teachers in all of the schools to interact with other adults for extended periods of time during the school day. Only the middle school teachers, who met in teams, had scheduled time to plan and confer with others on a regular basis. The middle schools generally espoused a "team" approach, and teachers at each were making efforts to meet on a somewhat more regular basis. Even so, there was variability across sites. A teacher at East Middle School stated that she met with her team "20 minutes at lunch" and for occasional planning. By contrast, teachers at King Junior High in Metro City met everyday. They explained that their eighth-grade team was new; two teachers had taught seventh-graders the previous year, and two were new to the district. Thus, they had met once a week throughout the summer "to get organized." The team is composed of five "subject matter" teachers (math, science, language arts, "thematic studies" or reading, and social studies) and a special education teacher. They all teach the same 150 students.

At this school the schedule was organized to maximize teacher collaboration. As the team leader explained, "We use the time; it doesn't use us." For example, a teacher might teach three classes of 40 minutes each in the morning, have personal planning time and lunch, then teach two classes, have "team time," and a homeroom period for discussions and announcement (10 minutes). Since both the seventh- and eighth-grade science teachers were new, there was enough flexibility in the schedule for them to work together as well, and they reported using that time to organize supplies and help each other with lessons. Teams could also "block the schedule" so that they could have all students together for special events such as "mousetrap races," a math/science project, a play, or film.

Many other teachers said they saw other teachers "in passing" or "in the hall." When they did see others, they reported talking about things unrelated to school. For example, one secondary school teacher commented that he and other teachers had a "no shop" rule at lunch-meaning that it was taboo to talk about school—related issues. Virtually all teachers said that they were expected to attend regularly scheduled departmental or all-school meetings. A few teachers also reported that teachers in their building had organized routine social time. For example, teachers in two of the elementary schools tried to go out for lunch on Fridays, but this was described as a mad dash to a local fast-food restaurant, rather than a relaxing time away. A middle school teacher told of "Fat Friday" at her school. Once a month people took turns bringing in doughnuts, which encouraged teachers to congregate for brief periods of time. About one-third of the teachers interviewed reported seeing other teachers socially outside of school.

Time out of school. Some of the teachers in this study described a clear separation between work and home or between their professional and personal lives. This separation had both temporal and spatial markers. That is, these teachers tended to describe teaching as work that was time and space specific, delimited by the school day and by the school walls. Comments such as the following characterized this orientation:

Teacher 1: I try to keep work separate from the rest of my life, so I try not to take it [schoolwork] home with me. (Male high school math teacher)

Teacher 2: I leave at 4:00 p.m. If I can't get everything done [by] then, what is left can wait. (Female middle school math teacher)

Teacher 3: If it doesn't get done at school, it doesn't get done. (Male high school science teacher)

Teacher 4: I feel more refreshed and enjoy work more if I can get away for some time each day. (Female fourth-grade teacher)

A Springdale High School mathematics teacher commented that his "family comes first, so I don't like to take things home with me. There is enough time for me to do everything I need to do here." A male science teacher had three small children at home and was responsible for them in the evenings, while his wife worked. He reported doing schoolwork before school, on weekends, and "in the spaces."

Many teachers described doing grading or preparation in the evenings or on weekends. A number of teachers commented that they had to work extraordinarily hard (e.g., "every waking moment," "100 hours a week") when they first started teaching, but once they could draw on a backlog of experience, they felt they could ease up. However, there was no clear correlation between length of experience and amount of time teachers reported spending on schoolwork in or out of school.

For still other teachers, schoolwork has no clear boundaries; teaching for them is an all-consuming profession. These teachers expressed a love for teaching-both for the students and the subject. Nearly all taught in "high-income" schools. The exception was a female math teacher who prided herself on having six preparations at Uptown High, a multiethnic high school in an urban district.

I love calculus. I've taught that for 19 years, with very good success, and approximately 75 percent of my students have passed the AP test. That's taking all the years together. About 2 years ago, I had 96 percent [pass]—just one student who did not pass. We're talking about 23 students in a regular old high school. We had the best results of all the public schools in the city of Pine. Better than the magnet schools and the specialty schools. And the kids have gone on to college. I have contact with a lot of them. A lot of them are now working as engineers, doctors, and computer people, doing all kinds of wonderful things. A lot of them come back, or call me up, write me a note.

An elementary teacher described arriving at school at 6:30-6:45 a.m. and sometimes staying until 9:00 p.m. at night. She was in charge of staff development for the district, and, though "exhausted," her eyes sparkled as she described the wealth of experiences she helps to orchestrate: an all-school journal, a young authors' conference "where their stories are sent to published authors," and a unit on South Africa. Words like "wonderful," "extraordinary," and "exhilarating" animated the conversation of these teachers, sometimes along with phrases like "I don't know how long I can keep this up" or "I'm exhausted much of the time."

An AP biology teacher, who has student experiments littering her classroom and who does "real science" with a small number of students before school and on weekends, described her involvement:

Well, I usually get there before 7:30 a.m.; on lab days I get there between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. It's certainly not unusual for me to stay until between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. at night. It just gets away from me . . . . I'll put in a long night at home, but it's hard to do that if I don't have to because I'm so exhausted. If you get up at 4:30 a.m. and it's 9:00 a.m., you're not real efficient. And usually I'll catch up on the weekends . . . . I mean, science is a lot of work. The good scientist, somebody who's really cutting edge, they're (sic) probably spending 80 hours a week in the lab minimum. You know, they're in there all the time. It's . . . . a day and night kind of job. So I don't know, I wonder sometimes how long I'm going to last. I do. I honestly do. I can't imagine myself teaching at this level of involvement for too long.

Methods of Teaching Math and Science

Teachers discussed and exhibited a variety of teaching practices, ranging from teacher controlled to learner centered. These included lecturing, a "question-and-answer" format, group work, "hands-on" activity, and individualized instruction. Examples of each will be described.

Observations of the teaching of math and science revealed, in general, that practices did not differ notably across grade levels and across sites. In most instances, teachers were in charge and controlled the interaction. They lectured and asked questions on a particular topic, expecting students to "fill in the blank," i.e., provide the precise answer they were looking for, so that the logic of the argument they were building could be demonstrated. Some teachers did this with remarkable skill; they appeared to be thoroughly grounded in their subject and presented material in an interesting, logical, and sometimes entertaining manner. This was particularly true when experienced and dedicated teachers were teaching students who were considered "advanced."

Lectures. At Uptown High, I observed a chemistry class taught by Mr. V. He had taught for over 35 years and was planning to retire soon. There were 23 students in the class, 19 of whom were Asian American. All sat on stools at lab tables. The teacher remained at the front of the class during the period, pacing back and forth and writing on the board as he spoke. During his interview, Mr. V. told me that he was from the "old school" and liked to lecture. The observation proved to be a case in point; there was more teacher talk—for example, asking and answering his own questions—in the example that follows than was the case in most of the classrooms observed.

Teacher: Suppose I wrote the equilibrium this way:

SO2 + 1/2 O2 = SO3

SO3 = SO2 + 1/2 O2

If I only know this, how do I write the relationship?

Student: It's a reciprocal.

Teacher: Yes, when we reverse, the constants change and become a reciprocal.

What's the relationship in terms of their K? [K is an equilibrium constant.]

He writes an elaborate formula on the board. For the most part, the teacher talks and develops the argument. Occasionally he will ask a question that can be answered in a word or brief sentence.

He then shows how the formulae look with gases, and then presents a `famous equation.'

[Note: In this equation, P = pressure, V = volume, T = temperature, and R = ideal gas constant.]

At the teacher's question, a student explains that (n) indicates moles per liter at equilibrium. The teacher then describes chemical equations that utilize the ideal gas law. After writing the assignment on the board, he explains homogeneous equilibrium.

For most of the lessons the teacher lectures, both asking questions and answering them in rhetorical fashion. He is well versed in his subject and "getting it right" is important to him. However, the fact that he uses this mode of instruction suggests that he is primarily concerned with subject matter. Most students are attentive and try to follow the logic of his argument.

Initiation-response-evaluation. In this sequence, a teacher asks a question (initiation), a student provides a response (response), and the teacher then evaluates its merits (evaluation). Teachers may also provide an explanation. One example will suffice:

An eighth-grade algebra class: The problem is 3 x - 4 = y.

Teacher: How do I get it over here? If 4 is being subtracted here, how do I get it to the other side?

Student: Add it.

The teacher writes the correct answer on the board: 3 x - y = 4.

Teacher: OK, add it. Number 15?

y - 2 = 4 x + 20
  + 2          + 22

So how can I get it in my general linear equation form?

Student: 4 x - y = 22

Teacher: Yeah, because added here, we have to subtract to get it to the other side. (King Junior High School female math teacher in her thirties)

Group work. Few teachers observed over the course of this project involved students in-group work. In the cases in which they did, students seemed either not to know how to work with others or indicated that they did not wish to do so. A physics teacher who lectured on the day I visited said that he had shifted his students to cooperative groups. After the first day or two when he introduced a new topic, students determined when and how they would perform their experiments and discussed both the procedures and the findings with one another. He had closely monitored their experience and found that students did as well through this approach as they had done previously through more "conventional" methods.

In one combined eighth-grade algebra and geometry class in West Middle School, it was apparent that students were not accustomed either to working together or to working with manipulatives. In the example that follows, the geometry students worked quietly on problems that were assigned, while the teacher introduced the multiplication of polynomials to the algebra students, first by using a black "rectangle" and colored plastic shapes on the overhead projector and then providing manipulative kits to allow students to work out problems in-groups.

The materials were brand new, and it was clear the students had not worked with them before. The majority of time was spent removing the plastic wrap, trying to figure out how to put the boxes together, and classifying the various pieces into sets. As the students worked, the teacher helped the geometry students individually. Two of the four groups put the manipulatives away after putting the kits together and proceeded to work out the problems individually with calculators.

As the period drew to a close, the teacher began to collect the kits. She circulated among the algebra and geometry students until the bell rang.

This teacher later confided to me that the students did not use the materials as much as she wanted them to, although she expected that they would use them more in the next lesson, which covered the chapter on factoring. She expressed a liking for creative, hands-on approaches to learning and saw value in shifting formats and allowing students to collaborate in-groups. She appeared secure in her knowledge of students and of subject matter and willing to "take the chance" of introducing new experiences into her classroom, even though doing so is a complicated affair, since she must juggle two classes at the same time, but also because the students seem to have difficulty—or perhaps a lack of interest—in working together.

An eighth-grade science teacher in Metropolitan School also valued group work and "hands-on" activities. Once again, however, it appeared that these students did not really know how to work together constructively. The teacher had listed on the board the six materials they would use to create float and sink columns. I observed the group of seven nearest me.

Student (female): Now I told y'all that it would float, and it did (putting wood in the water) . . . . It's just common sense, because boats float across the river.

Teacher: (To one group) You have to do each object.

Teacher: OK, did the clay float? Listen. There is one object that you said would float that sank. What object was that? Now try to make it float.

A student asks if the temperature of the water makes a difference.

Teacher: No, it's not the control.

One student flattens the clay. A couple of students throw the clay at each other. One girls yells for the teacher. She retrieves the clay and flattens it even more.

Student: Put it in the water, Christina.

It sinks, and another student pulls it from the water.

Student: (rolls it into ball, then flattens it.)

Student: (tells him to roll it into a snake.)

He does and it sinks. A girl takes it and shapes it into a canoe shape. I think she saw what another group had done. The canoe sinks. Another girl makes the sides higher, and it works, but a boy quickly snatches it and rolls it in his hand just as the teacher says, "I have to see it." Two boys try to do what the girl did, but the clay sinks. A boy tries to grab it from a girl. Just as she is almost finished with a design similar to the previous one, Christina grabs the clay from her, squishes it in a paper towel and starts over. It sinks. A boy pushes a wooden block into it. It sinks. He presses the clay onto the block and gets it to float that way temporarily, but it quickly detaches and sinks. The teacher tells him to share the clay. He asks why it doesn't work, but she doesn't hear or acknowledge the question. The teacher says that they only have 5 minutes left. Except for one time early in the session when one student tried to modify what another had done, each has collapsed the clay and started anew.

Although cooperative learning and team teaching have figured prominently in discussions of school reform, only two of the classes observed were found to be engaged in-group work.

Hands-on learning. In some cases, teachers stressed the importance of "hands-on" learning. Others, however, expressed doubt or, at least, uncertainty that students would actually derive what they needed to know from working with materials. A third-grade teacher at Midtown Elementary described the dilemma:

I'll put out the manipulatives. OK, it's time to play a little bit, but then I'm not sure they're getting the idea. You know . . . . The ones that probably need to use the manipulatives are the ones that need to work faster. So, I don't know. I have to work the system out somehow.

Perhaps conveying a more generalized ambivalence, another teacher in this school said that when math manipulatives had been introduced 2 years earlier, the teachers had referred to them as "projectiles."

At East Elementary School, a fourth-grade teacher had developed a science curriculum that contained a "hands-on" component. In this school, the two teachers at this grade level specialize; one teaches science and math, and the other language arts and social studies. The math/science teacher valued the fact that she could concentrate on two subjects and prepare them well, and she had amassed a great many materials. She also provided "double period" science for each group.

On the day I observed the teacher first engaged the students in a discussion of matter and the elements. They then watched a video on matter, the weight of matter, and change of state. It lasted 15 minutes and was presented in simple English with demonstrations of all concepts (such as melting, evaporation, condensation, and freezing). After discussing what they had seen, the teacher explained that they would be using nuts and bolts to construct their own "molecules."

She wrote the following "elements" on the board and told the children that they are to use two or three of each.

Long bolt Lo
Short bolt Sh
Wing nut Wg
Hex nut Hx

The children work intently. As they finished, the teacher told them to exchange their molecule with another group and to write the formula for that molecule. She went around the room to check. The children came up with the following formulas:

LoShHx2Wg Lo2Wg3Hx
Wg2HxLoSh Lo2HxLoSh
Lo2Hx3Wg2 ShHx2Wg

At 1:40 p.m. the children were told to take their molecules apart. A student collected the bags. The teacher asked if they now felt confident about writing formulas. She discussed some of the difficulties she had witnessed, such as children writing superscripts rather than subscripts or making the numbers rather than the letters large. Finally, she distributed a worksheet and went over the terms.

Teacher: What are the two groups that would classify elements?

After a few wrong answers (charged, not charged; positive and negative):

Child: Metal and nonmetal.

Teacher: Elements are made of . . . .

Child: Atoms.

Teacher: Tell me about a nucleus.

After they went through all of the terms, the children were given a brief assignment that involved organizing the terms that had been covered.

This teacher had gone to a special program dealing with elementary leadership in math and science for 3 weeks during the summer, and for 1 week the following summer as well as meetings throughout the year. She said she got "state-of-the-art" training in math. Then the principal asked her to teach science. At first she was apprehensive: "The old district science curriculum was awful, and the new one is just as bad . . . . It doesn't follow any published curriculum, and no support or materials are provided. The books are useless." She started out borrowing the fifth-grade books. She said that after attending the special program she felt she was able to teach science and math in an interesting and constructive manner.

Individualized instruction. Rockefeller Elementary was well known for the staff's efforts to individualize instruction. The teacher-made curriculum in mathematics in this school is organized around nine topics, each of which is signaled by a different color (e.g., numeration (blue), addition (pink), subtraction (yellow), multiplication (green)). There are nine levels to numeration, six each for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and eight for mixed operations. Importantly, the levels have nothing to do with grade levels. For example, second-graders will do levels three and four in addition. The central idea behind the approach is that children work independently on what they need and where they are. The "Notes to Teachers" underscores this fact. This is a school "where individualized instruction is a reality. Children's needs come before a planned curriculum." The guide provides "materials developed for children by teachers who teach children."

In the example below, there were 21 children in a 4th-grade class, although only 17 were present. Two "special education" teachers were also in the room, working one-on-one with two boys. A math resource teacher had just finished working on factoring.

I am writing as she leaves and fails to notice the shift in to individualized instruction.

The children have pulled out spiral workbooks and begun working. The regular classroom teacher sits with a small group of children (the children are grouped into clusters formed by having four or five desks pushed together) and speaks softly with them. Throughout the session, she moves from cluster to cluster but sits each time and looks over children's work. The workbooks are different colors. Yellow is the book on subtraction; orange is division, and purple for mixed operations.

At 10:10 a.m., the teacher announces a multiplication speed test. There is some movement and talking while forms are distributed. At 10:13 a.m., the teacher asks if they have their names on their papers: "I'm getting ready. Are you ready? GO!" The students have 2 minutes. After this time, the teacher says, "STOP! Now count the number you did." Some children are excited that they did better than before, while others moan that there is no improvement.

Although it is true that the staff in this school subscribed to an individualized approach to learning, there appeared to be a good deal of discussion about the work, and periods of individualized instruction were balanced with other, still more interactive sessions. Moreover, a critical component of math instruction was what might be characterized as the thrill of competition with oneself (e.g., the reference to "your personal best" above) or with another group (e.g., the "challenge" that one class made to another).

In sum, five types of teaching methods were observed during the course of this study-lecturing, a type of question-and-answer interaction involving initiation, response, and an evaluation (I-R-E) of the response by the teacher, group work, "hands-on" activity, and individualized instruction. The predominant mode was the I-R-E sequence in which the teacher controlled the interaction, asking questions, evaluating answers, and frequently providing the explanation as well.

Physical Environments

The United States is a nation of nearly 250 million people, living in 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and spanning a distance of more than 3,000 miles on the mainland. Nonetheless, there are commonalities among U.S. schools. With only minor exceptions at the secondary level, students are in classes with others of the same age throughout their school careers. Schools are age graded, with children of a particular age range usually housed in a single building. Elementary schools are usually smaller than middle or secondary schools, and they are neighborhood-based. Within school buildings, classrooms also tend to be clustered by age (e.g., K-1, 2-3, 4-5). Teachers have their own classrooms, which they personalize by decorating bulletin boards and displaying students' work. The principal's office is located at the front entrance, and parents and other visitors are expected to stop there before proceeding further into the building. Elementary teachers generally teach all major subjects to the same group of children each year. Elementary school teachers and children are assigned to a new classroom when they move to the next grade.

Middle schools are for children in grades five to eight, six to eight, or six to nine. Middle school teachers specialize in a particular subject area and often work in teams with 4 or 5 teachers who teach other subjects to the same group of 100-150 students. In middle school, students begin to move from one class to another over the course of the day. Teachers tend to have their own classrooms, although they may move to another room or rooms to teach a particular subject. Middle schools often serve children from several "feeder" elementary schools, with children being bused to the school from their neighborhoods.

Secondary schools include grades 9-12 or 10-12. Secondary schools can be quite large, serving several hundred to several thousand students. High school teachers are subject matter specialists who teach different groups of students over the course of the day. Here also students move from one class to another at the end of each session, and, though teachers tend to have their own classrooms, they too may move to a different room as necessary. Teachers are typically expected to be at school a half-hour or so before school begins and to stay in the building during school hours. Case Study teachers varied in the amount of time they actually spent at school.

The design of the Case Study Project included schools in low-, middle-, and high-income communities in three U.S. cities. It became instructive, therefore, to contrast school and community environments. Schools differed in many ways. Many were situated in pleasant areas and conformed to the image of well kept spacious buildings with wide halls, well-equipped classrooms, libraries, and other support services. School districts had obviously allocated significant portions of their budgets to the construction and maintenance of educational facilities.

There were marked exceptions to this image, however. Some schools in suburban areas were located on large campuses with impressive facilities. At Hamilton High school, a school built for 5,000 that serves 3,000, there are remarkable facilities: a planetarium, large library and computer rooms, 15 gymnasiums, a Nautilus fitness center, a gymnastics center, a weight room, a swimming pool and a lap pool, 3 theaters, a store, and a greenhouse.

In stark contrast, South Central is a large gray stone building with heavy metal grates at the windows and a metal detector and armed guard on duty at the school entrance. Teachers in this urban vocational high school patrol every hall, and, in the principal's office, a closed-circuit television screen flips every few seconds from one hallway or stairwell to another. Rooms with computers are locked behind steel doors, and the furnishings and equipment have seen many years of wear.

The demands placed on teachers and the opportunities for them to be effective differed greatly in these different environments. Although the facilities in many schools appeared to be adequate or even outstanding, the contrast in some school environments was mirrored inside classrooms, where teachers faced different challenges and had resources at their disposal that differed both in kind and in amount.

Culture of Expectations with Regard to Students

The principles that organize a school are manifest in many ways, through dress codes, status hierarchies and merit schemes, formal rules and informal norms, and through stories told about what occurs within school walls. How individuals interpret these phenomena, how they talk about their experience—what they believe is possible for themselves and for their students—constitute the "culture" of an organization such as a school (Martin 1992). A thorough examination and analysis of the culture of the schools visited in the course of the Case Study Project is beyond the scope of this inquiry, but several examples of classroom activities give a sense of how teachers in typical and exceptional schools go about the business of teaching in the United States.

In the schools visited during the Case Study Project, teachers typically taught 20-30 students. Courses that are required for graduation tend to have larger enrollments than more advanced courses. Students generally sit in rows facing the teacher, whose desk is at the front of the room; in some schools, teachers occasionally cluster student desks so that children can work in-groups. As the following example illustrates, teachers often present a problem, allow class members some time to work on it, and then reconvene the class in order to demonstrate the answer was obtained.

Teaching at East City High School

Mr. R. teaches trigonometry. The problem he poses for the students is to determine the height of a large balloon observed by 2 person's 2.32 miles apart. The height of the balloon for Individual A is 24 degrees and for Individual B, 37 degrees. Mr. R. draws a diagram of the problem on an overhead projector and points out that the two angles are unequal. He continues with a brief discussion of what it means to bisect an angle. He has been teaching mathematics for 16 years and obviously has a good understanding of the basic elements of the problem.

The students work on the problem in pairs. While they attempt to solve it, Mr. R. moves about the room, asking students in each pair if they need any help. After a few minutes, he returns to the front of the room and begins to ask the class a series of questions: "How are we going to measure the height of the balloon?" "How many feet are there in a mile?" "You haven't any idea? 2,000? 5,000?" When someone in the class answers correctly, Mr. R. asks a student named Julie to "take us through the problem." As she writes the problem on the board, the class quiets down.

Julie's explanation is not clear, and the teacher begins to question her. "How did you get to angle B? Didn't you have to get to angle C first?" They talk back and forth, and the teacher tries to help the student clarify her explanation. The discussion becomes relatively disorganized as other members of the class begin to participate. Once the teacher is satisfied that the essential elements of the solution have been covered, a different problem, using similar principles, is introduced.

As this example illustrates, Mr. R. expected his students to be capable of solving this problem and of providing an explanation of what was needed to solve it. It was also clear that he expected that they would be able to transfer what they had learned to another, similar problem.

Teaching at South Central High School

At South Central High School, teachers exhibited a range of responses to the factors they found to inhibit their ability to teach and students' ability to learn. Mr. J., a teacher in his mid-30s, seemed resigned to the fact that "it is hard to get things done because attendance fluctuates so much." The school principal told us that this school has many dropouts but also many students who come to school infrequently, because they are afraid of gangs, because they are needed at home, or because they do not have money for public transportation.

In the following excerpt from an algebra class occurring in the fifth month of the school year (January), Mr. J. is reviewing for a test that is to be given the following day. Thirty-five students are enrolled; 7 are present.

The book for the class is entitled Algebra in Easy Steps. The teacher asks questions as though he really doesn't expect anyone to answer. Only one student, sitting in the first desk in the middle row directly in front of him, does.

Teacher: On pages 161-162, we had done problems 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10. Now we'll take a little time and do a small review on the board. Who can tell what a monomial is so we can differentiate between the two?

Student: Problem with term limits on it.

Teacher: (answers a knock at the door) Right. The algebraic expression with just one term limit. Polynomial?

Student: Two or more.

Teacher: (as he writes on the board) For example, 3x + 4y is a polynomial because it has two expressions. 3x is a monomial. Let's try a couple of homework problems that we worked. Does this make sense? [No answer.] Does anyone have any questions so far? [No response.]

This teacher perceives himself, as valiantly persisting in a situation that has become largely hopeless. He teaches to the one student who seems genuinely interested in learning what he has to offer.

Teaching at Hamilton High

The classes of the teachers that were observed in this school differ in profound ways from those at South Central Vocational High School. Most students were present, and the teachers were able to deal with subject matter that was more complex, to present material in a more rigorous fashion, and to employ teaching techniques that were interactive. The example that follows is that of an experienced, popular teacher teaching an "average" geometry class.

In Mr. G.'s second-period geometry class there are 25 students in the class, 13 females and 12 males. He has been teaching over 20 years, and he continues to express enthusiasm for math and for teaching. Answers to the previous night's homework are projected onto a screen in one corner of the room. Students check to see if their homework is correct for the first 5 minutes. The class is fast-paced. Over the course of the 42-minute period, Mr. G. reviews the homework as well as hands out—and has the students work through—three worksheets. What follows highlights an extended segment of class time.

Teacher: Draw some pictures on the bottom. Draw the triangles and write the values, using the triangles. Do not just punch a button on your calculator. That is not the objective. I want to get the meaning, not the numerical value, at this point.

The teacher gives them about 2 minutes to do what he requests, and all are working intently.

Teacher: OK, let's take a look at these here. For a sine of 30 degrees, what triangle should I draw?

Student: 30-60-90.

Teacher: 30-60-90. How do I know it has to be 30-60-90?

Student: Because one of the angles is 30.

Teacher: Just because one of the angles is 30?

Student: Because these are right triangles.

Teacher: OK. What we're doing only applies to right triangles, so of course it's a 30-60-90. So what are the lengths?

Student: [can't hear.]

Teacher: There's an idea, What shall we call them then? What would this be? X?

Student: [can't hear.]

Teacher: Uh, I don't think so. The leg is X, and this is X x 2. So what is the sine of a 30-degree angle? How would that go? (Repeats student's response.) Opposite leg would be X over hypotenuse, X over 2X?

Student: One half.

Teacher: One half. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What if we knew the sides? In other words, what if I knew this side was like 6? Then what would happen?

[Repeats student's explanation.] Let's see, this would be 6 x 3, and this would be?

Student: 12

Teacher: And then what would the sine of 30 degrees be? It would be 6 over 12 which is? . . . . one half. [Students are feeding him the answers, but his voice is loud and carrying the thrust of the lesson.] Wait a minute, wait a minute, what if this were 48? The hypotenuse would be?

Student: 96.

Teacher: 96, and the sine of 30 degrees would be? 48 over 96? That's . . . .

Student: One half.

Teacher: You mean it doesn't matter how big the triangle is? It's always the same?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: Ah, why? Why do they have to be the same every time?

Student: Because the hypotenuse is a ratio.

Teacher: Ah, it's a ratio. Well, why do ratios always have to be the same here? Say again.

Student: They are all similar triangles.

Teacher: All similar triangles. Of course the ratios, the corresponding ratios, are the same. Of course they are. They're similar triangles. So what does that mean? Which size triangle can I use to get the sine? Shall I pick this one or this one or this one?

Student: Any one.

Teacher: Any one. So could I even make it real easy, and make this length one? Would that do?

Students are shaking their heads in the affirmative.

Teacher: Sure, if that's one, this would be square root of 3, and this would be 2, and the sine would be a half. Of course it doesn't matter. The ratios are the same. That's the whole idea right there. They're similar triangles. The ratios are the same.

This teacher orchestrates the class so that the logic of the procedures is apparent. Students provide answers but also explanations. However, not insignificantly, the ones who answer his questions follow that logic and generally provide the correct responses. The interaction works for both teacher and students (or, at the least, for the ones responding).

Instructional Support

The typical teacher in the United States assumes nearly total responsibility for the conduct and management of her or his class, whether it is at the elementary or secondary school level. While some teachers said that they had no assistance, others mentioned that an aide came in to help (grade papers, work on bulletin boards) 2 or more hours a week; still others mentioned that secretarial staff would type tests for them or do photocopying.

In elementary schools, it is typical for a teacher to be responsible for teaching all of the major subjects (language arts, math, science, and social studies), although others may be responsible for teaching subjects such as gym or music. Students of all abilities are usually in the same classes in elementary schools, while many middle schools begin to track in mathematics, and high schools frequently track students across a range of subjects. Secondary school teachers typically teach in one subject area. The instructional support they receive seemed to be limited to secretarial help with typing or photocopying. Science teachers were totally responsible for laboratory classes that often required complicated preparation.

Many U.S. schools are also dealing with issues of diversity. Recent legislation dictates that, to the extent possible, children with special needs (e.g., physical or learning disabilities, emotional problems) should be included in regular classrooms. Children with special needs may become a member of a class or visit for some period of time each day. Because of the high influx of immigrants many schools now offer bilingual education or English as a Second Language (ESL). Elementary children whose first language is not English thus may be pulled out of their classrooms during the day for special language instruction, while middle and secondary students may be offered special classes with bilingual instructors. Schools vary, however, in the extent to which they are able to provide such services.

Efforts are also underway to establish master teachers in schools to aide new teachers and assist others as problems arise. Such a role existed, however, in only one of the Case Study schools. Most teachers worked alone in their individual classrooms, with little assistance from ancillary staff and little opportunity to collaborate with other teachers.

Because of the differential funding of schools, teachers who experienced the greatest challenges (i.e., large classes in elementary schools, students who were not proficient in English, special children included without extra assistance, limited parental involvement, and high rates of absenteeism in secondary schools) often were the ones who had the fewest resources at their disposal-and the least amount of assistance in meeting those demands.

Teaching at Parks Elementary

It is shortly after 1:00 p.m., and Ms. R. is preparing to teach mathematics. Two children labeled "BD" (behaviorally disordered) have arrived for this subject. One boy, bright eyed and interested, persists in loudly repeating everything the teacher says until he is gently reminded that this is distracting.

The teacher has prepared a lesson on number lines. Across the board, she has written in capital letters increments from one to a million.

The children read the words in unison.

Teacher: Remember, where do you place the commas? In hundreds and thousands . . . . so after every three numbers put a comma. Why do we put a comma?

Student: So we won't get mixed up.

Teacher: That's a good answer.

Student: So we can read the numbers.

Teacher: It makes it easier to read.

The teacher then asks a child to read at the top of page 18. She asks the children to look at the place value chart and calls on individual children to say how many ones, tens there are in a given number. A number of children have their hands in the air, but most give the wrong answer or no response when called on. At one point, the teacher remembers that two children (visiting from the special education class) have to go to the library.

Someone then comes to the door. After conversing for 2 minutes or so, she returns to her desk, then checks to see if the children know their multiplication tables. She goes to a chart by the door and calls on four or five students: `Leticia, 2 x 6.' The student stands and smiles but does not try to answer. `You need to work on your twos,' the teacher reminds her. Only one child provides the correct answer. He is immediately given a harder one, and he gets it wrong. The teacher tells these children that they must write their "times tables" for homework.

She returns to her desk and begins to organize the number line activity. She tells the children to put their books away and pull out their envelopes. Each envelope holds a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11-inch paper and the numbers 1 to 10 written on blue construction paper. In the process of looking for the envelopes, some children pull all the books out of their desks. During this time, 3 children who speak Spanish as their first language arrive from a session with a bilingual teacher, thus raising the number of children present to 28. Ms. R. realizes that these children were not present when the class made what is needed for the number line activity. As she begins to collect materials to help them, children become restless. About half still have books on their desks. The teacher calls out a number and tells the children to place their numbers in the appropriate folds. However, the number she calls out requires two threes, and the children have only made one of each number. When several children raise their hands and shout this out to her, she writes a different number on the board. As she begins to walk back to help the students without materials, one boy cries out excitedly, "I got it!"

In this snapshot in time, this teacher appears disorganized; her timing is off; the activity is not well planned, and little gets accomplished over the course of nearly an hour.

Examination of the context in which this teacher taught and listening to how she makes sense of the situation yields quite a different picture. First, she has taught four different grade levels in her 4 years of teaching. She is overwhelmed at having yet a new set of books—and a different grade level of children to teach. Secondly, she feels she has little control over the curriculum, and she has no one to speak with about what she is doing: "I don't know if this is what I should be teaching. Is it too hard for them? Is it too easy? I have never taught children this age before." In this district, both the principal and teachers can be fired if they do not perform well, a decision based on the students' performance on state-mandated tests. This teacher expressed her resentment of the fact that everyone was poised to blame her when things went wrong, but no one was there to help her to do a better job.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that she felt she was being held accountable for circumstances she was powerless to affect. Increasingly, the teacher was the implementor of all district, state, and federal policies, and it was assumed that the teacher is incompetent if students failed to perform well. Yet the sum total of policy mandates can have exponential effect. This teacher's class was relatively large, and, with a budget deficit in the district, she had an aide only 2 hours a week. In support of "inclusion," several children who exhibited learning or emotional difficulties visited her class each day without a special education teacher to assist them. Because of the ethnic and language diversity in the neighborhood, children left the classroom throughout the day to work with special teachers in their native languages, yet this seriously curtailed the amount of time when the entire class was together for instruction in their major subjects. Moreover, district policy required that she "build a case" for each child who needed to be tested for special education placement. She had to create a paper trail of the child's work over time. Similarly, she described how she had to keep meticulous records as part of the district's efforts to decrease truancy. The sum total of these procedures created a large bookkeeping problem for a teacher already trying to keep track of many things. Ms. R.'s records showed one child absent seven times, while the teacher who pulled him out of class for special instruction had him listed as absent nine times. It was thus incumbent upon Ms. R. to reconcile the discrepancy. This overworked, highly stressed teacher was bitter:

There's a pattern there, so I'm responsible. I'm supposed to send notes if a child is failing and have the parents sign them. I sent eight, and none have returned them. I'm supposed to send progress reports every 2 weeks and keep track of homework assignments. All the tests are supposed to be signed at the bottom, but I'm responsible if all of this is not done.

And yet, with 28 children, her responsibilities for meeting state guidelines and for processing individual children through layers of bureaucracy had grown over time.

For this teacher, the problem was not one of content (she did well on the teacher competency test); rather, she needed time, resources, and support in translating what she knew into a form useful to the students she taught. The context, in which she functioned, however, had become largely inimical to her development as a teacher.

Teacher Involvement in Instructional Decisions and Planning

As described in an earlier chapter (Ashwill, this volume), the United States educational system has a diffuse governance system (see also, Cohen & Spillane 1992). Case Study schools were thus shown to vary, with teachers in some districts enjoying a good deal of autonomy, while teachers in others were expected to meet external demands imposed by local school councils, district school boards, or state performance standards. This section describes three ways that instructional decisionmaking and planning occurred in the schools we visited.

In one elementary school, there was a well-established and clearly shared sense of what was appropriate and desirable for children of each age. Experienced teachers helped new teachers learn "what to do and how things work." In another, a major goal was to meet the external demands of district, state, and even federal guidelines. The math and science curricula had arrived at the school in much the same way as other mandates and were perceived by teachers as being yet another set of expectations from the outside. In the third school, the teachers seemed to interpret changes in practice as "something the office wanted." The contexts in which teachers functioned thus created opportunities and constraints that mirrored other characteristics of the job and school. Three brief examples help to clarify these differences.

Rockefeller Elementary School. Teachers in this school expressed a shared sense of "best practice." For example, teachers themselves had developed the math curriculum that had been in effect for a number of years. It was an "unwritten expectation," explained one fifth-grade teacher, that the experienced teachers would help their new colleagues. "They get manuals when they come in. Then the teachers discuss with them what they do and how things work." Such a belief system precludes pervasive or rapid change, because a consensus about practice has developed over time.

Midtown Elementary School. In this school, teachers described a situation in which their use of time was dictated by the state, (i.e., in terms of the amount of time to be allocated for each subject), their performance level by the district (in the sense that they were required to teach units again if more than 20 percent of their students had not passed), and by the science curriculum that had been selected for them but was perceived by the teachers as being too difficult for the children. The principal in this school was also encouraging teachers to move toward a "whole-language" approach, but the teachers complained that it was impossible to implement such an approach when each subject had to be taught each day for a specific amount of time.

A committee of teachers from across the district had selected the new science curriculum, chosen because kits of scientific experiments came with the series. As one teacher explained:

So in the past when we've had science books, we haven't had any equipment. All we've had is a book. So this year we have the equipment. Last year and this year it was much better than when we only had a book.

Despite the ostensible value of having kits, virtually everyone I spoke with about this curriculum eventually commented that it was too difficult for the children.

The first observation of a fourth-grade teacher using it showed her carefully preparing her students to take a test scheduled for the following day by giving them the answers ahead of time. First she wrote down the first six answers on the board and instructed the children to write them down on their papers. Then she went through the true and false and multiple-choice questions. The subject matter, dealing with such concepts as velocity, force, and inertia, seemed difficult for children of this age. I circulated through the room later and noticed that children had written down the answers but not the questions. When I later interviewed this teacher, she described how she also felt compelled to help the children when they actually took the test:

I had to read the questions to them, and I'd give little hints, you know, we were talking about fulcrums, and so I-we were talking about fulcrums and levers and (moves arm to demonstrate) oh, I'd move my arm and say the lever is on the what? And, oh, OK, so then they'd get it, so it's more a visual learning.

She explained that she had shown a list of these terms to friends:

I had taken those words to a group of friends of mine, and this is a group that hasn't studied science in a very long time, but professionals at that. I asked them: What are these things? What are these things? What are these things? And they were just floored at what a fourth-grader was learning, and I had a lot of parents that are very upset about it, too. This is just too hard. But, then again, is it too hard because they've never had to do it before?

In this district there is a policy that 80 percent of students must get 70 percent or better on each unit test or the unit must be taught again. There were five books in the set, one physics-based, one on geology, one on oceanography, and so forth. However, only one set of classroom books had been purchased for this school—and there were five teachers. Another teacher described how this worked:

We bought all the equipment that goes with the science series, but we only bought one classroom set of books for each unit. It means we have to share. So this year since there were five of us using the books . . . . I sat down and figured out a schedule of who gets what books when and when you have to quit. So we're all tied into this little schedule, another little box we're tied into.

Thus, it was virtually impossible for a teacher to teach a unit again, because once a set of classroom books had been passed on, it would always be in use. The only way out of the dilemma was to ensure that most students passed—by teaching the test.

As teachers talked about this curriculum, more and more problems emerged. One teacher described a teacher at another grade level who had only taught one unit of science because she didn't understand it. Another described a teacher who wasn't "keeping up"—"so she skips stuff in the book and then when it comes time to test them, you know, she has to cut that part out or else" . . . . Since the administration was encouraging teachers to move toward a whole-language approach, I was told that the principal decided the oceanography book from the next grade level would be good to use with younger students, because it went along with readings in language arts. The book was not only too difficult for many children to read, however, it was also impossible to coordinate language arts and science across five teachers at the same time. Finally, sharing science kits seemed to introduce even more uncertainty. When I observed a student teacher demonstrating an experiment from this series to a class of about 25 students, she reached the critical point when she had to use thermometers only to discover that they were missing from the kit.

Parks Elementary School. Teachers in this school experienced yet another form of decisionmaking and planning. There was an assumption that state performance standards and the School Improvement Plan could be translated quickly and easily (in a matter of hours) into grade-level objectives that, in turn, would drive a yearlong plan and bring coherence to daily scheduling. In fact, however, teachers had little time to plan with others, so they tended to interpret the objectives as an administrative task, namely, something done "at the principal's insistence," "something the office wanted."

Before school began, teachers from each grade level wrote objectives that would help prepare students to meet state performance standards and prepare them for the standardized tests that would be given in the spring. However, teachers were only given a half a day to write objectives for reading, math, science, and social studies. One of the fourth-grade teachers in this school explained the rationale for the objectives they developed:

We arrived at those objectives based on the criteria for what is going to be tested on the [state test], the state outcomes that were developed for the state, and the SIP, the School Improvement Plan. We used all of those as criteria . . . . for coming up with those grade level objectives.

I was told by another teacher that this aligning of objectives with standards was done "at the principal's insistence." When I asked another why the objectives were written, she dismissed the question with a wave of her hand, as "something the office wanted."

The objectives of the fourth-grade teachers in this school reiterated state guidelines in math (e.g., analyze and create graphs, add and subtract whole numbers through five digits, know multiplication facts and use them to solve division), while the objectives in science were written at such a high level of abstraction that it seemed that almost anything would be possible in the classroom. The science objectives were as follows:

Students will have a working knowledge of

  1. The concepts and basic vocabulary of biological, physical, and environmental science and their application to life and work in contemporary technological society;
  2. Social and environmental implications and limitations of technological development;
  3. Principles of scientific research and their applications in simple research projects; and
  4. The processes, techniques, methods, equipment, and available technology of science.

Despite the fact that the mathematics objectives were explicit and the science objectives vague, the actual subject matter that each of the teachers was teaching in math and in science during the several days I visited seemed unrelated to what others were doing. For example, since the beginning of the year one had worked on "measurement" and then on "numbers up to seven places," while another had been focusing on multiplication and division. It is of course possible that these teachers simply did not feel compelled to teach the same subject matter at the same time. If this were the case, it is conceivable that they could accomplish similar objectives over the course of the year and yet not be in the same place at any given time.

This was an "open question" I sought to understand. In separate interviews, one teacher explained the science curriculum:

We're doing the two main units in science . . . . We just know we're both going to be doing the theme on the ecology of the rainforest. We both know we're going to be doing the theme on recycling and the environment, and we got together for like a half day on those two, but we did not get a chance to do a lot in a half a day.

Another fourth-grade teacher offered this explanation:

I didn't know exactly what the thing was to teach to kids . . . . The textbook isn't a good indicator of what they should learn in fourth grade. We saw the latest, as of like a month or so, we saw what we were supposed to teach the kids [a reference to the performance standards], what they're expected to know, so I also think [of this] as a test year. I've decided for the future, I'm going to teach recycling, states of matter, the life cycle of plants and animals, how animals adapt to their environment, and there's one more thing, maybe something else, I forgot the other thing. But that's, my, maybe the rain, and maybe the rainforest. OK.

The first teacher has been teaching for a number of years, and she drew on her previous experience to link subject areas and to integrate prior knowledge into her curriculum. The second is a relatively new teacher who is trying to formulate a plan of action (this is "a test year"). Both teachers operate in relatively autonomous fashion, without benefit of much discussion with each other or with a broader community of teachers.

These teachers also crafted their curricula from a host of influences. In Rockefeller Elementary School, the math curriculum had been internally developed, while the science curriculum had been adopted by community nomination. In Parks Elementary School, however, the influences were numerous and may help to account for the fact that the teachers were doing such different things. There were state standards, a School Improvement Plan (that included a whole-language initiative), grade-level objectives, a new and old math book (one teacher confessed that she used the old one "on the sly"), and a science curriculum that was grounded, in part, in prepackaged curricula developed within the district or by local organizations (e.g., the zoo, arboretum, aquarium). Both the "recycling" and "rainforest" units derived from such experiences. It was up to the teachers to figure out how these topics might relate to standards and objectives. My impression was that teachers appreciated having a tried and true set of activities (that included a field trip) and did not worry too much about how and where it fit in the grand scheme of things. To the outside observer, however, the lack of coordination between and among these separate initiatives and influences was striking.

In making decisions about what and how to teach, teachers must translate what are often highly abstract goals into a plan of action that will stretch out over 9 months and yet also fill spaces in a day that may be only 30-45 minutes long. As I have described, school- and district-level characteristics have a strong influence on how decisionmaking and planning actually happen, as well as ways in which individual teachers interpret the task.


[Teachers and the Teaching Profession in the United States (Part 1 of 3)] [Table of Contents] [Teachers and the Teaching Profession in the United States (Part 2 of 3)]