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Source:Hands On Journal, 1996

A Professional Development Stance for Equity

by Mark Kaufman, 1996

Research Concerns for Equity Studies

Teachers remain at the core of equity issues; teacher expectations and behaviors are a major influence on equity in U.S. schools. Teacher perceptions of students can be colored by cultural expectations, stereotypes, and inaccurate knowledge gleaned from previous experience. (Powell, 1994, paragraph 10).

To address issues of equity, teachers need to develop an understanding of the personal, social, curricular, instructional, and structural barriers to student achievement. Few equity reform efforts, however, integrate these issues systemically in teacher professional development. If teachers are to rethink old conceptions, examine new practices, and construct new approaches that remove barriers and provide equality of educational opportunity, the teacher professional development process must reflect a focus on equity.

A professional development process can and should be a critical agent for equity reform, but this approach presents a dilemma. Equity reforms have an underlying moral imperative and demand rapid change; yet all of the research on changing teachers' instructional practices and behaviors indicates that these changes take sustained effort and considerable time. Larry Cuban (1995) poses a metaphor of reform time clocks that reflect different perspectives on the pace of change. "Practitioner time" is seen as slow motion in which change in practice occurs over a decade or more as compared to "media" or "policymaker" time which measures change in months or years.

To improve educational outcomes for all students in the shortest possible time frame, we must promote a teacher professional development process in which curricular and instructional reform and equity reform become interwoven. Teachers, administrators, and schools and school districts face competing demands for their attention and resources. "For one thing, schools and classrooms are the vessels into which a torrent of new ideas pour. Schools and teachers must sift through and select among many competing ideas for change" (Sykes, 1996, p. 467).

Attacking the problem of ensuring equity as one of several "reform issues" only preserves the fragmentation which educators now experience. Julian Weisglass has found that, "over the past decade, methods that help teachers and schools change mathematics content have become institutionalized in professional development. Reform of assessment methods receives considerable resources. Attempts to help educators change institutionalized bias or individual teaching practices that are inequitable, however, are more rare" (personal communication, January 20, 1996).

To integrate equity into the professional development process and address the need for more rapid change in equity reform, I would like to propose a system of professional development based on four elements:

  • a stance of critique and inquiry
  • data-driven decisionmaking
  • investigation of best practices, including instruction, curriculum, and materials
  • teacher leadership development

Deborah Ball (1996) identifies the notion of professional development stance as a means of understanding how to promote teacher growth. "Traditionally, professional development (e.g., inservice workshops) and professional forums (e.g., journals and state meetings) assume a stance toward practice that concentrates on answers: conveying information, providing ideas, training in skills.... Such an approach offers participants an enormous assortment of resources, but their potential is restricted by the lack of critical discussion" (p. 505). Ball suggests that reform adopt a stance of critique and inquiry toward practice designed to encourage examination, trial, and debate. Teachers should examine research in a critical light, look at the local adaptation of practice and programs, and create a community of inquiry and practice.

In order to know whether we are removing the barriers to educational opportunity for all students, we must be prepared to answer a series of probing questions about student achievement, classroom practice, and district policies. This calls for both the collection and analysis of significant data in each area. Traditionally, teachers have not been engaged in the work of either collecting or analyzing these data. District offices, state departments of education, and university researchers have been viewed as the experts who know what data to collect and how to interpret them. The results of data analysis have been handed to teachers with prescriptions for "fixing" the problem. Little information has been gathered at the level of classroom practice and too few efforts exist to help teachers become reflective about their practice. In the end, teachers own neither the definitions of the problem nor the suggestions for solutions.

Adopting a stance of critique and inquiry suggests that teachers engage in gathering, analyzing, and using data about their classrooms and their students. The Achievement Council in Los Angeles, EQUITY 2000, and others have developed tools and approaches to gathering and using data that bring the focus on equity to the forefront of school reform.

Thoughtful analysis of data about a wide range of student-related outcomes can drive further investigations of curriculum and instruction. Ball identifies curriculum materials and instructional practice as two more areas in which a stance of inquiry can occur (p. 506-7). There is a growing body of knowledge about effective instruction and high quality curriculum which must be made available to teachers and employed as a vehicle for professional development. When teachers become learners in math and science, for example, and are introduced to powerful ideas and ways to teach them, they invariably find ways to translate that learning back into their classrooms.

All curricula and instructional practices, however, are not equal in their potential for promoting equity and powerful student learning. Time spent with less effective approaches and materials delays the process of reform and impacts on the ultimate achievement of students. Educators must subject curriculum materials and instructional practices to rigorous standards in order to keep the "practitioner clock" moving as quickly as possible.

Finally, true professional development results in the creation of teacher leaders. When teachers are engaged with powerful tools of inquiry, critical analysis and problem solving, and have access to high quality curriculum, they can become advocates for meaningful equity reform. Efforts which address equity leadership are needed to create a cadre of teachers who have "developed the new knowledge, habits of mind, and individual and social resources that will be needed for the reform to persist and prosper" (Peterson and Barnes, 1996, p. 491).

As each year passes, another group of students moves through a system which denies them equal access, provides unequal resources, and produces inequitable outcomes. While we educators manage or control only some of the means to solve these problems, we must carefully design and support systems that raise achievement by all students. A professional development stance of critique and inquiry can create a system that not only identifies and seeks to address inequities, but also changes our expectations of what can be achieved in practitioner time.

Research Concerns For Reforming Instructional Practice

The first of these concerns the study of practice at the classroom level. Teaching practice, the most proximal cause of student achievement, has received considerable attention from scholars in a number of fields including teacher education and mathematics education. Learning practices have also been the focus of extensive inquiry, particularly by cognitive scientists and researchers in mathematics education. However, while some scholars manage to bridge the world of learning and teaching, these two areas of research are largely disjoint. Most problematic, research on teaching practice has typically treated teachers development of their instructional practices as occurring in an institutional vacuum. In focusing on day-to-day or minute-by-minute interactions in particular classrooms, these scholars have typically ignored the broader school and school system contexts critical to understanding instructional practice and its improvement. The institutional context is instead seen as the purview of sociologists, organizational theorists, policy analysts, and leadership scholars. As a consequence, the research on teacher change consists of two largely independent bodies of scholarship (Engestrom 1998; Franke et al., 2001). One focuses on the role of professional development in supporting teachers reorganization of their instructional practices whereas the second is concerned with the structural or organizational features of schools and with how changes in these conditions can result in changes in classroom instructional practices. This is problematic because teaching and learning practices cannot really be fully understood independently of the context of the school and broader education system. Conversely, studying reform implementation and leadership is difficult absent a rich understanding of teaching and learning practices. This first core challenge immediately gives rise to a second, that of bringing together interdisciplinary teams of scholars who have traditionally worked at different levels of the school system. It is essential to address this challenge if we are to develop a coherent understanding of school improvement.

A third challenge is that scholars who have studied the institutional context in an effort to understand the instructional change process have tended to ignore practice, be it leadership practice, staff development practice, or implementation practice. Instead, they have focused on understanding those institutional structures, roles, functions, and norms that enable and constrain instructional change. While there is an expansive literature about what school and system-wide structures, programs, roles, and processes are necessary for instructional change, we know less about how these changes are enacted by policymakers, district administrators, and school leaders. These other practices essential to school improvement have received only limited attention fr om scholars as practices. We know relatively little about the how of school leadership or reform implementation; that is, knowledge of the ways in which school leaders or school reformers develop and sustain those conditions and processes believed necessa ry for innovation. For example, a recent review of the literature identified many 'blank spots' (i.e. shortcomings of the research) and 'blind spots' (i.e. areas that have been overlooked because of theoretical and epistemological biases) in our understan ding of leadership (Hallinger and Heck 1996).

Inattention to work practices is commonplace in social science scholarship, as Wellman observed when he noted that how people work is one of the best kept secrets in America. He went on to argue that, the way in which people work is not always apparent. Too often, assumptions are made as to how tasks are performed rather than unearthing the underlying work practices (Wellman 1995; cited in Suchman, 1995). For example, the importance of monitoring instruction in order to support the successful enactment of instructional innovations has been documented (Firestone & Corbett 1988), but this research tells us relatively little about the how of monitoring, that is monitoring as a leadership practice.

Without a rich understanding of practices, from the classroom to the level of state and national educational policy, educational research is unlikely to have a substantial and sustained impact on students opportunities to learn. Unless we can enable school reformers, staff developers, and school leaders practices in ways that support teacher learning, systemic reforms that have been proposed in a number of countries are likely to meet with a fate similar to that of previous waves of reform. Although reforms are adopted by a small proportion of schools and teachers in special circumstances, they typically have a marginal effect on systems of schooling as a whole. We argue that if education scholarship is to make a substantial contribution to improving the learning opportunities of students, practices both within and beyond the classroom essential to improving schools have to be better understood. Moreover, they have to be understood in more complex and integrated ways. Only a small group of scholars are wo rking on these issues in education. We believe that bringing these scholars together at this juncture in order to develop a community of scholars is critical in enabling this work to develop and have a major impact on educational research and practice.

A fourth challenge concerns the marginalization of research on classroom, leadership, and implementation practices that focuses specifically on issues of equity (Lubienski, 2002; Nasir & Cobb, 2002; Secada, 1995). At the classroom level, there is a substa ntial and growing body of scholarship that takes equity in students access to significant disciplinary ideas as its primary focus. However, this research is rarely cited by mainstream researchers and has had a limited impact on investigations of learning and teaching practices. This is unfortunate in that mainstream research can benefit from the broader definitions of learning developed by equity researchers. In addition to conceptualizing learning in terms of concepts and reasoning, these researchers als o demonstrate the importance of attending to the identities that students develop as they participate in the practices of schooling. In doing so, they subsume a range of concerns that are traditionally treated as affective factors (e.g., motivations, atti tudes) within their definition of learning.

Research on issues of equity as they relate to leadership and implementation practices is far more limited. This is in part because scholars who address equity beyond the level of the classroom have tended to focus on formal policy initiatives but without investigating how these initiatives are realized in schools and play out in concrete leadership and implementation practices. The fourth challenge is therefore to develop a research agenda in which a focus on issues of equity will be integral to studies of both classroom practices and the broader institutional context of the classrooms.

A fifth challenge that follows from the first four outlined above concerns the conceptual framing of research on practice. It is insufficient to simply observe and generate thick descriptions of various types of practice. We need to observe from within a conceptual framework. Scholars have started to marshal more sophisticated conceptual tools to study practice, especially teaching and learning practice. In doing so, they have increasingly found prevailing frameworks that portray practice chiefly as a fun ction of individual knowledge, skill, and expertise as unsatisfactory. Instead, some have started to draw from work in a variety of fields including distributed cognition, situated cognition, and socio-cultural theory to frame their work in more sophistic ated ways. This development is important for at least three reasons. First, it illuminates how practice is constituted in the interaction of practitioners with others in a particular situation. Second, it underscores the critical role of situation or cont ext not simply as a backdrop for practice but as a defining element of practice. Hence, urban schools that enroll mostly poor children are not simply a context for a particular teaching strategy or a new school improvement approach. Instead, this situation is a core element shaping the practices of teaching and school improvement as they are typically realized in such settings. Third, it makes issues of equity tractable by framing students (as well as teachers and administrators) as cultural beings, there by bringing to the fore the relation between the practices established in the classroom and those of students home communities and the broader discourse groups of which they are members. Still, while these developments are promising, there is a need for f urther clarity with respect to both the conceptual tools that scholars are drawing on and whether and how they might travel across different levels of the school system.


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