The Center for Public School Renewal

Stevenson, Harold and Stigler, James. The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools are Failing and What We Can Learn From Japanese and Chinese Education. New York: Summit Books, 1992.

This book has many interesting comparisons between U.S. and Asian education beliefs and practices. Notable among them is (1) the observation that Asian teachers attribute students' success more to hard work and less to innate ability then do American teachers, and (2) the descriptions (in Chapters 8 and 9) of how Asian teachers have the time to "polish" their profession by mentoring new teachers and trading tips on how to best teach a given topic. Stigler is co-author of The Teaching Gap (qv.).

Stigler, James and Hiebert, James. The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom. New York: Free Press, September, 1999.

The Teaching Gap, like its older cousin The Learning Gap (qv. Stevenson and Stigler), is a highly readable, informative and insightful book about an important educational issue. The insights that come from the cross-cultural studies in this book should become part of the understanding of every educator and supporter of education in the U.S. It is an extremely important book for those interested in Teacher-Led Schools, because it makes a strong case for putting teachers squarely in charge of improving instruction.

However, the implementation process the authors propose will not work. They recommend pressing the case for lesson study within the prevailing top-down, authoritarian governance structure that has produced the current flawed system. There are simply too many special interests, careers to protect, turf issues, chauvinistic attitudes, and misinformation within the current system–and the society that supports it--to allow the kinds of changes the authors want. To put it in terms like Stigler and Hiebert's, the education establishment is culturally incapable of making the necessary changes.

The authors seem to understand the barriers to bringing about systemic and cultural change–their last chapter captures the low status of teachers as well as any we've seen recently--yet they depend on flawed parts of a flawed system for corrections. How can a governance structure that depends so much on keeping teachers low--so that others can be high--change itself? To put it another way, the only flaw in an otherwise splendid book is that Stigler and Hiebert recommend, once again, that things be done for teachers--rather than by them.

We need to empower teachers not just in their classrooms, but in their schools and communities as well. We need to scrap that part of the current governance structure that stands in the way of putting teachers in charge of schools. This is both more and less of a transformation than the authors envision. It encompasses control over more than just classroom activities, but won't, by itself, bring about the changes they want to see. However, it is the essential first step, because without it, the forces of the establishment will remain too strong. Teachers will continue to be harnessed to someone else's vision of reform.

Putting teachers in charge is an especially sound strategy to use in American society because it coordinates well with cultural values about power and "do-it-yourself-ness". If teachers control schools (especially via a contract system like that envisioned by Paul Hill in Reinventing Public Education, qv.), then no "outside" support for something like lesson study would be needed, except as resources teachers choose to employ to improve their practices. In other words, if teachers take charge of their schools (along with two other necessary ingredients: a common assessment system that their work is "measured" against; and parental freedom to choose where to enroll their children), then something like lesson study can eventually begin to flourish.

The best way for this to happen right now is to use charter school laws (where they exist). And, the best kind of teacher-controlled charter is the kind where local school boards turn over the operation of their facilities to groups of their own teachers, who in turn take the responsibility to make those schools work. This has not been the most prevalent type of charter school by any means, but some teacher-led charters do exist, and there is potential for many more. As these schools become better known and successful, through the use of strategies like lesson study, we should be able to see the beginning of a new era in American education. One where The Teaching Gap's main message comes across loud and clear–fix teaching, not the teachers.

Tyack, David and Cuban, Larry. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Harvard University Press, 1995.

The authors make a strong case against the top-down, outside-in reform efforts of education elites. They favor seeking improvements from the inside out, "by enlisting the support and skills of teachers as key actors in reform." They believe the "grammar of schooling"--i.e., the traditional organization of classroom instruction that has persisted for so many years--is virtually impervious to any other kind of transformation except that which makes use of the knowledge and expertise of teachers.

"To the degree that teachers are out of the policy loop in designing and adopting reforms, it is not surprising if they drag their feet in implementing them. Teachers do not have a monopoly on educational wisdom, but their first-hand perspectives on schools and their responsibility for carrying out official policies argues for their centrality in school reform efforts. As 'street-level bureaucrats,' teachers typically have sufficient discretion, once classroom doors close, to make decisions about pupils that add up over time to de facto policies about instruction, whatever the official regulations. In any case, then, teachers will make their imprint on educational policy as it becomes translated into practice."

Wagner, Tony. "Leadership for Learning: An Action Theory of School Change." Phi Delta Kappan, January, 2001, pg. 378.

This important essay reveals a clear understanding of the nature of schools, school teachers, students, their needs, and the realities in which they find themselves. Wagner makes excellent recommendations: to use constructivist learning for adults; to reinvent the entire system; about the importance of mutual respect and trust; the need to move from compliance-minded management to the development of a sense of community.

But, how can hard-won improvements be maintained in the face of two potent forces that would undo them? First, personnel can change, bringing in new people (workers and/or leaders) that don't "get it." The prior existence of a successful program is no defense against newcomers' ideas and agendas. Also, political and economic forces outside of schools can bring pressure to bear, especially through demands to "fix things right away"–and based on dumb ideas–that only make a situation worse. How can schools survive personnel changes and protect themselves from unenlightened outside forces?

The answer might lie in some kind of restructuring of the education hierarchy, along the lines described by Paul Hill (qv.). Hill recommends that schools be given contracts that not only require them to produce certain outcomes, but also give them the means to achieve those outcomes, and protect them from outside interference while they figure out how to do it. Successful schools will develop robust traditions that newcomers can be socialized into, so that the zeitgeist of the school is maintained over time. Charter schools seem closest to this idea, although most are not there yet . Unfortunately, this kind "deconstruction" of a familiar hierarchy frightens teachers, in part, for the reasons Wagner mentions–that they are generally risk-aversive, conservative people. So, in addition to becoming smaller (as he suggests) schools need to be relatively autonomous as well.

Wagner talks about teachers showing respect for each other, and for students, but there is no concomitant call for those outside the classroom (administrators, department of education officials, university personnel, politicians, etc.) to show respect for teachers. In our view, only a minority of non-classroom teaching educators have much respect for the competence of ordinary classroom teachers. Even many of those who do think well of teachers still appear paternalistic in their approaches to working with them. Years of trash talk about teachers has taken its toll, on both sides. For example, our suggestion that schools should be autonomous won't sit well with these folks–they don't trust teachers enough.

Further, and more important, the reputations and livelihoods of non-teaching educators depend on keeping teachers the educational equivalent of barefoot and pregnant. School autonomy scares them. What would they do for work if schools had the power to just say no to their useless regulations and crazy schemes? Wagner is dead right when he says that relationships based on mutual trust and respect are the first problem to tackle. However, the history of the last 40 years in public education doesn't leave one with much hope that those twin treasures will be forthcoming–certainly not from that part of the establishment outside the classroom, and frankly, it needs to come from there first.

It is not that non-teachers are bad people. They just don't have the same interests and needs that teachers have. What CPSR advocates is that more adventurous teachers (there are some out there) look for opportunities to engage in a kind of guerrilla warfare with the established system. This could include joining exactly the types of schools Wagner mentions–alternative schools, charters, magnet schools, and so on. If enough of these schools become successes, schools where teachers exercise a significant degree of leadership (backed by at least as much power as the rest of the hierarchy has over the workings of their school), they could serve as exemplars that less adventurous teachers might be coaxed to try to emulate.

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