A new center that was formally launched at the American Educational Research Association conference hopes to bring together the many different groups who have been talking – mostly separately – about the improvement of teaching. The Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, headquartered at the University of Washington in Seattle, is made up of researchers at five universities who plan to investigate how educational policy at all levels can promote excellent teaching.
“Up to now there have been two sets of conversations going on improving teacher quality,” says Michael Knapp, associate professor of education at Washington and director of the center. “One set of conversations has been dealing with the system as a whole and assumes you have to make changes from the top. That idea resonates well with people outside schools – the business community, for example – but not with teachers or those who study teaching.
“The second set of conversations are about how teachers learn, how teachers get better. That’s at the bottom of the system, in the classroom. The two conversations have been going on separately. They’re speaking different languages and they’re all about reform, or in some people’s terms, renewal. The premise of the center is to get these two conversations together.”
Researchers plan to go about this in several ways. First, they plan to find and study programs throughout the country in which people have started to weave together the different kind of actions that influence a teacher’s work in a mutually supportive way. For example, the governor in North Carolina has put together a political coalition that has been successful over a 10-year period in bringing about significant improvement in the state’s schools. North Carolina is one of five states – chosen for their different systems – that researchers will be looking closely at. (Case studies of policy initiatives aimed at teaching excellence will also be done in California, Washington, Ohio and New York. Other studies will investigate activities in other areas.) Second, researchers plan to investigate promising work done in other countries. And third, they’ll look at large databases, such as those assembled by the National Center for Educational Statistics, to see what they!
tell about schools and teaching.
For example, they’ve already learned that the level of teacher preparation is a major predictor of student achievement. “There are many districts in the country in which teachers are not required to attend a teacher preparation program or to teach in the area for which they’ve been certified. Just changing that policy could really make a difference,” Knapp says.
When all the research is complete, center representatives will work to inform people at the top of the system (policy makers) about how the bottom (teachers) works and about how they can do things that better acknowledge the way the bottom works.
“Policymakers tend to operate in terms that pertain to the top,” Knapp says. “They ask, ‘How can I do something that’s politically viable? How can I do something that will fit within this year’s budget constraints? How can I do something that fits within the interagency structure?’ We want to show how system-level actions do and don’t support teacher learning, and how these actions can support it better.”
The work, he says, will be an educative process; not just delivering a report. Instead, researchers will try to engage policy makers in thinking about what would be productive ways to proceed and why. They plan to work with policy-makers at all levels, from the school district to the national arena.
The center is funded for five years by the Institute on Educational Governance, Finance, Policymaking and Management of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. In addition to the University of Washington, participants include Stanford University, Teachers College of Columbia University, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.
Michael Knapp can be reached at (206) 543-1836.