On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998


Universities, Schools, and the Story of Education

By Russell Edgerton

[Editor's Note: The following remarks are excerpted from an address to the Issues in Higher Education Forum, Indiana University-Purdue University Indiana, October 13, 1994.]

Let's first look at the way universities currently relate to the schools. Most of the action to date, it seems to me, has taken place in two arenas. The arena of teacher preparation, and the arena of outreach, partnership programs. Admissions policy represents a third arena that is beginning to get some attention.

As to teacher preparation: for years we in the university world sailed along, poormouthing our schools of education while enjoying the revenue they brought in. But in recent years, in many universities, we have begun to clean up our act. We've raised admissions standards and strengthened the subject matter preparation of teachers. Ed schools have strengthened their curriculum, worked hard on the transition to practice, pioneered the creation of professional development schools. While teacher preparation remains a troubled field, these have been years of real improvement.

Second, universities have reached out to schools and developed scores of partnerships aimed at several kinds of objectives:

One might think, with all this, that universities would be basking in applause . . . from school leaders, and from political and business leaders engaged in school reform. But at least in the circles I run in, I hear something quite different. Something ranging from irritation to outright anger . . . comments that we are fiddling while Rome is burning . . . that we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

How can we be so involved—and at the same time be criticized for being uninvolved or, worse, a source of resistance? In pondering this puzzle, I've come up with three explanations.

One is that our many grassroots efforts are not tied to and articulated as part of a visible public strategy.

We have hundreds of grassroots projects underway. But these projects are not tied to an agenda set by influential leaders in higher education—or so it seems to me. And so the projects are relatively invisible.

My second explanation is the mismatch in scale. There are approximately 3,500 hundred colleges and universities in America. There are 15,000 school districts and 110,000 schools. If every college and university put a major project in three neighboring schools, there would still be 100,000 schools left untouched. The scale of the need in elementary and secondary education is simply enormous.

But there's still a third explanation that results from the first two. It's that the kind of help we have been providing doesn't reinforce the agendas and strategies of change that the school reform community is now pursuing.

The school reform community has concluded that the game itself needs to be changed in fundamental ways.

In the old game, the aim was for students to learn about various subjects and recall what they had learned on final exams. In the new game, the aim is for students not only to know a subject but understand it: to be able to use what they know about a subject to reason, communicate, solve problems, and perform other intellectual tasks that matter . . . in brief, to think and work in something like the ways that mathematicians, historians, scientists themselves think and work.

In the old game, less than a quarter of the students in elementary and secondary schools were expected to participate in the college preparatory curriculum. In the new game, all students must play the same game, at least through the tenth grade.

In the old game, teaching was a matter of telling students what they needed to know. In the new game, the role of teacher is to design tasks that students can perform; to assess and coach this performance as it goes along; and to create conditions in which students can engage in disciplined inquiry with each other.

In the old game, teaching was viewed as a rather simple task: a matter of training people to follow rules of good practice. In the new game, teaching is viewed as a difficult, ever-changing task in which most of what is learned is learned from experience, in collaboration with colleagues.

The old game could be played in schools organized like factories where teachers were treated like workers on an assembly line. The settings where the new game can be played are schools that look more like law firms or architectural firms where the teachers function as the senior partners.

From this perspective, the absence of applause for our universities' contributions, even the boos, become more understandable.

University-based early intervention programs are wonderful for the relatively few students we directly serve through these programs. But the add-on services universities provide, such as summer enrichment programs, still leave the schools and the regular classrooms we pull these kids out of essentially unchanged.

Similarly, our summer institutes and myriad other efforts to reach out to teachers provide wonderful enrichment for the individual teachers involved. But these enriched teachers then return to schools and colleagues left unchanged. What teachers really need, reformers now argue, are opportunities for professional development that are embedded in the regular work of schools . . . opportunities to work with groups of colleagues on problems of immediate relevance to their work.

Or take our efforts to improve teacher preparation. Changing the rules so that candidates for degrees in teaching must have strong subject matter preparation is a great start. But that's the easy part. What do we do about the fact that the teaching and learning that is practiced in these arts and sciences courses is not the kind of teaching and learning that we need to have in the schools?

In sum, we in universities have been doing a lot. But from the perspective of educational reformers, struggling to learn how to play a new game, our efforts stop short of the help they need. Indeed, in some respects, our actions even reinforce the ways the game has been played all along.

In the first place, influential leaders of school reform now argue that:

I think that the reformers have got it right. But I'm not here to argue this case. What I do believe is that higher education leaders should be in the middle of the discussions. Imagine a future in which every student would have a portfolio that displayed their actual academic accomplishments; these portfolios would be scored; when these scores met your own proficiency-based admissions standards, students would roll right along into university courses. Any university professor who doubted whether the student was ready could electronically call up the student's entire portfolio, study it, and have a conference with the student about what the best next course would be. It's in your power to bring about this. Finally, let me turn to another way we in universities exert a critical influence on schools: the model we provide of professional performance.

We in universities train nearly all those who teach in the schools. But the training we provide is not limited to formal coursework in our schools of education. The evidence is quite clear that school teachers acquire many of their ideas about how to teach from what Daniel Lortie calls their "apprenticeship of observation" in arts and sciences classes.

The quality of our teaching is related to how hard we train and practice. The issue is not how good or bad teaching is at any given point of time; the deeper issue is whether we in the university view teaching, and go about our teaching, in a way that leads to continuous improvement of our teaching.

Put differently, we not only model what good teaching looks like, we also model what it takes to teach professionally . . . whether the act of teaching is itself a professional endeavor.

Here, it seems to me, is the source of our greatest influence of all . . . our most powerful capacity for good or for ill. I refer to the connection between the intellectual life of the university and the world view of the public at large . . . the connection between what scholars in the university value and what society comes to value.

What I'm suggesting is that our view of teaching—whether or not it is a complex activity, and what is required to do it well—plays a critical part in the story of education. You all know what that view is. Our practice to date, from graduate school through appointment, tenure and beyond, assumes that anyone who knows their subject can pick up a glove, take to the field, and teach this subject pretty well. While most faculty care about their own teaching and work hard at it, teaching itself is not viewed as an activity that merits much collegial discussion, let alone inquiry, reflection, or, pray tell, scholarship.

So we in the university must ask, why is this so? Well, at the turn of the century, faculty organized clubs—the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and many others—around all the newly emerging fields of knowledge. And two of these fields, education and psychology, took up the study of teaching and learning. But the focus of these efforts within education and psychology was, by and large, on the study of teaching and learning "in general" . . . teaching and learning regardless of what the subject was that was being taught. Over time, as biology, history, chemistry evolved in their corners, and education and psychology evolved in their corners, content and process grew apart. Over here we had "history," over there we had "teaching." No major clubs got organized around the teaching of history.

Moreover, the ed schools and psych departments that did study teaching aspired to become disciplines, not professions. And thus, while professions like medicine, law, and later, business, evolved modes of research and training that stayed close to practice—curricula that were based on the study of cases, clinical training experiences, traditions (such as grand rounds) of reflecting on practice—the study of teaching evolved, by and large, as an effort to generate scientifically valid generalizations about teaching and learning. So not only did content get separated from process, theory was separated from practice.

One product of these divisions of academic labor is a simple recipe for making teachers. Take a person who knows a field of knowledge. Add knowledge of good technique, such as how to use audiovisual aids and how to be a discussion leader. Bring to a boil, and presto—you have a good teacher.

But of course, as every truly good teacher fully understands, there is much more to good teaching than this recipe implies. Among many things, good teaching is a matter of not merely transmitting knowledge but transforming it—of getting inside the heads of students and finding ways to represent ideas in terms that will connect to what is going on inside these heads.

The good news is that this historical diagnosis about why there is so little interest in pedagogy within the university implies a solution. The path to a deeper, richer conception of teaching lies in moving onto the intellectual turf that—for a century—has been left untouched. The new Elysian Fields of teaching and learning are fields in which the subject matters, and in which learning to teach involves not only learning general principles of good teaching but learning from experience. Of finding ways and creating new traditions of reflecting on practice with colleagues.

What can universities do for the nation's schools? In addition to changing the rules of admissions and other standards of student progress and achievement, we can encourage our own faculty to move onto these new Elysian fields.

What would a university that is throwing its weight behind an effort to shift to the new game look like? It would be a place where:

Will this kind of university ever come to be? Probably not if our motivation is only of service . . . of making a contribution to the reform of the schools. But gradually, I think, we are coming to realize that the game we have been playing may not work for our own league either.

In the game we have been playing, the faculty are the players and the students, all too often, are in the stands. In the 21st century university, the students will be the players, and the faculty will be the coaches. It's not yet clear whether the public will be in the stands, or down on the field as umpires. The sooner, and the faster, that we can learn to play this new game, the more we will do for the schools.


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