Expert Researchers and School Practitioners: An Historical ...
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Expert Researchers and SchoolPractitioners: An HistoricalPerspective on the Marginalizationof Practitioner Research and theSilencing of Practitioner VoicesR i chard Schmert z i ng
Why should teachers have to learn to read andconduct research?The case for practitioner research as an essentialcomponent of school reform.
IntroductionWhen asked if I would be interested in writing an essay containing my
advice to teachers, I was excited about the possibility. As an educa-
tional anthropologist, my first thought was to write about the role of
culture in educationits importance in building our understanding
of the way schools work and the way we deal with racial and cultural
diversity. However, as one who has spent the last 15 years teaching
teachers how to understand and conduct research, my second
thought, and the topic about which I have decided to write, was the
critical importance of training teachers to be expert consumers and
implementers of education research.
I was recently listening to my students report on studies they had
conducted in our graduate research class. All of them were or had
been teachers, and some were now administrators. As they told
the stories of the research studies they had conducted in schools or
The Journal of Education 188.1 2007 by the Trustees of Boston University. All rights reserved. 1
districts where they worked, the room was full of animated and
The first report came from a former lawyer who is now an assis-
tant principal in a local elementary school. Like others in the class, he
wanted to focus his research on a problem or issue that was currently
important in his school: in his case, it was the implementation of a
newly adopted computer-based program that was expected to solve
the literacy acquisition problems of at-risk students. He explained
that the program had been selected by a central office administrator
without any input from the teachers who would be responsible for
implementing it. A classmate asked if the program was research-
basedthat is, tested against other ways of developing literacy for
similar types of students under similar circumstances. The only stud-
ies that had been done were sponsored by the company who sold the
program; perhaps not surprisingly, they all reported significant
improvement over traditional approaches. When the program was
implemented in the school under study, however, it did not produce
the expected results. What went wrong? When my student inter-
viewed the teachers, he found that most of them had been given no
training at all, and instead were expected to find answers to their con-
cerns regarding the program in an instructors manual that they
found totally inadequate and largely unreadable. Furthermore, when
the teachers were asked about the programs lack of effectiveness,
most said that they thought it might have been implemented more
effectively if they had been involved in the selection process (to make
sure it would meet the needs of their students), given adequate train-
ing, and provided support throughout the process.
The other educators in the room shared their stories of how teach-
ers are asked with increasing frequency to adopt and implement new
reforms and initiatives embraced by school boards, parents, and cen-
tral office administrators who are desperately grasping at every new
program or strategy that they hope will save them from failing to
make adequate yearly progress as mandated by state and federal gov-
ernments trying to meet the requirements of the No Child Left
2 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 3
Behind Act (NCLB). These stories led to the observation that the
relentless push to have every child make ever-increasing benchmark
scores on high-stakes tests was causing local education decision-mak-
ers to search for silver bullet solutions that would magically solve their
problems. These solutions were programs typically developed by self-
proclaimed experts and marketed by salespeople who claimed that
they had been appropriately tested and that they would work in any
context. Many of them were touted as what some call teacher proof,
that is, they were so self-contained and scripted that the teacher had
little, if any, latitude in deciding how to implement them. For exam-
ple, in a research report on Connecticut school improvement plans
(Lohman, 2001) it was reported that:
Many of the schools have bought and implemented, or plan tobuy and implement, highly structured, off-the-shelf reform andintervention programs such as Success for All, Direct Instruction,and Reading Recovery. These programs are used by school dis-tricts around the country to turn-around low-performingschools. Because they are heavily scripted and have to be imple-mented in a certain way, they require extensive staff training andsupplies. (pp. 23)
Furthermore, in a qualitative metasynthesis of student research
done on the relationship between high school testing and curricular
control, Au (2007) notes systems of educational accountability built
on high-stakes, standardized tests are in fact intended to increase exter-
nal control over what happens in schools and classrooms (p. 264).
Thus, what my students were finding is not uncommon; teachers
are not included in the selection process or in decisions about the
mode of implementation, and are unable to adapt the program to
their teaching styles or their students needs. Yet many would argue, as
I do, that school reform depends on the support and participation of
classroom teachers (Grant & Murray, 1999; Tyack & Cuban, 1995).
After completing their research projects and reading related literature,
my students were surprised to find that their post-research beliefs had
already been articulated in the literature. They not only agreed with
what they read, but also found that evidence from their experiences
and from their research projects supported the position that teachers
were not included in decision-making and then held accountable for
implementing ineffective programs in their classrooms. This led them
to question why teachers voices are not heard in the local, state, and
national debates and included in discussions about reform in educa-
tion. Why, indeed?
This paper, which grew in part out of my reflections on what these
students discovered, discusses the value of educational research in the
professional lives of teachers. I will set the context with a picture of
educational research in my own teaching, and then sketch a broader
historical context, share a few stories of teachers doing research, and
conclude with steps teachers can take to incorporate research in their
Classroom ContextIn the research overview class that Ive been teaching for eight years,
Ive encountered a great deal of resistance from students who are
required to take the course as part of the Masters in Education
degree. The topic is out of their comfort zone. Most have no experi-
ence in undergraduate school with either research design or statistics.
Very few have ever heard of qualitative research. Their class questions
center more around their distaste for the idea of having to take a
research class than they do around the course content or achieving
the goals and objectives of the class. Why do they have to take a
research course? What does it have to do with their being a Kinder-
garten teacher? Or a deaf educator? Or a school counselor? Why do
they have to learn statistics?
Good questions all, and at the time I had no ready answers for
them, even though I valued research and had made it a major ele-
ment of my education. Their questions caused me to question
myself: Did I really believe research skills were essential for K12
teachers? Did I think it was enough to learn to read research or did
4 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 5
students also need to know how to design and conduct research?
What difference would it make in their lives and the lives of those
they educated? How could I engage students in the process of doing
research? Where does research really fit into the life of the educator
and the effectiveness of schools?
Because the federal government declared in the No Child Left
Behind Act of 2001 that schools must change, that all students must
succeed, and that the decisions on how to make that happen must be
rooted in scientifically based research, teachers not only need to be
aware of research studies and research methods, but also need to
know how to speak the language of research, practice research in
their classrooms, and disseminate their findings to the powers that
be. If teachers are able to do these things, I would argue, their voices
will be heard in the very important debates on educational policy
and school reform.
As NCLB comes up for renewal, the controversies and debates sur-
rounding it take on added vigor. Policy makers from within and with-
out the educational establishment are preparing their white papers on
what is good and what is bad, and what to keep and what to scrap in
a new version of the bill. This is a critical time for all educators, par-
ticularly teachers, to become familiar with the fundamental concepts
and language of the debates, much of which is couched in the lan-
guage of research. Terms like evidence-based practice, data-driven
decision-making, scientifically based research, and adequate yearly
progress are embedded in this language.
Historical ContextMy father was born in Eastern Europe in 1902, and he died in Wash-
ington, D.C., in 1994. I have often thought about the way his life
came eight years shy of fully spanning an extraordinary historical
century. He grew up driving horse-drawn carriages and lived to see
the stunning accomplishments of U.S. science and technology, which
changed America from a land of small farms to one of sprawling
cities, produced weapons of startling destructiveness, landed a man
on the moon, and created computers with capabilities unimagined at
the time of his birth. The transformation from village to urban ways
of acting and thinkingwas, to a significant extent, guided by what is
arguably Americas most important social institutionher schools
(Tyack, 1974, p. 6). Schools mirrored the growing pains of the larger
society. At the beginning of the twentieth century, schools were com-
munity-based and rarely educated children beyond the fundamen-
tals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. As people moved to the
burgeoning cities, schools expanded to meet the more sophisticated
demands of industrialization and technological change; this expan-
sion complicated the process of schooling and opened the door for
men like Thorndike at Teachers College at Columbia University,
Cubberly at Stanford University, and Judd at the University of
Chicago to advocate the establishment of a scientific, educational
elite who would guide the rapidly growing schools and, in turn, be
guided by statistical, largely experimental, research (Lagemann,
2000). During this time teachers did not need to be experts, as
William James, a major figure in the development of psychology in
America who taught at Harvard from 1872 until his death in 1907,
pointed out. In his talks to teachers, later collected and published
(1958) under the title, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Stu-
dents on Some of Lifes Ideals, he indicated that he saw no need for
teachers to be experts in the supporting disciplines of educational
practice. Instead, the experts were to be university faculty. They, who
would conduct the research (quantitative, expressed statistically, and
preferably experimental), determine what practitioners should do,
and then design the curriculum with which to do it. Administrative
elites, using results from university-based research, would then pro-
vide teachers with the curricula and teaching strategies they needed
to carry out an ever-expanding educational agenda.
Thus, the plan was that schools would be adjusted to the changing
landscape of American society through the application of university-
based theory and research. The extent to which schools were actually
6 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 7
transformed by educational theory and research is open to debate.
There are those who have argued that American schools are strongly
resistant to change, such as Goodlad (1984) or Tyack and Cuban
(1995), and that most of the changes in twentieth-century schooling
in America were ones of quantity and not quality.What is clear is that
there has been a disjuncture between educational research and prac-
tice that spanned most of the century. That disjuncture was aptly
described and investigated by Arthur Bolster in an essay titled,Toward
a More Effective Model of Research on Teaching (1983). Bolster, who
had worked for 20 years as a teacher in a secondary school and as a
faculty member at Harvard Graduate School of Education, noted in
his essay that despite similar intentions to improve teaching and
learning, there was little connection between the pedagogical theory
and research produced by university professors and the practice of
teachers. He attributed that lack of connection to researchers and
schoolteachers adopt[ing] radically different sets of assumptions
about how to conceptualize the teaching process (p. 295). He went on
to propose a new, more qualitative, model of research on teaching.
In the last 35 years of the twentieth century two strands of
research competed for influence in the world of educational decision-
making. One involved the proliferation of the kind of studies Bolster
called for, ethnographic (or qualitative) studies and studies done by
teachers in their own schools and classrooms, which often draw heav-
ily on qualitative research methods that include interviews, group dis-
cussions, and observations. When done in ones own work
environment these were referred to as action or practitioner research.
The other strand is large-scale, usually university-based studies
meant to assess the outcomes of educational programs (Cohen &
Barnes, 1999). Cohen and Barnes indicated that in the large-scale
studies there had been a shift away from studies designed to find the
relationship among conventional conceptions of educational
resourcessuch as teachers qualifications and school facilities (p.
34)and student achievement outcomes, because such resources
were seen as potential and not actual. Cohen and Barnes went on to
say, Whether they become actual depends on teachers knowledge,
skills, and professional commitments, as well as on the organizations
in which they work (p. 35). No one is better positioned to investigate
whether these resources become actual and, if so, how they do so,
than the teachers and other educational practitioners who work in
those organizations. In fact, in the 25 years between Bolsters essay
and today, there has been a significant increase in qualitative studies
of the sort he advocated, and in practitioner research where teachers
identify a problem in their practice and then design research to
I agree with Bolster that research that is meaningful and readable,
such as ethnographies that include context and allow readers to extrap-
olate what things would work for them, is useful. Moreover, I believe
that because ethnographies present research-based stories that resem-
ble situations that practitioners face in their own classrooms, their
readers are more likely to find appropriate applications of the lessons
reported in the research as they transfer its findings to their own spe-
cific learning environments. Unfortunately, however, context-specific
and highly descriptive research studies have been marginalized by
recent calls for scientifically based research, primarily true experi-
mental research intended to determine what works in schools and
classrooms (Erickson & Gutierrez, 2002). Regrettably, this trend, as
mandated by NCLB, moves us away from qualitative and practitioner
research and toward large-scale, predominantly experimental research
in search of the best practices that will solve all our problems
(Marzano, 2003; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2004).
Arthur Levine, past president of Teachers College at Columbia
University, frames the problem by noting that in an increasingly com-
petitive global economy it is necessary to educate Americas children
at higher levels than has been done in the past. Thus, research is
needed on student achievement and the most effective means and
strategies for producing high levels of achievement.He points out that
rapid advances in brain research are teaching us more about child
development and variations in the ways children learn. He notes that
8 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 9
such knowledge also calls for research to develop and deliver software
that will accommodate student development and learning styles. In
addition, research must address the best ways to train effective teach-
ers. Furthermore, changing demographics (Levine, 2007) bring new
challenges to develop new techniques to teach and motivate those in
the bottom halfstudents who were formerly expected to drop out or
were sometimes pushed out by schools and colleges that expended
most of their efforts on students in the top quartile (Grant & Mur-
ray, 1999, p. 237). Levine (2007) indicates that the fastest-growing
populations in the country are those that historically have had the
lowest educational attainment rates, and asks, What are the causes,
and what policies and practices are most effective in keeping these stu-
dents in school and raising their achievement levels? (p. 13). Levine
then sums up his list of important research questions for education by
claiming, One question encompasses all of these areas of concern:
After a quarter-century of a national school reform movement in
which scores and scores of improvement initiatives have been
attempted, what works in raising student achievement? (p. 13).
I would argue that his question does not encompass all areas of
concern: there are many questions related to implementation of what
works, and to the individual and contextual variations of such imple-
mentations. Levine claims that the answers to these questions have
not been forthcoming (p. 13) and that, as a result, educational policy
has become politicized. I would certainly agree that educational pol-
icy has become politicized, but would disagree that there have been no
answers to the questions of what works in schools and classrooms.
Indeed, significant research has been conducted in recent years, some
of which is summarized in Marzanos What Works in Schools (2003)
and Classroom Instruction that Works (Marzano et al., 2004). More-
over, there have been many, typically small-scale, context-specific,
largely qualitative studies often done by teachers, or former teachers,
that investigate specific problems that have been identified by local
educational practitioners. Such studies were not only providing us
with rich detail about local efforts to improve teaching and learning,
but were also giving teachers (and other educational practitioners) a
voice in local school improvement efforts.
In this brief review of trends in educational research through the
century, I do not mean to suggest that education has followed a
smooth path from small to large, from rural to urban, from basics to
an ever expanding curriculum; in fact this road was bumpy and fea-
tured ongoing controversies and cycles of reform, as the people guid-
ing American schools tinkered toward utopia (Tyack & Cuban,
1995). However, the reforms, according to Tyack and Cuban, were
top-down efforts designed mostly by outsiders and rarely took into
account teachers ideas and needs. In fact, they argue, Reform of
instruction by remote control has rarely worked well. Some reformers
have believed that teachers were so deeply mired in ruts that is was
necessary to devise teacher-proof instruction . . . (p. 135). They
believe, as I do, that effective and lasting reformmust include teachers
and happen from the inside out. I suggest that that effort should also
include teachers doing research, which would open the door for more
teacher input in policy discussions and decision-making.
Cohen and Barnes (1999) made the point that the language of
research is increasingly the vehicle for educational policy discussions.
Those who speak that language and understand the techniques and
strategies of research will have power in the national conversation;
those who do not will have no power. Teachers, who have become
increasingly marginalized in this conversation, need to learn to speak
the language and to understand the techniques and strategies of
research if they are to take a rightful place of power in these conversa-
tions. As both successful and unsuccessful educational reform efforts
have shown, teachers must have that power, and to do so must be able
to speak the language.
Research needs to continue at both ends of the spectrum, in the
small-scale, context-specific places where it occurs at its most funda-
mental and specific levelschools and classroomsand, at the same
time, in large-scale studies whose purpose is to find out what works at
a more general level across specific schools and regions. In the middle
10 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 11
ground we may find what works generally in schools and classrooms,
and how those approaches vary as they are adapted to specific needs.
It seems likely that the search for the context-free one best system
(Tyack, 1974) will never produce those sought-after silver bullets, and
that studies of specific implementations of such silver bullets will only
confirm the refracting qualities of context.
Last, as a century of school reform has made clear, such reform will
not occur, nomatter how good the research is, unless practitioners buy
into the process. If teachers are testing new practices and assessing
their impact, they along with the professional researcher counterpart
will be producers of knowledge of what works in schools rather than
being passive (or resistant) recipients of that knowledge. Such proac-
tive engagement will surely result in the much-desired buy-in.
Large-scale educational research (whether on a national or state
scale), including the increasing number of state reports on the results
of individual schools and districts as part of the accountability move-
ment, often provides in its grand-scale overviews a series of general-
izations that fail to speak to the specifics of any particular school, let
alone a specific classroom. They report their findings in terms of
averages and tendencies. But for a practitioner working in a school in
rural south Georgia (or wherever), reducing class size or adding a
special education teacher to work with special education students
may appear to make a significant difference in student achievement
in his or her classroom. In other words, the way to determine what
works in specific contexts under particular circumstances with given
students and teachers needs to be investigated systematically on that
local levelfor that teacher and those students, in that classroom and
in that school, in that county of south Georgiato evaluate what is
going on and how to make it better. We can get ideas about what
works from large-scale studies, but we must try them out locally and
do the local first-hand research that will allow us to evaluate how they
work and for whom.
It is my position that if schools are to be reformed in a way that
allows quality teaching and learning appropriate for local contexts
(communities), it must be driven more from the grass roots (ground
up) than from the top down (one best system). The current search for
the series of magic bullets that will work in all contexts (by applying
the gold standard of experimental research to isolate context-free best
practices) is a deeply flawed pursuit. That is not to say that such
research lacks significant value: it is an essential part of the solution
but only a part. Best practices are often not context-free. The investi-
gation of the implementation of the best practices is an equally
essential part of the solution.
Such studies are best done, I would argue, by local practitioners
who not only understand how local contexts show the efforts of best
practices, but also, as a result of performing the research, can adapt
those practices to their schools and regions. A significant benefit of
teachers and other practitioners doing such important work is that
they create knowledge that improves teaching and learning in their
schools and makes a difference in the lives of the students and in the
quality of teachers work. This is rewarding and empowering. It cre-
ates that too-often missing component of all effective school
Student WorkWith demands that research be a bigger part of decision-making at
the individual school level comes the need for teachers to be informed
and involved in that research. Research that is large scale, government
funded, and mandated to look for best practices, which when found
are to then be disseminated and declared necessary in classrooms, is
only a small part of the research that is needed to assess the true value
of those best practices.We need teachers-practitioners doing research
on a local level to describe the picture of what really goes on when the
best practices are implemented.
I have guided students through a wide range of investigations of
their practice in the classrooms and schools in which they work. I have
always required that the students in my doctoral-level research classes
12 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 13
carry out a research-based investigation, but only in the past five
semesters have I required my masters level students to do the same.
Because the masters level course is an introduction to research, it was
believed that students should do no more than design and propose
research, learn some techniques and basic descriptive statistics, and
acquaint themselves with elementary concepts of inferential statistics.
It was my experience, however, that the only way to get students
excited about research is to have them actually engage in the process.
Research is most exciting when you do it! So what kind of research can
teachers (or administrators, or counselors, or special educators) do in
one three-credit course, and what value would it have? In what fol-
lows, I will describe a few examples of studies done by practicing edu-
cators and describe the impact it had on them and their schools.
Middle School Math. Twomiddle school math teachers were interested
in finding ways to improve their teaching of introductory algebra.
They began by researching the literature on strategies for improving
math teaching and settled on math journaling as the one they wanted
to investigate. They selected two classes whose students were as simi-
lar as possible so as to neutralize the impact that significant differ-
ences in intelligence,math ability, prior knowledge, etc.might have on
the students performance in algebra. Then they designed the classes
so that each one would be taught in the same manner, except one class
would do math journaling and the other would not. They set a sched-
ule for regular and frequent communication to ensure that the classes
were following the same schedule and that each teacher was using the
same strategies, as nearly as that was possible. At the end of the semes-
ter, the students from each class took the same final test. The teacher-
researchers then used a statistical procedure to determine if the higher
average score of the class that used math journaling was statistically
significantthat is, whether it was likely to have been the result of the
students using math journaling. They found that it was, but realized
that the study had limitations (for example, the students were not ran-
domly assigned to the respective classes), and so they took the results
to be only suggestive. Nevertheless, they were very pleased that they
had found a way to systematically investigate their own teaching by
gathering and analyzing data that would allow them to evaluate its
effectiveness. They decided to replicate their study to see if it would
support their hypothesis that math journaling would improve test
scores in introductory algebra. They planned to continue their
research partnership and incorporate research into their regular prac-
tice. Furthermore, they felt empowered by the process and believed
that they were less at the mercy of administrators and others who
would dictate not only the curriculum they should teach, but also the
strategies they should use to do it.
Parental Involvement. A study was done by two high school teachers
who wanted to find out how parents of at-risk students thought about
their children not passing ninth grade.At the outset of their study, they
believed that the parents were not really concerned about their chil-
drens performance in school. Moreover, they indicated that most of
their colleagues shared those beliefs (not an unusual attitude among
many teachers I have knownthey blame the parents lack of concern
and involvement for their childrens failure). But as they conducted
open-ended interviews with seven sets of parents, they were amazed to
find that all of them did care about their childrens progress in school
and had aspirations for them to at least finish high school. The parents
told stories about the problems and difficulties they had communicat-
ing with teachers and administrators at the school. The teacher-
researchers came away from the experience humbled by what they had
learned, and ashamed of the negative assumptions they had made
about the parents. They spoke to their principal about what they had
learned and proposed that they conduct a professional development
workshop for their fellow teachers at the school at the beginning of the
fall term. The principal enthusiastically agreed. That fall they presented
their workshop on techniques and strategies for effective parental
involvement using the stories gathered during their research to engage
their colleagues and add poignancy to their message. The teachers
planned to incorporate research into their professional toolbox.
14 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 15
Low Morale. An elementary school teacher with more than 25 years of
experience was concerned about what she perceived to be a decline in
teacher morale at her school. She approached her principal to ask if
she was interested in having the teacher conduct a research project on
the issue. The principal, too, was very concerned about morale, and
was grateful for the opportunity to find out more about the problem.
They agreed that all comments made by staff in the school would be
kept confidential and that the teacher and the principal would take
special care to insure the anonymity and privacy of each research par-
ticipant. The teacher-researcher first conducted a focus group to
determine the major concerns of the faculty. After analyzing the tran-
scripts from the focus groups to see what issues and concerns would
emerge from the data, she constructed a survey, which she distributed
to all staff members in the school. She tallied the results and reported
them to the principal in a way that did not compromise her col-
leagues responses. The principal used the information to implement
changes that improved the quality of the workplace, which, in turn,
increased the likelihood of retaining her teachers.
Role of Race. At a time when activists (Kozol, 2005) and scholars
(Orfield, 2001) alike are drawing the public and educators attention
to the resegregation of American schools, many of the educators
whom I teach are particularly concerned about racial inequality in
their schools, particularly as it concerns those we fail most com-
pletelyBlack males. Two teachers (one Black and one White) in a
middle school with a significant percentage of Black students
decided to implement a study in which they would interview boys,
both those who were doing well and those who were not, to gain
some insight into how they perceived the origins and causes of their
successes and difficulties.
The principal of the school (a Black man) was deeply concerned
about his schools inability to reach so many of his Black male stu-
dents and encouraged and supported his teachers in their research.
The teacher-researchers compiled the results of their research and
presented it to the principal, once again making sure to protect the
privacy of those who contributed to the study. As in previous exam-
ples, the principal used the results of his teachers research to imple-
ment changes intended to improve the teaching and retention of his
Black male students. A Black woman counselor, who had similar con-
cerns about the lack of adjustment to school culture among the stu-
dents with whom she worked, conducted interviews with a number of
those young men and their parents. She recorded, transcribed, and
analyzed the interviews in order to determine if the similarities and
differences in the interviewees experiences provided insights into
their behaviors and the choices they made. The insights were then
summarized and made available to teachers and administrators so
that they might use the information to adjust their practices.
The above examples are but a few of the many research studies that
the educator-students conducted in my classes over the years. Though
their research projects were varied, the deepened understanding of the
inner workings of both their classrooms and the systems in which
those classrooms functioned, and the increased professionalism they
experienced, were very similar for many of them. The small steps that
they took to conduct and understand research resulted in deeper job
satisfaction and even greater curiosity about their profession.
ConclusionIt has become crystal clear to me that the most essential components
of successful educational practice are teachers, the ones in the class-
rooms day after day. These are the educators who should not only be
able to read and understand the increasingly complex, research-based
mandates that are raining down upon them, but also should be capa-
ble of conducting their own research in their classrooms and schools.
Thus armed, they would have a better opportunity to take a proactive,
influential place in the national (and international) conversations
about what schools should and can do.
NCLB presents the challenge to leave no child behind. This requires
not only that we understand the average gains from certain reform
models and strategies, but also that we understand how teaching and
16 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 17
learning works (or doesnt) for every group (e.g., minorities, students
at risk, non-English speakers, children with special needs, gifted stu-
dentsindeed every child). To accomplish this, we need research of
every type (quantitative, qualitative, and mixed) and at every level,
from national to state to local districts.We need to conduct research in
local communities, in their schools, in their classrooms, and on the par-
ticulars of teaching and learning for individual children. By becoming
practitioner-researchers, teachers become generators as well as con-
sumers of knowledge, and by so doing they make significant contribu-
tions to the body of knowledge that decision-makers need to make
choices that work.
As a teacher, your first line of action could be as simple as reading
about practitioner research. There are several books available that do
not require a sophisticated background in research or statistics. They
were written for the practitioner in a language that is understandable
(e.g., Chiseri-Strater & Sunstein, 2006; Mills, 2003; Weis & Fine,
2000). The books offer everything from a step-by-step guide of how
to do research (e.g., Phillips & Carr, 2006; Seidman, 1998; Thomas,
2005) to suggestions on how to read research reports written by oth-
ers (e.g., Cowan, 2004). Read several action research articles to see
samples of the work other teachers are doing. The Action Research
Exchange found at http://teach.valdosta.edu/are is one example of a
website that provides articles written by education practitioners about
the research they have done in their classrooms.
Collaborating with other teachers is an attainable early step in the
process of researching your practice and/or what is going on in your
school. Ask other teachers to work with you to find the answers to cer-
tain questions about what is working in the environment in which
you teach and why those strategies and techniques are effective; con-
versely, you might want to take a look at places where students are
struggling to determine why this is so. Research starts with questions,
with curiosity about what is going on. Brainstorming with other
teachers often leads first to clarity of the research questions, and then
to working together to develop ways to answer your questions.
Most teachers are required to maintain some type of ongoing pro-
fessional development. Workshops and sessions related to research
could be added to the years in-service training agenda in ways that
could inform the administration of what is working in their schools.
Many university professors in colleges of education would be willing
to train teachers to be practitioner researchers, and to come to your
school to do it. Try extending the invitation.
Starting a book club in your area where teachers read about
schooling (e.g., Ladson-Billings 1994 Dreamkeepers, Fines 1991
Framing Dropouts, or McLarens 2003 Life in Schools), and coming
together to discuss research, practice, and policy could help open the
conversations that are needed to identify what research questions
need to be asked and what one can do to answer them. (If getting
together is often a challenge, perhaps some of this could be done
online.) The discussions could certainly be broadened to the public
arena so as to include the PTA or other interested stakeholders.
There are multiple ethnographic reports of schools (e.g., Eckert,
1989; Metz, 1978; Peshkin, 1986, 1991) that read like novels that
could be used to stimulate thought and discussion, and perhaps even
change, if that is needed.
I strongly recommend teachers further their own education
through graduate programs that emphasize research in practice. If
your undergraduate institution offers a research course (or two), take
it (or them); if not, find one online and enroll. If your undergraduate
teacher-training program does not offer a research class, take research
as an elective. Aside from developing skills in how to read, critique,
design, and conduct research, there are other benefits that accrue from
taking such a class, such as developing critical thinking skills, learning
how to gather and assess information online and in the library, and
learning to organize and construct a well-structured essay, either in
the form of a research proposal or a research study.
Last, when you apply for jobs, ask if teachers are given the oppor-
tunity and encouraged to collaborate with peers to use reflection and
practitioner research to evaluate and improve curriculum, teaching,
18 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 19
and learning. Look for schools that engage in these activities and have
supportive administrators who are committed to distributed leader-
ship, for those are the places where teachers who want to incorporate
research, reflection, and collaboration as integral components of their
professional practice will find a home. This is a significant quest, but
it is also rewarding, and it can have an impact on education in general.
In order to make the changes suggested, we will have to make sig-
nificant changes not only in the way we educate teachers, but also in
the way we define teachers work. Teachers need to have the time for
reflection, collaboration, and research built into their workday. The
pressure and impetus for such change needs to come from university
educators and policy makers and, just as importantly, from teachers
themselves. Grant and Murray (1999) have made it clear that schools
work better when teachers can engage in such activities and that this
engagement produces greater job satisfaction.
I recently asked one of my students, Ms. Barbara Hannaford, who
took multiple classes with me and is now my doctoral advisee, to
reflect on the significance of research in her practice as a teacher and
administrator. She wrote:
For public schools, the turning point for school improvement andaccountability exists within the federal mandates of the No ChildLeft Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). Despite its numerous flaws andlack of adequate funding, NCLB has been successful in ensuringschools are focused on student learning and academic achieve-ment. Accordingly, the current climate of high stakes accountabil-ity and accompanying public scrutiny for Americas schools arelikely to remain on the horizon for a long time. Ironically, the verypiece of legislation intended to improve educational practicesthrough the use of research based instructional strategies andinterventions may also inhibit countless classroom teachers fromengaging in research: many administrators and teachers believethey are under extreme pressure to focus solely on standardizedtest content and raising test scores and do not have time to engagein research. However, it is imperative for public school educators,from classroom practitioners to building and system level admin-istrators, to embrace and to engage in research in order to ensure
academic achievement for all students. This imperative is driven bythe uniqueness of each learner and each learning environment. Byengaging in research, teachers and administrators are able to deter-mine the educational strategies and interventions that work bestwithin their own contextual setting rather than implementing one-size-fits-all models and methods for improving student learning.
The main point I want to make is that for schools to be more effec-
tive and for teachers to be more satisfied in their work, teachers need
to take more control over their workspaceand learning how to read,
evaluate, and conduct research is a significant component of such a
change. Historically, teachers have never had much control over their
work. The often-expressed idea that when teachers close the door they
are their own bosses has been challenged by Ingersoll (2003) in his
very important research book,Who Controls TeachersWork? Ingersoll
shows how even within the closed-door classroom, the structure of
schools continues to strongly direct the activities within. Grant and
Murray (1999) say that K12 teachers work needs to be more like the
work of university teachers (who have significantly more autonomy
over and flexibility in their work environments); they refer to the
potential movement in this direction as the slow revolution (p. 231).
If we are to make teachers work more engaging, if we are to make
schools places where professional teachers want to be and want to stay,
and if we are going to find out what is best in each classroom for spe-
cific groups of students, we are going to have to find ways to give
teachers a greater say in what goes on inside their classrooms, what the
standards of their profession should be, how to evaluate their work,
and how to make evaluation second nature to instruction. The slow
revolution requires changes on many fronts, and clearly one of the
most critical changes involves training teachers to be researchers.
EpilogueThe turn of the nineteenth century brought major changes in Amer-
ican schooling as the results of major changes in the societyfrom
small village schools to large urban and suburban schools. The
20 Journal of Education
Schmertzing Expert Researchers and School Practitioners 21
education establishment responded over time to those new demands
by creating an educational elite (university faculty and school
administrators) responsible for guiding schools and their teachers
into the new millennium. This process took control out of the hands
of local communities and their teachers, and placed it in the hands
of the educational elite. As part of this shifting control, educational
research was established as the means by which to create a scientific
basis for the anticipated changes. Teachers were not expected either
to be experts in the supporting disciplines (like psychology), or to
understand or conduct research; nor were they expected to take a
significant role in determining policy or designing reform. Teachers
may have been rulers of their domains once the classroom doors
closedan assumption debated by many, beginning with Jules
Henrys critique of schooling in the late 1950s (Henry, 1963)but
they were not even counselors to the rulers when it came to educa-
tional policy and reform. As I argue above, this created a disjuncture
between the work and worldview of university theorists and
researchers and school practitioners. The critique of the dominant
paradigm in educational research that was mounted in the late 1970s
and continues today (Gage, 1983) resulted in a movement that
included teachers doing more research in their schools and class-
rooms and taking a more active voice in policy and reformat least
at the local level.
Once again, the turn of the century, this time the twentieth,
brought demands for changes in American schooling to meet the
needs of changing demographics in America where schools will have
to educate the traditionally neglected bottom half of their students,
and the globalization of the economy, where schools will have to edu-
cate all their students at higher levels, particularly in math and sci-
ence, to meet the challenges posed by emerging economies, most
notably China (Friedman, 2005). Once again, the calls for reform
come from people outside the schools (primarily politicians and
business representatives) and, once again, these calls include a
demand that the changes be research-based. Such calls, however, do
not imagine teacher-practitioners who conduct problem-based local
research, or those who investigate the context-specific and socio-cul-
tural foundations of local educational problems and issues; rather,
they anticipate large-scale, experimental research conducted by
experts in search of the elusive best practices that can be mandated
from outside to universally address the problems of American school-
ing. For school reform to be effective, for schools to meet the chal-
lenges of the new century, I believe that both major strands of research
must be supported and maintained. Teachers can, and should, take a
major role in that process: in doing so, they will retain the rightand,
indeed, meet their obligationto do research in their own work set-
tings; they will increase their level of professionalism; they will
improve the quality of their workplaces; and they will make their
voices heard in the all-important and ongoing debates about where
American schools should and will go in the twenty-first century.
Rarely is a thought exercise the product of one mindthis essay is no excep-tion. First I must thank my students who have been a source of wonder andinspiration for me for more than 30 years. In particular, I am grateful tothose students in my research classes who continue to ask the question,What does learning how to do research have to do with being a teacher? Itwas that question I attempt to answer in this essay. My deepest appreciationto Ms. Lynne Larson who, in her role as guest editor of this issue of the jour-nal, encouraged me to write this piece and helped me at all stages along theway from conceptualization to final edit. Thanks to my friend and colleaguefrom the English faculty, Gardner Rogers, who served as critic, coach, andeditor par excellence. Last, thanks to my wife and coworker, Dr. LorraineSchmertzing, without whose guidance and support I would be lost, and whohas contributed so much to this project that she should probably be namedas co-author. I, of course, am responsible for any errors of thought or writ-ing that may remain.
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