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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

    enthusiastic discussion.

    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

    daily routines.

    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

    address it.

    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

    reformteacher buy-in.

    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 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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    24 Journal of Education


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