In the midst of both teach praise and teacher bashing nowadays abides a nagging but persistent assumption among state and federal policymakers hellbent on the standards-testing-accountability agenda, charter school operators, and high-tech enthusiasts for online instruction that most teachers resist change.
For decades, teachers have been blamed for not implementing well the latest reform aimed at classroom practice. Whether it was open space schools, laptops, new reading programs, Direct Instruction, project-based learning that yielded unspectacular or even undesirable student outcomes, teachers were at fault. If only teachers were change-enthusiastic, not change-resistant, critics said. See here and WhySomeTeachersResistChange-Zimmerman-2006-1 .
Critics were (and are) inaccurate and uninformed.
Teachers have changed in how they have taught. In How Teachers Taught, a history of classroom instruction in U.S. schools since the 1890s (pp. 272-274) and Hugging the Middle, an account of teaching in three districts since the 1990s (pp. 8-12, 62-64), I document incremental changes in classroom practices over time including the development of hybrid pedagogies. Other researchers have also noted substantial teacher-directed changes in classroom instruction, collaboration, and professional development. Often these changes in practice go unobserved and unnoticed by policymakers.
If teachers have changed, why do they still get blamed for resisting?
*Designers of innovations see teachers adapting rather than faithfully implementing their programs; policymakers want 0 to 60 acceleration in classroom changes and get walking speed instead. Both knock teachers (and schools) when things go awry. Yet seldom do innovations get inspected for design flaws or do policymakers have their policies examined for logic and evidence. However, when teachers voice their dissent, they get dubbed as resisters. These resisters–often opposing changes for valid reasons–see below–get blamed for innovations that flop. See here and here.
*Teachers question changes because they have experienced coercive efforts that have been thrust on them. Teachers are seldom consulted for their views, much less participated in designing changes that affect their classrooms. Moreover, the past 30 years of high-profile criticism of failing U.S. schools produced a tsunami of top-down reforms showing little trust in teachers’ professional judgment. In 2003, New York City Chancellor Joel Klein decided that all teachers would use the progressive “Balanced Literacy” program to teach reading. A few months later, to qualify for federal funds and tamp down a revolt from protesting teachers and administrators, he dumped “Balanced Literacy” for a phonics-based program in nearly 40 struggling schools. Or consider that most superintendents and school boards mandate that laptops or iPads be bought and deployed without asking teachers about these potential game-changing decisions in classrooms. A history of coercive changes and little trust in teacher judgment may get sullen compliance but also act as yeast to grow teacher resistance to top-down decisions rammed into classrooms.
*Often teachers see mandated changes as add-ons to an already complex job. Policymakers seldom reform workplace conditions, authority structures, and culture–central to what teachers experience daily. Few classroom-directed reforms alter what David Tyack and William Tobin called the “grammar of schooling” and Seymour Sarason called “regularities” of school culture: age-graded school with a teacher in every classroom dealing with groups of children and youth; time schedules; norms of teacher autonomy once the door is closed and little collaboration with peers. When was the last time any reformer recommended non-graded schools to replace the century and a half old age-graded school? Without a fundamental restructuring of the teacher’s workplace, it is sensible for teachers to raise questions and be skeptical of policymaker intentions to alter classroom practices with the next new thing. The few teacher-led schools in the country suggest possibilities when “regularities” are challenged.
So reformers complain about teacher resistance to reform rather than the context of previous imposed changes, the “grammar of schooling,” and teacher perceptions of their work and authority.
Teachers and policymakers judge the worth of classroom changes differently
Policymakers determine the worth of proposed changes in curricular, instructional, and school practices on the criteria of organizational effectiveness, efficiency, and equity. Teachers accept, modify, and reject innovations and mandates on the basis of similar criteria but with the focus on students and classrooms. In doing so, they ask substantially different questions than policymakers who focus on the system, not individual classrooms.
Called the “practicality ethic ,” teachers ask:
1. Will the innovation or change directly help me solve learning and teaching problems I face now, not problems someone else has defined?
2. If the change helps me, how much of my time and energy will the innovation take to learn in order for students to benefit?
3. How can I adapt the change to fit my particular students?
Few designers of innovative programs or policymakers who adopt changes consider such practical questions that teachers, the implementers of the change, ask. Pity.
Teachers do adopt changes but they are, and will be, skeptical pragmatists of classroom-directed policies, not “stone-age obstructionists” all too often blamed for reforms failing (practicality ethic, p.3).