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Teacher Knowledge That Benefits All Children

Abstract

"In California the cry of education reform echoes off the deep crevasses of the many political, economic, social, and technological monoliths that have become institutionalized over the last 150 years. Despite the billions of dollars spent on interventions poor children in urban districts continue to suffer low academic achievement in mathematics and science. The 1990 California Science Framework stated clearly the urgency of this matter."

Teacher Knowledge That Benefits All Children

Roy Mendiola and Jerry Valadez
Fresno Unified School District

Copyright © 1999 by Roy Mendiola and Jerry Valadez
All rights reserved

From Best Practices to the Wisdom of Practice: A Strategy for Addressing Educational Equity

In California the cry of education reform echoes off the deep crevasses of the many political, economic, social, and technological monoliths that have become institutionalized over the last 150 years. Despite the billions of dollars spent on interventions poor children in urban districts continue to suffer low academic achievement in mathematics and science. The 1990 California Science Framework stated clearly the urgency of this matter:

The demographic trend of the California school population is on a collision course with the scientific illiteracy rate.

Elizabeth Stage, chairperson of the 1990 Science Framework committee and advocate for equity issues, personally lobbied to have five pages included in the Framework entitled "Teaching All Students." The Commission on Chapter 1 (1992) offers this explanation:

Most Americans assume that the low achievement of poor and minority children is bound up in the children themselves or their families. "The children don’t try." "They have no place to study." "Their parents don’t care." "Their culture does not value education." These and other excuses are regularly offered up to explain the achievement gap that separates poor and minority students from other young Americans.

In spite of these beliefs, educators continue searching for interventions to transform the low achieving student to more closely resemble the national norm based on the selected norm referenced test. There are very few interventions that are effective because of institutionalized policies and deep-seated teacher beliefs. In California the pattern of institutionalized racism was established early through the removal of all minority communities, languages, and cultures from the governance, administration, and content of public education. Nationally there has been no significant change in institutional policy or teacher beliefs despite significant court decisions such as Brown vs. Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education, 1954, or the Coleman Study (1966), which both dealt with inequality in educational opportunity.

Since the launching of Sputnik forty years ago Congress has invested significant resources in attempts to reform mathematics and science education. Numerous studies spiraling out of these reforms have identified five key areas that hinder achievement in mathematics and science for poor and minority children:

  1. The classification of schools as "low performing",
  2. Access to quality mathematics and science programs,
  3. Access to experienced and qualified teachers,
  4. Access to resources, and
  5. Access to adequate facilities.

These system barriers for poor minority students did not consider what we believe is another key barrier to student achievement. It is the role of teacher wisdom. There is a wisdom of practice that is more than teaching technique and subject matter knowledge. Teachers are the only individuals that can gain entry into the body of this knowledge, which is available to them by their proximity to children. All teachers need to know the pedagogy and content knowledge of equity. They need to know how to identify and develop the specific type of knowledge of how to teach low achieving students. This "knowledge in action" is not included in conversations about best practices or in subject matter courses. Further, the benefits for children from the teacher’s cognition and subsequent use of this knowledge has not been used to its full potential which can be uncovered through the thoughtful use of case study narratives.

Case study research started in the late 1980’s through the work of people like Lee Shulman at Stanford University. Shulman wrote of the importance of listening to teachers' wisdom about their practice in the Harvard Educational Review (1988).

One of the frustrations of teaching as an occupation and profession is its extensive and collective amnesia. The consistency with which the best creations of its practitioners are lost to both contemporary and future peers. Unlike fields such as architecture, law, and even unlike chess, bridge, or ballet, teaching is conducted without an audience of peers. It is devoid of a history of practice.

Harvard professor Linda Darling-Hammond (1996) also described the need to listen closely to the experiences of teachers. She explains the importance of action research, teachers as researchers, and case study research. Hammond’s work updates Shulman’s vision by emphasizing tensions between aspiring to high standards and the need to serve all students. Yet, educational inequities and social injustices continue to occur today. To resolve these problems case studies which provide thoughtful insights that carry professional development and policy implications can be used to provide a stage for discussion and acknowledgement. Professional development structures that are more inclusive of the wisdom of teacher practice are required. Practitioners simply know a great deal that they have never even tried to articulate.

A more aggressive approach to close the achievement gap should include:

  1. Development of case studies on teacher practice specific to low achieving students. This is the wisdom that can be shared in narrative case study form.
  2. Leadership institutes on racism, equity, and related issues for mathematics and science educators and policy makers.
  3. Development of professional development structures on institutionalized racism and social injustice for both inservice and preservice teachers

In California, an intermediate step is being taken as we look to experienced teachers as coaches and mentors. This acknowledges the fact that the sought after wisdom exists at the site level within the practice of teachers that work under specific circumstances. Unfortunately, such efforts remain infrequent and are often superficially conceptualized. Whether it is because scientific knowledge is thought to transcend culture, language and gender, or because issues of equity have been considered to transcend academic subject matter categories, both the theory and practice of how to promote equity in science education remains acutely underdeveloped. If we can discard the rose-colored lens of science education we may actually see this teacher knowledge. In order to help ALL children succeed we must not only understand this wisdom, we must see clearly through the clouded lens of indifference to gain access to it.

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