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Commentary: Pushing Up from Below: Changing Schools and Universities.

by Ann Lieberman - 1992

This commentary expands on Patricia Graham's discussion, in her book "S.O.S.: Sustain Our Schools," of the role of higher education institutions in school reform. The article discusses issues surrounding how knowledge is being created in teacher education and the forms it is taking, the role of school-university partnerships, and new organizational forms for teacher learning. (Source: ERIC)

Now the path to the river lies covered with snow But the green grass is pushing on up from below.

—“The Summer Is Short” (song).

Patricia Graham’s new book S.O.S. : Sustain Our Schools has a ring of urgency about it, as it confronts the problems schools face entering the twenty-first century with a heavy load of social, economic, and political baggage. While her analysis is reasoned and unromantic, Graham’s focus is always on the children and on the many institutions that educate them and those that, it is hoped, will eventually hire them.

Since Graham herself has been a leading figure in trying to shape national policy, she is well aware of the federal government’s role in education. She calls our attention to the dwindling budget for educational research during the Reagan years—cut 80 percent in real dollars since the creation of the National Institute of Education in 1972, even as defense budgets rose precipitously (p. 81). Although researchers are not popular “on the hill” because of their style (“Their proclivity is to be verbose, to qualify all findings, and to favor analysis of a problem over resolution” [p. 92]) the underfunding of the arts, libraries, and television for children indicate that this is part of an overall decline in federal spending on all educational programs for children. Instead of expanding research, what is becoming more prevalent is the quest for the quick fix—for example, national standards or tests and curricula that will overcome all local problems with a no-cost federal presence.

The role of higher education in improving our schools by increasing the effort to better student learning, supporting the application of new knowledge in schools, and strengthening colleges of education is encouraging. But we are reminded that the status of higher education faculties is high, while the status of elementary and secondary school personnel is low. Men predominate in colleges and universities (particularly at the top as administrators and full professors), while women predominate as teachers in the lower schools. The message seems clear that “higher education is men’s work and schooling is women’s work: the former deals with elite young adults, the latter with all children. The society values the former and does not value the latter” (p. 96). These insights deepen our understanding of why many universities hire soft-money personnel to mount “projects” that advertise the university’s work with schools, while marginalizing such personnel and activities by rarely changing the core tasks of the institution or the roles and relationships of the tenured faculty.

However, Graham should go further. It is not enough to say that “explaining, not changing [practices], is the university’s expertise” (p. 106). By accepting this traditional approach more than current experience warrants, she limits the vision of what both schools and the university can be. Such a vision, in this time of great social ferment and transformation, needs to be shaped not only by a moral imperative to help improve schools, but, in the most fundamental sense, by the need to improve scholarship by viewing scholarly activity as being broader than the basic/applied research dichotomy. This vision is, indeed, slowly creeping into the discourse on the role of the university.1 Having written a slim book that covers a great deal of territory—from the reasons for the changing expectations for schools, to the kinds of changes that are needed, to the many institutions involved in such changes (e.g., family, government, higher education, business)—Graham has chosen coverage rather than depth. While that purpose is well served, what is served less well is the breadth of what we are learning, particularly in higher education, about how knowledge is being created, the forms it is taking, and the necessity for a broader and deeper view of university involvement with schools. Since I think that this view expands Graham’s thesis and is critical to understanding the process of reform that is going on today in both schools and universities, it is to this subject that I will address the major portion of this commentary.

We find ourselves in a unique period in which it appears that the expansion of knowledge about schools and teaching is coming from school people interacting and collaborating with university personnel, thus modifying the traditional shibboleths of “theory into practice” or “application of knowledge.” Theory-in-practice, the building of conceptual knowledge through engagement in practice, is being carried on both at existing sites and in the development and explication of new models of schooling—by university researchers and school people working in and collaborating with schools at the school site. This inextricable connection of context and content poses a significant challenge to universities that have been distanced from the schools. Those still holding on to the traditionally distanced stance, as disinterested analysts and critics, may find themselves increasingly irrelevant to the changing of schools, while other institutions take on the role the university is not filling. The scholars involved in these new forms appear to be tackling an expanded view of the “work” of practitioners and professors alike, and are increasingly broadening the view of scholarly activity, through new research methodologies, new forms of collaborative work, and new structures to support them.


There are many examples of these reforms, some that have begun in the schools and others initiated by university people. What they have in common is that all the ideas, interventions, or programs are worked on in schools. Reformers from many disciplines starting with different issues, new conceptual frames or foci supported by different structures, work collaboratively with school people. All participants—reformers and school people alike—are confronting the complexities of the culture of the school and the process of change. New understandings of practice are changing the roles of reformers as much as their ideas are changing the schools.

The reforms are as varied as the people who have initiated them.2 Variety and adaptability, rather than uniformity and replicability, are the norm. Unlike many reforms in the past, these are being shaped by the contexts and cultures of which they are a part.

From Rabun Gap, Georgia, to East Harlem, New York, new learning communities are being formed. Although Graham notes that famous leaders do not a movement make, she does not take note of the significant new forms that have been created to spread the work of these new learning communities. For example, Foxfire and the Central Park East Schools (initiated respectively by Eliot Wigginton and Deborah Meier) are having a profound effect on the rethinking of how schools can change the relationships between teachers and students.

The Foxfire way of learning has been written about extensively, by Wigginton and others (including his students),3 but it is only within the last few years that “teacher outreach” networks, in states ranging from Washington to Maine, have been organized (ten at this writing and more in the making). These networks, run by professors or teachers and often formally or informally connected to a university in the vicinity, serve as organizing bases for teachers learning how to shift their pedagogy from that of “teacher as teller” to that of “teacher as facilitator for student learning.” As the networks continue to grow, the ideas are developing a life of their own, and knowledge is being gained about new ways to engage teachers that support experimentation, continuous engagement in practice, and commitment to change. The basic idea is to alter the traditional role of teacher as purveyor of all knowledge by involving students in “projects” and other self-selected activities. Students select work of interest, working together and alone, while the teacher picks up cues from students to teach them what they need and want to know. It is difficult and demanding work for teachers and students but it is also exciting and involving. The teacher networks run classes that engage teachers as learners, so that they experience what they will then do with their students.

Preparing teachers apart from real school contexts has always been a problem for teacher education. The attempt here is to join experienced teachers and novices learning “in context” rather than simulating it. Problematic issues such as authentic teacher development with follow-up, the connection between pre- and in-service training, deepened understanding about how experienced teachers learn their craft, are all being addressed through the enlarged Foxfire networks. Wigginton himself has taken a leave to work on rethinking how practice can inform theory as he participates in the University of Georgia’s Network of Professional Educators, a school-university partnership between forty schools and the University of Georgia.

Deborah Meier, moving from creating an elementary school focused on child-centered learning (led by teachers) to leading a student-centered secondary school, has created a model of schooling that shifts the focus from the teacher to the learner. By bringing the experience of elementary school to the high school, she initiated an extraordinary attempt to rethink the experience of secondary school for students and their teachers in an urban setting. First of all the school is small—no more than 400 students. Big schools are broken up, several schools existing within one building. The school is organized around teams (Humanities and Math/Science) and teachers teach to themes that are developed collaboratively. Instead of relying solely on standardized tests, the staff develops methods of assessment that give students an opportunity to show what they know and are able to do as a result of the work they have performed. (As a charter member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Central park East Secondary School [CPESS] frames its program on the principles of the coalition.4)

Another organizational form has been created to engage a larger number of schools, using the ideas created at CPESS as a stimulus. This Center for Collaborative Education serves as a loosely organized network providing staff development, support, practical expertise, and encouragement to school people attempting to move toward learner-centered schools in their own context.

The university’s contribution here has been to document the growth and development of a student-centered model of schooling, to articulate a framework that is accessible to others, and to try to understand how these ideas are enacted in different contexts. Traditional in-service and application-of-theory forms are being displaced as university researchers learn—as partners—to engage in the ongoing struggle to know and understand how to create contemporary child-centered schools in complex, diverse urban settings.

Innovative ideas have to be articulated by people who have the vision, knowledge, and experience to conceive and express them, but if they are to have an impact they must be transformed into activity that engages people deeply enough to commit them to take risks. The ideas must be visionary enough to excite people with their possibilities, but practical enough to be usable, concrete, and doable. If they are to last, ways must be found to institutionalize these ideas so that they can exist without the presence of their creators, ways that encourage leadership in others who share their vision and can involve others in carrying them forward.


School reformers, in rethinking how the school can be run more effectively for students, are working on new ways to organize teachers to change and improve teacher learning. For example, the Urban Math Collaboratives (sponsored by Ford Foundation), in the course of bringing together groups of teachers to enhance their understanding and teaching of math, are learning many lessons about creating “professional communities” among teachers.5 In these groups, which are organized in cities across the country, teachers come together to work on a particular subject. In describing these collaboratives, researchers note that the technical and personal support is far greater than that provided by either university or district. These collaboratives help encourage innovative norms even as they are closely connected to classroom work. In addition, teachers, often reluctant to lead in their own schools, find that the collaboratives are places where they are more willing to take leadership roles as teachers of others, as workshop leaders or informally, as teachers who have experimented with new ways of teaching and want to share them. This combination of focus on subject matter, decentralization of staff development, and the encouragement of teachers in constructing knowledge about subject matter has provided an alternative to the traditional paradigm of staff development delivered to teachers by districts or through university course work. These networks are a new form of collaboration between university and school people—neither working in a traditional way—that involve them both in building new knowledge, as well as in teaching and supporting each other.

Perhaps better known is the dramatic work being done to help transform the nation’s students into better writers by the use of what has become known as the “writing process” approach. Popularized by researchers in reading and language arts on both East and West Coasts, it seeks to provide teachers themselves with experience in the process of writing, with the expectation that such experience will encourage them to teach students in the same way.6 These researchers are teaching us that changing teaching practice is, in the final analysis, not only the invention of powerful teaching ideas, but the engagement of teachers in their own learning as adults, on their turf, where both university and schools have opportunities to lead and to learn. Where university researchers are engaged in such work, the very concept of scholarship is being challenged, broadened, and enriched.


As Donald Schön and others have argued, the university has been dominated by a model of “technical rationality” in the professions, and particularly in the teaching profession. At its narrowest, there is an assumption that “nothing can be known that cannot be measured, quantified, and thus scientifically described.”7 In fact, the hierarchical structure of knowledge that has dominated the university has kept schools and university apart, limiting our collective understanding of how to create the kind of knowledge that Graham encourages us to build. We have worked within a framework that assumes that the highest form of inquiry—the best research—is carried on by those in the university removed from practice and context. Some lower group is then to translate or transform this superior knowledge into practice. Those who do the work, “the practitioners,” are technicians, who are in the lowest position in the hierarchy because it is assumed that they are only good for putting somebody else’s innovative ideas into practice. This view, unfortunately, has limited the possibilities for academics to influence authentic school change; presumably we have gained status with our colleagues, but in the process we have lost our relevance, credibility, and importance to schools.

Many of us, having done our work unrelated to the context of real schools, have distanced ourselves from the serious and multifaceted problems that confront school people. We have demeaned the necessary and important contributions of school people themselves to the construction of knowledge that comes about through interaction with students in different contexts in the struggle to change their schools. Perhaps most importantly, we have ignored a central insight: that knowledge for teachers and administrators, and perhaps parents and students too, comes from building community—for supportive purposes and for intellectual purposes as well. Adults and students learn best in a community that allows them to trust each other enough to share and contribute—as teachers and learners. Such new knowledge and understanding is coming from researchers who have taken as their primary research mission understanding the development, organization, and learning possibilities for students and teachers engaged in professional communities. Some are helping to create them and document what happens; others are engaging with teachers in the co-construction of knowledge about teaching and learning; while still others observe, analyze, and bring new conceptions into being that explain to school people what their world looks like and how they can make it better.8


Graham notes the importance of colleges’ forming links with their communities as a significant means to make students’ college programs more relevant to the communities they will ultimately serve (p. 94). She also values the importance of practice and the difficulty of maintaining the proper balance between research and practice. But she underestimates the possibilities that school-university partnerships have for enlarging the role of research and expanding the meaning of scholarly activity in the university. Indeed, research, policy, practice, participation, and service are taking on new meaning within these frameworks and, in the process, reshaping and expanding roles for researchers.9

From West Philadelphia to Seattle, research universities are forming partnerships that are far more participatory and collaborative than those we have known in the past. In the former, the partnership is involved in playing a linkage role between the community and the university. Collaboration with schools that are community centered has involved the university in service programs, in organizing coalitions, and in providing research sites and substance for undergraduate history seminars dealing with community history and problems. In Seattle, the University of Washington has formed the Puget Sound Educational Consortium (PSEC), a collaboration between the School of Education and twelve districts in the Puget Sound. Now in its seventh year, the consortium supports an ambitious program for constructive educational change that includes a new administrative preparation program collaboratively designed, a professional development school program, and a teacher leadership program, while it continues to serve as a network for support and development in enabling policy and educational change.

The work being described here brings together the ideas of many disciplines, methodologies, and ways of working with school people that expand our notion of research and practice. It puts the practical work of teachers, students, and community at the center of our work as researchers: involving us as colleagues and researchers, collaborators and describers, observers and activists. The nature of our work performed in isolation from the community of which we are a part and the professionals we teach is changing. This means that some of us in the university are engaging less in “pure” research and more in collaboration with schools and health care and community service organizations, and across disciplines. Graham reminds us that basic over applied research has higher status in the university, but the solution to the social problems she documents—“poverty, productivity, public participation and personal passivity”—will require the creation and application of new knowledge (p. 69). Perhaps this, in turn, will help to change the systems of rewards that discourage a broader range of scholarly activity.

Seymour Sarason reminded us a long time ago that people of action would have to think differently, and people of theory would have to act differently.10 Some people are doing both, and it is here that the most hopeful and positive directions are being mapped. Indeed, we can do more than “sustain our schools”; we can change them.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 4, 1992, p. 717-724
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 221, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:23:16 PM

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