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From "Teacher as Decision Maker" to Teacher as Participant in "Shared Decision Making": Reframing the Purpose of Social Foundations in Teacher Education

by Nancy Beadie - 1996

This article explores how the idea of shared decision making can be used to reframe the purpose of social foundations in teacher education.

This article explores how the idea of shared decision making can be used to reframe the purpose of social foundations in teacher education. Recent research shows that foundations educators need to find more effective ways of articulating the value of social foundations. The challenge is to make effective connections between the content of social foundations and the practical work of the individual teacher as decision maker, and yet to do so without losing attention to issues of social context and moral purpose that define the field of social foundations. The argument here is that the idea of shared decision making can help bridge this gap between the idea of teacher as decision maker and the content of foundational studies. The article takes an empirical approach to this argument, looking at what leading studies from the literature on educational decision making suggest about the value of social foundations for the work of teachers. Four studies in particular provide the core illustrations for this analysis, each representing a different level of educational decision making, and thus a different context for teacher involvement in education issues.


The purpose of social foundations in teacher education has been the subject of considerable discussion in recent years. Since at least the 1930s, when the field took institutional form at Teachers College, Columbia University, courses in social foundations have been a regular part of professional preparation in education.1 Drawing on multiple disciplines, including history, philosophy, and sociology of education, as well as other social sciences, these courses have addressed the moral, civic, and social dimensions of education as a human enterprise, and of schooling as an institution. Topics frequently covered include the history and purpose of public schooling; the nature of teacher authority and of the teacher-student relationship; equity issues in education policy; ideas of freedom, justice, and the good society as they pertain to education and as they have been articulated by leading philosophers and educators; and contemporary educational issues and problems. The breadth of this material, combined with the diverse disciplinary perspectives of its practitioners, has always made the purpose of social foundations in teacher education difficult to capture rhetorically. This problem of purpose has become more acute, however, in the context of recent education reform.

One issue is pedagogical. As part of the general reassessment of teacher education that has occurred over the last decade, social foundations has been criticized for failing to achieve its pedagogical objectives. Research has shown that the vast majority of teacher education students have difficulty identifying the point of the social foundations courses they have taken; that they regard foundations as the least worthwhile component of their professional preparation; and that teacher educators themselves often have difficulty saying where in the teacher education curriculum the moral, civic, and social dimensions of teaching are addressed.2 This evidence suggests that whatever the intended purpose of social foundations, that purpose has not been effected. In response to such concerns, some attention has been given to reconnecting foundations to the substance of teacher education;3 to articulating the conceptual links that connect the content of social foundations to problems of professional practice; to developing pedagogies of social foundations, such as case study approaches, that facilitate making those connections; and to infusing foundations subject matter throughout the whole of professional preparation rather than trying to contain it in a single course.

A second issue is political. Social foundations is not the only component of teacher education to be criticized for failing to achieve its objectives. As teacher education standards and programs are revised to address these challenges, however, the demand for clarity of purpose in social foundations becomes more pressing. The same breadth of content and multidisciplinary perspective that make the purpose of social foundations difficult to communicate to students make it difficult to communicate to educators and policymakers as well. While other elements of teacher education such as methods courses have always, in some sense, taken teacher effectiveness to be their standard of value, for social foundations the connections to classroom practice are at once more elemental and more diffuse. The ability to improve student learning and achievement in literacy and numeracy is readily accepted as a goal of teacher education, but the capacity to critique the culture and structure of schools and the disposition to act on such critiques with moral seriousness and acumen are not objectives as easily stated or as readily grasped. Unless foundations educators find a compelling way of articulating the utility of social foundations for helping students become more effective teachers in schools, they stand to lose what remains of the place of social foundations in teacher education.

One response to this political problem has been to frame the purpose of social foundations in terms of teacher decision making. In this formulation, the moral, civic, and social dimensions of schooling become a set of critical perspectives from which the teacher learns to consider teaching decisions. This framework was articulated in particular in a set of position statements drafted and debated under the auspices of the American Educational Studies Association (AESA), the umbrella organization of foundations educators. As framed in these statements, the purpose of social foundations in teacher education is to assist teachers in constructing meaning more adequately in their practice as decision makers.4

This formulation of the purpose of social foundations is problematic in several respects, however. One problem is the emphasis on the individual in the phrase teacher as decision maker.5 This emphasis seems to ignore many of the issues of social and political context that are at the heart of subject matter in social foundations. Is the role of the teacher simply that of a professional expert with independent decision-making authority? Or does teacher education have to acknowledge in some programmatic way the politically and socially contingent character of teacher authority? What about relationships with parents, administrators, citizens, and other groups in the community? How are teachers prepared to assume the public responsibilities that these relationships imply?6

Another problem with formulating the purpose of social foundations in terms of teacher decision making is a lack of specificity about the content of those decisions. This lack seems to disregard the civic and moral dimensions of education that are also at the heart of subject matter in social foundations. Does the content of social foundations simply consist of a set of critical perspectives from which the individual teacher selects to analyze educational problems and make decisions? Or does the purpose of social foundations in teacher education lie in larger normative commitments?7 In the absence of commitment to specific substantive values such as democracy, human dignity, and pluralism, the aim of promoting meaningful decision making seems at best vague and at worst potentially pernicious.8

A third problem is the emphasis on meaning in the above formulation. Is it adequate to aim at teachers understanding issues of community, identity and democracy in education? Or should we also aim at preparing teachers who behave in ways that promote those values? What would count as evidence of achieving that goal?

As these points illustrate, there is a gap between the focus on the individual teacher as decision maker that pervades much current reform in teacher education and the civic, moral, and social policy content of much of foundational studies.9 The challenge is to make effective connections between social foundations and the practical work of teaching, and yet to do so without losing the attention to social context and moral purpose that defines the field. In this article I explore ways of bridging that gap. To do so, I assume a pedagogical perspective on the problem. The premise is that the political aim of communicating the value of social foundations to educators parallels the pedagogical aim of communicating the value of social foundations to teacher education students themselves. It is from experience in helping students make connections between the study of social foundations and the practice of teaching that the present argument regarding the purpose of social foundations is drawn. I propose, in other words, to use the experience of teaching social foundations to reflect on the most effective way of framing the purpose of that teaching.


Specifically, I argue that the idea of shared decision making can help bridge the pedagogical and political gap between the idea of teacher as decision maker that is at the center of much current reform in teacher education, and the moral, civic, and social policy dimensions of much of foundational studies. By the idea of shared decision making I intend to invoke a broad category of conceptsincluding site-based management, school restructuring, and school-based decision makingthat generally refer to reforms aimed at changing school governance to increase the involvement of teachers, parents, students, citizens, and/or business groups in schooling at the local level.10

Readers at this point may well wonder how the rather amorphous concept and often shallow practice of shared decision making can possibly be made to bear such weight. The literature on various forms of school-based management and school restructuring is far from pronouncing these reforms an unqualified success, whether they are assessed against criteria of teacher satisfaction and school climate, or against standards of school improvement and student learning. To the contrary, the literature suggests that so far many site councils have had very limited effects on schools, and then often only with respect to the most trivial matters. Moreover, a number of the more ambitious reforms that have been tried under new decision-making structures appear to have led to disappointment, or even disaster.11

This troubled experience with reforming school governance is precisely the point, however. By invoking the idea of shared decision making, I do not mean to assume an evangelical position with respect to reforms that fall under that rubric. Rather, I intend to point out parallels between the problems of shared decision making in schools and the problems of democratic decision making and educational policy formation in society at large.12 These parallels with problems of democratic governance are precisely what make concepts of shared decision making useful for reframing the purpose of social foundations in teacher education. Reading the studies that have been done on experiments in school governance leaves one with a very powerful sense of the difficulty and complexity of education decision making: of the diverse and conflicting goals of participants; of the importance, yet rarity, of effective leadership; of the multiple constituencies that must be attended to in shared decision making; of the competing but nonetheless valid goods and aims that these constituencies represent; of the contingent and often unanticipated social conditions that can affect the development and outcome of a reform effort; and above all of the profound difficulty of getting teachers, parents, administrators, citizens, and students of different social positions, dispositions, and experiences to seriously negotiate with each other for some common end. One is left, in other words, with a strong sense of the value of understanding the moral, civic, and social dimensions of schooling.13

In the discussion that follows, the nature of these connections between the problems of shared decision making and the content of social foundations will be spelled out more fully. Instead of making the argument at an abstract level, however, by analyzing concepts of decision making in relation to various statements about the purposes of foundational studies, this article will take a more empirical approach, looking at what some leading studies from the literature on education decision making suggest about the value of social foundations for the work of teachers. Four studies in particular provide the core illustrations for this analysis. All have been used in teaching social foundations to preservice teachers, and the connections made between foundational studies and educational practice are informed by this teaching experience.

Although all four are case studies of decision making about educational issues, the levels of decision making in the four studies range from that of the individual teacher within his or her classroom, to school-centered decision making at the building level, to community-school relations, and finally to politics and policymaking at the district level. In this way, each case represents a different social and political context for teacher involvement in education issues. Accordingly, each study contributes a different insight into the problems of education decision making and the value of foundational studies for addressing those problems. These four insights are: (1) the centrality of politics in education decision making; (2) the importance of culture in supporting shared governance; (3) the certainty of competing and conflicting values; and (4) the dilemma of unequal power in shared decision making and civic culture. After examining specific connections between the insights illuminated by these case studies and the value of foundational studies, the article will conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings for reframing the purpose of social foundations. Again, the aim is not to suggest new purposes for foundational studies, but to use the language and literature of shared decision making to help capture the range and complexity of those purposes, to do so in a way that resonates with the language and purposes of current reform in teacher education more generally, and thereby to contribute to the greater coherence and value of teacher education as a whole.


Consider first Jeffrey Mirels case study of a major district-level school reform project in Bensenville, Illinois, School Reform Unplugged.14 The main question pursued by Mirel is why the project failed. An ambitious and complex plan for creating life-long learning communities, the Bensenville project could loosely be categorized as a case of school restructuring that aimed at bridging the gap between school and life experience through active participation of parents, business leaders, and community agencies in both educational planning and program delivery. Funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation, the Bensenville project took off in 1992 with great fanfare and promise. Within a year, however, the project was dead. Mirel concluded that there were three major reasons for the death of the Bensenville project. Each had to do with the politics of reform in Bensenville, and the failure of reformers to take this political dimension of education decision making adequately into account.

One of the main bodies of opposition to the Bensenville plan developed over the changed governance structure built into the reform. Although shared decision making was not among the key phrases used to characterize the reforms in Bensenville, the project did involve an altered governance structure at the district level. The organization spearheading the Bensenville project was an intergovernmental agency that was involved in a number of community improvement initiatives, and that represented several local public agencies, including the public parks, the public library, and village services, as well as the schools. While this intergovernmental character of the organization provided much of the logic and inspiration for the community-learning aspect of the Bensenville reforms, it also proved a source of problems.

As envisioned by these leaders, the New American Schools project in Bensenville would operate under an expanded version of this organization, including parents, business leaders, government officials, educators, and other citizens. While this structure represented a more inclusive and shared governance structure in some respects, it also meant the loss of decision-making influence for some groups. Specifically, constituencies associated with the high school, which served not only Bensenville but another neighboring village, lost concentrated access to a district-elected school board. In effect, the plan represented a district consolidation without explicit debate or public approval. Taxpayers, teachers, and families affected by this change became a major source of opposition to the project, eventually forcing withdrawal of the once-committed support of the existing high school school board.

A second body of opposition in the Bensenville case derived from the nontraditional character of the proposed program delivery. Among the projects key features were the formation of instructional teams to focus on individual student learning, including parents or guardians and community resource people as well as teachers and students; extensive use of nonschool settings as instructional sites, with community members as well as professional educators serving as instructors; the replacement of age grading with multi-age learning groups; the development of individual learning targets and the use of portfolio and performance assessments instead of grades as the norm; and the reconfiguration of the school day to accommodate large blocks of instructional time and early morning and late evening learning activities. All these changes aimed at bridging the gap between school and life experience, which was the central idea of the reform. At the same time they gave life and meaning to the reform, however, they also proved problematic.

In effect, Bensenvilles attempt to expand the purview of public schooling into the community heightened awareness of accepted boundaries between schools and other social institutions. Parents in particular resisted encroachment on time traditionally recognized as belonging to the family and to other associational (and educational) activities such as scouts, church, work, and sports. At the same time, parents expressed concern about entrusting children to persons and spaces not subject to the same level of public regulation and oversight as are public school facilities and personnel. Although Mirel does not make this point, the very question of the proper extent and limits of school authority seem to have been implicated in this case.

The resistance of parents to reform provisions was nothing, however, compared with that of the third body of opposition in the Bensenville case: teachers. After initially participating in the planning process through a union representative, teachers at the high school level eventually withdrew support from the project and formed an active and organized opposition. Teachers objections to the reform were of two kinds. First, due to both the district consolidation embedded in the reform and the proposed restructuring of instructional time and staff, high school teachers stood to lose salary, benefits, and other union contract provisions. Moreover, as Mirel points out, this prospect in turn represented a threat to the whole collective bargaining process, as it had taken years of negotiation for teachers to win these same provisions.

Second, teachers expressed objections to the deprofessionalization of public school teaching that seemed to characterize the main thrust of the reform. Instead of central authorities in matters of instruction, teachers would become, it seemed, minority members of instructional teams composed mostly of noneducators. Couched as it was in a critique of schools as they existed, the reform proposal read to teachers as an indictment of their professional competence and judgment. Acting chiefly through their union, high school teachers issued public statements denouncing the project, and conducted an antireform campaign through newspapers and public meetings. This organized opposition, together with that of citizens concerned about loss of local control through district consolidation, contributed substantially to killing the project.

In the end, then, the Bensenville reformshowever highly inspired and well fundedsuccumbed to political opposition from subgroups of three main constituencies: citizen-taxpayers, parents, and teachers. What the Bensenville case illuminates is the importance of politics in education policy and decision making. As Mirel emphasized in his conclusion, the Bensenville case indicates that large-scale educational change will not succeed unless reformers address the material and political dimensions of reform well before embarking on a campaign for change.15

More broadly, the problem of education decision making highlighted by Bensenville is how to anticipate and address the political dimensions of educational policy. This is where the value of social foundations becomes apparent. With respect to anticipating the politics of educational change, it can be said that none of the three bases of opposition in the Bensenville case should be a surprise to students of social foundations. Citizen-taxpayer opposition to school consolidation is a perennial issue in U.S. history, familiar to anyone who has considered the origins and development of the common school system.16 As Mirel noted in his discussion, education history clearly shows that communities will fight fiercely to protect local control of schools.17 Similarly, the issue of parental versus school authority is a recurrent theme in the history of schooling. Indeed, the kinds of concerns raised by parents in the Bensenville case echo the criticisms commonly made of school reform in the progressive erathat the expansive idea of schooling represented by reformers was inclusive and child-centered in some respects, but also highly intrusive with respect to family and community life.18 Finally, the issues of professional authority and fair employment practice raised by teachers in Bensenville also have a long history. Again, the progressive era offers a close parallel. It could be argued that the historical origins of union/district conflict lie precisely in the progressive era tension between the idea of teachers as experts with social science knowledge on the one hand, and the idea of teachers as a labor force subject to the cost-cutting efforts of scientific managers on the other hand.19

Building on these connections between the content of social foundations and the problems of education decision making in the Bensenville case, foundations educators could frame one of the purposes of foundational studies as helping students recognize and anticipate the political dimensions of educational policy and decision making. The point here, however, is not only knowing that citizens, teachers, and parents are likely to oppose certain changes, but understanding on what basis they are likely to oppose them. Preservice teachers reading Mirels account are, in my experience, disdainful of the teachers stance in the Bensenville case, interpreting it as thoroughly self-interested. Like other Americans, they express contempt for politics and for any decision that might be characterized as political. And yet the lesson drawn by Mirel in the Bensenville case is that the essentially political character of education must be recognized and addressed from the outset. Reformers, Mirel argues, must face the power-brokering reality of the reform process, clearly recognizing which issues strike deeply at vested interests.20

Teachers are the vested interests in this case. Helping preservice teachers recognize this political role has importance beyond that of suggesting the significance of their actions for future reform, however. By compelling future teachers to recognize their own interests and stakes in the politics of schooling, the Bensenville case can also help them examine some important aspects of democratic politics and civic culture.

The question to ask at this point is why high school teachers in the Bensenville case behaved as they did. Certainly teachers as a group have strong personal and professional interests in the outcome of reforms such as those discussed at Bensenville, but what more precisely was at stake for them? Pressed to give reason to the teachers, students are able to identify the issues of security, professional integrity, and respect with which Mirel explains the teachers actions. In this way it is possible to acknowledge teachers interests, and at the same time recognize that the goods in which they are interestedsecurity, welfare, respectare real human goods, and that it is reasonable for teachers to want those goods to be protected at the same time as other goods, such as family or kinship, community and education, are being promoted.

Making this transition from analyzing issues in terms of interests to analyzing them in terms of values is crucial both for examining the civic and social policy content of foundational studies, and for helping students forge connections between social foundations and the practice of teaching. How and why it is important is apparent in the next study.


In Trouble in Paradise, Carol Weiss, Joseph Cambone, and Alexander Wyeth examine some of the problems of shared decision making at the school level.21 Reporting generally on the results of an extensive study of decision making in forty-five high schools throughout the country, Weiss and colleagues focus in this article on a specific set of issues that they identified in schools with established structures for shared decision making. All the issues identified had to do with the kind of school culture that supports or inhibits effective participation in shared decision making. Some of the issues were matters of formal school structure, however, while others were matters of informal relations among teachers.

The most salient problem with formal structures of shared governance was simply confusion over who had the final word when it came to accepting and implementing a decision made by a site council. Decisions were sometimes modified or reversed by principals or outside administrative groups, leading teachers to the conclusion that their decision-making power was more apparent than real. On the other hand, when administrators did not assume clear responsibility with respect to certain decisions, teachers could be paralyzed by uncertainty over how far their decision making authority extended. The most successful shared governance structure observed by the researchers was a management team in which the principal was simply a member and the chairship rotated.

Just as important as formal responsibilities, however, were informal senses of power and responsibility among teachers. Those who took responsibility for seriously participating in shared decision making sometimes resented those who remained on the sidelines. At the same time, some nonparticipating teachers cited power issues as conditioning their lack of involvement. Key players in governing councils were sometimes regarded as a favored group within a faculty whose ascendancy was being advanced by administrators through the rubric of shared governance, at the expense of other teachers. Conversely, the authority of decisions made through shared governance was sometimes regarded by nonparticipants as so limited as not to be worth the effort.22

Beyond the question of who participated and who did not, the researchers identified another set of issues having to do with the quality of participation. Most interesting perhaps, were the researchers observations regarding the issue of candor. Teachers found it difficult to be forthright with each other, according to some interviewees. To avoid putting themselves on the line, becoming a subject of talk among their peers, or engendering ill will on the part of colleagues, teachers reportedly were dishonest with themselves, held a lot of things in, and simply went along with the group.23

As analyzed by Weiss and colleagues, this phenomenon in part reflected a lack of training and skill. Conditioned to interact with each other primarily on procedural and social matters, teachers had little experience analyzing issues, taking stands on them, and effectively defending their positions to administrators and colleagues. By the same token, they were ill prepared to handle conflict and negotiation. Teachers found it difficult to see each others point of view, to understand why others differed, and to engage in compromise without wimping out on their own positions.

In addition to skill and training in the arts of communication and negotiation, however, the researchers emphasized that the attitude toward disagreement found at a particular school was crucial to participation. People in the school have to know that it is OK to disagree, that it is OK to confront one another, confront an administrator, concluded Weiss and colleagues. The culture of the school should provide a sense of mutual respect and mutual trust.24

The problem of shared decision making revealed by the Weiss study, then, is how to foster skills of candor and negotiation among teachers, and a culture of open disagreement and trust in a school. What is the value of social foundations with regard to this problem? Arguably the skills of candor and negotiation depend on the ability to analyze issues in terms of values. What does it mean to take a stand on an issue and defend that position to colleagues? It means articulating what is at stake in a decision and doing so in terms that others will recognize as valid social and educational goods. Similarly, seeing others points of view involves understanding and acknowledging the goods at stake from their perspectives. As Weiss and colleagues stated in their conclusions, The ability to understand the basis on which opponents make their judgmentsthe values they hold, the information base from which they are workingis critical to good negotiation. Once people understand why others differ they are in a better position to resolve differences.25 Moreover, identifying the values at stake in an issue makes it easier not only to honor the concerns of others, but to achieve clarity about what can and cannot be compromised from ones own perspective without wimping out and sacrificing a central good.

Building on the lessons of the Weiss study, foundations educators could frame one of the purposes of social foundations as helping students identify and articulate the competing values at stake in issues of school policy and decision making. What is important here, however, is not simply recognizing other points of view, but gaining conceptual clarity about the meanings of the values themselves. Constructing shared visions, decisions, and understandings consists of more than the use of bare words. It also involves harnessing the cultural history and power behind those words. Preparing teachers to participate effectively in shared decision making thus entails helping them develop rich understandings of specific sociocultural values embedded in the practice of schoolingvalues such as equity, liberty, growth, community, knowledge, health, security, trust, and respect.

Thomas F. Green talks about this skill in constructing shared visions as the art of public speech. In particular he notes the ways in which great orators like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King used the symbolic power of certain phrases and stories to bring into being a sense of shared history and identity among their listeners. Green calls the sense of belonging evoked by these cultural narratives communities of memory. He further points out that it is this sense of community with a common past identity and set of commitments that makes it possible for listeners to entertain the speech of another not only as a statement of some one elses point of view, but as a candidate for their own vision of a common future.26

Weiss and colleagues actually make a similar point at the school level when they talk about the value of a shared educational philosophy for the process of shared decision making. The point is not that a common mission will prevent conflict and disagreement, but rather that it can provide a foundation of mutual trust and respect that makes it possible for peoples proposals and criticisms to be entertained in good faith. Citing the example of the school in their study where teachers proved most willing to take stands and initiate proposals, Weiss and colleagues suggested that an explicit and commonly invoked commitment to a child-centered educational philosophy made possible this open disagreement and high level of teacher participation. As one interviewee at the school put it, We all know why were standing up. Its not a selfish reason. We stand up to say something because we mean well for the kids. Thats the bottom line. As long as were focusing on the kids, everything works out OK.27

From this perspective, the essence of a culture of open disagreement and mutual trust and respect is one in which a shared commitment to a common good is presumed. Debates in this context are framed in terms of those common values, with disagreement coming over the meanings and implications of those values in practice. Helping teachers to develop sound understandings of the meanings of sociocultural values embedded in school practice is thus essential to preparing them for participation in shared decision making at the school level. It is also valuable, however, for the decision making of teachers within their own classrooms, as the next study illuminates.


Focused at the level of the individual classroom rather than at that of the school or district, Magdalene Lamperts well-known study How Do Teachers Manage to Teach? shows how social and civic values are at stake in the everyday transactions between teachers and students.28 In this study Lampert describes two very specific problems of teacher decision making, one that she herself encountered in teaching math to upper-level elementary students, and one experienced by a fourth-grade teacher she observed in a teacher development project. Both of these cases show how teacher decision making involves managing conflict between multiple, but equally valid, goods or values. The example drawn from Lamperts own teaching, however, is particularly compelling, and is the one concentrated on here.

Lampert begins by describing a classroom strongly divided by gender, where girls and boys refused to associate with each other. Moreover, the boys were generally more active and engaged in both learning and nonlearning activities, while the girls behaved more passively. In order to modulate the boys otherwise disruptive behavior, and simultaneously to respond to their active approach to learning, Lampert developed the habit of teaching from their side of the room. By doing so, however, she put the girls at a disadvantage in gaining and receiving her attention, thereby reinforcing their tendency toward less active involvement in the lesson.

Lampert presents this problem of practice as a dilemma with no clear solution. On the one hand, Lampert values equity and wants to make sure that the girls have an equal chance to be good at math. On the other hand she wants to respond to student initiative, to maintain the order necessary for learning to occur, and to do so without allowing a concern for order to dominate her teaching. Lampert considers a number of possible solutions to the problem, but each seems to compromise another goal or create another difficulty.

The problem experienced by Lampert, then, was a problem of competing or conflicting values. Lampert herself suggests this interpretation at several points, referring to the problem as arising from the contradictory social goals in her teaching.29 Concerned to take the perspective of teacher rather than that of the theorist, however, Lampert emphasized that real pedagogical problems do not present themselves as choices between abstract social goods or teaching goals. Instead they appear as tensions between individual students, or between groups of students and the teacher. The most important step Lampert takes in managing her problem thus is a conceptual one. It is the step of recognizing the dilemma as a dilemmaof identifying the conflicting ideas of the good that are in tension in her classroom, and also in herself.

Building on this analysis of the process of teacher problem solving, foundations educators could frame one of the purposes of social foundations as helping students to analyze pedagogical problems in terms of competing values. What is important here, however, is not simply recognizing that values conflict, but understanding that the tens ion between values is inescapable, but vital; that it is a creative dynamic to be managed and maintained, rather than a choice to be decided once and for all. As Lampert explains, solving a pedagogical problem rarely involves choosing one good over another. In this case, Lampert neither decided to choose the value of order and continue teaching from the boys side of the room, nor to choose equity as more important and move to the girls side. Instead she proceeded to a set of lessons involving small-group activities and enlisted the help of a student teacher in attending to a share of both boys and girls groups. As Lampert put it, she managed the dilemma by putting the problems that led to it further into the background, thereby allowing her to avoid having to choose between values.30

When one analyzes teacher decision making in this way, a central problem at the classroom level is managing the tension between competing values. Helping students acquire the ability to conduct this balancing act successfully is the main business of teacher education as a whole: Content knowledge, strategies of teaching, theories of learning, and methods of assessment are all part of what it takes to manage such dilemmas.31 What is the contribution of social foundations to this process? Beyond helping students recognize the nature of teaching dilemmas, the most important contribution of foundational studies may lie in helping students get some practice in identifying and understanding the values that are in tension in specific educational issues and pedagogical cases. Just as candor may be fostered by a self-conscious clarity about the good one wants to defend, so the management of a teaching dilemma may be aided by a self-conscious clarity about which values one is trying to avoid having to sacrifice.

This process of identifying the values at stake in an issue and then seeking a balance between them is analogous to the process of shared decision making at the school or policy level. At the level of school governance or district policy the different values at stake in an issue may be identified and expressed by different people or political groups in the decision-making process rather than by the individual teacher interpreting the needs and demands of his or her students. In both cases, however, the fundamental issue is one of making sure that the values at stake are recognized and addressed. At the classroom level one might pose the question of what happens if the teacher does not see the equity issue in the classroom Lampert described. Similarly, at the school and policy level, the question is what if the values at stake from the perspectives of different people and political groups are either never voiced or never heard? How do we get students to see dilemmas in practice, and then not only to see them, but to find ways of addressing them?

All these issues were illuminated by a discussion of the Lampert study with one group of preservice teachers. Seeking to bring home the idea of teaching dilemmas and at the same time to address a problem of unequal participation within the group, I asked students whether much the same situation Lampert described did not exist in our own class. At first, my question was greeted by silence. Pressing the issue further, however, I asked students to analyze the dilemma from my perspective and identify the values at stake. Building on the work we had already done identifying values, members of the class soon explicated some of the goods at stake in fostering broader participation on the part of studentsgoods such as membership, community, individual growth, and recognition.

When it came to elucidating the other side of the dilemma, however, we had more difficulty. What is it that makes teachers reluctant to call on students who have not raised their hands? Is there any good or value at stake other than a general level of social comfort that it is unpleasant to disturb? What if a students sense of his or her identity is one of reticence, observation, and contemplation? Should that sense of identity be challenged or changed in the name of some greater good of the group, or even in the name of growth for that individual student?

At this point one of the theretofore most silent members of the class said emphatically, Some of us prefer not to talk just to hear ourselves speak. We wait until we have something worthwhile to say. With this remark and with the emphasis she gave it, the student effectively redefined the issue as it had so far been framed by the class. The problem was no longer one of how to encourage the reticent to speak, but of how to prevent the merely vocal from dominating both the opportunities for speech and the character of the conversation.

In this incident, then, recognition of a certain value tension depended on one persons (or each persons) finding a way to express herself in the group process. Still, participation itself is not enough to ensure that issues are recognized. This fact was illustrated by a second incident in the same class a few weeks later, when students gave group presentations on current policy issues. In order to develop their presentations, students had to read and share with their peers their interpretations of arguments written from different perspectives, identify the values at stake from those perspectives, analyze the ways in which those values competed, and develop a plan for how to present the issue to the class as a whole. As a group, in other words, students had to agree on a course of action for dealing with a contentious issue.

Asked to reflect on the process of preparing and giving their group presentations, students made a number of points similar to those made by teachers involved in shared decision making at the school level.32 These included comments about lack of time to treat issues in more than a superficial manner and the need for greater training and background knowledge in the substance of the issues. In addition, however, students raised issues concerning the culture and quality of participation in their groups. A fairly vocal female member of the class complained in particular that the men in her group would not listen to the ideas of female members. In response, the males from that group defended themselves, and for a while dominated the discussion again. Finally, however, the other usually silent female members of the group corroborated the first womans remarks, saying that in the end they had gone along with what they believed to be a faulty presentation plan because their attempts to express reservations and propose alternatives had not been heard.

Here in class, then, we had a living example of the difficulties of group decision making not unlike the written examples provided by Weiss and colleagues in their study of shared decision making at the building level. The opportunity such living examples provide for helping students make connections between the practical work of the teacher and the content of social foundations is, in my experience, invaluable. In this instance, the experience of conflict and negotiation among students themselves became a case study not only for understanding the meaning of certain values, but also for recognizing the presence or absence of those values in practice and the behaviors that promote or inhibit their realization. The gendered terms of the issue in class, moreover, suggested the always pending political dimensions of group decision making whether carried out in the explicitly political arena of school board meetings and public hearings such as those described by Mirel in his study of Bensenville, or in the more intimate context of the classroom.33 Indeed, the problem posed by Mirel and the students in class was much the same. In Bensenville, teachers and citizens had all in some way been represented in the reform process, and yet somehow the key issues from their perspectives had failed to be voiced or heard until it was too late to influence the development of the reform project. The question, then, is: Even when participatory decision-making processes are used, whose contributions do the results represent? From whose perspectives are values articulatedthose of the group as a whole, or only those of the most vocal and dominant members?

At bottom these are questions of civic culture, and ultimately it is this connection social foundations can help students make. On the one hand, the purpose of foundational studies in teacher education may be stated as that of helping students to see how broader educational and social policy issues are at stake in the everyday transactions between teachers and students in classrooms like the one Lampert described.34 On the other hand, however, the aim may be quite the reverse. Not only can the study of policy issues help illuminate values at stake in the practice of teaching, but practical experience of conflict and negotiation in the classroom can help deepen students understandings of the values and dilemmas of civic culture. Just how these connections to civic culture might be made is further illuminated by the last study discussed here.


Michele Fosters The Role of Community and Culture in School Reform Efforts is a study of participation by African-American teachers in school reform.35 The teachers Foster interviewed had all participated to some extent in school restructuring efforts and teacher decision-making councils. Like teachers in a number of other studies, they expressed frustration with such efforts, citing the trivialities on which so much shared decision making often focused, the short life of many reforms, and the limited evidence that such reforms really make a difference for students. Beyond these complaints common to teachers of diverse identities and experience, however, the teachers in Fosters study expressed frustration with specific issues of unequal power related to their identities as African Americans.

Chosen for the study because they had been nominated and honored as exemplary teachers by leaders and organizations in African-American communities across the nation, the seven teachers interviewed by Foster were employed in seven different urban schools in seven different cities. All worked in schools where students of color were the majority, and four of the seven worked in schools where the majority of students were African- American. In none of the schools, however, did faculty of color make up as much as 50 percent of the total faculty.

In their interviews with Foster, these teachers expressed distinct views of reform efforts in their schools based on their own experiences as African Americans and their ongoing relationships with African-American families and community groups. In particular, these teachers differed with many of their colleagues regarding the kind of discipline and classroom structure that would best promote learning for their students. And yet these teachers found it difficult to get their views heard, and especially to be heard in a way that had any influence on reform efforts, school organization, or restructuring. For the most part then, these teachers had withdrawn from school-based collaboration and concentrated their energies on educational projects based outside the school.

What Fosters study reveals is the logic of nonparticipation and withdrawal in such situations. For some of Fosters interviewees, participation proved not only nonproductive, but counterproductive, yielding negative talk and anger that undermined their own ability to do their work well, or casting them in certain roles with respect to students and colleagues that then became limiting. Several teachers in Fosters study described themselves as loners within the school setting, both socially and in terms of professional colleagueship. At the same time, however, Fosters interviewees were all quite active outside the school setting in community groups and in larger educational organizations. For these teachers, apparently, it made more sense to devote their substantial educational commitment and energies to collaborative projects outside the school than inside.

In this way, the problem of shared decision making illuminated by Fosters study is more than a problem of participation. It is a problem of whether participation matters. As in the case of the female students who protested their lack of voice in the plans of their presentation group, the teachers in Fosters study found that in the school setting they lacked the necessary power to make others really hear what they had to say, or to have any real influence on the substance and direction of the decisions they ostensibly shared in making. When one analyzes shared decision making in these terms, a central problem is equalizing the power of persons of diverse viewpoints to influence decisions, so that participation in shared governance proves worth the effort.

What is the value of social foundations for addressing such issues? One response is to focus on the capacity of future teachers to hear and be influenced by the voices of persons with diverse experiences and viewpoints. This formulation suggests three related educational aims. The first is to concentrate on the moral education of future teachers as listeners: on the cultivation of virtues such as empathy, humility, fairness, respectfulness, curiosity, attentiveness, and hospitality; and on the understanding of values such as identity, recognition, membership, pluralism, democracy, justice, and equity. A second aim is to focus on the political education of diverse teachers as speakers: to develop skills of public speech and leadership and practice in negotiating differences and exercising power justly. Finally, a third aim is to work on the multicultural education of teachers as both listeners and speakers. Here, the idea is that by increasing their familiarity with multiple cultural histories and communities of memory, teachers increase the repertoire of stories they can draw on as speakers in formulating public speech, and the capacity they have as listeners to truly hear and be moved by multiple voices.36

All three of these educational aims could be framed as purposes of social foundations in teacher education. Together they constitute what might be called the cultural and political education of teachers for the purpose of recognizing and addressing issues of unequal power in schools and classrooms. All these approaches focus on the capacities of individual participants in school governance, however. The problem described by Fosters interviewees actually extends well beyond the influence of individual teachers within school decision making to include a whole set of relationships between schools and their surrounding communities and constituencies.

Consider the teachers in Fosters study who withdrew from school-based collaboration but remained active in educational projects outside the school. Presumably they chose to do work where they knew they could be heard, and where they believed what they did was worthwhile. That school based collaboration and decision making did not prove worthy of such efforts is a tragedy from one perspective, but not necessarily from another. Insofar as the work of the teachers outside the school helped vitalize programs, groups, and relationships in surrounding communities and other organizations, it had its own social value. To imagine that society would be better off if all the education work and visions of these teachers were somehow subsumed in the work of the school is to imagine a culturally hegemonic, even politically tyrannical function for schooling. If cultural pluralism is valued as a principle, then the thriving of multiple, independent communities must be regarded as a good thing, not as something to be captured and contained by an agency of the state. Viewed in this way, the point of education is precisely to promote the vitality of communities and their members. The work of the school, while important insofar as it makes possible the fulfillment of those ends, is not an end in itself, or at least not one that necessarily precedes all others. If the school fails to promote the real human goods of people and their communities, the problem is a crisis of legitimacy for the school, not of participation by constituents.

To leave the analysis at that, however, is to adopt a rather limited idea of shared governance and democracy. It is to suggest that the work of shared decision making is unimportantthat it does not matter who or what prevails in shared governance. This view has some validity in the experience of many teachers (and students) in schools and of many citizens in society. It is a basis for withdrawal from the political and educational process at all levels. Clearly, however, the lack of influence that Fosters interviewees had on school governance did matter to themat least insofar as it affected their ability to improve the education of the students about whom they cared.

There is, then, a fundamental dilemma in the situations described by Fosters interviewees that has implications for civic culture more broadly. The dilemma is how we as members of multiple, independent cultural communities can promote the distinctive vitality of those communities and at the same time exercise effective influence in the institutions that shape many of the conditions of our lives. From this perspective, the problem of equalizing the power of participants in shared decision making is not simply one of strengthening the contributions of individual teachers, but of bringing the power and vitality of the communities and organizations to which they belong into the arena of school decision making. The challenge, in other words, is to renegotiate the culture and power of the school itself.37

How can future teachers be prepared to be both willing and able participants in this kind of renegotiation? That is a question that effectively reframes the purpose of social foundations in teacher education. It is also a question that reframes the purpose of teacher education as a whole. To adopt the standard of teacher effectiveness as the goal of teacher education is to direct attention to the means of education: to helping teachers acquire the pedagogical strategies, content knowledge, and theoretical frameworks that enable them to produce the best results in terms of student learning. But the acquisition of such knowledge and skills does not itself dictate the ends to which those means are put. Nor does the shaping of those ends begin and end with the intentions of the individual teacher. Ends are also shaped by the conditions in which teachers work, and by the complex network of people, structures, and relationships that in turn influence those conditions. To assume as the standard of teacher education the preparation not only of effective teachers, but of good teachers, means adopting the goal of preparing teachers to step out of the classroom and engage with others in critical reflection about the ends, as well as the means, of education.

This is a matter of civic education. Beyond qualities of empathy and candor, skills of leadership, and multicultural understanding, effective participation in the renegotiation of school culture would seem to require both a strong commitment to democratic values and a complex appreciation of the meaning of that commitment. Civic education is not a simple matter, however. A commitment to democratic values that sustains participation in a serious renegotiation of school culture among parties of diverse backgrounds, social positions, experiences, and world views is not a commitment easily learned or lightly held. Similarly, a civic education that aims at developing such commitment must do more than impart a knowledge of the structures and rhetoric of shared governance. It must somehow achieve a civic understanding that can withstand the challenge of real failures, contradictions, and dilemmas of shared governance in practice. The premise of this article is that it is by examining the problems of shared governance that complex understandings of the meaning of democratic values and principles are cultivated. More specifically, the idea is that the example of shared decision making in schools can be used to examine the dilemmas of democratic decision making more broadly. As the teaching experience reflected on here suggests, such examples can bring to life issues of political culture and education that the mere reading of texts on justice and the good society may fail to convey.

The problem of shared governance illuminated by Fosters study is in many ways the central dilemma of civic culture. It is the problem of how to achieve abstract principles of equal citizenship in a political community where real differences of culture and power exist among members. Addressing this problem involves a dilemma of competing goods or goals. One side of the dilemma is how to promote the individual liberty that makes possible self-determination and the associational freedom that makes possible strong community formation. The other side of the dilemma is how to achieve a culture and politics of shared governance that enables people of diverse identities and communities to exercise meaningful influence in shaping the larger societal institutions through which they and their communities pursue many of the essential goods of human life.

The value of examining parallels between shared decision making in schools and democratic decision making in civil society is that it reveals the gravity of what is at stake in these efforts at renegotiation. At stake is not only whether participation matters, but whether shared governance itself matters. Just as the failure to address problems of unequal power in school governance constitutes a crisis of legitimacy for the schools, so the failure to address problems of unequal power in democratic governance constitutes a crisis of legitimacy for democracy. Helping students make this connection between issues of unequal power in schools and in civic culture is one of the most important purposes of social foundations in teacher education.


In this article I have located the value of foundational studies for teacher preparation in the problems of education decision making and the dilemmas of civic culture. This analysis is aimed at addressing two kinds of issues raised by foundations educators in discussions about the purpose of social foundations in teacher education. The first issue is framed by efforts to improve the pedagogical success of teacher educationthat is, how to articulate the utility of social foundations for the practical task of helping students become good teachers. The second issue is framed by the fieldthat is, how to prepare teachers to engage in critical examination of the social contexts and moral purposes that shape what being a good teacher means. Drawing on examples from leading studies of education decision making, I have identified four problems of decision making encountered by real teachers in practice. Each example illuminates a different social and political context of teaching, from the social and moral dynamics of the classroom to the political dynamics of district policymaking. In this way, each case also acknowledges social and political dimensions of education that extend well beyond the decision-making authority of individual teachers, to include relationships with parents, citizens, administrators, and community groups, and matters of moral and civic responsibility.

In examining these cases, I have emphasized the skill of identifying and analyzing the values at stake in educational issues. This skill is, I would suggest, what constitutes the practice of meaning-making that has been invoked to describe the purpose of social foundations. At the same time, this framework gives content to that practice. Insofar as values such as equity, growth, community, democracy, and justice are identified in educational issues, so are the normative commitments of teachers and teacher education.

Making such commitments explicit is precisely the point of analyzing education issues in terms of values, for it is with respect to explicit commitments that the critical evaluation of educational policy and practice becomes possible. This is true both for individual teachers assessing the results of their pedagogical efforts in the classroom and for groups of educators, parents, and community members assessing the past or potential consequences of joint education decisions. The capacity to raise critical questions about the justification for a course of action, about the probable success or failure of that course, and about the degree to which existing evidence supports or contradicts those assessments depends on the ability to see and recognize the values at stake in the effort.38

This process of assessing the evidence of educational practice against the values that justify that practice is perhaps nowhere more important than in evaluating the practice of education decision making itself. Insofar as the justification of public schooling lies in the values of civic culture, then questions of equal participation and influence in the shaping of that culture are critical to the work of schooling, whether at the level of classroom membership, school governance, or district, state, or federal policy. It is this insight into the civic dimensions of educational practice that the idea of shared decision making can particularly help bring into focus in teacher education. Specifically, by looking at problems of shared decision making, it is possible to illuminate not only the values, but the dilemmas of civic culture.

To identify the purpose of foundations in teacher education with the analysis of values and problems of civic culture is not to deny the difficulty of preparing students to move beyond analysis to action. Recognizing issues of value in educational practice is not the same as acting in ways that promote those values. The question of how we cultivate the qualities of character and habits of practice that make possible the realization of goods such as community, trust, equity, and justice still remains.39

This article has been an inquiry into the purposes of social foundations and as such has not made such issues of pedagogy an explicit topic of investigation. Instead, the practice of teaching social foundations has been used as a way of reflecting on matters of purpose. Still, this process of reflection can perhaps yield two observations regarding the practice of teaching foundations. First, as illustrated by the Lampert case, recognition of foundations issues in practice is an important first step in the process of reflection that leads to changes of behavior.40 Second, as illustrated by the issues of participation that came up in discussion among teacher education students themselves, a pedagogy that emphasizes individual understanding may not be as effective in helping students recognize the meaning of foundations in practice as is a pedagogy that emphasizes group process. This is because reflection itself is a dialogic process that involves mutual engagement with, and challenge from, other people.41 The value of this dialogic process is as pertinent to teaching foundations as it is to addressing foundations issues in schools. Ultimately, the purpose of foundations in teacher education lies precisely in renewing and regenerating this culture of critical dialogue.

I would like to thank Kenneth A. Sirotnik, Walter Parker, Deborah Kerdeman, Betty Malen, Pamela Grossman, and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 1, 1996, p. 77-103
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9604, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 6:56:24 AM

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