New Realities of Secondary Teachers' Work Lives

reviewed by Nina Bascia - 2006

coverTitle: New Realities of Secondary Teachers' Work Lives
Author(s): Pam Poppleton & John Williamson (Eds.)
Publisher: Symposium Books, Oxford
ISBN: 18373927142, Pages: 319, Year: 2004
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This book joins a small but growing number of comparative studies of teachers’ work lives that demonstrate the ways in which context – broad social, economic and political realities, current reform as well as reform history, and cultural and professional values about teaching and teachers (Broadfoot and Osborn, 1992; Louis, 1990) – matter to the nature and quality of teaching.  Cross-school, -district, -state/province and –national studies provide powerful evidence of the range of different conditions within which teaching occurs. Comparative studies serve to make the familiar strange, allowing us to examine more critically the conditions we take for granted in our own contexts.  In recent years, as the reality of change has become impossible to ignore in any study of teaching, whatever the presenting focus, and as policy idea borrowing has become more prevalent internationally, researchers increasingly have turned their attention to comparative studies of teachers’ perceptions of and responses to educational policy change across national boundaries (see for example Ball, 1998; Helsby, 1999; Osborn, et al., 2000).

New Realities of Secondary Teachers’ Work Lives is a cross-national study of teachers’ perceptions of recent policy effects on their work. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected in these countries by a nine-country consortium of researchers – in Australia, Canada, People’s Republic of China, England, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the US – who employed common data collection protocols (always a challenge given the different realities and interpretations that exist across cultures and jurisdictions) but differed to some extent in terms of sampling logistics and the ways they focused their single country reports.

The overall research project is an attempt to understand the factors that contribute most strongly to teachers’ positive or negative experiences of change.  Toward this end, the authors present a useful typology of educational policy types that focuses on different domains of educational practice: “reform” is equivalent to whole system change, emphasizing a redistribution of power and authority – either devolution or centralization – and the ensuing consequences; “restructuring,” or changes to school organizations, again focuses on shifts in authority, this time between teachers and school administrators, and between schools and district or state decision makers; and “innovation,” which refers to direct changes to teachers’ work, either efforts to enhance and affirm teacher agency and later to proscribe curriculum and pedagogical practice. Also emphasized are the locus of control for change – in other words, the proximity or distance from teachers themselves – as well as work intensification and the relative autonomy teachers have in relation to policy change.

The first section of the book is the equivalent of a series of snapshots that authors and readers alike must attempt to draw into a coherent narrative. This shapshot quality is the result, first, of sampling strategies – the selection of up to fifty teachers in each country, usually but not always in one or two geographic areas rather than more broadly – a single state in the US, two Australian states, one city – Shanghai – in China. While researchers took some pains to provide context by describing pertinent national economic and political conditions and educational governance structures, they could not or at least did not provide a sense of the extent to which the jurisdiction(s) from which their sample was drawn was representative of that country as a whole. The country cases resemble snapshots in a temporal way as well: the study was undertaken in the mid- to late 1990s; teacher participants were asked to identify “three examples of changes that they had experienced within the past five years” (p. 16) but they were not asked about the extent to which the pace or intensity of change had increased in comparison with earlier periods of their careers. The final section of the book, to its credit, acknowledges the limitations of this approach.

This, along with most researchers’ inability to provide a thumbnail history of educational change in every jurisdiction, makes it difficult to understand what to make of either the policies themselves or teachers’ reactions to them. So, for example, the Canadian case is reflected in Ontario teachers’ responses to the so-called “Transition Years” policies, a broad and complex set of regulations that not only combined curriculum changes at many levels but also simultaneously represented reform, restructuring and innovation. In my view, having been present during that time period, teacher protests were responses to several factors they experienced more or less simultaneously, only some of which could be directly attributed to the Transition Years policies themselves. Yet the data and its presentation suggest a simple connection between policy and reaction, and at the same time the chapter succeeds in portraying Canada as a country where teachers are demoralized by policy change – a perception which has some bearing in reality yet cannot be substantiated by the data collected in this study.  Due to the snapshot strategy, I caught several other examples of assertions that I either knew or sensed were not accurate depictions of conditions and relationships among local factors.

At the same time, the country case chapters are rich and useful when held up against one another. I found the chapters on Hungary (the impact of decentralization of decision making) and Israel (the intensity of teacher engagement) particularly compelling because the social and educational contrasts with North America, Australia and England were so vivid. The chapter authors all make some effort to describe educational systems and important contextual features for international readers.  A concluding chapter at the end of the first section provides a useful cross-case analysis, noting correlations between countries actively involved in nation- or economy-building and reform, social change and school restructuring, and relative stability and innovation. This chapter also discusses locus of control, noting that teachers tend to be more satisfied where they have greater control over reform – but this is one area where I was not satisfied with the distance created by the breadth of the study: in both Canada and the US in recent years, distinctions between are confused by discourses that assert local and teacher agency even while real authority has been transferred to the state, which means that teachers’ experiences and perceptions may not be readily and completely captured by a research strategy that emphasizes distinct categories of response.  

A second section focuses specifically on survey data to provide both descriptive statistical comparisons across countries and to identify the relative and combined effects of demographic and reform variables on teachers’ perceptions of change. This and the third, final section note the significance of the relationship between teachers’ involvement with and positive perceptions of policy change.  

I found the broad cross-national treatments and the snapshot approach obscured much of the nuance I would have appreciated. Beyond methodological constraints, the book could have benefited from the growing body of national and cross-national educational policy studies that have been published in recent years. At the same time, this book is valuable in its presentation of the ways in which the common experience of change occurs so differently across national contexts.


Ball, S. (1998). Big policies/small world: An introduction to international perspectives in educational policy.  Comparative Education, 34 (2), 119-136.

Broadfoot, P. and Osborn, M. (1993).  Perceptions of teaching: Primary school teachers in England and France.  London: Cassell.

Helsby, G. (1999). Changing Teachers’ Work. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Louis, K. S. (1990).  Social and community values and the quality of teachers’ work life.  In M. W. McLaughlin, J. E. Talbert, & N. Bascia (Eds.), The Contexts of Teaching in Secondary Schools:  Teachers’ Realities (pp. 17-39).   New York:  Teachers College Press.

Osborn, M., Mcness, E. & Broadfoot, P. with Pollard, A. and Triggs, P. (2000) What teachers do: changing policy and practice in primary education, London: Continuum.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 169-172 ID Number: 12100, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 2:59:51 PM

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