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Teaching in America
Grant and Murray's Teaching in America: The Slow Revolution is a book with two faces. On one hand it is a book of history, covering the developments in education in general over the past century; here it is at times fascinating, at times tedious, but always informative. On the other hand, the book points to one overruling "Slow Revolution" which the authors describe as the solution to our nation's (and the world's) educational problems. While the former topic is simply a recounting of established history, the latter requires evidence and argument in support of the authors' claim; this evidence comes primarily from interviews with teachers. Hence, this book spans two realms of academia: as the researchers themselves state, "Our research is both sociological and historical" (8). This paper will investigate the credibility of the authors' latter claim, which is based on a rather isolated set of evidence, yet seems to be supported by a wide variety of educators who reviewed the book.
The "Slow Revolution" touted by Grant and Murray involves teachers' empowerment in the educational process. Teachers, the authors claim, are beginning to push for more power in their schools, and less external administration; they are seeking the respect and control traditionally granted only to university professors. Accordingly, teachers (including Grant and Murray) are beginning to believe that the path to a good education depends on the teachers, not on the administrators. The key is to allow the teachers to create a more collaborative, free environment among the teachers and students -- a process that only a skilled teacher can bring about. Thus, argue the authors, a critical step in achieving a more successful educational system is instituting a comprehensive, trustworthy screening process for potential teachers. Everything, or almost everything, the authors argue, rests on the competence of the teacher.
The evidence used to make these arguments consists largely of interviews with teachers surveying their personal experiences; in addition to this, the authors spent much time making their own observations in several schools in Upstate New York. Many arguments are also made with the aid of historical information, which puts the "Slow Revolution" in perspective. Numerical data on test scores, graduation rates, grades, and so on, are not analyzed as rigorously here as in many other authors' works. This is both a positive and a negative point, as will be discussed in coming paragraphs. The quantity of interviews conducted, and the length of time the authors spent studying these schools, both reflect positively on the reliability of the authors' conclusions. Furthermore, many other educators, reviewing the book, seem to voice agreement with its conclusions, lending them even greater credibility. This too will be discussed below.
Although the book focuses primarily on secondary school, the authors are not themselves secondary school teachers; they are both university professors. Grant is a professor of sociology, and Murray is a professor of education. It would in many ways seem preferable if the authors of a book like this were themselves school teachers, and had personal experiences to relate. However, the detachment of these authors from the actual teaching gives the book a tone of detached objectivity, which is very favorable to a study like this; for this reason, the position of the authors -- neither fully immersed in the teaching, nor unaccustomed to analyzing education -- is ideal.
In this book, the authors interview, observe, and research some famous teachers with classrooms generally regarded as successful, such as Vivian Gussin Paley; they also spend a lot of time on less-famed teachers, who are unknown outside of their home districts. This is an important combination. However, most of the information that the authors collected themselves, through their "New Roles Study" -- which, since they collected it themselves, is presumably the most reliable information the authors have to work with -- covers less-famous teachers in the authors' home areas in Upstate New York. There is nothing wrong with this; but it should be noted that most of the first-hand information reported in this book involves lesser-known teachers, whose achievements are not easily verifiable by those of us who live in other areas.
Additionally, this isolation of information collection detracts from the claim of universality that the authors make in regards to the "Slow Revolution." Perhaps, the reader may wonder, this revolution is indeed occurring among educators in Upstate New York -- but perhaps it is not occurring in the rest of the country. The authors use historical information, and some secondhand current information, to argue for universality; but these connections are tentative and less sturdy than the authors' own evidence.
Grant and Murray have seemingly anticipated this criticism, and they make sure to state that the book "includes information gathered in observations of more than five hundred teachers from all sections of the United States as well as visits to schools and universities in England, Japan, and the former Soviet Union" (239). However, reference to this information in the text is quite sparse, and the vast majority of firsthand information -- including the data from the "New Roles Study," widely regarded as the primary informational source of this book -- is attributed to experiences in Rochester and Syracuse. The authors do admit, "Our research roots go deep in both cities" (240).
Further instensifying this issue, the authors do not refer very readily to national (or international) numerical data. The authors admit that "most of our work falls into the 'qualitative' tradition of interview and observation" (239), not quantitative analysis. Grades, test scores, graduation rates, and so on, are very rarely referred to; and when they are, it is only in a mild attempt to strengthen a point that is argued primarily by other means. There is very little, if any, real synthesis of numerical information in connection with the authors' arguments. While this is in many ways a good thing, since numbers are obviously quite often in discordance with reality, it is in this case a further detractor from the strength of the authors' claim of universality. With firsthand knowledge restricted to a limited number of cases in a small region -- as is so often in the case in all branches of inquiry -- national data, with its compilation of so many, wide-reaching, sources, is an important stepping-stone toward a broader perspective.
There is, however, plenty of evidence supporting the accuracy of the authors' claim. One of the greatest of these is the broadly positive, confirmatory response that Teaching in America has received from teachers nationwide. In journals online and in print, a wide variety of educators have confirmed the existence of the "Slow Revolution" in their districts, and voiced agreement with the authors' belief that this movement is the solution to our educational problems.
For instance, June K. Phillips of the College Board Review wrote, "For the reader who is or has been an educator in the schools, the historical narratives and the contemporary issues ring true" (Harvard). Vanessa Bush of Booklist remarked, "Grant and Murray provide thoughtful insight into how teaching is evolving at this critical point in the development of U.S. school systems" (Amazon). And Vivian Gussin Paley herself confirmed her confidence that the future of education will be driven by the authors' "Slow Revolution": "It is this quest for self-direction," she wrote, "that may define the next century of teaching in America" (Harvard). The book even won the American Educational Studies Association Critics' Choice Award in 2000.
Amid this book's many positive reviews, the only unfavorable comments, generally, relate to the dry writing style, which often makes the text unexciting: for instance, one anonymous reviewer on booksunderreview.com complained, "I became somewhat bogged down in reading it during the middle chapters. The lengthy reports... seemed droll." These comments, while quite common in reviews of the book, do not…[continue]
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