On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998

The California Subject Matter Projects: Reflections On Sustainability

By Robert Polkinghorn, Jr. and Laura Stokes

There are good teachers out there that can be brought together, that can be worked with in various ways to get them ready to teach other teachers. That's it.

This model is the Bay Area Writing Project's approach to the professional development of teachers of writing, which Jim Gray and his colleagues began as a partnership between UC Berkeley and nearby schools in 1974. Now, more than two decades later, the University of California—in collaboration with the California State University and the California Department of Education—administers the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMP), a statewide network of discipline-based professional development programs that have evolved from those roots.

The CSMP has survived pendulum swings in educational reform and roller coaster cycles of public support for K-12 and higher education. In this article, we reflect on factors that have sustained the CSMP and identify ongoing challenges to its vitality. We believe the experiences of the CSMP are germane to other partnerships, particularly those that seek to sustain collaboration among state systems of education, K-16.

The CSMP is the largest professional development enterprise in California's educational system. The network consists of nine projects: writing, mathematics, science, reading and literature, foreign language, arts, international studies, history-social science, and physical education-health. These projects comprise a network of 97 regional sites, which are housed on 34 college or university campuses. Sites are organized around the study of teaching and learning in the disciplines, with teachers and university scholars working together to examine craft knowledge developed from classroom practice, engage in the core inquiry processes of the disciplines, and read educational research.

At every administrative level, collaboration across universities and schools is built into the leadership of the CSMPs. The full network is administered by the office of Academic Collaboratives in Education in the University of California Office of the President, in consultation with senior administrators representing the California Department of Education, the California State University, the California Community Colleges, the California Postsecondary Education Commission, and K-12 schools and districts. Each of the nine state-level projects is headed by an executive director, who is advised by a policy advisory board of representatives from all segments of education. Executive directors are university faculty or K-12 teachers on leave.

Local sites are directed by university faculty (or other academic personnel) or K-12 teachers, and sometimes jointly, under the auspices of a faculty principal investigator. Typically, site directors are also advised by local leadership councils that consist primarily of teachers, and often include university faculty, school administrators, and representatives of other local educational agencies.

There are two broad contributors to the long life of this large-scale cross-institutional partnership. First, the model itself—its design, core values, and ways of working—has cumulative growth and sustenance built-in. Second, relationships among the institutional partners are designed around a common vision that taps the unique strengths of each partner while recognizing unique interests and needs. These factors work together to foster personal and institutional commitment at the state and local levels.

Key Ingredients of the Model

Evidence from a five-year external evaluation indicates that the vast majority of participating teachers find the professional development experiences they encounter in the CSMP to be of high quality, even transformative. Strong commitment among teachers certainly contributes to sustainability. Organizing the work of sites around the following principles contributes to the robustness of the CSMP:

1) Generation of high quality craft knowledge. Teachers from diverse backgrounds and settings work and study together, building pedagogical knowledge from analysis of real practice with the full range of students, from content knowledge deepened through inquiries into problems of the disciplines, and from critical reading of relevant research.

2) Strategic cultivation of teacher leadership. Site leaders seek out effective teachers and design activities that support their development as leaders in professional development in surrounding schools and districts.

3) Adherence to shared principles, with local flexibility. The projects forge collective identity and mission from shared commitment to tenets that undergird site goals, designs, and activities. Within those, sites tap unique local resources and address local needs.

4) Cultivation of lasting professional relationships. CSMP programs are designed to build lasting relationships not only among institutions, but among the participating K-12 teachers and university faculty. They make a variety of learning and leadership opportunities available to teachers for as many years as teachers want to contribute and to participate.

Institutional Structures

One challenge in sustaining a university-school partnership is to structure workable relationships across institutions which have different traditions and which enjoy different statuses in the larger political system. Two factors have helped sustain cross-institutional support for the CSMP.

1) Multi-dimensional, multi-level university support. First, senior administrators provide symbolic and fiscal commitment. Both matter. Universities are more likely to sustain programs they pay for and draw public attention to. Second, university faculty participate directly--as directors, teachers, co-participants, researchers. Third, university-as-CSMP-home contributes a tradition of intellectual richness to the enterprise of teachers' professional development.

2) Loose coupling to state K-12 education system. The CSMPs maintain delicately balanced relationship with the state policy community, particularly the Department of Education. The university connection supports a critical stance toward the often confusing blizzard of reforms. CSMP sites assume responsibility for shaping reforms and spreading reform information, but do not assume obligation for implementation. Tight coupling would threaten intrinsic teacher commitment to CSMP and make the network vulnerable to a highly volatile K-12 political environment.

The CSMP has always faced challenges—most of them associated with the struggle to hold onto the very factors that sustain it:

1) Political pressure to implement state education agenda. The governor, legislators, and superintendent of public instruction must carry an education agenda that works politically. Some agendas are well informed and compatible with the real issues teachers face in schools; others are narrowly defined, prescriptive, or parochial. The CSMP, supported with public funding, bears considerable pressure to implement both agendas. Furthermore, most policy-makers assume a traditional model of professional development, the principal function of which is to bring teachers' practices into compliance with state mandates.

2) Legitimacy of teachers' practical knowledge. Though they espouse the principle of valuing multiple sources of knowledge, some CSMP leaders do not demonstrably regard the practical knowledge of effective teachers as being equal in status to knowledges privileged in university settings—educational research and content knowledge. The challenge is to cultivate learning environments in which all three sources of knowledge are seen as legitimately bearing on professional development.

3) Uneven faculty involvement. On average, four or five university person-nel participate actively in a CSMP site; of these, two are ladder faculty from subject departments, and one is from a school of education. Besides the relatively small numbers, there are major differences in the roles faculty play. Some maintain traditional distinctions, preferring to deliver content knowledge rather than to engage in critical investigation of discipline-centered teaching practice alongside K-12 teachers. Others develop long-term relationships with teachers, contribute to leadership and organization of sites, design creative approaches to engaging teachers in their subjects, support teachers' work as researchers, and expose their own pedagogical approaches to the same scrutiny teachers do.

Exemplary faculty participation remains the exception partly because of the threat it poses to their professional advancement within the university. Thus, one challenge to such partnerships is to support universities in re-thinking rewards and structures of opportunity for faculty which reflect the larger commitment to improve schools through collaboration and partnership.

4) Support for creating equitable access to quality learning opportunities. CSMP sites continually struggle with ways to work toward diversity and equity in teachers' opportunities to participate in, and lead, professional development programs. In California, emphasis on this goal is made more challenging because of passage of state Proposition 209 and the UC Regents' policy concerning affirmative action, both of which preclude preferences based on race or ethnicity for admission to state-funded education programs.

Many children, but particularly children of poverty and of color, have long suffered from under-prepared teachers and dysfunctional school environments. With 250,000 to 300,000 new teachers expected to flood the system in the next ten years, it seems likely that the most qualified teachers will be hired by the most privileged districts. Unless the CSMPs find a way to direct resources to schools where children are in greatest need, teachers, administrators, and policy makers may find our programs irrelevant.

Most fundamentally, the CSMP would not last if it were not productive. Building ever-greater capacity for that productivity requires mutual commitment of the various participating institutions: common vision, reciprocal learning, joint responsibility, and shared authority. A "partnership" in which one institution wants the other to change but is not capable of examining itself or changing is probably not sustainable.

The very factors that sustain the CSMP, however, are always under threat of institutional inertia and political turbulence. Partnerships that run against convention require constant attention. CSMP leaders try to tend the tiller by embedding the foundational principles in internal reviews and network meetings; by cultivating strong relationships across leaders in institutions; and by engaging external evaluators in short- and long-term studies that give ourselves and others no-nonsense information about the magnitude, effectiveness, and quality of CSMP work.

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