Restructure school governance by creating site councils where teachers and principal decide about curriculum, organization, and instruction. Restructure the comprehensive high school into small high schools with longer school days, teachers as advisers, and a college prep curriculum. Restructure teaching and learning by equipping students with laptops (or tablets) and have students taking online courses a few hours a day. Restructure teacher staff development by establishing professional learning communities.
Policymakers love creating new and different structures because they believe such arrangements will alter how teachers teach and then lead to more and better student learning. But that chain of assumptions has a few kinks in it.
Researchers have discovered (and rediscovered), however, that once new structures are put into place—school site councils, small high schools, 1:1 computing, professional “learning communities”–teaching practices do not move directly or even necessarily from point A to point B. Moreover, without teaching practices moving the needle of change then the impact on student learning is negligible.
Researchers Richard Elmore and Penelope Petersen examined three elementary schools where principals and teachers fervent about “constructivist” classroom practices (student-centered teaching) had established infrastructures of teacher collaboration, different kinds of student groupings, and flexible scheduling. Teachers raved about how they now taught differently and their daily lessons were ambitious forays into cultivating student understanding of ideas and applying concepts to real-world situations. Yet when researchers observed lessons they saw something else:
“We saw teaching practice that looked mostly ordinary. Teachers would, for example, supply most of the answers to questions they themselves had asked, they would organize their classrooms so as to make themselves the center of learning, children’s understandings were not the dominant theme of teacher-student interaction, and most activities focused on relatively routinized learning” (p.24).
Researchers from Fred Newmann to Helen Marks and Karen Louis Seashore and others have found little to modest changes in classroom lessons after restructured schools enlarged teacher decision making, focused on curriculum construction, and initiated use of computers for instruction ( EDUCATIONAL EVALUATION AND POLICY ANALYSIS). Nor should readers forget the literature on reducing class size–a structural change–where, time and again, smaller classes (from 30 to 25 students or from 25 students to 20 students) were mandated and teaching practices remained pretty much the same.
Findings from researchers who have observed lessons and listened to teachers are clear: changing certain structures may be a necessary condition to alter teaching practices but it is hardly a sufficient one. Why is that? Because other factors come into play to influence what and how teachers teach beyond new structures: Individual teacher beliefs matter. School and district cultures of collaboration matter. How schools are organized matter. School and district leadership matter. These factors combine to create what reformers euphemistically call “barriers” to change, obstacles that reformers must disassemble for routine classroom lessons to become ambitious teaching ventures that produce desired student outcomes.
Teachers are not operatic divas or lone rangers doing as they see fit; they are gatekeepers, mediators, and policy brokers who figure out which policies and their components that policymakers and administrators have delivered to their door get converted into lessons for their students; they are influenced a great deal by the school and district context in which they work. Thus, putting into place structural changes is only the beginning of a long arduous journey, not a joyous arrival at the destination.
Question: Why do policymakers continue to shower schools with structural reforms, assuming that once these are implemented, teachers will shift their routine practices to better ones that will lead to far more student engagement and learning than they had prior to the structural changes?
Richard Elmore had one answer to the question:
To reformers, changing structures signal practitioners and parents that they are
really serious about making important changes. In short, structural changes are politically symbolic. They choose structural changes also because they are easier options to pursue than, for example, closing down low-performing schools and sending children to better ones; hiring high-performing teachers with a common set of beliefs and practices that have produced desired student achievement; firing ineffective teachers and principals. So reformers like to change structures because, among the array of alternatives available for transforming failing schools into successful ones, they are feasible, readily available, and politically symbolic.
These reasons again point to the fact that reform-driven policymakers’ and teachers’ beliefs, norms, and incentives differ; when it comes to structures’ impact on teacher lessons, they live in different worlds.
Those different worlds, of course, account for the kinks in reformers’ chain of reasoning: Changing structures do not often alter classroom practices and, as a result, hardly lead to improved student learning.