How Leadership Influences Student Learning

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How Leadership Influences Student Learning

Evolution of state approaches to school reform

States are key actors in the enactment of educational leadership. The role of states in determining local educational policies and practices has been controversial for at least the past 150 years, and each state has a long legacy of contested terrain on the question of local versus state control (Louis, in press; Tyack and James, 1986). But currently, the focus on state standards and accountability systems is driving local decisions and policies in ways that are unprecedented. In addition, the funding of local school districts has, in many states, shifted increasingly to the state, while in others it remains a largely local responsibility. Whether funding is state or local, changes in state economies also drive many local decisions, as superintendents and principals grapple with day-to-day dilemmas over resource allocation. How these two enduring trends are managed, both at the state and local levels, is also determined by the state's "political culture" - a term that is frequently applied, but rarely studied and explicated, except in the area of recent welfare reform (Brace and Jewett, 1995; Fitzpatrick and Hero, 1988).

Changes in the state role were stimulated by the 1983 federal commission report, A Nation at Risk, whose basic message has had a profound impact on the way we think about education. The commission's recommendations were quickly picked up by the media (Bracy, 2003), by advocates of outcome-based education (Rubin and Spady, 1984) and by educational reformers who saw its call for more rigorous curricular content and attention to what students know as consistent with their own efforts (Romberg, 1993; Wiggins, 1991). In addition, civil rights advocates argued that clearer standards were a possible solution to the problem of low quality of education for minority students (Abrams, 1985), and that standards could be used to demand opportunity to learn (Porter, 1993). Other scholars accepted the call for higher levels of professional practice and teacher accountability, as well as internal regulation by the teaching profession itself (Darling-Hammond, 1989), although they argued against the negative assessment of the national report and against coercive assessment (Porter, 1989).

The initial premise of the standards reform movement was quickly translated in some states to a more systemic approach that covered teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, school assessment and student assessment. A second development, emerging in the early 1990s, focused on the "high stakes" elements of educational policy, or the use of sanctions and rewards associated with how well the school/teacher/student performed. The public and many educators agreed that accountability based on results was a good idea (Hannaway, 2003).

The emergence of high-stakes assessments and accountability has been more controversial in the scholarly community. Aside from the measurement debates (Baker, 2002; Linn, 2000), discussion has focused on the way in which the accountability movement will affect students, teachers and schools. Many argue that poor students, immigrants, or students with disabilities will suffer under high-stakes testing environments (McNeil, 2000; Meier, 2002; Reyes and Rorrer, 2001; Stecher and Hamilton, 2002). Although knowledge about how local educators are reacting to the new standards legislation is limited (Ingram, Louis, and Schroeder, in press; Kelley, Kimball, and Conley, 2000; Winkler, 2002), scholars argue that the legislation will reduce professionalism and promote rigid and limited "teaching to the test" (Hilliard, 2000; Miller, 2002; Schrag, 1995; Stake, 1999). While policy researchers generally see a complex picture of the effects of state accountability systems, they still caution that there are many potential negative consequences (Firestone and Shipps, 2003; Levy and Murnane, 2001; O'Day, 2002). Yet empirical evidence on all of these topics is limite - and hotly debated (Skrla and Scheurich, 2004).

Policy and culture context

As we noted above, educational reform initiatives in the U.S. now center on using achievement tests to hold teachers, districts and students accountable for their performance and as the impetus for improving performance. Any analysis of the impact of state policy on the quality and effectiveness of educational leaders must acknowledge the primacy of these initiatives. Interestingly, growth in state policy in the 1980s and early 1990s did not result in a uniform reduction in district authority and policy. In a multistate multi-district study of district responses to increasing state-mandated reforms, Fuhrman, Clune and Elmore (1988) found that more proactive districts leveraged the new state policies to their advantage as they promoted district-level agendas for change, with a net increase rather than a reduction in district reform policies, often exceeding expectations established by the states (Firestone, 1989; Fuhrman and Elmore, 1990). The power for setting educational reform agendas has shifted, beginning in the early 1980s, from the local to the state and federal levels and is still unfolding with the No Child Left Behind Act. However, there are substantial differences among states, as they still have their own discretion in choosing standards, benchmarks, assessments, implementation strategies and actors that play different roles in policy. It is therefore important to study "political cultures...[that] can roughly distinguish which state policy mechanisms and program approaches are selected" (Marshall et al. 1989, p.159). These political cultures affect how different states defi ne key policies for school improvement, and they partially determine the options that are available at the district and local level.

Our framework for analyzing K-12 policymaking is based on a systems perspective that focuses on the relationships of actors in the system throughout the policy process. This involves analyzing how goals, perceptions, motivations and strategies are structured by institutional arrangements. There is substantial evidence that the agenda-setting process, which occurs before large-scale policy reforms are legislated and continues after they begin, is as complex as the problem of changing public services. Because it is not only complex but largely hidden from public view and only modestly predictable (by individual actors), it is part of the "wickedness" of public sector problems (Basu, Dirsmith, and Gupta, 1999). Research on state policymaking focuses on the interaction of educational stakeholders within the context of the larger system of accountability reforms. Those stakeholders are primary initiators, and the context includes loci of accommodation, visibility and the scope of conflict (Mazzoni, 1992).

Primary initiators, also known as the agenda setters, engage the system with their issues. Kingdon (1992) identifies arenas in which actors (and their knowledge) may operate: a "problem stream" in which issues are identified and given priority; a "solution stream," in which various competing policies are discussed; and a "political stream" that consists of potential key participants (Easton's "elites"). As March and Olsen (1976) note, these streams operate quasi-independently, which means that the combination of issues, solutions and active participants is often difficult to predict. It is the quasi-organized, fluid nature of the agenda-setting process, which often cannot even be described to an outsider, which accounts for the fate of "good knowledge" in affecting decisions. These initiators are generally politicians, especially chairs of education committees, but can also be education interest groups, governors and policy entrepreneurs. The loci of accommodation are where the initiators propose, debate and study the details of proposed educational legislation. Visibility is the coverage of the issue that is provided to the public about who the primary initiators are and how they are engaging in the issue in the loci of accommodation. The scope of conflict involves the diversity and motives of actors involved with the policy issue and the amount of national influence affecting the issue (Mazzoni, 1992).

Given the sensitivity of educational reform initiatives to the political climate and presidential administration, it is not surprising that so few accountability reforms, all with conflicting assessment and accountability agendas, have achieved their stated goals (McDonnell, 1994; Atkinson, 1998). Many reforms and interventions are approached with an incrementalist strategy, which targets specific problems with the assumption that when many such issues are resolved, the entire system will improve. The opposite of the incrementalist strategy is a restructuring strategy. Restructuring does not assume that the fundamentals of the K-12 public education system are a "given;" rather it seeks not just to supplement and strengthen, but also to replace existing organizational arrangements (Mazzoni, Schultz, and Freeman, 1996).

It is not only the assumptions undergirding a policy that determine what form it will take when implemented at the school level. Examining the cultural paradigm, or system of values in which schools function allows for interpreting the meanings, views and patterns of behavior of policy actors at all levels as the primary force in the policy system (Marshall, Mitchell and Wirt, 1989). Without comprehending the cultural paradigms in schools, districts and states, accountability reforms will be unsuccessful and inconsistent in improving academic performance because they were mandated without consideration for the school's context (Sizer, 1992).

Whether discussing a policy's form or its sensitivity to local school culture, there is generally a gulf between how policy elites understand educational reform and how practitioners understand it (Spillane, 2002). Just as teachers and administrators make assumptions about a policy when deciding how to interpret it in their local context, policymakers also have "assumptive worlds" that determine the different policy mechanisms and approaches that they will choose for educational reforms.

A function of policymakers' assumptive worlds, which differ by state, is the amount of power that different actors have over policy. Some of those policy actors, all of whom wield different amount of power in different education policymaking arenas, include: legislators; legislative staffers; state departments of education; professional associations of teachers, administrators and state boards of education; education PACs; the governor; the governor's staffers; the state board of education; courts; federal statutes; non-education groups; parents; teachers; students; and producers of education-related products (Marshall, Mitchell and Wirt, 1989).

The presence of strong educational subcultures at the state level help to explain how attention is focused more on certain policy domains than others. It is not just the state-level cultures that can entirely explain states' policies, however, since educational polices are a function of both state and national cultures (Marshall, Mitchell and Wirt, 1989).

A sense-making approach to studying state policy and its impacts

As part of our systems perspective on state-district relationships, we include a sense-making approach to understanding how district and school leaders, as contrasted with scholars, make sense of the new standards and accountability environment in which they work. Individual-level sense-making is the process by which individuals decipher new information, in this case, how teachers interpret an externally mandated policy that aims to improve their students' achievement. Organizational scholars regard sense-making as a social process as well as an individual cognitive process (Weick, 1995). It is also a process that is situated in related values, past practices, cognitive limitations, organizational culture and organizational inertia. When teachers or administrators are confronted with a new policy, their interpretations of it will determine whether they engage in significant change, incremental change, or resistance (Gold, 2002; Louis and Dentler, 1988).

Sense-making is not an event, but is ongoing, focused on extracted cues, driven by plausibility and tied to identity construction (Conley, 2002; Weick, 1995). It occurs whenever groups notice a situation that does not fit with their daily routines, and then use their past experiences to find patterns on which to base an explanation for the new situation. While most ongoing sensemaking occurs through individual reflection, when teachers feel that their legitimacy is threatened (as when faced with a policy that they believe stifles their creativity, takes their autonomy away, or threatens their professional judgment), they are more likely to engage in collective sense-making. Threats are also present when members - particularly school leaders - try to protect their school's reputational status (Shrum and Wuthnow, 1988). When this happens, local educators feel pressure to reconstruct their legitimacy by attacking the legitimacy of others or by justifying their own behavior (Gold, 2002). This may result in collective affirmation of behavior or cognitive maps that interrupt further consideration of the policy.

Educators are often blamed for resistance to change. Such attachment to the status quo should not be perceived simply as a lack of capacity or a deliberate attempt to undermine new policies, because doing so neglects the complexity of the sense-making process (Spillane, Reiser, and Reimer, 2002). Compliance readiness has three main dimensions: (1) ideological readiness, or the degree to which the target element agrees with the norms and conditions of the target agent (the main focus of the sense-making); (2) organizational capacity to meet demands; and (3) power to resist control agents (Zald, 1978). Perceptions about both capacity and power thus become part of the background process of sense-making. Most explanations for compliance behavior depend upon the interaction among the sources of power, group norms about conformity and visibility of the target actors' behavior, which define the conditions about how organizational members will act, exert power and make sense of power (Warren, 1968).

To summarize, in order to develop policies that successfully change practice, it is essential to begin by examining the implementer's cognitive perspective. A study of New Jersey's Whole School Reform found that individual cognitive limitations were a primary cause of resistance to change (Gold, 2002). Cognitive limitations are further exacerbated if educators interpret the policy differently (Grant, 2001). Variation in interpretation also becomes more problematic as the policy stakes increase and as curriculum and instruction is redesigned to prepare students for the tests that are a mainstay in the new policy (Rutledge, 2002). Context also matters (Gupta, 1994): what appears to be a coherent and straightforward policy initiative to a legislator or state administrator may be perceived quite differently by school leaders in poor urban schools as compared with leaders in wealthy, suburban settings.

Sense-making depends not only on individual and group cognitive capacities and the nature of the policy, but also on the collective learning opportunities that are available in the school (Marks, Louis, and Printy, 2002). In peer groups with a high rate of interaction among members, values and attitudes are redefined through frequent contact. Such socialization pressure from peers is a very effective form of pressure to change cognitive maps and behavior and is consequently distinct from external policy or other control mechanisms (Warren, 1970). For example, time to meet and talk allows school administrators to construct interpretations of policies and to draw implications for their own work (Firestone, Meyrowitz, and Fairman, 1998; Spillane et al., 2002). Thus, organizational learning is a critical component of sensemaking because it prevents teachers' current beliefs and experiences from interfering with their ability to implement and interpret the policies in the manner that policymakers intended (Gold, 2002).

The presence or absence of such opportunities for sense-making is dependent, to a large degree, on the local school system's culture, leadership, collegial support, available resources and available time to carry out the proposed initiative (Dutro, 2002; Gold, 2002; Marks et al., 2002). School and district administrators play a central role because they often determine the conditions under which policy interpretation and implementation will be carried out (Burch and Spillane, 2002; Marks et al., 2002). With the role of policy mediator for the entire organization, administrators typically have a larger organizational perspective, which they utilize as their primary framework to respond to policy initiatives. Factors that may determine administrators' response are their previous familiarity with the policy and their diagnosis of specific issues within the school, including their assumptions of student needs and their relationship with the district.

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