Policy Environments & the Quality of Teaching
Michael Knapp, University of Washington
Milbrey McLaughlin. Stanford University
Joan Talbert, Stanford University
Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University
Jon Snyder, Bank Street College of Education
Focusing on four states (California, New York, North Carolina, and Washington State) and a large urban school district within each, this study examined connections between policy environments and teaching practice through folly nested state, district, school, and teacher samples. Analytic work integrated what was learned from each level within and across states into a combined set of insights about the way teachers' work and the way student learning opportunities reflect and are shaped by various policy environments and contexts in which they work.
Main Research Questions
- In what ways are policies from governmental and non-governmental sources orchestrated or managed to promote high quality teaching and greater student learning? How is the coordination among strands achieved?
- How did the policies and policy strategies (if any) come into being? What forces, conditions, and actions sustain them, and what will it take to keep them in place over time?
- How do teaching policies interact with policies not targeted specifically to teachers or teaching and with the key features or conditions of state and local context to form a policy environment within which teachers work?
- In what ways, if at all, do teaching policy strategies affect: (a) recruitment and retention of capable people in the teaching profession; (b) improvement in teachers' knowledge, skills, and norms; (c) productive workplace environments for teaching; (d) teaching on a broad scale; and (e) student learning? What trade-offs or relationships are there between progress made in one challenge area and progress made in another?
- How are resources aimed at teacher improvement conceived, (re)allocated, or "invested" throughout the system? And, with what consequences for teachers' work and student learning?
Case study research, survey research, document analysis
Publications to Date
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Building Instructional Quality and Coherence in San Diego City Schools: System Struggle, Professional Change
Policy Brief 9, September 2003.
Building Instructional Quality: "Inside-Out" and "Outside-In" Perspectives on San Diego's School Reform
A Research Report by Linda Darling-Hammond, Amy M. Hightower, Jennifer L. Husbands, Jeannette R. LaFors, Viki M. Young, and Carl Christopher, September 2003.Description:
This research report looks at the aggressive set of policies San Diego City School District used to improve instruction. It reveals how San Diego consolidated and redirected resources, redesigned the district office as well as work in schools, and mediated and leveraged state policy to further its reform agenda. The report also documents the difficulties of managing the politics and implementation of a coherent approach to change in a large district with an established culture of decentralization located in a state with a piecemeal, sometimes conflicting, menu of reforms.Abstract:PDFAbstractOriginal StudyOriginal StudyOriginal Study
During the 1990s, a new policy hypothesis—that focusing on the quality of teaching would provide a high-leverage means for improving student achievement—began to gain currency. This study of San Diego, California's highly focused reform initiative to improve the quality of teaching examines an effort to act on this hypothesis. Based on interview, observation, survey, and record data collected at the state, district, and school levels over a five-year time period, the study offers a look at how one large, urban district developed an aggressive set of policies to improve instruction. The research examines how the district consolidated and redirected resources, redesigned the district office as well as work in schools, and mediated and leveraged state policy to further its reform agenda. Among key reform strategies were:
- An overhaul of recruitment, hiring, placement, and evaluation to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and principals in the district, while weeding out weak staff members;
- A massive investment in intensive professional development, including institutes, workshops and on-site coaching in every school, focused initially on developing teachers' and principals' expertise in literacy instruction, and later branching out into mathematics, science, and other subjects;
- A redesign of administration, replacing area superintendents with Instructional Leaders working closely with principals on improving the quality of teaching in each building and charging principals with focused evaluation and support of instruction;
- A major reallocation of resources to downsize the central office, consolidate fragmented programs and pots of money, and focus resources on classroom work;
- A much more centralized approach to providing curriculum and teaching guidance based on research on learning and teaching, including the development of special courses and district-wide strategies for literacy development as well as aspects of mathematics and science instruction;
- An effort to develop a culture and shared expertise to enable professional accountability and to redefine the state's accountability processes to support instruction without punishing students.
The study documents substantial gains in student achievement and transformations of teaching practices, especially in San Diego's elementary and middle schools, over a five year period, in association with these policies. Schools and students that benefited most from the changes were often those that were previously lowest-achieving. However, schools that were most bureaucratically organized with the fewest opportunities for collaboration among faculty had more difficulty using new resources to transform instruction. The study also documents the difficulties of managing the politics and implementation of a coherent approach to change in a large district with an established culture of decentralization located in a state with a piecemeal, sometimes conflicting, menu of reforms. Looking at the process of school change from both the 'outside in' and the 'inside out,' the study details how the district and individual schools initiated, coped with, and transformed the many competing policies in the school environment. Finally, we document the district's more difficult process of seeking to improve high schools and its new round of reforms, just launched as the research was ending, to rethink the organization and design of the urban high school as a means of transforming the quality of teaching and learning within.
The research ends with evidence of substantial transformation in the culture, organization, instruction, and outcomes of San Diego's schools but also with the changing of many members of the leadership team. The future will reveal whether the reforms with be sustained in the long run and whether San Diego's bet on professional learning—enforced from the top down as a key lever for change—will ultimately strengthen the teaching and learning capacities of local schools from the inside out.
Reforming Districts: How Districts Support School Reform
A Research Report by Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert, September 2003.Description:
By detailing the experiences of three reforming California districts, this research report offers new evidence of district effects on school reform progress and improved student outcomes. The case studies offer instructive exception to conventional wisdom-or myths-about district reform. Among the refuted myths: teachers and principals resist a strong district role; turnover derails efforts to establish and sustain a consistent reform agenda; and local politics will defeat any serious reform agenda.Abstract:PDFAbstractOriginal StudyOriginal Study
School districts have participated in multiple rounds of education reform activity in the past few decades, yet few have made headway on system-wide school improvement. This paper addresses the questions of whether districts matter for school reform progress and what successful "reforming" districts do to achieve system change and to navigate the pitfalls associated with system change efforts. Using multi-level survey data and four-year case studies of three reforming California districts, the paper offers new evidence of district effects on school reform progress and improved student outcomes and develops a picture of a reforming district.
The reforming districts featured in this analysis offer instructive exception to conventional wisdom—or myths—about district reform. One myth predicts that teachers and principals will resist a strong district role. Yet, our research provides evidence that a weak central office in fact limits schools' reform progress, while a strong district role is effective and welcomed when it uses a strategic conception of responsibilities and leadership between system levels. A second myth about district reform holds that turnover or personnel "churn" will derail efforts to establish and sustain a consistent reform agenda. While this statement is true in many instances, in two districts studied, turnover in top leadership positions did not trigger significant change in district priorities or norms because planning processes and inclusive communication strategies over time had embedded them in district culture. A third myth asserts that local politics will defeat a serious reform agenda; yet, leaders in each reforming district articulated unambiguous goals and priorities and, with strong board support developed over many years, were able to navigate local political waters and protect a strong district role.
Each of the reforming districts studied was a self-conscious "learning organization," investing in system-wide learning—in the central office, in schools, in cross-school teacher networks, and in units such as the business office that typically are excluded from professional development focused on instruction. This research suggests that taking the district system as the "unit of change" is essential to advancing equitable and sustainable reform.
Standards-Based Reform and Small Schools of Choice: How Reform Theories Converge in Three Urban Middle Schools
A Research Report by Chrysan Gallucci, Michael S. Knapp, Anneke Markholt, and Suzy Ort, July 2003.Description:
This report examines the ways two seemingly opposite theories of educational reform converge in three New York City middle schools. Using in-depth case studies, the authors look at what happened when a theory of centralized, standards-based instructional improvement was introduced into these schools on top of an existing theory that emphasized small schools, distinctive programs, and close relationships among students and adults. The result, a surprise to some, is that the two theories can coexist, even complement each other, but not without some tension.Abstract:PDFAbstractOriginal Study
The convergence of two apparently opposite theories of urban educational reform is analyzed as it occurs in three middle schools in a New York City school district. The first theory, emphasizing small schools of choice, promotes close relationships between students and adults in distinctive school programs. The second—centralized, standards-based instructional improvement—seeks to standardize instruction through demanding curriculum, an emphasis on standard-bearing work, and investment in professional learning. Using in-depth case studies developed over three years, the authors argue that the reform theories complemented one another in this case, but their coexistence varied based on how the schools organized themselves for professional learning, knowing their students well, and taking joint responsibility for learning outcomes. The sophistication and flexibility of the district's policies facilitated the convergence process. The authors conclude that, although tension producing, the first set of reform ideas can create the conditions in which rich and complex versions of standards-based practice can develop.
Triage or Tapestry? Teacher Unions' Work Toward Improving Teacher Quality in an Era of Systemic Reform
A Research Report by Nina Bascia, June 2003.Description:
By examining the work of six teacher unions, this report considers the contributions that teacher unions make toward improving the quality of teaching in today's context of systemic reform.Abstract:PDFAbstractOriginal StudyOriginal Study
his report looks at and identifies emerging trends in the roles that teacher unions play in educational reform and improving the quality of teaching. A description of the efforts of six teacher unions to improve teacher quality within the context of the current systemic reform movement shows a range and depth of union initiatives beyond what is commonly known in policy research. The report highlights organizational strengths of teacher unions, the unique contributions they make to teacher quality, and some of the challenges they face. Two broad conceptions of systemic reform in support of improving teaching quality—triage and tapestry—are presented and contrasted. When educational improvement is understood as a "tapestry" of efforts that requires multiple initiatives in many arenas by many reform players, unions appear to perform several important and unique functions toward improving teacher quality.
What School Districts Spend on Professional Development
Policy Brief 6, November 2002.