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Districts as Institutional Actors in Educational Reform
Andrea K. Rorrer, Linda Skrla and James Joseph Scheurich Educational Administration Quarterly 2008 44: 307 DOI: 10.1177/0013161X08318962 The online version of this article can be found at: http://eaq.sagepub.com/content/44/3/307
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What is This?
Educational Administration Quarterly Vol. 44, No. 3 (August 2008) 307-358
Districts as Institutional Actors in Educational Reform
Andrea K. Rorrer Linda Skrla James Joseph Scheurich
Purpose: Intermittent attention to the district as the unit of study has left a void in our understanding of the complexities associated with the ability of district-level leaders to contribute to successful, systemic educational reform. In this article, the authors address this void by providing a narrative synthesis of previous findings, proposing a theory of districts as institutional actors in systemic reform with the goal being to increase achievement and advance equity, and suggesting areas of future research that extend our understanding of districts as institutional actors in educational reform and build our knowledge of reform that improves achievement and advances equity. Proposed Conceptual Argument: The four roles of districts evident in research to date are (a) providing instructional leadership, (b) reorienting the organization, (c) establishing policy coherence, and (d) maintaining an equity focus. These four roles, which are interdependent, variably coupled, and coevolving through a nonlinear process, serve as a foundation for the authors’ proposed framework of districts as institutional actors in improving achievement and advancing equity. Implications for Research and Practice: The discontinuous and limited nature of previous research has contributed to the lack of theoretical advancement with regard to a research-based understanding of district reform and thus to a lack of research-based guidance for district leaders to follow to create systemically districts that improve achievement and advance educational equity for all children. The framework presented here contributes toward the resolution of these issues by developing an intentional, coherent, and integrated framework of districts as institutional actors in reform. Keywords: district reform; systemic reform; institutional actors; improving achievement; educational equity
n general, “school reform,” “school improvement,” and “school effectiveness” research over the past two decades often has overlooked, ignored, and even dismissed the potential of districts as substantial contributors to
DOI: 10.1177/0013161X08318962 © 2008 The University Council for Educational Administration
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Educational Administration Quarterly
systemic reform.1 In fact, a consistent theme among many scholars has been the argument that responsibility for and control of reform efforts should be located at the individual school level. Smith and O’Day (1990), for example, clearly emphasized this point. In their view, schools are the “basic unit of change, and school educators (teachers and principals) are not only the agents, but also the initiators, designers, and directors of change efforts” (p. 235). Chester Finn (1991), a key proponent of the school as the center of reform movement, stated emphatically that districts are inconsequential. He pronounced, “The school is the vital delivery system, the state is the policy setter (and chief paymaster), and nothing in between is very important” (p. 246; see also Doyle & Finn, 1984). Although this viewpoint has gained widespread acceptance in policy, research, and practitioner circles, respectfully, we disagree.2 In this article, we explain our contrasting view—that districts are vital institutional actors in systemic educational reform.3 Specifically, we explore the how the district as an organized collective is bound by a web of interrelated and interdependent roles, responsibilities, and relationships that facilitate systemic reform. This inquiry emerged from a reflection on our own research that focuses on districts that have made progress in addressing inequities in student performance coupled with a consideration of other scholars’ research on districts and the multitude of existing district-level initiatives. As will be discussed further in our methodology section, three overarching questions guided our inquiry: (a) What roles have districts served in reform? (b) What role could districts serve to improve achievement and advance equity systemically? and (c) What would be the nature of district-level change necessary to systemically improve achievement and advance equity? We discuss our findings related to this inquiry in the three main sections. First, we provide the results of our narrative synthesis of previous research on districts and their role in educational reform, including initiatives undertaken, processes used, and outcomes achieved. Next, using the narrative synthesis of research as a foundation, we address the second and third question of this inquiry (i.e., What role could districts serve in systemic, systematic reform to improve achievement and advance equity, and what would be the nature of district-level change necessary to do so?). In this section, we propose a theory of districts as institutional actors in systemic educational reform, including reform that results in increasing achievement and advancing equity.4 Finally, we conclude with suggestions for future research and analysis to extend our understanding of the districts’ role as institutional actors in educational reform.
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Rorrer et al. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS
RESEARCH SYNTHESIS ON DISTRICT ROLES IN REFORM Smith and O’Day (1991), in their seminal work “Systemic School Reform,” identified two waves of U.S. educational reform and advanced a compelling argument for what has since become known as a third wave of reform. The first wave of reform, which they explained occurred from 1983 to 1986, “sought mainly to expand or improve educational inputs (longer school day, increased requirements for graduation, better teachers) and ensure competency in basic skills (graduation tests, lock-step curricula, promotional criteria)” (p. 233). Many of these initiatives were associated with the so-called top-down reforms. The second wave of reform, which they identified with the latter 1980s, was characterized by an emphasis on “decentralization, professionalization, and bottom-up change key concepts, as reformers focus[ed] on the change process and on active involvement of those closest to instruction” (p. 234). Smith and O’Day pointed out that the limitations of these earlier reform waves were addressed by a third approach that would combine the top-down and bottom-up approaches of the first two waves. The third wave of reform was one comprised of “a coherent systemic strategy . . . one which can set the conditions for change to take place not just in a small handful of schools or for a few children, but in the great majority” (pp. 234-235). This third wave, which emphasized national standards and tests, grew in prominence and importance throughout the 1990s and, arguably, substantial portions of it continue to the present day.5 Remarkably, the role of the local school district in reform was underemphasized in all three of these reform waves. Instead, research emphasis has been directed toward the efforts of schools, teachers, state and federal policy-making bodies, private groups and industries, and even university schools of education. Indeed, research studies on districts over the past 20 years have been relatively fewer in number and discontinuous compared to research on schools as the center of reform. Nonetheless, some individual scholars have recognized the district’s potential to enable and enhance reform efforts, including those initiated from within the district as well as those mandated from the state and federal levels (i.e., Berman, 1986; Bridges, 1982; Bryk, 1999; Elmore, 1993; Massell, 2000; Marsh, 2000; Oakes, 1987). Elmore (1993), for instance, argued that districts are frequently relegated to “context.” Concurring with Smith and O’Day about the focus of previous research on schools as the unit of state policy action and intervention, he raised a central issue relevant to our inquiry and the status of today’s strong state educational policy environment:
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If states play a more aggressive role in setting goals, outlining curriculum requirements, underwriting teacher education and professional development consistent with these goals and requirements, and monitoring individual schools based on how well students are learning academic content, what role will local districts play? (p. 98)
Given that districts continue to function as the dominant local governance structure for U.S. schooling, the neglect by many researchers, practitioners, and policy makers alike to acknowledge the nested (Cuban, 1984) nature of schools within districts and the district’s instrumental role in systemic reform seems remarkable. Accordingly, here we turn our attention to the research that does exist and focus on the potentially vital role of the district in reform, as it has been considered since 1984 when Cuban’s (1984) research prompted some renewed attention to the district. After all, as Cuban maintained, the disregard for the district as a significant and powerful force represents a void in the research on educational reform, one that
implicitly ignores the pivotal role that school boards and superintendents play in mobilizing limited resources, giving legitimacy to a reform effort and the crucial interplay between central office and school site that can spell the difference between implementation success and failure. (p. 12)
We then extend our discussion beyond what role districts have served in reform to what role districts could serve, including the nature of change, in educational reform, particularly reform aimed to improve achievement and advance equity.
METHOD OF NARRATIVE SYNTHESIS Given the nature and scope of existing research on districts, including this research being sporadic, varied in focus, and heterogeneity in methods, we chose a narrative synthesis (Mays, Pope, & Popay, 2005; Popay et al., 2006; Popay, Rogers, & Williams, 1998)6 as the appropriate method to conduct the review of the district’s role in systemic reform. Using narrative synthesis as our methodology permitted us to be interpretive, inductive, and integrative in our analysis (Jensen & Allen, 1996; Mays et al., 2005; Noblit & Hare, 1988). In an effort to increase the transparency of our process, here we provide details on our method of conducting this narrative synthesis. Mays et al. (2005) provided six iterative stages for a narrative synthesis that were utilized for this review. These iterative stages include (a) identifying
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4). and/or evaluating only specific reform efforts. standards-based reform (Sipple & Killeen. and (f) reporting and disseminating the results of the review (p. we note that research to date frequently depicts the district’s role as a single discrete function or initiative.. Restricting our analysis to studies such as these. school board. the board. Consequently. and policy and research reports for empirical studies and conceptual. That is. which is the time frame dating back to the first wave of systemic reform identified by Smith and O’Day (1991). 5). 2013 . This time period was characterized by sporadic but gradually increasing interest in the district (albeit less than on schools) as a central participant in educational reform. 2002. review. for example. The studies or Downloaded from eaq. Specifically. (e) conducting the synthesis. books. 1990). prior research was explored and interrogated to address the main review question (i. the district may refer to the superintendent.sagepub. and position papers.e. the findings from each of the studies selected for review were juxtaposed with one another (Popay et al. (b) specifying the review question. we chose not to use a preexisting framework that stipulated the role of districts in reform. (d) extracting data and appraising study quality. 2000). would have limited our quest for comprehensive understanding of the district’s collective and complex role in reform. implementing. who collectively serve as critical links between the district and the school for developing and implementing solutions to identified problems (Land. 2006). In mapping available evidence. Instead.. we cast a wider net and utilized the traditional conceptualization of districts as operationalized by scholars to date. Winneba on August 26. p. the central office-level administration. This question guided our comprehensive search through journals. (c) selecting studies to include in the review.. 2004) or mathematics reform (Spillane. or a “textual approach to the process of synthesis to ‘tell the story’” (p. First. we collected empirical or conceptual pieces on districts’ roles reported since 1984. Consistent with the methodology of a narrative synthesis. then presented as a narrative. and/or midlevel/central administration as well as to the district as an organizational unit.Rorrer et al. McLaughlin. our narrative synthesis was not limited to research that focuses on the district’s role in mitigating. 7). we pose a different conceptualization of the district: an organized collective constituted by the superintendent. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 311 the broad focus of the review and searching for and mapping available evidence. 2006. Instead. consistent with the methodology of a narrative synthesis (Popay et al. What roles have districts served in reform?).com at Univ of Education. we selected research for this narrative synthesis. which are narrow in their scope though informative and important. for the purpose of this narrative synthesis. Next. As will be more fully explained in a later section focused on a theory of districts as institutional actors in systemic reform. and principals.
such as books. school system. we recognize that there are potential limitations to any empirical study. (See Appendixes A. studies that actually focused on schools as the unit of analysis or center of reform were eliminated. (2006) suggested. and effectiveness. 2013 . research that uses qualitative. Thus. In the end. we used an ancestry approach. policy and research-related reports (n = 16). B. regardless of the methods employed. Whitty. that may have been missed in the initial search. Three electronic databases (EBSCO Host. methods and design. Gilbody. Thus.. for instance. Winneba on August 26. 3 syntheses of previous research. and Thomas (2003) emphasized that systematic reviews.com at Univ of Education. 62 empirically based articles. Keywords used to conduct the search included school district. general findings. 3149). and survey methods) to conduct our extensive review.312 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY conceptual pieces included in this narrative synthesis had to focus explicitly on the district as the unit of analysis and include some aspect of district’s role in reform. we primarily relied upon empirical scholarship (i. Grimshaw. such as this one. 12 conceptual. and C. and central office combined with additional key words such as change. quantitative.) We recognize. We extracted and classified data from the scholarship included in the narrative synthesis with respect to focus of study. and JSTOR) were used to identify potential articles initially. school board. Education Full Text. a total of 81 peer reviewed/refereed articles (n = 52). 15). Consequently. This search led to published work by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) and the McKenzie Group. In addition. empirically based research published in peer-reviewed journals was considered to have met the general standards and criteria for validity and reliability and/or trustworthiness and credibility associated with the respective methods chosen by the researchers. book/book chapters (n = 4). which uses the reference list of studies selected for inclusion in the synthesis to identify relevant studies or reports.7 That said.. Specifically. reform. local education agencies. improvement. Furthermore.e. and other pieces (n = 9) fit the criteria outlined above and informed the final narrative synthesis of research on the district’s role in reform. and 4 other types of scholarship were used in this synthesis. that the “trustworthiness of the synthesis will depend on both the quality and the quantity of the evidence base it is build on” (p. Although we acknowledge that previously published research articles have met the general conditions associated with their respective methods. “offer the least biased method of summarizing research literature” (p. Inc. superintendents. and recommendations as well as their relevance to the review Downloaded from eaq.sagepub. as Popay et al. we searched policy center publications for reports on school districts.
(b) reorienting Downloaded from eaq. In doing so.com at Univ of Education. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 313 question (Popay et al.sagepub. policy. FOUR ESSENTIAL ROLES OF DISTRICTS IN REFORM As noted in the previous section. these scholars noted. As Popay et al. these themes reflect the essential roles of districts in educational reform: providing instructional leadership.. (2006) indicated. Our proposed theory is a natural extension of the narrative synthesis.Rorrer et al. organization and culture. we propose a theory of districts as institutional actors in systemic reform. and equity-orientation. Further consideration was given to how the findings from each study related to one another within and between themes. including what were the variations in the study’s findings and how each study explained the districts’ role or illustrated the districts’ contribution to the initiatives identified. by examining how contextual or temporal variables moderate outcomes” (p. establishing policy coherence. The next step was thematic analysis (Popay et al.. This process permitted us to become thoroughly acquainted with the body of research on districts overall. “Theory building and theory testing is a neglected aspect of systematic reviews” (p. particularly reform to improve achievement and advance equity. 2006). 2013 . Before turning to the subsequent discussion of how districts could engage in change and utilize these roles to systemically implement reform. These roles are (a) providing instructional leadership. These themes were further distinguished by the specific activities and/or processes engaged in by the districts in the studies that were identified under these themes. we use the narrative synthesis of research as a foundation to address the second and third questions of this inquiry (i. What role could districts serve in systemic. Our analyses of these foci produced four broad themes. we elucidate these four roles. initially coded as leadership. here. reorienting the organization. systematic reform. particularly reform aimed at improving achievement and advancing equity concurrently. In the section following this review. This step resulted in particular studies being cited for contributions within multiple themes. In our analysis. and what would be the nature of district-level change necessary?). 2006) of the focus of the studies included. We present the results of our narrative synthesis in the next section. 12). and maintaining an equity focus.e.. In particular. Winneba on August 26. 12). “Systematic reviews can contribute to developing and testing the limits of theories. four essential roles for districts in educational reform emerged from our analysis of research on districts conducted over the past 20 years.
The concept of instructional leadership gained prominence with Ronald Edmonds’s (1979) effective schools research. and governance. Providing Instructional Leadership First. unified. Greenfield (1987) said that instructional leadership “refers to actions undertaken with the intention of developing a productive and satisfying working environment for teachers and desirable learning conditions and outcomes for children” (p. modeling effective instruction. providing professional development opportunities. 60). or agreed-upon.9 He explained. scholars continued to reference instructional leadership as a key role.8 Cuban (1984) was one of the first scholars to extend the implications of the effective schools research’s focus on instructional leadership to the district. Moreover. Though interest in effective schools research as it related to districts declined substantially after 1990. 2013 . definition. soliciting opinions. Together. Despite this. supporting collaboration. management. Downloaded from eaq. (c) establishing policy coherence. There has been a similar struggle in research focused on instructional leadership at the district level to find a coherent.com at Univ of Education. and an agreed-upon definition of instructional leadership does not exist. however. who were more prescriptive.10 Recent research on instructional leadership at the district level now requires that attention be given to multiple facets of instruction and learning well beyond communicating the district mission and simply being knowledgeable of instructional effectiveness. and (d) maintaining an equity focus. More recently. and giving praise for effective teaching.sagepub. It was a cornerstone of the seven correlates Edmonds identified as present in schools he termed effective—those at which equal proportions of students identified as high-. Blasé and Blasé (2000). 146). consider the following informative descriptions of instructional leadership at the campus or principal level. Interestingly. These behaviors included making suggestions. “With the mounting interest in using effective schools research. these roles envelop aspects of district leadership. values and norms. although it has widespread popularity as a concept. identified seven behaviors associated with principals who serve as instructional leaders. Winneba on August 26. giving feedback.314 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY the organization. middle-. instructional leadership is an essential role of districts identified by previous research. and low-income achieved mastery of the basic curriculum. operation. the view of superintendents has progressed from one depicted in terms of its supervisory-only duties to depictions as “head teacher” to now the instructional leader. a single. For instance. the older model of a school chief knowledgeable about both curriculum and instruction and visible in the schools beyond the symbolic tour is reasserting itself” (p.
McLaughlin. motivation. 1986. 1989b. Jacobson. 1997. Together. and resources available to support planned change efforts generate fundamental differences in the ability of practitioners to plan. generating will and building capacity are key to sustaining reform. 1991. 1987) and • building capacity (Firestone.11 Berman (1986) explored how districts generate will to influence the implementation of legally mandated reforms. She (1990) emphasized the district’s importance in generating will versus its reliance on any one policy to drive successful reform: Downloaded from eaq. Daresh. 2000. 2004. The local expertise.com at Univ of Education. particularly when resources for reform implementation diminish. Jacobson. organizational routines. These two elements of the instructional leadership role—generating will to reform and capacity to do so—help districts bridge organizational development and policy implementation. 1986. Massell. 12-13). 1986. 1989b. and beliefs that underlie an implementor’s response to a policy’s goals or strategies” (p. 109). 2013 .Rorrer et al. Generating will. Yet the type of will necessary to initiate or sustain reform to improve performance districtwide does not arise automatically nor simply in response to external environments. echoing Berman’s research on districts that generate will to implement legally mandated reforms. Whereas the primary impetus for will remains debated. 1987. She noted. McLaughlin’s (1990) reflection on RAND’s Change Agent Study emphasized this point. 1990) indicated that federal and state level policies were unlikely to produce systemic reform without will. the necessity of it in successful reform implementation is not disputed. For instance. Firestone. these attributes reflect Daresh’s (1991) conception that instructional leadership among superintendents and principals requires “proactive administrative behavior” (p. 2003. execute. As McLaughlin (1987) indicated. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 315 instructional leadership at the district level has evolved as a collective responsibility of the superintendent and central office administrators. Winneba on August 26. Fundamentally. Sclafani. Spillane & Thompson. McLaughlin. will and support can be manifested as “the attitudes. 172). or sustain an innovative effort” (pp. Elmore & Burney. two elements of it appear consistently in the research and are frequently cited as being essential: • generating will (Berman. McLaughlin (1987.sagepub. Fuller & Johnson. 1997). Honig. Despite the general lack of agreement on exactly what constitutes instructional leadership at the district level. 2001. as evidenced by the scope of research on districts. “What matters most to policy outcomes are local capacity and will.
focus. 1999. those who have studied district instructional leadership. 1985). he asserted. Jacobson differentiated between effective and ineffective districts in terms of generating will for reform and being actively engaged. sensitivity to the perspective of others.com at Univ of Education. emphasize how districts generating will to reform is an example of “proactive administrative behavior” (Daresh. He actively worked to raise community expectations as to what students could achieve and then worked to ensure that his faculty and students met those expectations. Building capacity. Floden et al. self-awareness. 1989b. In addition.316 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Thus. Daresh. 13) Firestone (1989b) further expanded this point. or to participate on only a pro forma basis. He noted that instructional leadership is reliant upon the existence of commitment to improve teaching and learning. Providing instructional leadership requires more than simply generating will. 1991) aimed at improving teaching and learning. Winneba on August 26. the enthusiasm engendered little because of insufficient will or support in the broader organizational environment.” Jacobson’s (1986) description of an effective rural district exemplified this commitment. 1996. 1993. (p. McLaughlin & Talbert. continuous focus on teaching and learning. He indicated that will was “the commitment to a decision. 1986. such as McLaughlin and Jacobson. Daresh. previous research illustrates that district instructional leaders generate will by being personally engaged in all aspects of instruction and instructional-related reform (Björk. 1988. Districts must couple this will intentionally with capacity building. Consequently. Firestone (1989b) defined capacity as “the Downloaded from eaq.sagepub. and goals to support instruction (Björk. Bredeson. (p. Petersen. 1986. Purkey & Smith. which is hard to orchestrate by means of federal (or state) policy. although teachers in a site may be eager to embrace a change effort. 1996. Daresh (1991) expanded the link between will and instructional leadership. Petersen. Murphy & Hallinger. 2013 . From his research. [The] effective superintendent viewed his job as requiring him to educate his community and school board about the educational services they should want. 1993. 1999) and establishing the vision. which occurred “even at the risk of creating opposition within the community” (p. 1991. 1986. and consistent personal behavior.. 2003. 1991. Jacobson. 20) Again. Murphy & Hallinger. they may elect not to do so. Bredeson. Firestone. commitment to the people with whom district leaders work. Capacity building reflects the district’s ability and capability to enact its will. 19). because their institutional setting is not supportive.
com at Univ of Education. . Berman (1986) suggested that the ability of the district to build capacity depends on the district’s “managerial competence . / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 317 wherewithal to actually implement [the decision]. targeted support. and materials). 2004) have documented what districts do to increase the ability and capacity (e. adapting standard operating procedures. skills. including reforms aimed at improving standards. providing encouragement and recognition. commitment [will] and disposition).. and preemptive Downloaded from eaq. monitoring the reform effort. and aligning curriculum. personnel. . skills. 2013 . They concluded. and making district and school linkages (district consistent application of pressure on schools. Spillane and Thompson’s (1997) study of nine Michigan districts revealed the importance of districts acquiring knowledge specific to the instructional science and mathematics reforms chosen for implementation. many researchers (e. 199). and other resources necessary to carry out decisions” (p. and handling disturbances).. obtaining resources. . Similarly. In her research on district central office administrators’ roles in the implementation of school-community partnerships. norms and habits). let us turn our attention to how districts provide instructional leadership by building capacity. she identified threshold conditions and capital as two necessary elements for district capacity building. With this in mind. staffing or labor. knowledge of local reformers. Variances in capacity were attributed to the district’s human capital (i. 157).Rorrer et al.e. Reflecting Firestone’s (1989b) description of capacity and Jacobson’s (1986) and Daresh’s (1991) earlier examples of active engagement.g. for instance..e.g. designation of boundary spanners. 52). the supportiveness of its organizational culture . Honig (2003) refined the idea of capacity building even further. noted that building capacity requires three primary actions: mobilizing personnel. and assessment. Recently. Firestone (1989b). instruction. “The LEAs’ capacity to support ambitious instructional reform [is] primarily as a capacity to learn the substantive ideas at the heart of the new reforms and to help teachers and others within the district learn these ideas” (p. . and physical capital (i. developing functions related to change (providing and selling a vision. The capacity to use reform is the extent to which the [school] has the knowledge.sagepub.. and the difficulty of the problems facing the district” (p. time. increased participation by teachers). and other resources) of teachers. Spillane and Thompson’s comparison also resulted in identifying and classifying three types of variances related to local capacity building. central office administrators. social capital (i. knowledge. principals. Winneba on August 26. Intentionality. superintendents to implement reform to improve instruction. Over the past two decades. personnel.e. professional networks. trust and collaboration.. knowledge. Sipple & Killeen.
Desimone. Murphy & Hallinger. Scheurich.. Purkey & Smith. Massel. we can conclude that district instructional leadership builds capacity by coordinating and aligning work of others through communication. and • changing the district culture (Elmore & Burney. 1996. Fuhrman & Belcher. and transparency and accountability (Björk. 1988. including increasing data accessibility. 1986. McLaughlin. 1997. availability. 2001. 1993. From research on districts to date. Murphy & Hallinger. 1992. 1993. 2003). Bredeson. Massell. McLauglin & Talbert. 1993. & Johnson. Sclafani. Birman. and their administrative tools such as their ability to structure the workday and their workload. Honig noted the capital that central office administrators relied on to build capacity included central office administration knowledge of their schools and policy and organizational systems at large. and acquiring and targeting support for instruction. and norms. expectations. 2001. instruction. Reorienting the Organization Reorienting the organization is a second essential role of districts in reform identified from our narrative synthesis of previous research. 2013 . 1985). monitoring goals. 2000.. 1991. districts refine organizational structures and processes and alter district culture to align with their educational reform goals. 1992. Daresh. In this role. In the following discussion. Overall. Winneba on August 26.318 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY policy actions were among the threshold conditions necessary to build capacity particular to central office organization. Corcoran. Fuller & Johnson. Skrla. Bredeson. accomplishing this requires • refining and aligning organizational structures and processes (Cawelti. 1986. 2000). we address Downloaded from eaq. government agencies). then. 1992. Floden et al. Porter. McLaughlin. Floden et al. McLaughlin. Similarly to Spillane and Thompson (1997). 2001. Petersen. planning. 2004. Garet. 1996. 2002. & Yoon. as the findings of studies reviewed here demonstrate.. Purkey & Smith. McLaughlin & Talbert. their socio and political ties and relationships with schools and other systems (e. 1999. 2001.sagepub. including securing human and fiscal resources (Björk. According to prior research. 1988. 1996. Bredeson. Rorrer.g. these organizational elements are illustrative of how shifts in structures and processes to support systemic reform must be aligned with refined beliefs.com at Univ of Education. 1989). Massel. 2000). 1985. community partners. Pajak & Glickman. For example. 2003. and collaboration (Björk. 2000. a range of opportunities exist for districts to reorient the organization to support improved teaching and learning. and efforts to improve instruction.
Winneba on August 26. . For instance. Refining and aligning organizational structure and processes. who served as superintendent for 11 years in Redwood City. decentralization.” They noted that this organizational structure permitted “professional leadership [to be] free to craft policy without fear of constant second-guessing” and that under these conditions “the goals of the school chief translate into practice on the ground” (p. Peterson et al. increasing attention and resources (time and money) to the curriculum and instruction. Utilizing their previous empirical and conceptual work. hiring or replacing persons to support the mission. have been depicted in district-level research to date. we are able to reveal the intertwined nature of these two elements of reorienting the organization. higher than predicted based on student characteristics” (p.com at Univ of Education. These activities demonstrate the intentionality Honig (2003) associated with her description of central office functions in reform. Among the first researchers to point to the importance of refining district structures to support instruction were Kent Peterson. which was one of their case studies: Downloaded from eaq. who studied 12 California districts characterized by “student achievement scores . and assess the technical core activities (instruction. appears to be a significant aspect of districts’ efforts to implement reform by reorienting the organization. and funding) of the districts. Joseph Murphy. and monitoring the technical core. and took a proactive stance in “creat[ing] an organizational structure that supported their vision and role as instructional leader. and cultures. Many of the district’s actions within this category have to do with structural and organizational changes made to align district operations with goals for improvement. Another structural change. Kirp and Driver (1995) illustrated that organizational alignment can be achieved through decentralized decision making. They provided the example of Kenneth Hill. processes. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 319 how changes in organizational structures. integrated that vision into the districts’ mission. principal selection and evaluation. . 2013 . curriculum. which was one aspect of Petersen’s (1999) findings. demonstrated how their study districts used locally developed mechanisms to control.Rorrer et al. 599). goal setting. particularly when districts are of “manageable size. and Philip Hallinger (1987). George Petersen (1999) reported that five “instructionally focused” California superintendents in districts with “greater than average” performance on state achievement tests articulated a vision. 82). In doing so. Similarly. particularly professional norms.” These organizational structure changes included district leadership exerting more control over and involvement in decision making and reform implementation. coordinate.sagepub.
these scholars demonstrated that reform understanding and progress on implementation increased as district size increased. as he has described it. 599) As illustrated by this superintendent’s story. are cornerstones of instructional leadership.sagepub. however. and Driscoll. They found that Downloaded from eaq. and Svorny (2003) demonstrated that the district’s ability to provide (or not provide) organizational support or build capacity for instructional improvement may be influenced by the district size and the way the district is configured. these districts also struggled with early reform efforts. required shifts in control or at least in the nature of control. Firestone (1989a) agreed. be part of the solution” (Hannaway & Kimball. As alluded to previously. He did warn. and the nature of participation as possible deterrents to successful reform implementation. promoted “upward communication. Wenglinsky (1997). 18). was to move away from a structure “that was very authoritarian to one that was working towards a high degree of decentralization” and to persuade principals. Hill’s ambition. One year later. For instance. and struggled with reform implementation resulting in less initial progress. and parents to develop “home-grown ideas” about how to improve their own schools. Hannaway and Kimball (1997). they declared. they may in fact. 1997. Winneba on August 26. In contrast. other research has focused on factors such as district size as means of structural organizational reform.” built ownership. particularly teachers. For instance. larger districts may not be part of the education problem.320 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY [He] made it his mission to redesign the organization’s structure for making decisions. Hannaway and Kimball reported that small districts often had limited access to technical assistance. Moreover. had lower levels of understanding. and developed capacity. such as standard setting and alignment. p. (p. Hannaway and Kimball (1998) again spoke to the effects of district size on instructional improvement. “Districts are major players in standards based reform. Importantly. which. Halcoussis. organizational realignment to support improved instruction. In the end. of the considerable amount of time required to make the necessary decisions in this model. including changes in decision-making authority. (2003) demonstrated the effects of district size on student achievement in California.com at Univ of Education. the possible infringements of preexisting conflicts. Driscoll et al. teachers. although high-poverty districts generally had higher levels of access to technical assistance for their federal programs. He noted that decentralizing and increasing participation from others throughout the district. these scholars found that. emphasizing that smaller districts and large districts with higher percentages of students in poverty had increased difficulties in implementing standards-based reform due to difficulties facilitating reform implementation. 2013 . as discussed earlier.12 Similarly.
including determining sufficient uses of human resources and ways to maximize economies of scale (Kirp & Driver. they should also attend to how district support will be distributed and aligned.’s (2002) research further illustrated the necessity of attention to organizational structure and processes in reform. Instructional dialogue. district. Shields & Knapp. the district-size research suggests that as districts consider reorienting organizational structure and processes. alignment. ongoing. Moreover. In districts such as the successful ones they studied. not on them.. 2000. and varied sources of instructional leadership as important elements of district processes that supported reform. Pajak and Glickman (1989). Corcoran et al. described a framework for the district role in instructional improvement based on their research in three large urban districts. who conducted a comparative case study of three Georgia districts that had maintained improvements in student achievement from 1982 to 1985. They indicated that districts’ alignment. 2013 . “Teachers viewed peers and supervisors as working with them. coordination.. and coherence with district goals and expectations were less effective and had more difficulty scaling-up their reforms.e. to staff and schools.sagepub. which is evident in direct. Together. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 321 as district size increased achievement declined according to the Academic Performance Index. coordination and support of reform. and teachers) involvement in planning and development determined the success of professional development in influencing reform implementation. Varied sources of instructional leadership reflect a dispersion of leadership similar to the decentralization efforts mentioned Downloaded from eaq. an infrastructure of support that prompted the dialogue. this framework included three broad categories of strategic decisions in organizations seeking to improve performance—design and adoption. Desimone et al. 1995. Petersen. and stakeholders (i. 62). They used a national probability sample of Eisenhower Professional Development Program districts to examine the effects of district practice on professional development. and transparent talk. whose research on evidence-based reform indicated that districts that implemented reforms that lacked coordination. Winneba on August 26. 1999). continuous improvement efforts. Their framework illustrated how the district could refine and align organizational processes through strategic decisions. Numerous other studies (e. (1987) reported earlier. to help improve instruction” (p.g. CPRE. Joftus et al. 2001). school. Corcoran et al.Rorrer et al. Specifically. underscored the findings of Peterson et al. and replication of reform (scaling up) (Coburn 2003). identified instructional dialogue. engaging. including professional development. became a process for ensuring that reform activities were aligned with instructional goals (see also Rorrer. (2001). 1997) also supported the importance of the district’s role in developing and providing needs-based support..com at Univ of Education. 1998.
McLaughlin’s research considered the district’s normative influences on the work of schools and teachers. and values that shape the district professional community” (p. (p. expectations. Elmore and Burney’s (1997) research illustrated that superintendents and other district leaders are responsible for generating this culture Downloaded from eaq. and thus a stronger incentive than states to see that successful practices in one setting are propagated to others. For example. in providing open. What is important is to create district expectations of professional dialogue and support so that educators in all positions in a school system can share in that inventiveness and express that commitment. Winneba on August 26. and mandated changes with incentives. 105) Changing the district culture. reinforce. and values). (p. Purkey and Smith (1985) argued that districts can provide incentives to schools. in providing professional development with high expectations. Thus. at least in theory. Local districts . Analogously. 2013 . to provide benefits to whole communities. hence to improve several schools within a community.com at Univ of Education. clear lines of communication. in exemplifying a district leadership style that “use[d] cultural authority to communicate. Another attribute of reorienting the organization that emerged from the research on districts is changing district culture (norms. Pajak and Glickman (1989) further underscored how normative expectations are necessary for promoting a professional community that supports instructional reform: There is really nothing surprising about the inventiveness and commitment of educators who care deeply about the work they are doing and the students whose lives they are touching. 64)13 Furthermore. . Elmore (1993) affirmed. although not pervasive in recent research. district infrastructure supported the progression of schools from where they were to higher levels of achievement. incentive structures have appeared in earlier research on districts as an important component of the district structure and organization. In addition. With relation to changing district culture. McLaughlin (1992) argued for the importance of the district changing its culture as a means to supporting reform: “The relationships between teacher and districts that are powerful influences on teachers and teaching have little to do with hierarchical structure and controls and everything to do with the norms. and in regarding the professionalism of teachers as valuable. 35). mandates with consequences.322 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY previously. particularly the ways in which culture can influence norms that support equity. Importantly. 35). she emphasized the district’s normative influence in establishing policies and goals that embraced diversity. and monitor[ed] district goals and norms of conduct” (p. . should have incentives. expectations.sagepub.
1989b. Spillane & Thompson.14 Their often-cited depiction of New York City’s Community School District #2’s work with professional development and instructional improvement captured national attention by empirically illustrating how reorienting the organizational processes and structures and changing the culture can enhance reform. state. 1993. This part of the role also has two secondary attributes: • mediating federal. and local policy (Elmore. generating ideas through people working together. Specifically. their findings included sharing expertise. and • aligning resources (Desimone et al. Instead. 2013 . and they are responsible for linking policy to needs and desired outcomes. Mayo & McIntyre. they noted. Elmore. 1989a. coherence is not simply achieved through implementation of a federal. and use external demands strategically to inform and enable implementation of those goals and strategies. systemwide effort for change. for instance. As the research evidence suggests. 2006. Honig & Hatch. which represent an amalgam of external policy and internal goals and strategies. Knapp. Rorrer. whose work substantiated a focused. (p. Downloaded from eaq. Elmore and Burney (1997). Coherence. Rorrer & Skrla. establishment of this type of policy coherence occurs both through alignment with external demands and through an alignment with internally generated demands (Rorrer. Also. 2000. 2004. Winneba on August 26. District leaders are involved in multiple dimensions of the policy process. Kirp & Driver.Rorrer et al. Firestone.. Spillane 1996). multistage. 2005. state. 1997. 2002. Wenglinsky. policy coherence occurs as district leadership molds policies into district-specific derivatives. 2002). or local policy. Purkey & Smith. 1989a.sagepub. is a process of negotiation whereby school leaders and central office administrators continually craft the fit between external policy demands and schools own goals and strategies. 1995. establishing policy coherence emerged as a third dimension of the district role. explained that the district they studied served as an example of what districts can achieve. 1985. Establishing Policy Coherence From our narrative synthesis of the literature on the district’s role in reform. and setting clear expectations and then decentralizing. 1993. & Luks. particularly with respect to improved instructional practice. 1997). 1997. Firestone. 19) In other words. Ball. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 323 of commitment in internal and external constituents to improving teaching and the student performance of all children. Massell. Honig and Hatch (2003). For instance.com at Univ of Education. 2003. reflected this in their definition of coherence at the district level. 1995. Price.
1993). 1987b).sagepub. Moreover. Firestone (1989a). for example. initiated the discussion of districts and district leaders as innovators. Illustrating such links between district instructional leadership and policy coherence. state. Winneba on August 26. state policies will be interpreted in light of this vision. as argued by Firestone and others. Despite the advantages of local adaptation of policy in reform implementation. As Firestone (1989b) reported. expanders. Knapp. and passive implementers. “Once one accepts the discontinuities in the policy process. He indicated that “district administrators were not simply implementing or carrying out the state’s policy directives. and practices. Rorrer & Skrla. In addition. culture. resistors. defining policy problems and developing their own instructional policies” (p. and local policy.g. 2013 . state. 65).com at Univ of Education. leaders will share a belief that they can shape what happens in and to their districts. Spillane’s (1996) case study research expanded upon Firestone’s findings and refined the role of districts as implementors of state reading policy. Spillane. They will have a long-range vision of where they want their districts to go. rather than imposing accountability into the core aspects of organizational relationships. Firestone explained how districts adapt state policy for their purposes: In some districts.. To that end. rather. 22). our own research (Rorrer & Skrla. Although there continues to be attention to the role of the school as the primary sphere of influence. (p. district leaders actively shaped and engaged in the implementation of state accountability policies by integrating. Downloaded from eaq. policies. district administrators took a proactive policy-making stance. 1997. 2005) on the adaptation of state accountability systems to increase equity demonstrated that district leaders retained discretion—relative to will and capacity and to changes in the organizational structure—to influence the implementation of state accountability policies. Their own actions and decisions will be monitored to ensure that they contribute to this long-range vision. 2005. Policies that fit it will be embraced. others will be opposed or an effort will be made—both locally and in the state capitol—to get modifications to fit the local vision (Hall. and local policy. additional evidence indicates the significant value in exploring the district’s role of establishing district-level policy coherence within the context of reform implementation and the macro-environment. whereas others have suggested that the district acts as a policy mediator (e. uniformity of response to central policy becomes less critical and one can take advantage of local variation” (p. 156) Similarly.324 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Mediating federal. local variation in responses has led to speculation about the district’s influence on teaching and learning or instructional improvement (Elmore. 1996) with regard to federal.
and redistributive functions across levels of government. One possible reason for the continued existence of local districts is that they provide a means of mobilizing political support for public schools at a level where their impact is immediate and a valuable buffer against precipitous shifts in state and national policy that are inconsistent with local preferences. policy makers see local districts as sites for policy mediation that enhance policy implementation through adaptation. districts matter in that they influence state-level efforts to increase the coherence of the instructional signals that are sent to school practitioners from within the school system. Consequently. 2013 . school districts’ policy-making initiatives matter in that they influence state policymakers’ efforts to broadcast their messages for instructional reform to school practitioners. . . rather than a subversive one. has to be done locally. He asserted: First. He explained. is what they can do best. 103) Downloaded from eaq. Defining and redefining practice . But this process takes place in a context framed by policymakers who have begun to realize that setting this dynamic in motion and situating it within sensible bounds. Second. 118-119). (p. they explained. . 83) This depiction is salient because it again illustrates the interest and agency that the districts possess and the ways that districts can deploy them. the district’s role becomes cast as a productive role.com at Univ of Education. Winneba on August 26. local districts matter in that their instructional policy-making efforts have the potential to undermine state policymakers’ efforts to streamline the instructional guidance system by concentrating instructional policy making at the state level (and at the school building). developing and testing new policy ideas. Spillane (1996) further articulated the district’s significant role in influencing policy implementation and establishing coherence between the local district and the state. For example. and adapting policies from other levels of government to local needs and circumstances” (pp. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 325 Kirp and Driver (1995) also highlighted the importance of the policy maker’s role and underscored their recognition of the important role of districts in policy adaptation.Rorrer et al. These roles included “mobilizing support and buffering policies from other levels of government. . 609) In this case. Elmore suggested four roles that districts could play as units of local governance in a federal system. (p. Third. . balancing developmental. . .sagepub. allocative. . Spillane’s (1996) perspective of the district’s relationship to state-level policy described above was consistent with Elmore’s (1993) outline of the role of districts regarding federal policy. not insisting on adherence to the minutest particulars. Elmore further highlighted the importance of their political and buffering roles. (p.
2013 .. 2004. Purkey and Smith (1985) summed up this notion in their description of the roles of the school board and superintendent. illustrated that the ability to blend local and state context further establishes coherence for districtlevel reform efforts. whereas similar results were not found in lowstakes testing states. The second attribute of establishing policy coherence as a role for districts in reform is aligning resources with identified district needs. Aligning resources. and distributing human resources consistent with reform goals. superintendents were likely to spend even more time on instructional leadership.326 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Consequently. Mayo and McIntyre’s (2003) research. Hannaway & Kimball. 1995. acquiring. Lankford & Wyckoff. They noted. aligning. a finding similar to McLaughlin’s findings. albeit often indirectly. Their research indicated that superintendents in districts within states with high stakes testing spent more time on instructional leadership than their peers in states with low stakes testing. In an environment driven by a “bang for the buck” mindset. 1997) have suggested that money matters primarily to the degree that it affords or provides resources to support teaching and learning. Importantly. Picus. including central office administrators as well as teacher quality.15 For instance. emphasized the value of talent in terms of human and social capital: Downloaded from eaq.sagepub. 2002. and material resources as well as to acquire teacher and leadership talent and to increase salaries and compensation. Price et al. and federal policy to enhance local reform efforts requires both interest and agency (will) and is layered within a context that positions the district to continuously negotiate its legitimacy (Rorrer. Winneba on August 26. 2002. In this area. Roza & Hill.. how districts mediate local. aligned district policy about the use of fiscal resources permits districts to provide supplemental programs. “The role of the board of education and the superintendent is to set the direction for the district’s schools in a manner that blends local and state or national interests” (p. professional development. which specifically supported Hannaway and Kimball’s findings discussed earlier in re-orienting organizational structures and processes. As reported earlier. underrecognized element of the district’s role in reform. More precisely. 2006) as it attempts to develop policy coherence. 1997. is an oft-overlooked. 1994. Desimone et al. Wenglinsky. Adding to this same idea. however. administrative inputs. establishing policy coherence lends itself to garnering support for the district’s schools amidst a turbulent external environment. 1995. this type of research further illustrates how state and federal policy alone is not predictive of the intensity or quality of the district’s response. 374). 1994. researchers (Clune.com at Univ of Education. state. Spillane and Thompson’s (1997) research. they reported that as the percentage of students in poverty increased in highstakes testing states. Instead.
Rorrer et al. Recent research further suggests that larger districts often have an easier time aligning resources and supports to reform goals. Downloaded from eaq. focus.sagepub. the central office is better able to make allocative decisions” (p. Hannaway and Kimball (1997) also indicated that smaller districts have less capacity. 1297-1298) consistent with reform goals and efforts. 32) This point. that position them to get still richer in capacity for reform. Price. Desimone et al. to understand and implement reforms. As the research in this area illustrates. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 327 There may be some connection between the financial resources available to a district and the human and social capital it can mobilize for reform—rich districts may hire more knowledgeable and sociable administrators and teacher-leaders as well as other teachers—but if so. in the form of concern and time. Administrators—the central office or in buildings—are in positions of power to affect the marshalling of resources around particular agendas. 2013 . and staff. not the material resources themselves. it will be the superior human and social capital they hire or develop..g. (2002) determined that larger districts were able to utilize alignment strategies and more easily engage in continuous improvement efforts because they have a greater ability to integrate professional development with standards and assessments. and Luks (1995) similarly demonstrated the influence of district leaders in aligning resource allocation policy at the local level. professional development. (p. 232). Similarly. and desired outcomes.com at Univ of Education. benefit from economies of scale. what they care about and understand can have crucial consequences for the development of any particular reform agenda. 199) Hannaway and Kimball (1998) and Wenglinsky (1997) also argued for the importance of increased spending on central office as a means for increasing capacity for reform. including financial capacity. contributes to the development of capacity to enact reform. provide access to expertise and potentially additional staff. Winneba on August 26. Wenglinsky. They concluded. thus. They influence teachers’ priorities. will and establishing the vision. further illustrates the value of establishing coherence between available supports and resources and instructional leadership (e. who contended with the unresolved debate regarding the effects of resources on achievement. Firestone (1989a) emphasized this point and suggested that the coherence between resources and needs reveals a district’s organizational purpose. aligning resources is indicative of the will (commitment) of the district to their reforms. They allocate funds for materials. determined that “when more money is spent on it. and goals). values. Ball. and improves the likelihood of reform success and sustainability. Thus. (p. and cofund programs (pp. For instance.
27).g.16 As Rodriguez (2004). 2003. including highlighting inequities in system and culture (Skrla & Scheurich. In part. maintaining an equity focus has Downloaded from eaq. on one hand. inequities in education have persisted due to larger societal inequities.17 Maintaining an Equity Focus The fourth essential role for districts in reform that emerged from our research synthesis is maintaining an equity focus.sagepub. 1999).com at Univ of Education.328 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Who benefits most from either newly acquired or redistributed resources remains a matter of substantial importance. This aspect of educational institutions has received considerable attention (e. and district purpose and goals. & Johnson. Arguably. who considered the future of vertical equity in school finance. 1994). Moreover. 2000). 2001. 2003). Although we acknowledge that most research on districts has been interested in some element of improved instruction or outcomes. particularly as they reflect and reinforce the inequities in society (Heck & Hallinger. Koschoreck. These two attributes include • owning past inequity. recent research has shown that districts are also capable of disrupting and even displacing (Rorrer. 2003. Rorrer. Lopez. 2003. Scheurich. 1994. attention is given to the district’s efforts to align resources to district adopted goals and objectives. institutionalized inequity. and disagreement. underscored. p. only recently has maintaining an equity focus become prominent as an explicit value in reform implementation or research focus. 2006) Together. An alignment between resource distribution and utilization. Skrla. 2013 . educational institutions have successfully ensured inequity to date. Two separate but related attributes of the districts’ role in reform emerged within the category of maintaining an equity focus. Lugg. serves as a remedy to previously “unimaginative uses of money” (Odden & Clune. this alignment presents opportunities for “vertical equity” (Berne & Stiefel. Yet increasingly. 2001. 2001. Even though districts can. 2000. Winneba on August 26. and • foregrounding equity. Skrla & Scheurich 2001) institutionalized structures and practices that perpetuate inequity in student achievement. 1994) and adequacy (Clune. thus. 2001. on the other. these two attributes increase district attention to improving achievement for all children and. “It is not yet time to abandon the concern for establishing standards for equity within the policies that frame and support our commitment to public education” (p. and have historically.. 6). including increasing availability and transparency of data (Cawelti. Togneri & Anderson. Hernandez.
and a moral response of district leadership to revelations of past district inequity. Likewise. Downloaded from eaq. highlights the explicit nature of equity in the districts’ efforts aimed at improving teaching and learning to increase equity. Minneapolis (MN). or anyone outside the district. findings from this research departed from previous studies when they described the prominent role of the state accountability system. Their research reinforced many of the themes previously addressed. For example. reorient and aligning organizational structures and processes. Skrla et al. They did not blame low performance on parents. This last finding—the leadership response to revelations of past inequity—was emphasized by the study authors as playing a critical role in the districts’ progress toward reform: It is important to note that these superintendents [in the four study districts] did not choose to try to explain away the poor performance of groups of students.com at Univ of Education. sustained progress in closing achievement gaps within a strong accountability policy environment. They did not endeavor to baffle their critics with confusing. Recent research on districts demonstrates progress in increasing achievement for all students and in narrowing achievement gaps in districts serving racially and economically diverse students. the importance of professional development. Chula Vista (CA). and Providence (RI)—asserted that one of the keys to progress in these districts was that “districts had the courage to acknowledge poor performance and the will to seek solutions” (p. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 329 become a pivot point for reform. and establish policy coherence with the ultimate goal of ensuring educational equity.Rorrer et al. They did not attempt to finesse the system by finding quick-fix substitutes for real improvements in student learning. They responded both to the state accountability system and to their local constituents with a sincere commitment to improve the learning of all students. The first attribute of the role for districts in maintaining an equity focus is their ability to own past inequities. the superintendents in this study both recognized past inequity in student performance and took responsibility for it.sagepub. including the district emphasis on instructional coherence and alignment. and equitable distribution of district resources. Kent County (MD). 3). 20) Thus. The research in this area. social service agencies. Winneba on August 26. jargonfilled explanations of low achievement. Significantly. albeit a modest collection of research. districts reconsider and recast their roles in providing instructional leadership. Owning past inequity. (2000) studied districts that had demonstrated substantial. (p. rather than denying it or blaming external factors. 2013 . local catalysts for equity. That is. Togneri & Anderson (2003) who studied five high-poverty districts “making strides in improving student achievement”—Aldine (TX). however.
1979. Downloaded from eaq. effective schools correlates (Edmonds. particularly students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch and students of color. policies. and Focused Equity Practices (Skrla et al. and teaching strategies that lead to higher levels of achievement. During that same year. 2006). A key finding from this research was that these successful districts transcended the “all students can learn” rhetoric by operationalizing an equity-focused plan that included developing programs. 1986). Hernandez (2003). An example of the importance of foregrounding equity was provided by Cawelti’s (2001) study of six successful districts. potentially contentious. Idaho. supported the importance of foregrounding the district goal of educational equity. by developing consistent teaching strategies. The other attribute of the role for districts in maintaining an equity focus is foregrounding equity. All four sources of theory that informed her analysis.com at Univ of Education. district leaders exercised a sense of agency.330 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Foregrounding equity. 1991). and often riddled with conflict (Rorrer. by aligning curriculum with assessments. 2013 . and California. also emphasized the central role of districts in maintaining a focus on equity. In these districts. and implemented a calculated process to achieve equitable opportunities and outcomes. districts must “consciously or deliberately attract attention to the degree of inequity that exists and respond to the attention of others. According to current research. Central to these districts’ evolution was the role of district leadership in disrupting inequity. then. 1990).” (Rorrer. created a culture of equity coupled with excellence. Using a window of opportunity created by leaders with a commitment to equity. by decentralizing management and budget and monitoring results. districts that maintain an equity focus understand that a move toward equity is political. 2000). who often recounted stories that described the source of their commitment. Lezotte. Hernandez framed her analysis of the district’s transformation using four sources of theory from earlier research: organizational learning (Senge. in her doctoral dissertation. Yet to institutionalize equity. 2001. insisted that equity was at the forefront of instructional and policy discussions and of decision making. Winneba on August 26.. She conducted a case study of a Texas district that had completely eliminated achievement gaps between and among racial and economic student groups on the Texas state achievement tests. Total Quality Management (Deming. and by committing to research-based planning for improvement.sagepub. which identified “high-performance traits” of the districts. three in Texas and one each in West Virginia. Rorrer (2001) also profiled two districts—Northside Independent School District in Texas and Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina—that had demonstrated significant progress in raising performance for all students. district leaders. notably.
Moreover. Koschoreck (2003) made a similar observation about the successful district he studied.sagepub. 2013 . districts “did not foster any illusions. . posted publicly. . 2002. 1981). focusing on superintendents’ or central office actions in the work of reforming their districts (e. was conducted.com at Univ of Education. which compared the performance of students based on Free and Reduced Lunch status to peers not participating in the program.. Still others have viewed instruction as the prime dimension of interest and have concentrated specifically on what districts do to influence teaching and learning (e.g. Firestone. referenced. were reminded of purpose and goals to increase equitable access and outcomes in the district. scholars who have studied districts over the past two decades have framed their studies in varied ways. Another group of Downloaded from eaq. . practices. This coming together of one mind toward a vision of high achievement levels for all students has provided the fundamental impetus for change in Aldine ISD.g. evaluation and research. 1999. (pp. Peterson et al. Districts appeared to decide that they must increase attention to equity while maintaining both internal and external support for changes that will ensure greater equity and that they must inform their constituents of the status of all students as a critical aspect of achieving this goal. Corcoran et al. and served as a basis for decision making at the district and school level.. Winneba on August 26.. Petersen. 1988. 304). inequity in policies. He asserted.. structures. 293). Accordingly. policy makers and communities. Honig. Some have viewed districts in the context of organizational theory and have focused on structural and functional characteristics of districts (e. As revealed by participants in the two districts that participated in this research. 2003. McLaughlin & Talbert. who maintained a degree of power and influence over decisions to allocate resources. 1989b. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 331 p. Kirp & Driver.g.. hide the problems.Rorrer et al. Desimone et al. 172-173) IMPROVING ACHIEVEMENT AND ADVANCING EQUITY: A THEORY OF DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS IN SYSTEMIC REFORM As evidenced by the accumulated research synthesized here. For example. 2004. Others have approached the study of districts primarily as a study of district leaders. 2003). 2001. Floden et al. and school and student outcomes in the district were unveiled and made transparent. 1995. or ignore the issues” (p. 1987). Mayo & McIntyre. The district underwent the philosophical changes that brought everyone to focus on success for all children.. Pitner & Ogawa.
An institutional actor.19 That is. we clarify our characterization of the district as an institutional actor. Joftus et al. Individually. & Caronna. these previous lines of research have been informative.com at Univ of Education. a few researchers have focused specifically on the educational equity dimension of district improvement efforts (e. is this: Based on the above research synthesis. particularly by influencing the development and implementation of solutions to identified problems (p. Next. Finally. More recently.. Here. Downloaded from eaq. 1998. 2000. 1999) and unique ability to be the “carriers and creators of institutional logics” (Scott.g. we shift our discussion to the elevated status of the district as an institutional actor in educational reform. First. is connected to their collective identity and their ability to create change by altering institutional scripts that tacitly and explicitly govern behavior of organizational members. we discuss a theory of district as a primary and central player in systemic reform.. particularly reform aimed at improving achievement and advancing equity. 20). systemic reform. CPRE. Shields & Knapp.332 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY scholars has taken a more eclectic approach and has produced checklists of characteristics of “successful” districts (e. given the research synthesis presented above. providing instructional leadership. districts have an “organized interest” in (Wong & Jain. they leave us without an understanding of the complexity intrinsic in district-level. 2013 .. 2000.18 As institutional actors. establishing policy coherence. 201). p. The four roles (i. Yet overall. 1997). their role in improving achievement and advancing equity. Ruef. and maintaining an equity focus) identified in on our narrative synthesis of previous research are pivotal to this theory of the districts’ role in systemic reform poised to improve achievement and advance equity. he noted. Rorrer. 2000).. how could districts serve in reform to improve achievement and advance equity systemwide? We believe an answer to this question lies in the consideration of the district as an institutional actor and how they can enact their roles identified here to achieve systemic reform. we propose a research agenda that aims at exploring the complexity of the district as an institutional actor in educational reform. Winneba on August 26. then. Mendel.. 2001.sagepub. Skrla et al. districts do matter. influences an institution (such as education) from within. Districts as Institutional Actors Clearly. 2001. Cahn’s (1995) differentiation between institutional actors and noninstitutional actors helps illustrate our depiction of districts as institutional actors. in this instance. Cawelti. The subsequent question for us.e. reorienting the organizational structure and processes.g.
sagepub. by virtue of formal position or informal role.22 The networks and relationships between actors within the district contribute to their collective nature.20 Collectively. Wong and Jain’s (1999) discussion of a “unitary actor model” reveals how the actions of institutional actors may be further accelerated. McLaughlin. they constitute an institutional actor bound by a web of interrelated roles. a structure of collective action emerges that transcends the individuals who constitute the collective” (p. In a unitary actor model. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 333 As the previous synthesis of extant literature indicates. He noted that district leadership is made up of “those district administrators. the central office-level administration. Consequently. about mathematics education” (p. the central office-level administration. the district has the power. 2013 .com at Univ of Education. and principals. Spillane (2000) also considered a broader definition of the district. researchers frequently use the superintendent. because organizations rather than individuals possess the resources that are needed to support a campaign of institutionalization. 2003). these actors are often linked by networks. curriculum specialists. For the purpose of the following discussion. 1990). as Morgeson and Hofmann (1999) supported.”23 They noted. responsibilities. are actively involved in developing and implementing district policies. particularly in response to state and national standards. formed a unitary actor Downloaded from eaq. Winneba on August 26. is able to amplify the manner in which it enacts the four roles previously identified to achieve systemic reform. In addition. In their research. In turn. the district. 545). 142). they described how institutional actors. To be clear. as defined previously. which facilitate coordination and regulation of members” (p. institutional actors differ from organizational actors because they are an organized collective. 2002. institutional actors “tend to be organizations. Individually. 252). and lead teachers who. As he explained. the board. midlevel administrators. who collectively serve as a network and critical link to uniting the district and the schools in ways to both develop and implement solutions to identified problems (Land. As such. Similarly. and the principals are organizational actors. such as the city mayor and the school system. one institutional actor joins with other institutional actors to address particular issues or concerns. and relationships.21 Ogawa (1994) illustrated this differentiation and underscored our use of institutional actor to characterize school districts.Rorrer et al. Similarly. we use district to represent an organized collective constituted by the superintendent. the board. as an institutional actor. or the school board as proxies for the district. authority. the superintendent. “As interaction occurs within larger groups of individuals. the district represents more than “the sum of all individual actions. and influence to provide educational services that are equitable beyond the single school or “islands of excellence” (Togneri & Anderson. however.
an institution moves beyond the “formal rules and objectives” (p. this value is the impetus and foundation for shifting norms. 462). For instance. The role of districts as institutional actors in educational reform is further augmented by their institutional status generally. which they are so often identified as. and make decisions” (Boin. Instead. the district can execute the four roles—providing instructional leadership. wherein equity becomes both a defining. explicit value and a desired outcome. 1957). then. which increase[d] the cost-efficiency of the system” (p. Consequently. 5) that characterize an administrative organization by becoming “infused with value” (p.” such as districts. which again is consistent with the district’s institutional role. 40). 2004. and maintaining an equity focus—in a way that assures the defining value (equity) is reflected authentically (Selznick. and structures and for helping organizational members determine how they “interpret their tasks. 2004. In the following discussion. 4) in ways that contrast to an inequitable status quo. as illustrated in the fourth role identified by the narrative synthesis. 2013 .sagepub. is complementary to our contention of districts as institutional actors. or simply the “legal and fiscal agents responsible for carrying out states’ educational obligations” (Sipple & Killeen.334 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY model and came together to “focus on programmatic strategies that enhance[d] the outcome performance of the schools and on management improvement.com at Univ of Education. Arguably. That is. And this value commitment. 5) that serves a purpose beyond that of the administrative organization. districts’ existence as institutional actors with institutional capacity permits the district to extend its roles and function beyond implementation to expansion and escalation of reforms tethered to a value commitment. as an institutional actor with institutional capacity. The assertion that districts carry an institutional status. becomes a tipping point for change. In doing so. such as equity. we build upon previous research and Downloaded from eaq. establishing policy coherence. this added dimension is what provides districts the power and leverage to create change that reflects equity as a value. 218). we see that districts are then positioned to serve as more than “hosts” for reform.24 Our distinction of districts as an institution is rooted further in the work of Selznick (1957). p. adaptive organism” (p. Salisbury (1984) noted that “highly complex organizations. He noted that an institution is “a natural product of social needs and pressures—a responsive. districts successful with increasing achievement for all students and advancing equity will maintain an equity focus. reorienting the organization. Selznick explained. p. as it becomes central and embedded in the culture. Given this conceptualization. Consequently. policies. devise solutions. Winneba on August 26. can be constructed as an institution.
linear explanations have dominated the discourse. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 335 Establishing Policy Coherence: Mediating Federal. as well as expectations for practice. Districts as Institutional Actors in Systemic Reform: Variable Coupling and Nonlinearity To date. We have provided Figure 1 to illustrate how we propose districts as institutional actors may engage in these four Downloaded from eaq.com at Univ of Education. organizational scholars have documented and frequently essentialized the elements necessary for substantive and core changes to occur. 2013 .sagepub. 1974). (b) reorienting the organization. State. and Local Policy & Aligning Resources Providing Instructional Leadership: Generating Will & Building Capacity Reorienting the Organization: Refining Organizational Structure and Process & Changing the District Culture Maintaining an Equity Focus: Owning Past Inequities & Foregrounding Equity Interact Relationship Figure 1. Districts as Institutional Actors in Improving Achievement and Advancing Equity: A Theory of Systemic Reform illustrate how the district as an institutional actor may enact the four roles for systemic reform aimed at improving achievement and advancing equity. our synthesis of previous research indicates that districts serve in four essential roles in reform: (a) providing instructional leadership.Rorrer et al. and (d) maintaining an equity focus. the quest to capture organizational change has (mis)led many scholars to (mis)represent this phenomenon using cause-effect relationships neatly presented in simple graphic forms (Piehl. So eager to have found the key to unlocking the mysteries of an organization. Winneba on August 26.25 Again. As a result. (c) establishing policy coherence.
Winneba on August 26. Variable Coupling To fully explicate the variability in coupling. the proposed theory of districts as institutional actors in systemic reform is predicated on the idea that change at a system level is nonlinear and complex and that their roles and efforts must be variably coupled. 376) captures this notion. 2013 . we believe that a key to understanding the roles districts serve in improving student achievement and advancing equity lies in deliberately setting aside our longings for a precise. Purkey and Smith’s (1985) description of districts as “‘nested layers’ (Purkey & Smith. this framework is useful in illuminating what we believe has been a vulnerability in the previous research on districts—a lack of focus on the interdependence and interrelatedness of these roles. in educational reform. as institutional actors. relating.sagepub. we returned to prior research and followed Weick’s plan for developing theory. “one best solution” and abandoning random. districts have an indispensable role. and complexity necessary to enact a theory of districts as institutional actors in systemic Downloaded from eaq. 26). generalizing. 134-135). explaining. Therefore. 1983) in which actions at the higher layers can help determine conditions in lower layers” (p. Second. and idealizing” (p. attending to what can be learned from the complexity and adaptability of districts as well as the interdependence of the roles they enact. He explained that theorizing entails “activities like abstracting. Our argument here is grounded in three assumptions. isolated efforts to systemic educational reform and. selecting. Importantly. synthesizing. The proposed theory for districts as institutional actors in systemic reform presented here was developed using the processes described by Dubin (1976) and Weick (1995) combined with an inductive analysis of extant research on districts. First. accurate. the proposed framework represents both what we currently know from extant research on districts as well as the ideal for positioning districts as institutional actors in educational reform to increase achievement and advance equity.26 As Dubin noted. and simple simultaneously (pp. “A theory tries to make sense out of the observable world by ordering the relationships among elements that constitute the theorist’s focus of attention” (p. instead. Third. To determine relationships between roles that have not previously been explored fully.com at Univ of Education. nonlinearity.336 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY essential roles purposefully to create reform aimed at improving achievement and advancing equity systemically. 389). These assumptions underlying our framework are strengthened by Thorngate’s (1976) assertion that it is impossible for a theory of social behavior to be general.
promotion policies. Though serendipity plays a part. Or in the overhaul of staff evaluation. thus forging another linkage. She explained. Winneba on August 26. 10) as significant and relevant. 1985. (p. this pattern of coupling to which Weick referred provides the foundation for our argument for a variably coupled system.e. 134) With Cuban’s example in mind. for example. the ability to variably couple the four roles distinguishes our proposed theory of how districts could successfully systemic reform. This work is particularly relevant with respect to how it exemplifies districts’ ability to both empower and exert control as a complex system while performing the four roles. social. a school board member or central office administrator will ask if the new instruments and procedures should be keyed in to district goals for student performance. Downloaded from eaq. In fact. Cuban. ad hoc basis with.sagepub. Cuban (1984). particularly reform aimed at improving achievement and advancing equity. and economical contexts. the drift toward organizational tautness is unmistakable.. Some scholars (Crowson & Morris.com at Univ of Education. goal setting and test analysis. Clearly. district goals. They then become aware of the crucial need to achieve a match among curriculum objectives. Lotto (1983) has been one of the few scholars to emphasize variable coupling in an approach similar to ours. the depiction of educational organizations (i.Rorrer et al. 1984) have addressed the need to consider an alternative to the view of schools and districts as loosely coupled systems. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 337 reform aimed at improving achievement and advancing equity. 2013 . In particular. we build upon Weick’s (1976) work of loosely and tightly coupled systems. Yet a tension remains in research and practice between centralization and decentralization of power and influence and between tightly coupled and loosely coupled systems. districts and schools) as loosely coupled systems has been institutionalized while the prospect for tight coupling has been diminished. and test items. the variability in coupling between roles permits districts to be more responsive to their political. demonstrated this tension in his description of districts 20 years ago. In fact. for instance. Moreover. we find Weick’s invitation to consider that “a tight coupling in one part of the system can occur only if there is loose coupling in another part of the system” and that “it may be the pattern of couplings that produces the observed outcomes” (p. her depiction of variable coupling clarifies its application to our framework for districts as institutional actors in reform. He noted that many districts do not exist simply as loosely coupled systems: Often superintendents begin on a pragmatic.
Selznick (1957) further illustrated the necessity for variance in how the roles of districts may be coupled when educational equity is an explicit goal. the district may have to increase centralization and tighten control between roles to maintain this focus and achieve this outcome. effectiveness is related not to achieving a uniform level of coupling. these two characteristics are associated with authoritarian leadership and as a means for more control. diffuse. from this perspective the effective organization is flexible and adaptive. elements. able to sustain both tight and loose couplings as demanded by the situation. Winneba on August 26. congruence between expected and actual couplings. “District officials pursuing policies that fasten individual schools snugly to the central Downloaded from eaq. and the district begins to foreground it. 374) She added that effectiveness was dependent on diversity of couplings. and institutionalize efforts aimed at advancing equity. Obviously. particularly to the system’s ability to coordinate.338 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY In a variably coupled world. promote. For instance. Cuban (1984) highlighted the risk faced by districts who have attempted tight coupling as their primary means of facilitating reform. Peters and Waterman (1982) also supported the notion that “tight control over core values allows loosely coupled systems to survive and cohere through idiosyncratic local adaptations” (Weick. When top leadership cannot depend on adherence to its viewpoint. when the premises of official policy are well understood and widely accepted.sagepub.com at Univ of Education. which is marked by its inherent flexibility and adaptability (Weick. if only to take measures that will increase homogeneity. 2001) indicated that districts successful in increasing equity maintained a similar philosophy: Increased flexibility (loose coupling) must be accompanied by increased accountability (tight coupling) for desired outcomes. nor does the literature support. formal controls are required. and leadership flexibility consistent with the coupling required. but to achieving variability and matching coupledness to events. districts where equity has not been a priority. there are dangers to increased centralization and tight coupling. characteristics such as flexibility and adaptability are potentially detrimental. is problematic. 2013 . either of these as a means for systemic change. for instance. as illustrated in our discussion of the district as an institutional actor. 113). Selznick’s conclusion provides a point of reference for districts whose aim is to advance equity. If equity is not a collective value. (p. Given her explanation. 1995. Take. p. we do not believe. and participants. In these districts. He emphasized. we see that simply relying on a loosely coupled system. centralization is more readily dispensable. Emphatically. He observed. (p. 113) More recent research (Rorrer. 2001). Thus. On the other hand.
particularly within complexity theory. Moreover. variables may be fused together in varying degrees so that variables do not have clear identities. The double interacts (Weick.com at Univ of Education. 1994. in a nonlinear system. For example.Rorrer et al. policies. systemic reform becomes dependent on how the district as an organized collective (rather than relying solely on the efforts of the superintendent) enacts the interrelated roles to achieve the desired outcomes. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 339 office believe they have found just the right hammer to pound in a nail” (p. 1924. 1999) among the roles occurs and further reinforces the district as an institutional actor in systemic reform. change is often circular (Allport. 186) Downloaded from eaq. Daft & Weick. 2002. support for considering the principle of nonlinearity in change has grown (Anderson. 2013 . the previously identified scholars indicated that a shift from linearity to nonlinearity requires a concurrent shift between simplistic and parsimonious explanations to explanations that encapsulate the complexity and interrelatedness inherent in the system. snugly (or arbitrarily) utilizing tight coupling extinguishes the advantage of local adaptiveness. we argue instead that elements that overlap provide evidence of the framework’s strength to absorb the complexity necessary for educational reform for equity. variables are clustered in ways which we do not understand. Whereas some may view this as a weakness in design. The feedback loops create opportunities for practices. changing one element in such a cluster affects the whole conglomerate. or structures in one role to be altered. Although Fullan (1996) previously argued that with nonlinearity came fragmentation. in Weick. Nonlinearity is a necessary element of the application of variable coupling to our model and its subsequent potential effectiveness. coevolution (Hoffman & Riley. 1999). 1979).sagepub. promote reciprocal and multidirectional changes in the roles. Casti. 134). Rather than a single cause having a single effect. Daft and Wiginton (1979) explained it this way: Another source of complexity is that boundaries between some variables are indefinite. That is. as a result of changes the other roles. 1999. In particular. As a result. Nonlinearity Over time. Lewin & Volberda. similar to those evident in our synthesis of extant literature. The complexity becomes obvious in characteristics such as elements that overlap multiple roles. 1984. specifically increasing alignment and coherence. (p. Our proposed framework for systemic reform to improve achievement and advance equity reflects these principles. or feedback loops. This type of response would remove the necessary element highlighted by the role to establish coherence. In human groups. particularly to improve achievement and increase equity systemically. Lewin & Volberda. 1979). Winneba on August 26.
He concluded. The nonlinearity characteristic of the system promotes an “almost completely constant” system of change. p. influences subsequent actions to maintain an equity focus. not solitary acts. 217) For illustrative purposes. interpret (give data meaning). 2002). When we say that an organization acts we mean to emphasize that double interacts. Consequently. 1989) because of its sensitivity and responsiveness to the districts’ surrounding context. Change can occur as the districts perpetually scan (collect data). researchers and practitioners alike seem to have been more content with recommendations for isolated practices Downloaded from eaq. 12). Complex systems change inputs to outputs in a nonlinear way because their components interact with one another via a web of feedback loops. 2013 . which. and learn (take action) (Daft & Weick. but not so ambitious that they required too much too soon” (McLaughlin. 1984).com at Univ of Education. the pattern of interacts. change occurs “sufficient in scope to challenge teachers and kindle interest. Moreover. the feedback loop in our framework is an asset with the variable coupling suggested earlier and positions this model to have applicability in multiple settings (see Whetten. (p. To date. Winneba on August 26.sagepub. (p.27 As small successive changes can result in larger cumulative effects (Hoffman & Riley. are the raw materials that are assembled into processes. 1990.340 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Anderson (1999) further explained the “value added” aspect of nonlinearity in a complex system. the roles coevolve with one another. intervening to change one or two parameters of a small amount can drastically change the behavior of the whole system. or establish policy coherence. Weick (1979) explained. changes become more acute and simultaneous. reorient the organization. 35) Weick’s example demonstrates how the nonlinearity complements the variable coupling of our proposed framework for districts in systemic reform. changes in maintaining an equity focus influences changes in instructional leadership. We also mean to emphasize that it is the assemblage. that determines the outcomes—not the personal qualities of single individuals. and the whole can be very different from the sum of the parts. THE FUTURE OF RESEARCH ON DISTRICTS The role of districts as institutional actors we have proposed remains to be confirmed (or denied). As the districts’ sensitivity to its alignment or dissonance among its roles with its value commitments and intended goals occurs. in turn. In nonlinear systems.
1989) and comparative case studies.g. Consistent with the framework for systemic reform presented.” As Schulman explained. we suggest that future research explore the complexity. and learning (Daft & Weick. political.Rorrer et al. First. Whetten. 2013 . 1990. future research on district reform will need to use longitudinal (Lewin & Valberda. as Schulman (1975) suggested. 1975). We anticipate that this type of change requires educational leaders to alter their conceptualization of how and why changes should occur and instead. The type of innovation that we have described here also requires a shift in how researchers explore the district’s comprehensive and collective role. interrelatedness. or by an indivisible nature (Schulman. particularly aimed at improving achievement and advancing equity. and nonlinearity of the district’s roles and the ways that together these roles position the district as an institutional actor in reform.com at Univ of Education. including the creation of data-rich case histories (Daft & Wiginton. He explained. interpretation. we must be realistic regarding the extent of a theorist’s foreknowledge of all the possible limitations on a theory’s applicability. Whetten (1989) provided a rationale for longitudinal and comparative case studies of districts that vary in their composition. contexts. we do not anticipate that all changes to be made in the four domains of our proposed model for district reform would be rapid or permanent. 492) Downloaded from eaq. In addition. 1357). Orton & Weick. 1974) that capture the social.. overcoming thinking small “is a major necessity in developing the imagination and receptivity closely associated with organizational innovation” (p. To this end.sagepub. 1984). 1979.g. and economic context of districts. that leads to continuous refinement of actions through double interacts of scanning.. (p. we believe the field would be well served to avoid the “single solution” nature of inquiry that has been characteristic of a large portion of previous inquiry on districts. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 341 within discrete reform areas (e. Piehl. mathematics) or roles (e. instructional leadership) than eager to seek a coherent model for how a district is likely to have the greatest influence and impact on increasing achievement for all students and advancing equity through systemic reform. As stated previously. Winneba on August 26. Instead. we now suggest a research agenda poised to test the proposed framework and its applicability to the district enacting its four roles as an institutional actor. “overcome thinking small. 1999. In the absence of this breadth of experimental evidence. This line of inquiry will provide empirical evidence to further our understanding and refine our knowledge of districts as institutional actors in systemic reform. and efforts. we discover the inherent limiting conditions. In the process of testing the ideas [theory] in various setting. we propose that changes in the district would be characterized as a gestalt.
How do the four roles converge and under what conditions do they converge to improve achievement and advance equity? As roles coevolve.com at Univ of Education. one that includes both qualitative and quantitative evidence of leadership. expanding future research on districts as institutional actors using these type of case studies will permit us to explore the complexity and nonlinearity inherent in the proposed theory of districts in systemic reform. not to delineate specific patterns or emphatic recommendations of “how to” become a successful district. as Meyer noted. organizational. This research requires a broader base of data on districts. and multidirectionality of change in the proposed model. In particular. to improve achievement and advance equity. explore explicitly the variable coupling between and among the four essential roles of districts as institutional actors. these data would help illuminate general patterns of relationships (Daft & Wiginton. Specifically. 2013 .sagepub. feedback. separateness. The goal of these initial areas of future research is. Furthermore. 1979). “There are developments in education theory and practice that point to the emergence of hybrid models of organizations that capture the advantages of centralization and coordination produced by hierarchy while attempting to harness the advantages or more decentralized organizational structures” (p. For instance. decoupled. 1990. avoiding the simplistic assumptions that tend to minimize effort. How do roles overlap in practice? In fact. This particular line of inquiry might reveal how district roles can be tightly coupled. and loosely coupled (Orton & Weick. “Organizations are now routinely viewed as dynamic systems of adaptation and evolution that Downloaded from eaq. we suggest that future inquiry into the role of districts. p. and boundaries of the elements coupled” (Weick. earlier work by Meyer (2002) and Ogawa and Scribner (2002) forecasted this proposition. or develop in relation to one another (Hoffman & Riley. though. research is needed into “the identity. instead. 4). as Morel and Ramanujam (1999) noted. and policy efforts and associated outcomes of these efforts. 1976. Winneba on August 26. 1976). and under what circumstances. Weick. 518). 2002). Second he must engage in an open-minded search for indications of the nature of the underlying relationships. 765) Consequently.342 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Piehl (1974) noted the shift necessary by researchers. Next. which we have described. how do their interrelatedness and interactions produce exponential effects associated with the proposed model of change? Research on how the four roles coevolve in this framework requires attention to the nonlinearity. he explained that this requires a researcher to collect a much larger amount of data than he has traditionally collected in the past. (p. particularly those that utilize longitudinal and comparative case studies.
1993). to get “a thorough understanding of the buzzing. how does this negotiation affect the district’s enactment of their four essential roles in reform towards improving instruction and advancing equity? Finally. resisting. future research must be addressed from and embedded in multiple. and confusing dynamics often observed in organizational changes” (p. some previous research has demonstrated a commitment to these same goals Downloaded from eaq. and economical context of districts adapt. After all. 394). / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 343 contain multiple parts which interact with one another and the environment” (p. “behave strategically. how do districts. Winneba on August 26. we suggest that future research further explore how districts negotiate external and internal influences (Rorrer. as districts begin to foreground equity. Despite this acknowledgement and much speculation. as DiMaggio (1995) noted. a change in the explicit value commitment to one that maintains an equity focus would likely create an organizational crisis (Selznick. as Van de Ven and Poole (2005) explained. promote equity and social justice. however. would be research that focused on how districts develop a “critical mass” among diverse internal and external stakeholders to support (i. as noted in the previous research recommendation. and how these influences affect the four roles concurrently and responsibilities of the districts in improving instruction and advancing equity. instead. 1957). 2006). For instance. for example.com at Univ of Education. sometimes conforming but often negotiating. how do multiple institutional actors and even noninstitutional actors converge to help or hinder district reform efforts? Moreover. as Scott (1995) suggested.e. Consistent with this suggestion. actively work toward) these efforts. “The reception of a theory is shaped by the extent to which a theory resonates with the cultural presuppositions of the time and of the scientific audience that consumes it” (p. Multiple perspectives and approaches are necessary. This type of crisis. very little is known about how the external environment specifically influences the district an institutional actor that is enacting the four roles interdependently. and hiding from the dictates of regulatory and symbolic systems” (p. how do districts negotiate the change process? After all. to fully understand and appreciate the potential of districts as institutional actors to disrupt inequity and serve in roles that. Given this. protesting. 278). 1396). critical perspectives and broad methodological approaches. We recognize that this suggestion requires consideration of the influence of the broader social.sagepub. xxi) that have perpetuated inequities in education? In particular. presents a window of opportunity to alter other roles.Rorrer et al. Consequently. political. such as macro-level changes (Greenwood & Hinings. Wong and Jain’s (1999) research on unitary actor models provides another point of interest in this arena. blooming. As evidenced in the discussion of the fourth role of districts in reform. 2013 .
Winneba on August 26.g. For instance.sagepub. Villalpando. Although a critical race theory (CRT) (Ladson-Billings & Tate. Yet much of the previous research on district efforts has been void of the implications of leadership. organizational. it has not been used to explore the districts’ institutional role. & Dantley.. Appendix A Published Sources Included in Narrative Synthesis (N = 81) Peer Reviewed/ Refereed Articles 52 Empirically Based 63 Books/Book Chapters 4 Conceptual 12 Policy or Research Center Report 16 Synthesis of Research 3 Other 10 Other 4 Downloaded from eaq. Rogers. organization. language. Quantz. As a result. 2002. 1994) is needed of how districts center educational equity and social justice in providing instructional leadership. 18).e. We can direct our attention to the research of scholars such who are among those scholars who as guides in this endeavor. 2013 . critical analysis (Ball. Thus.com at Univ of Education. and policy initiatives for educational equity and social justice. This void is evident frequently in the neutral stance (i. 2003). and policy by utilizing perspectives beyond the traditional frames that have been applied thus far to the study of districts. or establishing policy coherence. alternative policies and structures) as powerful evidence of improved instruction and equity. 2003) and more recently the politics of education (López. changed cultures.344 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY through proxies (e. achievement scores.. and/or power. future research must investigate the transformative nature (Foster. outcomes. “Linking CRT to education can indeed foster the connections of theory to practice and activism on issues related to race” (p. description of findings) taken toward district efforts. Therefore. we suggest that future research further utilize critical perspectives in analyzing districts as institutional actors in improving instruction and advancing equity. 1995) perspective has been used increasingly to analyze other aspects of education such as Chicana/o student experiences in higher education (Delgado-Bernal. 2001) of leadership. this research does not attend to the complexity of inequity and fails to address whether current efforts actually result in greater disparities in access. reorienting the organization. 1989. analytical frameworks. as it has been described here. Yet as Parker and Lynn (2002) asserted.
Winneba on August 26. 2013 . Scheurich. & Johnson (2000) Skrla & Scheurich (2001) Blasé & Blasé (2000) Conceptual Berman (1986) Berne & Stiefel (1994) Cuban (1984) Daresh (1991) Other Murphy (1988) (review) Purkey & Smith (1985) (review) Reavis (1946) (historical) Lezotte (1991) (consultant materials) Bredeson (1996) Bryk (1999) Cawelti (2001) Clune (1994) Corcoran. & Svorny (2003) Edmonds (1979) Elmore & Burney (1997) Firestone (1989a) Firestone (1989b) Floden et al. Porter.sagepub. Fuhrman. Garet. (1988) Fuller & Johnson (2004) Hallinger & Heck (1996) Hannaway & Kimball (1997) Hannaway & Kimball (1998) Harris (1988) Hernandez (2003) Elmore (1993) Greenfield (1987) Honig & Hatch (2004) López (2003) Lugg (2003) Odden & Clune (1998) Rodriguez (2004) Björk (1993) (Continued) Downloaded from eaq. & Belcher (2001) Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE.Rorrer et al. & Yoon (2002) Driscoll.com at Univ of Education. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 345 Appendix B Narrative Synthesis References by Type of Article (N = 81) Types of Articles Synthesis of Research Knapp (1997) Land (2002) Marsh (2000) Empirically Based Rorrer & Skrla (2005) Skrla. Halcoussis. Birman. 1998) Crowson & Morris (1985) Desinone.
Murphy. & Luks (1995) Rorrer (2001) Rorrer (2002) Rorrer (2006) Roza & Hill (2004) Sclafani (2001) Shields & Knapp (1997) Sipple & Killeen (2004) Snipes. Winneba on August 26.sagepub.com at Univ of Education. & Hallinger (1987) Picus (1994) Pitner & Ogawa (1981) Price. & Herlihy (2002) Spillane (1996) Spillane (2000) Spillane & Thompson (1997) Togneri & Anderson (2003) Weiner (2003) Wenglinsky (1997) Conceptual Other Downloaded from eaq. 2013 . Doolittle.346 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Appendix B (continued) Types of Articles Synthesis of Research Empirically Based Honig (2003) Honig (2004) Huang & Yu (2002) Jacobson (1986) Joftus (2000) Kirp & Driver (1995) Koschoreck (2001) Landford & Wyckoff (1995) Massell (2000) Mayo & McIntyre (2003) McLaughlin (1987) McLaughlin (1990) McLaughlin (1992) McLaughlin & Talbert (2003) McLaughlin & Talbert (1993) Murphy & Hallinger (1986) Oakes (1987) Ogawa (1994) Pajak & Glickman (1989) Petersen (1999) Peterson. Ball.
& Luks (1995)—National Center for Research on Teacher Learning Mayo & McIntyre (2003) (UCEA Paper) McLaughlin (1992) (Educational Leadership) Pajak & Glickman (1989) (Educational Leadership) Rorrer (2001) (Dissertation) Shields & Knapp (1997) (Phi Delta Kapan) Lezotte (1991) (Continued) Downloaded from eaq. Department of Education Joftus et al. Porter. 2013 .sagepub.com at Univ of Education. Garet. Inc. Scheurich. (2000)— The McKenzie Group.Rorrer et al. & Johnson (2000) Bryk (1999) Peer-Reviewed Article Bredeson (1996) Other Corcoran.S. 1998) Elmore & Burney (1997)—National College for School Leadership Hannaway & Kimball (1997)—The Urban Institute Hannaway & Kimball (1998)—U. & Svorny (2003) Firestone (1989a) Firestone (1989b) Cawelti (2001)— National Staff Development Council Greenfield (1987) Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE. Halcoussis. Fuhrman. Winneba on August 26. & Yoon (2002) Driscoll. Ball. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 347 Appendix C Narrative Synthesis References by Source Source of Article Book/Book Chapter Berman (1986) Policy or Research Center Report Skrla. Birman. Marsh (2000) Massell (2000) McLaughlin & Talbert (2003) McLaughlin & Talbert (1993) Oakes (1987) Price. & Belcher (2001) (Phi Delta Kappan) Edmonds (1979) (Educational Leadership) Hernandez (2003) (Dissertation) Rorrer & Skrla (2005) Elmore (1993) Skrla & Scheurich (2001) Fuller & Johnson (2004) Berne & Stiefel (1994) Björk (1993) Blasé & Blasé (2000) Clune (1994) Crowson & Morris (1985) Cuban (1984) Daresh (1991) Desinone.
(1988) Hallinger & Heck (1996) Harris (1988) Honig (2003) Honig (2004) Honig & Hatch (2004) Huang & Yu (2002) Jacobson (1986) Kirp & Driver (1995) Knapp (1997) Koschoreck (2001) Land (2002) Landford & Wyckoff (1995) López (2003) Lugg (2003) McLaughlin (1987) McLaughlin (1990) Murphy (1988) Murphy & Hallinger (1986) Odden & Clune (1998) Ogawa (1994) Petersen (1999) Peterson. Winneba on August 26.sagepub. 2013 . Doolittle.348 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Appendix C (continued) Source of Article Book/Book Chapter Policy or Research Center Report Roza & Hill (2004) Togneri & Anderson (2003) Peer-Reviewed Article Floden et al. & Herlihy (2002) Spillane (1996) Spillane (2000) Spillane & Thompson (1997) Weiner (2003) Wenglinsky (1997) Other Downloaded from eaq. Murphy.com at Univ of Education. & Hallinger (1987) Picus (1994) Pitner & Ogawa (1981) Purkey & Smith (1985) Reavis (1946) Rodriguez (2004) Rorrer (2002) Rorrer (2006) Sclafani (2001) Sipple & Killeen (2004) Snipes.
Purkey and Smith’s (1985) consideration of its implications on district policy. decentralization.. high expectations for success. academic actors as institutional actors in school-based management. Porter. data on local assessments. as well as districts that have participated in our individual research projects.com at Univ of Education. and others with whom we have participated in collaborative research. 228). 1993) and standards based reform (McLaughlin and Shepard. Desimone. 10. 8. we believe the conceptual framework proposed. see Timar’s (1997) analysis of the state education agencies and their institutional role and Ogawa’s (1994) analysis of policy actors. Garet. 1979). Harris’s (1988) discussion of the application of effective schools research augmented by local initiatives of constant innovation. Peters. The seven correlates of effective schools research are clear school mission. whereas many of the qualitative studies depended primarily on retrospective reconstructions of district change told by participants in research interviews or observations of what is occurring at the time (e. 2002) relied on self-reported data by district administrators on surveys. 1999). opportunity to learn and student time on task.sagepub. coherent policies (Fuhrman. 9. 6. However.Rorrer et al. identification of districts that could be termed effective or even improving is highly problematic due to the large variety and endless volatility of assessment and accountability systems that yield various kinds of data about schools and student performance in various states (Linn. safe and orderly environment. & Bettenbenner. and planned public relations. & Yoon. 2000). Popay et al. Sykes & Plastric. 2. See Murphy (1988) for an overview of issues related to the definition of instructional leadership. terms such as institutional agents and institutional entrepreneurs are used synonymously with institutional actors (Ogawa. 5.g. this is not necessarily the primary goal of district reforms to date. & Johnson. The authors wish to acknowledge others who share this perspective. Their guidance document was developed by authors who conducted an “extensive review of methodological literature” (p. However. Although our own research focuses explicitly on increasing equity. Other research expanded the use of effective schools research to study districts including Fullan’s (1985) study of its implications for change strategies and processes. See discussion of districts as institutional actors in this article. many of whose work is cited here. 1993)” (p. teacher union actors. For instance. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS 349 NOTES 1. frequent monitoring of student progress. Birman. Baker. Boyd (2000) has argued that a fourth and subsequent wave exists in the emergence of the school choice and charter school movement. 2001. 67). 1995).g. autonomy. and home-school relations (Edmonds. and Firestone’s (1989b) study of the implications of effective schools research on the monitoring process. 4. because it is grounded in the districts’ overt role in infusing and institutionalizing equity as a foundation for reform efforts. Downloaded from eaq. Rorrer. many of the quantitative studies (e. 2002). has the potential to redefine how we consider the role of districts. Frequently. (2006) provided the most comprehensive guidance available on using narrative synthesis. 2013 . Here we consider systemic reform similar to Knapp’s (1997) explanation. He provided this description of systemic reform: “a class of policy strategies that go by various other names including alignment (Hill. 1995. 1994. 3. Scheurich. 67) in an effort to “increase the transparency and trustworthiness of systematic reviews involving narrative synthesis” (p.. or evidence collected for local or state accountability systems. Winneba on August 26. others with whom we have engaged in conversations with around this topic. For a comparative analysis of other institutional actors in educational reform. Skrla. 7. instructional leadership.
Hannaway and Kimball (1997) conducted a large survey of districts (N = 2. Ruef. or a teacher.com at Univ of Education. 16. In fact. 100). According to Scott.700) and also conducted interviews with state officials to determine the understanding of Goals 2000. Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Parents. 12.sagepub. Huang and Yu (2002) turned their attention to the question of district fiscal policy. Alexander (2005) concluded that “the question faced by policymakers who advocate moving toward an adequacy framework for funding schools is how to ensure that the requirement on which standards are based do not gravitate toward minimal expectations” (p. 2002). Ogawa (1994) described the role of institutional actors (policy actors. often using the terms interchangeably. state education agencies. we find districts. 2013 . and implementation of federal programs relative to standards-based reforms. These concepts address whether the system has the inputs and processes necessary for all students and schools to meet performance standards. As stated in the introduction to this article. or vice versa. Addressing what they noted as methodological shortcomings in Wenglisky’s prior study. Congress. 19. 17). the media. 13. 24. 21. teacher union actors. 23. 1991-1992. Swanson. and 1996 and 1989-1990. We would like to acknowledge a reviewer who posed this question for consideration. state and local school boards. did not result in increased mathematics achievement. Provocatively. Frequently. Common Core Data— from 1990. respectively—and local sociodemographic data to conduct a two-level hierarchical modeling. 20). King. most are familiar with the use of the term institution to mean rules and structures that govern behavior or establish “the way things are done. 20. See Weiner (2003). state legislatures. the findings from their research suggested that increases in instructional funding. a principal. Certainly. More recently the success of District 2 in New York has been questioned. which argues that institutions respond when their legitimacy is threatened. institutional logics are the “cognitive maps. relative to the variables they studied from the district. 15. The effect of increased spending on instruction remains contested (see Huang & Yu. Mendel. and Sweetland (2005) suggested that vertical equity is “an ideal state of adequacy” (p. and 1995-1996. and Caronna (2000).” Scott (1994) has also provided a definition that resonates with Downloaded from eaq. in much of the research on organizational analysis that uses institutional theory. 22. and interest groups are among the noninstitutional actors who exert their influence from an external position to the institution. few scholars clearly discriminate between an institution and an organization. 18.” 14. 1992. institution is used when organization is the focus. This compares to how the concept of organization actors is used when in reality the discussion centers on institutional actors. Districts are also commonly referred to as “school districts” and “school systems. The latter is particularly true for the new institutionalism. political parties. and the courts. specifically how district instructional spending and per pupil expenditures relate to student achievement.350 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY 11. Among the institutional actors in educational reform. academic actors) in school-based management. This finding is congruent with our position that districts as institutional actors maintain a degree of interest and agency that must be considered beyond the typical institutional argument. belief systems carried by participants in the field to guide and give meaning to their activities” (p. 17. For the purpose of our discussion on districts as institutional actors. Examples of organizational actors in districts include a superintendent. Building on the work of Wenglisky. districts are institutional actors. See Honig (2004) for a discussion of central office-level administrators as organizational actors. we feel it is worthwhile to discern the difference. Huang and Yu extracted from and merged National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math performance data. Winneba on August 26.
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education finance. Prior to joining the Texas A&M faculty. and the Journal of Educational Policy. James Joseph Scheurich is a professor and the head of the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University. and he was a 2008 nominee for President of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). UCEA Review. schools that are successful with diverse and low-income students. Culbertson Award. educational accountability. “Power. His research interests include equity in education. and the Politics of Social Justice. he received the Master Professor Award from one of these national organizations for helping prepare so many successful young professors in his research field. and qualitative research methodologies. Her research focuses on how district and the state leadership and policy create and sustain organizational and institutional change to meet the demands for better schooling. her articles have appeared in Educational Administration Quarterly. she worked for 14 years as a middle school and high school teacher and as a campus and district administrator in Texas public schools. and has published five books. particularly how to achieve equity in access and outcomes. In 2006. has recently been published as a special issue of Educational Policy. race and racism. and accountability. Her research focuses on educational equity issues in school leadership and policy. high-success districts. and her most recent book is Equity Audits (forthcoming from Corwin) with Kathryn McKenzie and Jim Scheurich. Theory Into Practice. Winneba on August 26. He has served on several committees for national research organizations and is currently on the executive committee for one. 2013 . has written more than 35 articles for research journals. Rorrer is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and director of the Utah Education Policy Center at the University of Utah. serves on editorial boards of several research journals.com at Univ of Education.” which she coedited with Catherine Lugg.358 EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION QUARTERLY Andrea K.sagepub. Downloaded from eaq. as a professor. The 2006 Politics of Education Yearbook. He is the editor of a research journal. including accountability. Her published work has appeared in numerous journals. and women superintendents. Education. Linda Skrla is Associate Dean for Research and P-16 Initiatives in the College of Education and Human Development and professor of educational administration at Texas A&M University. Finally. She is the 2006 recipient of the Jack A. he has raised more than $5 million in grants and contracts. In addition to book chapters on home schooling.
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