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Educational Administration Quarterly http://eaq.sagepub.com/ 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 Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com On behalf of: University Council for Educational Administration Additional services and information for
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    http://eaq.sagepub.com/  QuarterlyEducational Administration  http://eaq.sagepub.com/content/44/3/307Theonline version of this article can be foundat:DOI: 10.1177/0013161X083189622008 44: 307 Educational Administration Quarterly  Andrea K. Rorrer, Linda Skrla and James Joseph Scheurich Districts as Institutional Actors in Educational Reform Published by:  http://www.sagepublications.com On behalf of:  University Council for Educational Administration at:can be found Educational Administration Quarterly  Additional services and information for   http://eaq.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts:    http://eaq.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions:  http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Reprints:    http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Permissions:   http://eaq.sagepub.com/content/44/3/307.refs.html Citations:   What is This?- Jul 16, 2008Version of Record>> at Univ of Education, Winneba on August 26, 2013eaq.sagepub.comDownloaded from    Educational Administration QuarterlyVol. 44,No. 3 (August 2008) 307-358 Districts as InstitutionalActors in Educational Reform Andrea K. RorrerLinda SkrlaJames 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 tocontribute to successful,systemic educational reform. In this article,the authors addressthis 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 increaseachievement 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 todate 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 non-linear process,serve as a foundation for the authors’proposed framework of dis-tricts as institutional actors in improving achievement and advancing equity.  Implications for Research and Practice: The discontinuous and limited nature of previ-ous research has contributed to the lack of theoretical advancement with regard to aresearch-based understanding of district reform and thus to a lack of research-based guidance for district leaders to followto create systemically districts that improveachievement 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 I n general,“school reform,”“school improvement,”and “school effective-ness”research over the past two decades often has overlooked,ignored,and even dismissed the potential of districts as substantial contributors to 307 DOI:10.1177/0013161X08318962© 2008 The University Council for Educational Administration  at Univ of Education, Winneba on August 26, 2013eaq.sagepub.comDownloaded from   systemic reform. 1 In fact,a consistent theme among many scholars has beenthe argument that responsibility for and control of reform efforts should belocated 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 theagents,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. Hepronounced,“The school is the vital delivery system,the state is the policysetter (and chief paymaster),and nothing in between is very important”(p. 246; see also Doyle & Finn,1984). Although this viewpoint has gainedwidespread acceptance in policy,research,and practitioner circles,respect-fully,we disagree. 2 In this article,we explain our contrasting view—that dis-tricts are vital institutional actors in systemic educational reform. 3 Specifically,we explore the how the district as an organized collective is bound by a webof interrelated and interdependent roles,responsibilities,and relationships thatfacilitate systemic reform.This inquiry emerged from a reflection on our own research that focuseson districts that have made progress in addressing inequities in student per-formance coupled with a consideration of other scholars’research on dis-tricts and the multitude of existing district-level initiatives. As will bediscussed further in our methodology section,three overarching questionsguided our inquiry:(a) What roles have districts served in reform? (b) Whatrole could  districts serve to improve achievement and advance equity sys-temically? and (c) What would be the nature of district-level change neces-sary 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 researchon districts and their role in educational reform,including initiatives under-taken,processes used,and outcomes achieved. Next,using the narrativesynthesis of research as a foundation,we address the second and third ques-tion of this inquiry (i.e.,What role could districts serve in systemic,system-atic reform to improve achievement and advance equity,and what would bethe nature of district-level change necessary to do so?). In this section,wepropose a theory of districts as institutional actors in systemic educationalreform,including reform that results in increasing achievement and advanc-ing equity. 4 Finally,we conclude with suggestions for future research andanalysis to extend our understanding of the districts’role as institutionalactors in educational reform. 308 Educational Administration Quarterly  at Univ of Education, Winneba on August 26, 2013eaq.sagepub.comDownloaded from   RESEARCH SYNTHESIS ON DISTRICT ROLES IN REFORM Smith and O’Day (1991),in their seminal work “Systemic SchoolReform,”identified two waves of U.S. educational reform and advanced acompelling argument for what has since become known as a third wave of reform. The first wave of reform,which they explained occurred from1983 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 curric-ula,promotional criteria)”(p. 233). Many of these initiatives were associ-ated with the so-called top-down reforms. The second wave of reform,which they identified with the latter 1980s,was characterized by anemphasis on “decentralization,professionalization,and bottom-up changekey concepts,as reformers focus[ed] on the change  process and on activeinvolvement of those closest to instruction”(p. 234). Smith and O’Daypointed out that the limitations of these earlier reform waves wereaddressed by a third approach that would combine the top-down and bot-tom-up approaches of the first two waves. The third wave of reform wasone comprised of “a coherent systemic strategy... one which can set theconditions for change to take place not just in a small handful of schoolsor for a few children,but in the great majority”(pp. 234-235). This thirdwave,which emphasized national standards and tests,grew in prominenceand importance throughout the 1990s and,arguably,substantial portions of it continue to the present day. 5 Remarkably,the role of the local school dis-trict 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 indus-tries,and even university schools of education.Indeed,research studies on districts over the past 20 years have been rel-atively fewer in number and discontinuous compared to research on schoolsas the center of reform. Nonetheless,some individual scholars have recog-nized the district’s potential to enable and enhance reform efforts,includingthose initiated from within the district as well as those mandated from thestate 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 onschools as the unit of state policy action and intervention,he raised a centralissue relevant to our inquiry and the status of today’s strong state educationalpolicy environment: Rorrer et al. / DISTRICTS AS INSTITUTIONAL ACTORS309  at Univ of Education, Winneba on August 26, 2013eaq.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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