A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Fitting the Pieces - October 1996

Lesson 6: Infrastructure


Reform may require redesigning organizational infrastructure.

Education reformers look for the most effective ways to organize and deliver classroom instruction and school services. Regardless of the depth and breadth of an undertaking, by definition reform involves change. At some point in time, those involved in the reform process are asked to break with convention and do things in new ways. Invariably, changing the way things are done can affect organizational infrastructure. Mechanisms to disseminate information about a reform and its potential impact can reduce anxiety about a proposed change and support a dialogue that increases cooperation among participants. This lesson examines how education reforms can alter traditional work organizations within schools, and discusses strategies that reformers have used to support the reform climate.


Recasting Institutional Relationships

Reform does not occur in a vacuum. Even relatively small, targeted reforms can have unanticipated spillover effects that may cut across grade levels or departments. For instance, teachers may feel protective about their instructional time and content, or administrators may be concerned about how reform will affect parental support. Thus, reformers must take time to assess the different ways that their proposal will affect school climate in order to minimize conflict and ease project implementation. In some cases, modest changes in the existing school infrastructure can support broad reform objectives.

"There is no silver bullet...The search should not be for one key ingredient: the search should be for the inclusion of all of the essential ingredients - and putting them together in a manner that takes full account of the systemic nature of the situation."

(Curriculum, 56)

Misunderstanding is one of the greatest barriers to successful reform. Formal mechanisms for conveying information to and from the school community can ease reform governance by reducing conflict and increasing participant understanding of reform objectives. Typically, schools that are active in their restructuring efforts have multiple mechanisms for disseminating information to school faculty. These communication channels include displaying important reform information in a central location, circulating results and administrative updates in teachers' mailboxes, exhibiting planning meeting agendas in advance to staff and the community, and distributing meeting minutes and results. Feedback loops include having staff or union representatives available to answer questions, planning school meetings to solicit input, and providing time on meeting agendas for group discussions.

In contrast, schools struggling to implement reform have few, if any, mechanisms for sharing information. In these instances, the informal teacher grapevine, a method which proves to be unreliable, is often the main means of communication. For instance, in one Midwestern school implementing a school-within-a-school program for at-risk students, a lack of communication heightened tensions among staff who were involved in the program and those who were not. One teacher's comments suggest that conflicts can be traced to the absence of mechanisms for discourse: "Sometimes I think they are critical because they just don't understand. . . . And they don't choose to find out. Well, really we don't choose to tell them either" (At Risk, Vol. II, 88).

When individuals work together, they are more apt to share ideas and philosophies that can influence each other's conception of reform, and their role within it. To illustrate how collaboration can influence work relationships, consider the experience of a science department at a high school attempting to institute a coordinated science curriculum that, among other things, teaches students to see the connections among biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. Teachers found that they

. . . depended upon each other's expertise for learning different aspects of subjects which they might not have known, as well as new instructional strategies. Teachers also got together to brainstorm their ideas, talk them through, and figure out how to put them into practice in their classes. In this context, mentoring of inexperienced teachers by the more experienced teachers was a routine and normal activity. The teachers who were not so creative benefited from the innovative ideas of other teachers.

(Curriculum, 25­26)

Similarly, the success of a recent effort at Cooper Middle School (New Mexico), where curriculum and assessment activities cut across subject areas, was found to hinge upon teachers having an opportunity to work together before implementing new instructional methods. As part of its reform effort, the school has organized itself into "families" of students and teachers who spend most of their day together. To assist teachers in planning their lessons, the school provides instructors with 45 minutes of planning each day to organize integrated activities. Teachers note that without this time it would be much more difficult to implement their restructured educational program because this planning period provided them with a formal mechanism for sharing ideas and information. Moreover, teachers at other schools undertaking curriculum, instruction, and assessment reform note that time together outside of the classroom "is critical to planning and appropriating reforms, particularly if the reforms require them to dramatically change their instructional and assessment techniques" (Assessment, 6-29 to 6-30).

Further, collaboration can reinforce the appropriation of reforms by providing an avenue for teachers to develop and solidify new skills. At Linda Vista Elementary School (San Diego, California), teachers use their "prep" time to observe their colleagues' use of new instructional practices in the classroom. This "process of working as a team, as well as the sharing of students, empowers teachers at Linda Vista to feel a heightened sense of ownership of the whole school environment" (Student Diversity, H-8). Collaboration can also be instrumental in reinforcing essential changes in school culture. For example, in the Curriculum study, collaboration was identified as the key means for resolving tension between the traditional class preparation ethic and new curricular approaches. "Collaboration with fellow teachers in the day-to-day school context can have a powerful influence on teachers' values and beliefs as well as facilitate change in the technical dimension" (Curriculum, 55­56).

In some cases, third parties may be called upon to help bridge inter-institutional gaps where formal relationships do not exist. For example, the Learning Consortium in Toronto provides teachers with professional development opportunities where they can share personal experiences with other teachers, and also highlights "best practices" at workshops and conferences to promote these interactions (Teacher Professionalism, 49). Similarly, in California, a middle school network provides a model for transforming schools that focuses on sharing information among schools that might not typically interact. Placing an emphasis on the whole child and on integrated instruction, the network has developed a train-the-trainers model and a bi-weekly newsletter that discusses substantive issues, news, and regional symposia. According to a leading state administrator, "achievement levels are going up in schools that have been in the partnership for all three years" (Systemic Reform, Vol. II, 12).

Relating to the Community

Many of the reform studies suggest that parents and the community also contribute to the planning process in important ways. Schools that successfully implemented school-based management were most likely to have solicited input from their parent and business communities, and to have used that information to develop new relationships with stakeholders. In Chicago, for instance, school site councils are required to hold at least two publicized public meetings annually to obtain input on the School Improvement Plan, the school budget, and the annual school report (School-Based Management, 157). Furthermore, the majority of schools engaged in active restructuring efforts used newsletters to communicate information about the school's budget, school based management administration (e.g. election results and decisions from council meetings), and curricular themes for the year (School-Based Management, 78).

Sometimes a school district must actually build new relationships with the education community if its reform effort is to persist. For example, the Rochester City School District (Rochester, New York), has developed a parent involvement policy that encourages parents to take a more active role in the school. A Parent Council, composed of members from each school's parent organization, meets periodically to propose strategies for addressing issues ranging from student support and curriculum to budgeting and administrative matters. In turn, the school district supports parents' suggestions by developing innovative programs, such as a family Math Program, in order to engage family members in teaching and modeling high expectations for students. (Community Involvement, Vol. II, 157-160)

Communities can also be engaged as reform partners when schools create multiple access points that allow interested individuals to participate in the reform to the extent that they desire. For example, some schools have set up homework hotlines, and others dedicate a phone answering machine for each classroom so that parents can call to get homework information, to leave messages for teachers, or to hear recorded school announcements.

Formal Avenues for Communication: Encouraging Participation and Cooperation

Establishing formal avenues for contact and communication is key to the success of the Family and Community Partnership programs in the Minneapolis Public School District. As part of its Partnership for School Success dropout prevention program, the school district has increased community involvement by institutionalizing contact with middle school parents.

To ensure that no one is missed, parents are mailed information and are then contacted by telephone. If no contact is made, program staff make home visits. Such personal contacts have enabled staff and families to learn to trust one another. As a result, parental involvement has increased dramatically. Last year 70 percent of the parents/family members in the program attended at least one meeting during the year, and many parents called program staff to find out what they missed at the meetings.

(Community Involvement, 42­44)

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