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

Systemic Reform in the Professionalism of Educators - September 1995

G. Background of the Study: Study Aims and Research Questions


In 1992, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement commissioned 12 studies of educational reform. Systemic Reform in the Professionalism of Educators, one of the 12, takes a broad perspective that includes both K - 12 and higher education. The original "Request for Proposal" called for identification and analysis of sites exhibiting "best practices" in the areas of preservice training, inservice training, and working conditions of educators. However, many years of reform "projects" have shown that isolated pockets of good ideas rarely have lasting effects. Therefore, The NETWORK researchers chose to concentrate on a small number of sites which, looking beyond individual reform projects, have taken a systemic approach to teacher professionalism. These sites recognize the interdependency and complexity of the education system and seek to address multiple parts simultaneously.

Educator professionalism is a critical issue in education reform. The press for the professionalization of teaching is based on the theory that strengthening the profession will prove an effective means for meeting students’ needs and improving the overall quality of education (Darling-Hammond,1989). Darling-Hammond and Goodwin (1993) identified common beliefs or behaviors associated with the notion of professionalism. Members of a profession share a common body of knowledge and use shared standards of practice in exercising their knowledge on behalf of clients. In addition, they found that professionals strive to:

improve practice and enhance accountability by creating means for ensuring that practitioners will be competent and committed. Professionals undergo rigorous preparation and socialization so that the public can have high levels of confidence that professionals will behave in knowledgeable and ethical ways. (p.21)
Educator professionalism promises to increase accountability for meeting students’ needs in exchange for the deregulation of teaching -- giving teachers greater autonomy in determining what is to be taught, when, and how (Darling-Hammond, 1989). Devaney and Sykes (1988) remind us that "professionalism is a form of liberty that is not simply conferred; it is earned" (p.4). Accountability must be provided through rigorous training and careful selection, serious and sustained internships for beginners, meaningful evaluation, opportunities for professional learning, and ongoing review of practice (Darling-Hammond, 1989).

The group of educators who has been the focus of attention in the professionalization movement to date has been teachers. The professionalism of all educators, however, is the goal, including school and district administrators, specialists, counselors, and university faculty and administrators.

Scope of the Study

School-university partnerships have been around for a long time (e.g., Havelock, Cox, Huberman, & Levinson, 1982). Historically the focus has largely been to support practicum placements for student teachers and to provide staff development services for veteran teachers. Partnership arrangements are becoming more prevalent as a means of improving the preparation of future teachers and the ongoing learning of experienced teachers.

Although there are examples of successful partnerships working to restructure both teacher education and schools1, school-university partnerships engaged in reform of the entire system are not common. Few partnerships have moved beyond reform of individual schools and the teacher preparation program to take on the challenge of changing the structure and culture of schools, school districts, teacher education, colleges of education, and even the university as an institution. Many studies of systemic reform (O’Day & Smith, 1993; Fuhrman, S., 1993) overlook the role of higher education in reform of "the system." While there is currently no agreed-upon definition of systemic reform, most definitions assume that:

The phenomena we are observing are not well understood, especially at the level of organizations. The same work can take myriad forms in actual practice. It was thus necessary and appropriate to take an exploratory approach in this study to begin to understand the phenomena of systemic reform in a manner that captures the essence of the problems, the nature of the solutions attempted, and the evolving story of successes and failures enroute.

A number of criteria were established for selecting sites engaged in systemic reform. The three sites selected all demonstrated:

The three sites selected were the Learning Consortium at the University of Toronto, the Southern Maine Partnership and the University of Southern Maine Extended Teacher Education Program (ETEP), and the Benedum Project at West Virginia University.

Conceptual Framework

Figure G-1 portrays the emerging conceptual framework used for studying systemic reform in the professionalism of educators. The school change literature (Fullan, 1991; Fullan & Miles, 1992; Louis & Miles, 1990), which has identified critical elements of reform (left box in Figure G-1) provided the focus for the design of the study. The critical elements examined for each case include: a) the visions guiding the reforms; b) the leadership driving them; c) the knowledge and research/inquiry foundation upon which they are built; d) the opportunities for learning needed to sustain them; e) the mechanisms for communication used to coordinate them; f) the organizational arrangements designed to support them, and g) the strategies used to implement them. These elements of reform can be thought of as independent variables -- those variables expected to be critical in each reform effort that would facilitate understanding each initiative.

[Figure not available in this version]

Student learning was conceptualized as both an independent and dependent variable in the framework. It represents a vision of what successful leaning for all students would look like, as well as an outcome measure of student learning. A focus on student learning served as an important site selection criterion. A vision of successful student learning was found to be a motivating force for undertaking each of the reform initiatives. Limited outcome data are available, as each of the sites continues to struggle with how to document whether their efforts are making a difference for kids. An independent assessment of the impact of these reforms on student learning was beyond the scope of this study.

Educator professionalism is the overall dependent variable (the box on the right of Figure G-1). The theory underlying the press for educator professionalism, according to Darling-Hammond (1989), is that strengthening the structures and vehicles for creating and transmitting professional knowledge will enhance educators’ ability to meet the needs of students and improve the overall quality of education. The theory is based on a conception of teaching as complex work requiring specialized knowledge and judgment in nonroutine situations, and on a conception of learning as a highly interactive and individualized process. The outcomes of interest in this analysis are five different dimensions of educator professionalism: 1) a culture of inquiry; 2) continuous teacher development; 3) the development of collaborative cultures; 4) expanding professional networks; 5) and client orientation. The way "client orientation" is used here does not imply an asymmetrical, hierarchical relationship in which an expert provides services to those lacking in knowledge or skills. All educators serve multiple clients, including children, parents, the community, colleagues, students of teacher education, as well as the teaching profession as a whole. Finally, the analysis examines the durability or "institutionalization" of these reforms.

School-university partnerships were the vehicles through which the three reform initiatives were organized. (See center box in Figure G-1.) For the purposes of our conceptual framework, each partnership represents a single case. "System" was defined by the entities within the "boundaries" of the school-university partnership, recognizing that there are many other organizations that affect these initiatives (e.g., teacher unions, government policymakers). The intersection of all the component parts is found in the school-university partnership organization. (See Figure G-2.) Personal and professional relationships provide the connections within an individual school, between schools within a school district, between districts, between schools or districts and the University, and within the cross-site organization.

Within each site, there are multiple embedded or nested cases, a sample of which were examined. The primary focus was the school-university partnership and its intersection with each of the member organizations: the College of Education’s teacher education program, school districts, and individual schools. Within these organizations, representatives from the following educator roles were interviewed: school and university faculty and administrators, project staff, supervising teachers, and a sample of preservice students who did their student teaching in target schools. In Toronto and Southern Maine, the study sample included one high school and one elementary school in each of two districts. In West Virginia, where the total number of schools is much smaller, one high school and one elementary school were selected.

The selection of individual schools was made by mutual agreement between the participating partnerships and the NETWORK researchers. The research questions and design of the NETWORK study established parameters defining the major variables under investigation. An effort was made to select schools that participated in preservice preparation and extensive ongoing professional development, while engaging in schoolwide improvement efforts. The reformers at each site then selected the individual schools that they felt best met the criteria. As a result, the selected schools probably represent the most exemplary schools rather than the "average" level of school development within the partnerships.

Other influences affecting the reform initiatives, as would be expected, were many and varied, depending on the sociopolitical context within which the school-university partnership was located. They include, among others, teacher unions, government policies, professional networks, and outside funders. Although not the primary focus of the study, where these outside influences were particularly influential, their impact was explored. (See Figure G-2.)

The three comprehensive school-university partnership initiatives selected are all seriously rethinking the preparation of education professionals, preservice students who want to enter the profession, and the ongoing learning of practicing educators. The challenge of studying these complex entities is made even more daunting by the fact that the partnership members are attempting to do this while working within dynamic institutions that are engaged in restructuring their own organizations. Accordingly, a strong emphasis was placed on open-ended interviews to understand the personal and organizational journeys of the participants.

Design and Methodology

Data were collected over an 18-month period through a series of site visits, totaling 15 - 20 days per site. Most data were collected through semi-structured open-ended interviews covering the principal research questions. These data were supplemented with on-site observations, existing documents, and a collaboratively constructed "journey," (Cox & deFrees, 1991) or historical time line of each site’s development. After many additions and revisions, the final version of the journeys completed by each site became the outline from which the research team identified questions to explore to further understand the processes used to facilitate and support change and what it took to bring about the changes that had occurred. In this way, the journeys served as an important research tool for guiding the investigation, and as useful storyboards for describing these reform initiatives. (See Volume 3 for journeys.)

We used a common set of research questions across the sites. The four overarching questions guiding the study were as follows:

  1. What has been the nature of the systemic reform effort, including the objectives, structures, roles, and strategies employed?

  2. How have research and other knowledge been used in the systemic reform efforts?

  3. What have been the prominent outcomes of these partnerships’ efforts? In particular, what has been the impact on teacher professionalism, and to what extent have these reforms been institutionalized?

  4. What are the important factors that help to explain productive school- university relations?

    Data collection followed a sequence of progressive focusing. Data were obtained from multiple interviews with key informants at each site. The interview sample "snowballed" as informants identified other key participants. Field notes were transcribed and coded using a coding scheme derived from the principal research questions.

    The research project had two major components. The first component was a profile of each of the three sites. The second component was the cross-case analysis. The goal of the first portion of the study was to create a narrative record of the evolution of the reform initiative and to analyze the key forces affecting the reform process for each organization within the partnership. From the compilation of interview data, a set of some 25 causal variables common to all three cases emerged that were used to generate causal flowcharts (Miles & Huberman, 1994) for the three sites. These flowcharts could then be compared to isolate "streams" of antecedent and intervening variables leading to the principal outcomes. Preliminary findings from all sites were fed back to site informants for verification. The lessons are probably best learned from reading the individual cases, which comprise Volume 2 of this report. To introduce the sites, each case is briefly summarized in Section H.

    Cross-case analysis began with a review of the three narratives for common or contrasting themes, outcomes, and mediators. This comparison revealed the importance of: 1) personal and professional relationships as the foundation for these partnerships; 2) access to a variety of professional development opportunities; 3) stability of leadership; 4) resource availability; 5) goal congruence among organizations and the alignment of organization arrangements to achieve goals; and 6) the inherent tensions endemic to school-university partnerships. The cross-case analysis is presented in Section I.

    In Section J, the analysis turns to an assessment of outcomes based on five different dimensions of professionalism and the extent to which these reforms have been institutionalized. The cross-case analysis concludes with an assessment of the resources required to implement reforms of this magnitude (Section K), and finally with the implications derived from the study for policy and practice (Section L), and future research needs (Section M).

    It is important to remember that the total amount of time spent at each site was short (15-20 days), particularly when studying a number of different organizations within each partnership. Consequently the view presented here represents a snapshot of continually evolving reform efforts. Furthermore, with only three cases, general conclusions must be considered tentative.


    1 The Professional Development School (PDS) model has become the dominant model in this movement. Darling-Hammond (1994) notes that PDSs are a special case of school restructuring. As they simultaneously restructure school and teacher education programs, they redefine teaching and learning for all members of the profession and the school community. PDS arrangements are growing across the country, and much has been learned about the challenge of restructuring two institutions at the same time, including the collaborative demands PDSs place on individual and institutional participants, the threats that these reforms pose to the norms and traditions of both institutions, the low status that teacher education holds within universities, the poor reputation of staff development in schools, and the lack of institutional incentives for undertaking this kind of work (Darling-Hammond, 1994).
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