26 SES 07 B, Exploring Aspects of Teacher and Middle Leadership Part 1
Paper Session to be continued in 26 SES 13 B
Israel is among the Western countries with the broadest gap between rich and poor (OECD, 2011, 2016). Mindful of the great diversity among school populations, recent education policy in Israel has been directed toward developing a more inclusive school system, which achieves high levels of equality in education outcomes across the board. This study focuses on the Meaningful Learning Reform, which was launched in the Israeli school system toward the 2014-2015 academic year (Israeli Ministry of Education, 2014). This reform allows school leaders to exercise considerable discretion about how to meet this broad policy’s goals for connecting learning processes and contents more closely to learners’ everyday lives and needs.
This Meaningful Learning Reform can be considered a "generally outlined" education reform. This term is used in our research to describe a reform that does not provide detailed improvement programs; instead, it includes only a broad policy, which allows educators to exercise discretion about how to actually meet the new policy’s goals, relying on their own judgment without specific guidelines (Peurach, 2011). Generally outlined reforms, also known as inside-out or bottom-up reforms (Birkland, 2010; Louis & Robinson, 2012), were designed to address the problem of policy incoherence, where there is a gap between the reform policy and school preferences, or where multiple reform initiatives compete with one another. Policy incoherence often affects school improvement in a negative way, increasing cynicism and generating stress (Coburn, 2016). Moreover, it waters down school leaders' and teachers' efforts, influencing educators' interpretation of the reform policy, which in turn may have implications for how they enact it (Birkland, 2010; Russell & Bray, 2013).
Specifically, our study concentrates on the role of school middle-leaders in implementing a generally outlined pedagogical reform. School middle-leaders are those teachers who hold management responsibility either for staff or for a certain aspect of the school's work, such as grade-level coordinators or subject coordinators. Middle-leaders constitute the “intermediate layer” in the school's organizational structure, located between the senior leadership and the classroom teachers (Crane, 2014). When large-scale changes get under way, school middle-leaders increasingly act as teachers’ motivators and organizers while also serving as professional developers and mentors, working toward improving education outcomes (Dinham, 2007). Inasmuch as the contribution of middle leaders' managerial/leadership role "is likely greater than the contribution of principal leadership to the improvement of teaching and learning" (Leithwood, 2016, p. 135), school middle-leaders comprise the focal point of the present study.
School middle-leaders perceptions regarding their leadership role while implementing a generally outlined reform were investigated through the framework of sense-making, which is the ongoing process through which people work to understand issues or events that elicit ambiguities in their routine (Maitlis & Christianson, 2014). Sense-making is a useful theoretical construct as it facilitates an understanding of why and how people arrive at specific outcomes (Weick, 2009). In school leadership, sense-making involves imparting meaning to unclear or ambiguous experiences (Liu & Maitlis, 2014). According to Ball, Maguire, and Braun (2012), school leaders' sense-making during policy implementation conveys "the creative processes of interpretation of the abstractions of policy ideas into contextualized practices" (p. 586). This highlights school leaders' active role in creatively interpreting a particular policy into a specific set of actions (Louis & Robinson, 2012).
Thus, the theoretical framework of sense-making may facilitate the understanding of school middle leaders' perceived challenges during the implementation of the Meaningful Learning Reform, as a generally-outlined reform, which allows them to exercise considerable discretion about how to connect learning processes and contents more closely to learners’ everyday lives and needs.
Inasmuch as the Meaningful Learning Reform has primarily infused curriculum/structural change in high schools, participants in this study were middle leaders from 65 diverse high schools, who are responsible for leading the changes required by the reform. Seeking to maximize the depth and richness of the data, we used maximal differentiation sampling (Creswell, 2014), also known as heterogeneous sampling. It is a purposive sampling technique used to capture a wide range of perspectives, gaining greater insights into a phenomenon by looking at it from various angles. The maximal differentiation sampling was implemented in this study regarding middle leaders' gender, years of teaching experience, seniority in position, education, sector of school and geographical districts. Data were collected during the 2014-2015 academic year through semi-structured interviews designed to explore participants' personal perspectives. During the interviews, school middle leaders were asked questions such as: "What characterizes your educational work during the reform implementation?"; "What are your difficulties in implementing the reform?; How do you deal with them?"; "Which factors significantly influence your decisions throughout the reform implementation process?". We conducted a member check with all participants' transcripts sent back to them along with a request that they evaluate their responses and make any necessary additions or modifications. Data analysis was a three-stage process – condensing, coding and categorizing. In the first stage (condensing) we sought the portions of data that related to the school middle leaders' educational work during the reform, as this was the topic of the study. In the second stage (coding), each segment of relevant data (utterance) was coded according to the aspect of school middle leader's educational work which it represented. This stage was conducted twice. First, a data-driven coding was conducted, where we did not use a-priori codes but rather inductive ones, developed by direct examination of the perspectives articulated by participants (Rossman & Rallis, 2012). Second, a theory-driven coding was conducted, where we used analytical concepts derived from the sense-making literature (Weick, 2009). After having captured the essence of utterances in the second stage, we turned to the third stage (categorizing) in which we grouped similar utterances together in order to generalize their meanings and derive category definitions. We then proceeded to rework these definitions so as to reconcile disconfirming data with the emerging analysis. Thus, category dimensions were explored, testing them against the full range of data and identifying relationships between them (Merriam, 2009).
Data analysis indicated that middle leaders identified two main challenges involved in implementing a generally-outlined education reform: the need for self-reliance – meaning that educators had to follow their own judgment and discretion; and coping with ambiguity – meaning that educators were required to operate under conditions of uncertainty. From the perspective of middle leaders, these challenges not only made the teachers' work more difficult and required additional effort, but also adversely affected the implementation of the reform. The uncertainty as to the meaning of this generally-outlined education reform did not lead teachers towards creativity and renewal; instead, it made them confused and even angry, while the reform remained unfulfilled, at least in part. Teachers' sense of self-efficacy had declined, their sense of pressure increased, and the application of the reform was slow and incomplete. The findings may be understood through the conceptual lens of sense-making. Sense-making is most often needed when school leaders' understanding of their practices becomes blurred (Ball et al., 2012; Louis & Robinson, 2012). Middle leaders, who had to deal with a generally-outlined reform that involved a need for self-reliance and coping with ambiguity, were required to make sense of what they are doing, why, to what ends and in whose interests, and how. As Weick and Sutcliffe (2007) noted, if the resources for sense-making are maintained or even strengthened during the processes of change, people will be able to cope with what they face. By contrast, if the resources for sense-making are undermined or weakened during the change, people will lose sight of what they are trying to do and why. Teachers and school middle leaders who were thrown into an unclear reform program without the support required for their sense-making process, could not reduce the ambiguity in their work without precise and unequivocal instructions.
Ball, S. J., Maguire, M., & Braun, A. (2012). How schools do policy: Policy enactment in secondary schools. London, UK: Routledge. Birkland, T. (2010). An introduction to the policy process: Theories, concepts, and models of public policy making (3rd ed.). New York, NY: M. E. Sharpe. Coburn, C. E. (2016). What’s policy got to do with it? How the structure-agency debate can illuminate policy implementation. American Journal of Education, 122, 465-475. Crane, A. (2014). Year coordinators as middle-leaders in independent girls’ schools: Their role and accountability. Leading & Managing, 20(1), 80-92. Creswell, J. W. (2014). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (4th ed.). Harlow, UK: Pearson. Dinham, S. (2007). The secondary head of department and the achievement of exceptional student outcomes. Journal of Educational Administration, 45(1), 62-79. Israeli Ministry of Education (2014, August). CEO guidelines: Meaningful learning (Hebrew). Retrieved from http://cms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/LemidaMashmautit/mashmautit/AvneyDerech.htm Leithwood, K. (2016). Department-head leadership for school improvement. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 15(2), 117-140. Liu, F., & Maitlis, S. (2014). Emotional dynamics and strategizing processes: A study of strategic conversations in top team meetings. Journal of Management Studies, 51(2), 202-234. Louis, K., & Robinson, V. M. (2012). External mandates and instructional leadership: School leaders as mediating agents. Journal of Educational Administration, 50(5), 629-665. Maitlis, S., & Christianson, M. (2014). Sense-making in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward. The Academy of Management Annals, 8(1), 57-125. Merriam, S. B. (2009). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2011). Society at glance 2011 – OECD social indicators. Paris, France: OECD. OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2016). OECD economic surveys - Israel. Paris, France: OECD. Peurach, D. J. (2011). Seeing complexity in public education: Problems, possibilities, and success for all. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Rossman, G. B., & Rallis, S. F. (2012). Learning in the field: An introduction to qualitative research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Russell, J. L. & Bray, L. E. (2013). Crafting coherence from complex policy messages: Educators’ perceptions of special education and standards-based accountability policies. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21(12). Weick, K. E. (2009). Making sense of the organization. Volume 2: The impermanent organization. New York, NY: John Wiley. Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an age of uncertainty. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
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