03 SES 07 B, Curriculum Development and Systems Change
In school systems around the world, there is an increasing focus on pupils’ academic achievements and school results. This has resulted in an intensified control of pupils’ levels of achievement (cf. PISA) and increasing demands for school actors and decision-makers to improve schools. In this respect, Sweden is no exception. Ages of declining student achievement and decreased equality between schools have spurred an intensive critique against the Swedish school system and triggered a more state-regulated governing of the school system in terms of several national reforms, which altogether aim to take control over the schools’ outcome (Wahlström & Sundberg, 2017a; Adolfsson, 2018). In the light of such a policy movement the Local Education Authorities (LEA) and schools’ responsibility for pupils’ achievement and equality have been highlighted and strengthened in Swedish policy. In addition, to ensure the quality of the teaching a revision of the Swedish Education Act was carried out in 2010. This revision stipulated, among other things, that all schools and local school authorities must conduct a systematic improvement work. This had led to a discussion of how schools on a local basis can build capacity to improve themselves. In this context, LEA, in the Swedish municipalities, have become important policy actors (Wahlström & Sundberg, 2017b). To strengthen the schools’ own capacity for improvement, but also to increase the control over the schools’ processes and outcomes, the construction and implementation of different quality systems has been an important strategy for LEA in several municipalities (Adolfsson & Alvunger, 2017; Håkansson & Sundberg, 2016).
In this paper, we will put this ‘meso-level’, i.e. the relationship between LEA and the schools, in focus. We mean that this is an important, but often overlooked, relationship when it comes to the understanding of processes and outcomes related to the implementation of local quality systems and school improvement initiatives (Rorrer, Skrla & Scheurich, 2008). Based on an ongoing three-year research project in a major municipality in Sweden, the overall aim is to investigate a LEA: s attempt to implement a new quality system at the schools in the municipality, as a way to control and strengthen the schools’ improvement work. The following research questions are addressed in the paper:
1. In what way and with which central aspects of the schools’ improvement work does the LEA try to control and strengthen the schools capacity, through the implementation of a new quality system?
2. In what way do school actors respond to LEA: s attempt to implement the quality system?
3. Which different factors can be distinguished as notably important for the outcome of the implementation process?
The relationship between the LEA and the current schools are understood and analysed from a neo-institutional theoretical perspective (Scott, 2008). From this perspective, three dimensions can be highlighted regarding how institutions (in this case the LEA and the current schools) seek to control and affect other institutions, respond to external pressure and seek legitimacy: regulative (rules and sanctions), normative (prevalent norms, expectations and ideals ), and cognitive-cultural/discursive (shared conceptions and frames of meaning-making). This perspective enables us to elucidate the character of the different strategies and actions that the LEA undertake in the implementation of the new quality model. To understand the implementation processes that occurred at the different schools, theoretical inspiration is acquire from implementation theory (Fixen et al. 2005; Lundquist, 1987; Lipsky, 1980). This theory put analytical focus on central implementation factors such as clarity, school actors’ knowledge, legitimacy, time, leadership, organization, school culture et cetera, which thus help us to understand the result of the implementation processes of the different schools.
The overall research project, in which this specific study is conducted, has a mixed-method inspired design. The aim with such an approach is to deepen the understanding of the current research questions being addressed, through obtaining different but complementary data on the phenomenon in focus for the study (Cresswell, 2010; Cresswell and Clark, 2007). In this specific sub-study, we have followed the local education authority’s implementation process at six different schools in the current municipality. The current schools are located in areas with differences in socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and each school was followed for a school year, which made it possible to contextually place and understand the implementation process within the structure, organization and culture of the schools. In line with the theoretical points of departure and the general aim to elucidate patterns of the local school authority’s implementation of the new quality system and school actors’ understanding and response of the quality system, the following methods and empirical data have been used: i) content analysis of central policy documents ii) 18 observations of different meeting between LEA and key-actors from the schools iii) 24 semi-structured interviews with key actors at the different schools (n=50). Accordingly, an extensive empirical material has been collected. To get a contextual understanding of each school, central documents regarding the local schools’ organization, policy and vision, leading and management structure, pupils’ achievement, school improvement strategies were analyzed in the first step. This contextual understanding was important for the next step, when data related to the LEA:s implementation of the new quality system at the particular schools were collected. This was carried out through participatory observations at the different kinds of meetings that occurred amongst LEA and the current schools. Finally, as a way to deepen the understanding of the school actors’ response to the new quality system, semi-structured interviews with central key actors at the single school were carried out.
The relationship between the LEA and the schools will finally be discussed and problematized in light of the following preliminary results: - The implementation of the quality system occurred through a number of steps: 1. an introduction meeting between representatives from the LEA and key actors from the schools 2. a quality dialogue two months later and 3. a quality seminary arranged by the LEA where the principals from the involving schools participated. In contrast to a more traditional ‘regulative’ strategy of governing the schools, the LEA’s implementation of the current quality system, in terms of these different activities, was characterized by a normative and discursive way of controlling the schools’ improvement work (i.e. soft governance). - We could distinguish a variety in the initial stage of the implementation process regarding to what degree the school actors consider the LEA’s quality system as legitimate. The same variety between the schools was notably concerning how they perceived the idea and the purpose behind the new quality system but also how LEA’s system could be incorporated with their own local quality systems. - Factors that may explain these differences in the implementation process is firstly, a notably ‘knowledge-gap’, that existed between the schools. That is, principals and other key actors’ knowledge and competencies about local systematic quality work in terms of, for example, data collection, interpretation and using different methods of analysis, seem to be crucial for the implementation process. A second crucial factor seems to be how the principals organized his or her school improvement work, including delegation of responsibility and how different school actors’ knowledge and competencies were used in an appropriate way. - A central question we finally raise is if initiatives like these primarily favor schools with an already high degree of improvement capacity.
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