26 SES 11 B, Working In Schools Facing Adversity And Schools In Underserved Communities
As we enter an “era of risk,” schools and their leaders must learn how to adapt productively. For some, this demand comes alongside efforts to cope with long-term experiences of adversity. In the U.S., scholars and reformers have increasingly turned to the potential for education leaders to adopt processes of continuous improvement to help schools productively adapt to complexity and instability. According to models of “improvement science” (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015) or “design-based school improvement” (Mintrop, 2016), continuous improvement entails collective learning through iterative cycles of data-informed problem solving.
While problem solving may sound like a technical process, it has a “human side” (Evans, 1996) that is fueled—and sometimes undermined—by social psychological dynamics as people experience hope, passion, anxiety, and loss. This human side may be particularly important in schools that that serve communities marked by concentrated poverty and marginalization, where ongoing experiences of adversity stemming from resource insufficiency and stigmatization can generate “an overarching sense of futility and pessimism” (Payne, 2008, p. 23). Within a global context of neoliberal reform, high stakes accountability added to this “futility and pessimism” in many urban schools, subjecting them to labels of “failure,” and a conveyor belt of unsuccessful reforms (Hess, 1999; Mintrop & Sunderman, 2009)—experiences shared in schools across Europe that adopted similar reforms banking on the power of goals, pressure, and accountability for test performance.
Continuous improvement is typically a group undertaking, contingent upon rituals, routines, and rules of communication through which groups engage in problem solving. Evidence suggests that groups operating in contexts of adversity can develop resilience that enables processes of continuous improvement when a hopeful, proactive orientation is maintained (Walsh, 2003; Wang & Gordon, 1994). However, chronic adversity can pose problems that seem ubiquitous, unsolvable, and beyond educators’ control. Literature on the social psychology of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), burnout (Schaufeli, Leiter, & Maslach, 2009), organizational failure (Cameron, Kim, & Whetten, 1987), and group development (Turner & Horvitz, 2001; Wheelan, 2005) suggest that in these contexts educational leaders may not find sufficient resources with which to help their schools forge resilience, and rather the organization may succumb a collective attitude of defensiveness that expresses thwarted psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000) and experiences of overload. While collective resilience is associated with routines, rituals, and communication rules that seek improvement upon problems—such as interpreting problems as manageable challenges, maintaining connectedness, and learning from failure (Walsh, 2003)—collective defensiveness can exhibit in routines, rituals, and communication rules that buffer against problems as perceived illegitimate demands—such as by deflecting responsibility, instigating unproductive conflict or avoiding conflict, and silencing uncomfortable topics (Turner & Horvitz, 2001).
The dilemma of defensiveness seems largely absent in scholarship about continuous improvement in schools. Some case studies feature schools striving towards collective learning with seemingly little evidence of defensiveness or adversity (Datnow, Park, & Wohlsetter, 2007). Even if some form of defensiveness appears fairly typical in studies of teachers’ responses to reform, few studies describe how group learning processes unfold amidst the kind of collective defensive climate that Payne (2008) describes.
To address this gap, this paper draws upon qualitative data from an action research project in one middle school and asks: In a context of adversity, how and why does collective defensiveness manifest amongst groups of educators as they attempt to engage in continuous improvement?
This study uses action research to examine how collective defensiveness manifests in the group interactions of educators in one middle school over several months. Action research proceeds through a combination of iterative “learning by doing” and systematic data analysis (Coghlan & Brannick, 2007). Close-up investigation of educators’ interactions requires trust and rapport with participants and embeddedness in their work contexts over an extended time—particularly when researching professionals in struggling organizations. In line with these considerations, this study takes place in an urban Californian school district in which I have been involved in a research-practice partnership (RPP), a long-term collaboration between educators and researchers in the pursuit of mutualistic goals (Tseng, Easton, & Supplee, 2017). In our RPP, now in its fifth year, researchers collaborate with administrators, coaches, and teachers to co-design professional learning activities and routines that support continuous improvement around a collective problem of practice. This study takes place in one partner school, Jackson Middle (a pseudonym), with which I have collaborated since the fall of 2017. In a K-12 district of 20,000 students in the Bay Area of Northern California, Jackson serves about 500 students, of whom 75% are Latino, 9% are African American, 79% are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 19% are English Learners (California Department of Education, 2018). Under the federal policy of No Child Left Behind, Jackson was in “program improvement” for five years. Data for this study are primarily generated from over 80 hours of participant observation of the regular meetings of the instructional leadership team, teacher teams, and faculty during the 2018-2018 school year. Field notes and transcribed audio recordings of group meetings are analyzed with deductive and inductive coding to determine how the routines, rituals, and rules of communication express collective defensiveness or collective resilience, and the factors that contribute to these developments. These analyses are triangulated against data from audio recordings of over 20 reflective partner conversations between myself and individual participants, including the principal and several teacher leaders, that solicit their interpretations of events that were observed during group meetings.
Preliminary findings suggest that collective defensiveness arises as educators contend with adversity and group development challenges. Both teachers and education leaders in this school experience adversity through conditions facing many urban districts, including negative reputation, resource insufficiency, local political conflict, and disorganization. Educators might productively contend with these experiences through forging supportive, cohesive groups, but in this school, even basic group maintenance—regular attendance at meetings and civil interactions—has been challenging due to ongoing personal conflict, resource and capacity limitations that maintain a reactive orientation towards crises, and high turnover. Hence, routines tend to be loose, and many groups and change initiatives dissolve. In groups that sustain some functioning, the routines that appear to motivate continuous improvement are not what the literature might lead one to expect. While continuous improvement is typically assumed to proceed by identifying and diagnosing a problem of practice with the help of data (Bryk et al., 2015; Datnow et al., 2007; Mintrop, 2016), in this study, group routines involving data to identify or diagnose a problem tend to produce deflection and unproductive conflict. On the other hand, routines of sharing anecdotes of “bright spots” tend to generate open dialogue and espoused aspirations to “do more.” These findings are consistent with evidence about resilient coping in contexts of adversity: routines that may appear defensive—including self-enhancement (Taylor & Brown, 1994)—may sometimes be necessary for generating the psychological and social resources for resilience. This study has implications for schools not only in the U.S. but in many countries around the globe where increasing income inequality, migration, and stigma of “failure” pose similar contexts of socioeconomic and political adversity for educators. The findings suggest a need for more research conducted through long-term partnership with schools in distress to better understand their prevailing practices and improvement processes.
Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Education Press. Cameron, K. S., Kim, M. U., & Whetten, D. A. (1987). Organizational effects of decline and turbulence. Administrative Science Quarterly, 32(2), 222–240. Coghlan, D., & Brannick, T. (2007). Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. Datnow, A., Park, V., & Wohlsetter, P. (2007). Achieving with data: How high-performing school systems use data to improve instruction for elementary students. Center on Educational Governance, University of Southern California. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268. Evans, R. (1996). The human side of school change: Reform, resistance, and the real-life problems of innovation. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. Hess, F. M. (1999). Spinning wheels: The politics of urban school reform. Brookings Institution Press. Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. Springer Publishing Company. Mintrop, R. (2016). Design-based school improvement: A practical guide for education leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. Mintrop, R., & Sunderman, G. L. (2009). Predictable failure of federal sanctions-driven accountability for school improvement—and why we may retain it anyway. Educational Researcher, 38(5), 353–364. Payne, C. (2008). So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Harvard Education Press. Schaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2009). Burnout: 35 years of research and practice. Career Development International, 14(3), 204–220. Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1994). Positive illusions and well-being revisited: Separating fact from fiction. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 21–27. Tseng, V., Easton, J. Q., & Supplee, L. H. (2017). Research-practice partnerships: Building two-way streets of engagement. Social Policy Report, 30(4), 1–17. Turner, M. E., & Horvitz, T. (2001). The dilemma of threat: Group effectiveness and ineffectiveness under adversity. In M. E. Turner (Ed.), Groups at work: Theory and research (pp. 445–470). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Walsh, F. (2003). Family resilience: A framework for clinical practice. Family Process, 42(1), 1–18. Wang, M. C., & Gordon, E. W. (Eds.). (1994). Educational resilience in inner-city America: Challenges and prospects. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Wheelan, S. A. (2005). Group processes: A developmental perspective (2nd ed.). Auckland, New Zealand: Pearson Education.
Search the ECER Programme
- Search for keywords and phrases in "Text Search"
- Restrict in which part of the abstracts to search in "Where to search"
- Search for authors and in the respective field.
- For planning your conference attendance you may want to use the conference app, which will be issued some weeks before the conference
- If you are a session chair, best look up your chairing duties in the conference system (Conftool) or the app.