22 SES 08 D, Access to and drop-out of academia
The aim of the paper is to understand how upper secondary school leaders in Iceland experience and react to the influences of tertiary education when considering and implementing change. In particular, with regard to subject content and hierarchy, it is of interest to investigate to what extent school leaders in Icelandic upper secondary education find themselves operating within an institution (as formally defined) or an organisation (as formally defined).
When examining change in schools the theoretical notions of both organisations and institutions are important. These two concepts are used interchangeably in colloquial language, and often at the same level, e.g. when it comes to schools and other public entities.
In this study the term organisation is understood as a unit that is designed around a particular task (Ball, 1987; Scott, 2014). When it comes to the term institution, the denotation is more varying. Waks (2007) states that institutions form the background of organisations, and Scott (2014) views institutions as having jurisdiction over organisations. According to both authors, institutions are somehow in the background of organisations, and in that way, they control what happens within organisations.
Other scholars, bringing Selznick’s (1957) work to life (see also Kraatz, 2009; Raffaelli & Glynn, 2015) add a useful aspect to the conceptualisations of Scott (2014) and Waks (2007) with respect to change. They describe how organisations can, for example, change into institutions over time through the processes of institutionalisation (Ansell et al., 2015; Scott, 2014), and how institutional caracteristics are loosened through the processes of deinstitutionalisation (Scott, 2014).
Institutions are created by actors with vested interest, that monitor and resist intended change (Scott, 2012). Universities are among of the actors with vestured interest when it comes to upper secondary education as s exercise control over lower school levels through many social structures, such as academic disciplines (Deng, 2013; Jónasson 2016; Lambert, 2014), formal education and professional development (Fullan, 2007; Horn & Little, 2010). Jónasson (2016) for example highlights how universities generally act as gatekeepers to lower school levels through entrance tests, admission requirements, and teacher education. Similarly, Deng (2013) argues that academic disciplines from the university level are either continuous, discontinuous, or different, but always relate to part of school subjects. The most relevant for this thesis is the academic disciplines at the university level and how they define and outline subjects at the lower school levels. The knowledge incorporated in an academic discipline is transmitted in order to develop the intellectual capacity of the learner to maintain and reproduce the academic culture. The main purpose, according to Deng (2013), is to attract learners into the academic community by studying the same methods as the academic experts. While doing so, other important aspects of schooling are left out, such as practical, technical, tacit, local, and community competences. Furthermore, the learners’ attitudes, interests, and emotions, as well as economic, social, and political needs and development in education are generally neglected. Similarly, Lambert (2014) describes the relationship with university disciplines where the subject knowledge is usually produced. He notes how subjects deliver boundaries and identities to teachers and give them a collective resource, i.e., through subject associations. Therefore, the universities play an important role in constructing knowledge. This relationship of academic subjects to practice within upper secondary schools may be relevant in understanding how they develop or can be changed.
The findings are based on interviews from a comprehensive study conducted from October 2013 to November 2014 in nine upper secondary schools in Iceland (Óskarsdóttir, 2016). This paper is based on interviews with school leaders from the study. Nine upper secondary schools were selected from a stratified population based on school type, location, size, and educational practises. Once the schools had been selected, 21 school leaders were selected from the schools for interviews also using a stratified sample related to the complexity of the school hierarchy. The school director was always part of the sample, and one or two leaders were randomly selected from the middle management layer in the schools. The interviews, conducted by the authors (Ragnarsdóttir, 2018) were transcribed verbatim and the data was analysed using thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) with the support of theories of regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive pillars of institutions (Scott, 2014) adding insights from the metatheory of institutional logics (Thornton et al., 2012). For the present study, we focussed on the parts of the interviews that touched on the various contacts with the university, which are both explicit (in terms of guidelines for admission and emphasis at meetings) and implicit, seen in the reports from interaction of the school leaders with the subject teachers.
The findings show how tertiary education gives very clear signals to upper secondary schools, even though only some of these are explicit but others are implicit. The university level, on the one hand, ostensibly promotes change through channels of professional development and formal subject-based education, where the subjects are seen to be at the frontiers of knowledge. On the other hand, the universities reinforce strong normative and regulative institutional constraints through well-established subject structures and social structures such as entrance criteria’s and subject hierarchies that are found to hinder change. The conclusion of this study on the normative and regulative pillars of institutions (Scott, 2014) held by tertiary education on academic subjects in upper secondary schools provides robust evidence as to how the university level (represented by the University of Iceland) reinforces very solid institutions in the guise of subjects from the perspectives of the school leaders interviewed. This is manifested through the admission guidelines, which show very clear subject hierarchies, through the general rhetoric that a principal aim of the upper secondary school is preparing for university (and thus its academic demands). Also, through the implicit notion that the content of the subjects is defined by the university and is not within the purview of the upper secondary schools and what is defined as a proper subject is (if implicitly) defined by the university. It was also noteworthy that the policy of adding new courses tended to be enacted by constructing courses reflecting university courses that the teachers had taken. It must, however, be noted that the university level also promotes change, or at least development, in schools through professional development, and formal further education. The study provides valuable information on the manifold controlling influence of tertiary education but also its more confined empowering role.
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