26 SES 08 A, Tensions and Subversive Tactics in Educational Leadership
Emerging global trends in educational policy come as a response to pressure to improve student learning outcomes at different levels in the school system. This has translated into superintendents holding principals accountable for student results. Superintendents are representatives of the LEA (local educational agency) and use appropriate data to govern schools by a combination of governing and professional autonomy. The ‘managerial-oriented’ approach emphasizes student outcomes as expressions of quality assurance, accountability and control, while the ‘pedagogical-oriented’ approach focuses on education planning, assessment, learning and processes (Prøitz et al., 2019). Superintendents, as well as principals, tend then to rely upon school data as expressions of learning rather than a tool for learning (Shen et al., 2017).
School organizations are usually described as loosely coupled (Weick, 1976; Orton & Weick, 1990) and there are various ideas about how to deal with this looseness and the advantage and disadvantage of loose coupling. The description of schools as loosely coupled systems is often based on a simplified, rational, top-down and normative approach, along with a unidimensional interpretation (Shen et al., 2017; Orton & Weick, 1990). Proponents of managerialism argue that loose coupling is a problem and that finding mechanisms to tighten the educational system is the key to school improvement. On the other hand, those who argue for finding ways to take advantage of the loose coupling promote a bottom-up approach, utilizing capacity building and strengthening professionalization (Shen et al., 2017). Orton and Weick (1990) argue for dialectical interpretation of school organizations as loosely coupled systems, emphasizing both distinctiveness and responsiveness, simultaneously juxtaposing these contradictory forces.
As institutions, school organizations are made up of different combinations of regulative, normative and cognitive elements (Scott, 2008). Principals have “to ascertain what elements are at play in a given context and the extent to which they work to reinforce or undercut one another” (Scott, 2008, p. 429). They must cope with different, and sometimes conflicting, regulations and normative expectations of the superintendent/LEA and the underlying premises and assumptions and they have to maintain a balance between opposition and compliance (Adolfsson & Alvunger, 2020). Key strategies in this struggle are gatekeeping and autonomy. Principals take an active role in balancing expectations and pressure, and in developing adaptive strategies (Addi-Raccha, 2015; DiPaola & Tschannen-Moran, 2005). They strive to build and maintain good relations with superintendents given the potential needs for assistance and additional resources for managing schools. With good relations, principals then can buffer unwanted interventions from the superintendent/LEA and become more efficient in their work (Seashore-Louis & Robinson, 2012). Through boundary spanning, a principal can serve both as an interface between the local school and the superintendent/LEA. Being engaged in internal leadership activities at the school on the one hand, and external activities aimed at managing the school environment to acquire resources on the other hand, principals can facilitate school improvement (Benoliel, 2017; Benoliel & Schechter, 2017; DiPaola & Tschannen-Moran, 2005).
Different communities of practice influence each other through connections as boundary objects and boundary activities. A practice itself can also become a connection as a boundary practice (Wenger, 1998). In this study the boundary practice of the LEA´s quality assessment system is of particular interest. The aim of the study is to investigate how the superintendents govern the principals through the LEA´s quality assessment system and with what consequences. Two questions have guided the study:
1) What regulations, normative expectations and dominant underlying shared conceptions can be identified between the superintendent and principals in the boundary practice of the quality assessment system?
2) How do the principals relate to these regulations, normative expectations and shared conceptions?
The empirical data underlying this case-study (Yin, 2018) was collected in a Swedish municipality (70,000 inhabitants). The superintendent and four principals in the public comprehensive school were interviewed in 2020. The interviews were individual, semi-structured and based on open-ended questions (Cohen et al., 2018; Gillham, 2008). All respondents were asked identical questions, based on a questionnaire that had been sent out to the respondents prior to the interview. The interviews were divided into three main themes: 1) background questions, 2) questions about pedagogical leadership and 3) questions about cooperation between different levels in the governing chain, with subqueries under each heading. Exploratory questions were asked when the interviewer considered that there was more to tell at a certain point during the interview (Gillham, 2008). Finally, the respondents had the opportunity to make concluding remarks about issues they wanted to address. The interviews were recorded and then transcribed. For a better understanding of the context, local policy documents and guidelines were collected and studied. Ethical decisions have been made and the interviews have been done in accordance with good research ethics (Vetenskapsrådet, 2017). Before the interviews, all respondents were informed about the study. At any time during the study, participants could withdraw their participation; hence, the requirement for consent has been met. The requirement for confidentiality has been ensured by de-identifying those who participated in the study. In the analysis process the first step was to listen to the recorded interviews and then read the transcribed texts briefly. The texts were then re-read, this time more in-depth, and coded and categorized. To answer the first research question, Scott´s (2008; 2014) pillars of institutional order were used as analytic tools. The interviews were coded and categorized in three themes: regulations, normative expectations and shared conceptions. Regulations emphasize rules, sanctions, monitoring, etc. The normative aspect concerns norms, expectations and attitudes that are prioritized and rewarded and the cognitive element emphasizes the shared conceptions that provide the infrastructure on which school organizations´ beliefs, norms and rules rest and through which meaning is defined. To answer the second research question, the interviews were categorized into the two themes: bridging and buffering (DiPaola & Tschannen-Moran, 2005). ‘Buffering’ can be considered as an adaptive strategy to reduce environmental influence as much possible to protect the core business of schools while ‘bridging’ entails cooperative strategies to increase the interdependence of the school and the environment.
As coupling mechanisms, organizational routines have both ostensive and performative aspects (Feldman & Pentland, 2003; Spillane et al., 2011). The types of meetings superintendents choose to hold and ways these meetings are structured and implemented will reflect their governing styles (Prøitz et al., 2019). The boundary objects in this study are characterized by clearly and directly demonstrative manuals and instructions. A tight coupling is achieved by regulations. The boundary activities (e.g., follow-up dialogues) focus on students´ academic outcomes in terms of merit value, considering individual performance. Boundary practice is characterized by intentions to control and for accountability. Principals who do not manage to achieve high merit values are expected to resign. Enhanced leadership, focused effort and shared values are common strategies to compensate for loose coupling (Orton & Weick, 1990). The interviews indicate strong leadership from the superintendent, and clear, well known goals. Examples of shared values are measurement, high merit values and individual accountability. The principals are placed in a context of normative expectations to raise student achievements and this defines their work. We found several examples of bridging and buffering. Spanning boundaries is not always comfortable, requiring balancing on the fine line between accountability and control on the one hand, and on the other hand, that of professional autonomy, students´ well-being and a broad understanding of learning. Educational leaders who emphasize accountability and student learning outcomes contribute to narrowing the scope of educational goals (Mausethagen & Skedsmo, 2019. In the long term this seems to be ineffective (Fullan, 2014; Prøitz et al., 2019; Shen et al., 2017). Sustainable school improvement requires consensus and a shared mindset and that all actors in the school system, at all levels, act on this basis. But in this collective, mandated endeavor, the question arises: Consensus and shared mindset – about what?
Addi-Raccah, A. (2015). School principals’ role in the interplay between the superintendents and local education authorities. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(2), 287-306. Adolfsson, C-H. & Alvunger, D. (2020) Power dynamics and policy actions in the changing landscape of local school governance. Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 6(2), 128-142. Benoliel, P. (2017). Managing school management team boundaries and school improvement: An investigation of the school leader role. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 20(1), 57-86. Benoliel, P., & Schechter, C. (2017). Promoting the school learning processes: principals as learning boundary spanners. International Journal of Educational Management, 31(7), 878-894. Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2018). Research methods in education (8.th ed.). Abingdon: Routledge. DiPaola, M.F., & Tschannen‐Moran, M. (2005). Bridging or buffering? The impact of schools’ adaptive strategies on student achievement. Journal of Educational Administration, 43(1), pp. 60-71. Feldman, M. S., & Pentland, B. T. (2003). Reconceptualizing organizational routines as a source of flexibility and change. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48, 94–118. Fullan, M. (2014). The principal: Three keys to maximizing impact. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Gillham, B. (2008). Forskningsintervjun: Tekniker och genomförande. Lund: Studentlitteratur. Orton, J. D. & Weick, K. E. (1990). Loosely coupled systems: A reconceptualization. The Academy of Management Review, 15(2), 203-223. Prøitz, T. S., Mausethagen, S. & Skedsmo, G. (2019). District administrators’ governing styles in the enactment of data-use practices. International Journal of Leadership in Education. DOI: 10.1080/13603124.2018.1562097 Shen, J., Gao, X., & Xia, J. (2017). School as a loosely coupled organization? An empirical examination using national SASS 2003–04 data. Educational Management, Administration & Leadership, 45(4), 657-681. Scott, W. (2008). Approaching adulthood: The maturing of institutional theory. Theory and Society, 37(5), 427–442. Scott, W. (2014). Institutions and organizations: Ideas, interests and identities (4th ed.). SAGE Publications. Seashore Louis, K., & Robinson, V. M. (2012). External mandates and instructional leadership: school leaders as mediating agents, Journal of Educational Administration, 50(5), 629-665. Spillane, J. P. Parise, L. M., & Sherer, J. Z. (2011). Organizational Routines as Coupling Mechanisms: Policy, School Administration, and the Technical Core. American Educational Research Journal, 48(3), 586-619. Vetenskapsrådet (2017). God forskningssed [Good research practice]. Weick, K. E. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21(1), 1–19. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Yin, R. (2018). Case study research and applications: Design and methods (6th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.
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