Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Reforming Reading, Writing and Mathematics: Teachers' Responses and the Prospects for Systemic Reform

reviewed by William F. Tate - 1999

coverTitle: Reforming Reading, Writing and Mathematics: Teachers' Responses and the Prospects for Systemic Reform
Author(s): S.G. Grant
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, NJ
ISBN: 0805828400, Pages: 237, Year: 1998
Search for book at Amazon.com

Some scholars and policymakers attribute the language and arguments for “standards-based” reform to the mathematics education community (O’Day & Smith, 1993). In 1980, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), a professional organization of mathematics teachers, supervisors, and college professors, published An Agenda for Action, which described a 10-year reform process. Subsequently, but not as a direct result of An Agenda for Action, NCTM published a series of standards documents that called for a movement away from a strictly basic-skills curriculum to a problem-solving conception of mathematics content and pedagogy. Other professional organizations followed with content and teaching standards for their subject area domains. Many states have used these content standards as guides to develop their own state curriculum frameworks. Fuhrman (1993) argued that curriculum standards alone lack the incentive and accountability mechanisms required for systemic change. O’Day and Smith (1993) posited that systemic change calls for states to develop coherent curriculum policies including (a) the adoption of curriculum frameworks, (b) instructional materials aligned to the frameworks, and (c) staff development to encourage teachers and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed to implement the standards. I submit that systemic reform requires both theoretical critique and empirical investigation. S. G. Grant’s research contributes in both ways.

One contribution of Grant’s work is that he describes important underlying assumptions of the theory supporting systemic reform. In chapter 2, he notes that systemic reform is built on three major assumptions. First, the undergirding theory assumes the problem with education is systemic. It suggests education is an identifiable system and that it exists at the state level. Further, implicit in the theory is that educational issues in a state are linked and equally amenable to reform. Related notions are that the state will remain stationary long enough to change and that the changes can be made by those who created the system. A second major assumption of systemic theory is that aligning policies will bring coherence to the system. This assumption suggests that policymakers can come to a consensus and that rational motives are the primary reasons for change. The call for alignment also assumes that making policy and implementing policy are distinct processes that are made real at different levels of the system. In essence, systemic reform is a movement akin to centralized, European-style educational systems. Grant asserts that a third assumption of system reform is that changing content frameworks, coordinating policies, and restructuring educational governance will change the nature of schooling. He states, “The systemic argument has a strong appeal: It is rational, it is all-encompassing, and it is activist. Like any grand theory, however, systemic reform is rooted in a complex of assumptions which may or may not accurately represent the realities actors at all levels face” (p. 24).

A serious question for those interested in standards-based reform is, “How will teachers respond to the challenge of teaching rigorous content standards in several subjects?” This book describes a study of the responses of four Michigan elementary school teachers to new and challenging reforms in reading, writing, and mathematics. Using a case study methodology, he describes and analyzes each teacher’s response according to three criteria:

1. How does each teacher learn about and interpret the reforms in light of his or her past pedagogical practice?

2. What are the changes in each teacher’s pedagogical practice?

3. What are the changes in each teacher’s assumptions about pedagogy and learning?

Grant provides a comparative analysis of the four teachers’ interpretations and pedagogical practices across reading, writing, and mathematics reform efforts. This analysis provides a basis for discussing the potential of implementing standards-based reform across content areas. Others have provided insight into teachers’ practice where standards or new curricular goals were at the forefront of political discourse (see, e.g., Fawcett, 1998; Peterson, 1990), however, these studies focused on a single content domain. The unique contribution of Grant’s research is the content boundary crossing. Why is this important? Many arguments about the merits or limitations of systemic reform are restricted to single subject areas. Others link mathematics and science systemic reform efforts together. Grant’s study, however, provides insight into the practices of elementary teachers charged with responding to the demands of three reforms. First, the study compares the teachers’ interpretations and reactions to a specific reform (e.g., how each teacher interprets mathematics reforms). Next, the study compares an individual teacher’s response to the multiple reforms (e.g., how a specific teacher responds to the reading, writing, and mathematics reforms).

Grant finds some similarities across the four teachers’ reactions to each reform. First, all the teachers responded in a proactive way to the reading reform. Each incorporated new curriculum materials and new pedagogical strategies, and each teacher abandoned one practice of traditional reading instruction—ability-based reading groups. Second, while reform-oriented changes were also discovered in writing, they appeared to be more superficial than those in reading (in three of the four cases). Finally, with the exception of one teacher, the responses to mathematics reforms were relatively weak.

Grant also explores how each teacher responded to the multiple curriculum reforms. He finds that each teacher varied in how he or she responded to the reading, writing, and mathematics reform efforts. Grant states:

How are we to understand a teacher like Bonnie Jones who embraces reforms in reading and mathematics at the same time that she ignores them in writing? Or Frank Jensen who gives reading and mathematics reform only the slightest attention, while he constructs a reform-minded writing practice? Or Marie Irwin who asks tentative, but potentially powerful questions about mathematics while she manages reading and writing reforms toward more conventional ends? Or Paula Goddard whose ambitious moves toward reading and writing reforms developed after she abandoned similar moves in mathematics? (p. 172)

The teachers also varied on what they believed they needed to learn, the level of instructional change desired, and the extent to which the reform provoked questions about assumptions of teaching and learning.

Grant argues that policy, organizational, and individual factors figured into the cross-teacher and cross-reform variations. However, he notes this was not news given that existing literature would suggest this to be the case. According to Grant, his study differs, and thus contributes to our understanding of curriculum policy and pedagogy, because he finds that policy, organizational, and individual factors interact in very subtle, yet important ways. The teachers in the study constructed individual responses to reforms, but the responses were influenced by both organizational and policy contexts. The implications of this finding are twofold. First, as influences, policy, organizational, and individual factors are potential rather than fixed. Grant avers, “Influence is a social construct; how a teacher responds to new ideas reflects his or her reading of the nature of reform, the relevant classroom, school, and district contexts, and the knowledge, beliefs, and experiences he or she brings to bear” (p. 186). The second implication is that factors that influence change are different over time and circumstance. Thus it is very difficult to determine what might catalyze a change in teacher practice.

Grant submits that if these two points are true, the promise and problems of changing teaching through efforts like systemic reform are clearer. He contends that this study of Michigan policy and practice reveals four important tensions underlying the theory of systemic reform as it interacts with the realities of life in the state department of education, local district offices, and school classrooms. One tension between the theory of systemic reform and reality involves the assertion that the state is the critical actor. Grant’s findings, in the case of Michigan, suggest the state is not a uniform institution and often sends multiple messages to its constituents, rather than a coherent and aligned set of goals. A second tension between systemic theory and the case of Michigan involves policy proliferation. Systemic reform theory presumes that as state-level activity increases, a corresponding decrease in policy activity at other levels of the system will occur. In Michigan, the reverse was true. Ironically, then, increasing state policymaking activity was associated with more confusion at other levels, rather than less. A third tension was the division between policymaking and enactment. The theory of systemic reform is built on the idea that the state is at the center of policymaking and, correspondingly, the locality is at the center of implementation. However, in the case of Michigan, the local educators enacted many agendas, only some of which were state directives. Grant notes, “Viewing local actors as only implementors, then misses an important feature of local context: School and district administrators not only mediate the messages the state sends, but also the means by which teachers come to understand those messages” (pp. 195–196). The fourth tension between systemic reform theory and the realities of schooling involves teacher interpretation. Systemic reform theory assumes the messages the state declares are the ones the teacher will hear and carry out. Yet the Michigan experience suggests that teachers were unaware of some state reforms. Further, even when teachers were aware of state level reforms they often ignored them. Also, the teachers differed in how they interpreted and responded to reform rhetoric.

Grant argues these tensions signal problems for the systemic reform agenda. He raises two problems that could potentially diminish the prospects of systemic reform. First, that the assumption that we can build a coherent system, which will be perceived as such by all stakeholders and hold over time, seems somewhat naive. Second, systemic reform is a grand theory. However, it is a theory that only requires “tweaking,” rather than a dramatic change to the current system. In sum, Grant’s position on systemic reform as a vehicle for improving education is not optimistic.

Grant lobbies for a middle-ground strategy. This strategy neither leaves local educators on their own nor underestimates the potential for national and state influence over educational reform. With this approach, state level policymakers do not control the educational agenda, rather, they play a key role in mediating and encouraging reform in local classrooms. I found this section less developed than the rest of the book. However, in fairness, delineating a clear strategy for reforming education is beyond the scope of the book’s intended purpose. Grant provides the reader with powerful insights into life in classrooms, policy formulation and implementation, and organizational capacity. But the reader should be very careful about drawing conclusions for policy. This is a study of four teachers. Nevertheless, it is important work for the field.


Fawcett, G. (1998). Curricular innovations in literacy instruction: How students respond to change. Journal of Literacy Research, 30(4), 489–514.

Fuhrman, S. H. (1993). The politics of coherence. In S. H. Fuhrman (Ed.), Designing coherent education policy: Improving the system (pp. 1–34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1980). An agenda for action: Recommendations for school mathematics of the 1980’s. Reston, VA: Author.

O’Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (1993). Systemic reform and educational opportunity. In S. H. Fuhrman (Ed.), Designing coherent education policy: Improving the system (pp. 250–312). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Peterson, P. (1990). The California study of elementary mathematics. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12, 257–261.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 101 Number 2, 1999, p. 261-265
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10685, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 11:03:47 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • William Tate
    University of Wisconsin, Madison

Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue