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Reform of and by the System: A Case Study of a State’s Effort at Curricular and Systemic Reform

by Philip A. Cusick & Jennifer Borman - 2002

The article tells the story of Michigan’s effort to create a language arts curriculum. Our story is embedded in an attempt by the governor, legislature, Department of Education, and (sometimes) the State Board of Education at state systemic reform. The focus of the article is that part of the overall effort that was directed toward the language arts curriculum. Although funded by the USOE and initiated by the state, the language arts work was undertaken by a loosely connected but long-associated set of language arts professionals who, although suspicious of the state’s motives and authority, cared a great deal about what they called best practice in language arts and embraced the state initiative to push their views. Working from Parsons’s (1949) conception of a system as “a network of collectivities, side by side, overlapping, and larger-smaller” (p. 101), we describe the overlapping of this group with the state and with other collectivities that emerged as the effort went along. Finally, we argue that although the state’s educational system remains loosely linked, democratic, contentious, and noisy, this language arts effort heightened the mutual awareness and interdependence of the system’s separate parts and so served the purposes of systemic reform.

The article tells the story of Michigan’s effort to create a language arts curriculum. Our story is embedded in an attempt by the governor, legislature, Department of Education, and (sometimes) the State Board of Education at state systemic reform. The focus of the article is that part of the overall effort that was directed toward the language arts curriculum. Although funded by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and initiated by the state, the language arts work was undertaken by a loosely connected but long-associated set of language arts professionals who, although suspicious of the state’s motives and authority, cared a great deal about what they called best practice in language arts and embraced the state initiative to push their views. Working from Parsons’s (1949) conception of a system as “a network of collectivities, side by side, overlapping, and larger-smaller” (p. 101), we describe the overlapping of this group with the state and “with other collectivities that emerged as the effort went along. Finally, we argue that although the state’s educational system remains loosely linked, democratic, contentious, and noisy, this language arts effort heightened the mutual awareness and interdependence of the system’s separate parts and so served the purposes of systemic reform.


Since the early 1980s, the prevailing school reform strategy among states has been toward more centralized and more encompassing legislative and administrative control, control that would give states power to “shape policy, aggregate interests, and control and channel conflict” (Timar, 1997, p. 231). Foremost among these reforms have been comprehensive state-sponsored standards raising efforts that include the creation of curricular guidelines and frameworks, student testing programs, and increased graduation requirements (Darling-Hammond & Falk, 1997; Firestone, Rosenblum, Bader, & Massell, 1991; Porter, 1994; Reiguluth, 1997). These efforts are often phrased in ways that reflect Smith and O’Day’s (1990) suggestion that a reformed system would consist of “challenging and progressive curriculum frameworks, a supportive organizational environment and instructional content directed toward complex thinking and problem solving” (p. 235).

Our intent is to illustrate the workings of one standards-raising event—a language arts reform—as it unfolded inside a stream of contiguous and contemporary efforts, the sum of which were designed to change the way our state—Michigan—does education. We will describe the language arts effort; we will describe also those elements that influenced the effort and, in so doing, illuminate not only what happened in language arts but also what can happen to reform as it flows into the educational system and interacts with ongoing elements.

The Michigan English Arts Framework Project (MELAF) originated in 1993 with Michigan’s Public Acts 335 and 339, which called for an academic core curriculum that would include language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science and a Goals 2000 grant to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). The latter was to help the MDE create the language arts component of the curriculum called for by Public Acts 335 and 339. MELAF proposed to develop integrated standards in English language arts and—from those standards—develop state assessments and provide guidelines for curricular implementation, teacher education, and teacher certification. The curriculum would be reflected in the state assessments given to 4th and 7th graders and the high school proficiency test given to 11th graders. Passing the latter would give the student a state-endorsed diploma. Added to the total package were provisions for certifying schools on the basis of student performance and state takeover of schools with consistently low scores.

The legislation contained two additional elements that, though not central to our story, illustrate the state’s seriousness. One levered school funding away from a reliance on local property tax to a reliance on an increased sales tax; the second opened a statewide school choice program, as well as a limited number of charter schools. Henceforth, not only would 85% of school funds—up from 34%—be allocated by the state on a per-pupil basis but also a pupil or his or her family could elect a different school, even a different district and, should that district be participating in the “choice” program, take the student’s $5,000 to $6,000 foundation grant with them. Similarly, if the parent’s choice was for an approved charter school, that school would receive the student’s foundation grant. Thus, decreased reliance on property tax, some limited choice and charter, and state-mandated curriculum came together in a package.


Our methods were ethnographic: observation, interview, and limited participation. We were originally invited into MELAF to do a 3-year evaluation/field study called for in the proposal. We followed the endeavor from its initial planning sessions, where standards and benchmarks were hammered out, into the Department of Education and State Board meetings, where they were discussed (sometimes opposed, occasionally ridiculed). They then went back into planning sessions; later into demonstration schools, where teachers took up the task of changing their practices; and finally into classrooms, where we watched to see how the reform showed up in student work.

From the beginning, we were seen as supporters, as members of the project, as professional educators—indeed we are both experienced English teachers—as people concerned about advancing language arts. The problem was not access but perhaps a too-close alliance with the effort. Our situation exemplifies the occasional problem educators who do fieldwork face. Value belief systems underlay all educational improvements, and researchers given access to such an effort are assumed to be insiders who share the values and beliefs. To not share them would be taken as evidence that one did not understand the effort or, worse, did not care about students. But as researchers we had to maintain some critical stance toward what others took as fact. Hopefully that does not mean misreading participants’ efforts; certainly it does not mean questioning their integrity. But it does mean keeping some intellectual distance, asking not only about what we were seeing but also about what we were not seeing, about what was not happening as well as what was happening. To manage the dilemma, we regularly provided drafts of our analyses to project staff and participants, elicited and responded to feedback, and attempted to maintain a collaborative yet critical stance. We were not always in agreement, but we were often in contact.

Our data sources included interviews, observations, and text analysis. Specifically, we analyzed the paper trail left by task forces and management teams, minutes from State Department and State Board meetings, early drafts of the standards along with revisions, and students’ work. We regularly observed settings in which the work occurred: project meetings, board meetings, planning meetings, professional conferences, teacher collaborations, and school classes. We formally interviewed key staff at key junctures. Following Becker (1958), who advises those interested in a particular organization or substantive problem to analyze the effort “by explicit reference to . . . a complex of interconnected variables . . . [thus creating] . . . a theoretical model of the organization” (p. 407), we tried to articulate and later integrate MELAF’s varied elements, as well as elements that emerged and seemed to affect the reforms in action as well as illustrate, if not systemic reform, than this effort to give a little more system to the system. As we tell our story and, following Becker, try to draw a theoretical model of how the reform worked, we will include elements that interacted with and seemed to influence the recommended reform.


The legislature said, “create an academic core curriculum,” and the mandate was passed, as educational mandates are, to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). But the MDE’s one K-12 language arts coordinator could not manage the language arts component alone. So the door opened to a small and already-associated set of people with decided ideas about language arts and who were eager to extend their ideas into more schools via a state-endorsed program. The presence of interest groups surrounding and trying to influence government has been noted by observers of the American scene since de Toqueville (1862): “Those in government are surrounded by a constant agitation of parties seeking to draw them in and enlist their support” (p. 173). The MDE needed language arts people from outside the MDE, and the language arts people wanted to put state cachet behind what they deemed “best practice.”

It all began when the MDE’s language arts coordinator called on a long-time collaborator from the University of Michigan to help her write the USDE proposal—$500,000 a year for 3 years—and to direct the effort to create the language arts core curriculum. The grant was approved and, for assistance with the project, the director called on another long-time collaborator from an intermediate school district with whom she had worked on Michigan’s New Definition of Reading (Michigan State Board of Education, 1985). Other MELAF leaders included a second language arts consultant from the same intermediate school district and her colleague, who had also directed a regional writing project. The latter two had connections with universities, state professional organizations, other language arts consultants, and they were already working with teachers in two districts that were later selected to demonstrate the standards. They also had various connections to the University of Michigan, where they had worked or attended an earlier curriculum frameworks project at Michigan State University.

Broadly represented in this effort then were a long-associated collectivity who—as Parsons (1949) explains—”shared common value patterns” (p. 25) toward language arts teaching and learning. The group included the MDE’s language arts consultant and personnel from university language arts departments, intermediate school districts, and language arts associations such as the Michigan Reading Association, the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, and the Michigan Association of Speech Communications.

The effort was then expanded by inviting in language arts administrators and teachers from four demonstration site districts. Those districts had agreed to participate and to provide substitutes on those days when their teacher/volunteers, to whom MELAF paid a stipend, were working on the project. As it turned out, project leaders were already working in or had worked in two of those districts, and teachers from those districts who joined MELAF had a history with and were conversant in the core group’s ideas about integrated language arts.

The story thus far is an illustration of Kingdon’s (1984) theory of policy making. The government, in this case the USDE with its Goals 2000 and the state with its tax-reform/educational improvement agenda, initiated an effort. But those groups needed interested professionals from outside to do the actual work. And waiting, just outside the door as it were, was a loosely formed set of professionals eager to move their formulated views to a wider statewide audience and to do the state’s work the way they wanted the work done.

Organized into grade-level task forces, more than 200 language arts professionals set about the work. Their organization included a management team, four task forces, a joint subject-matter steering committee, an equity advisory panel, an evaluation, panel, and a teacher education task force. Among the 200 were teachers who would later demonstrate the standards in their classrooms. The logic was clear: Create standards and benchmarks, take them through a state’s approval process, demonstrate their worth in four school districts, and integrate them—via proficiency tests—into Michigan’s 567 school districts. Along the way, also coordinate them with teacher education programs and similar efforts in mathematics, social studies, and science—an ambitious and systemic undertaking.


During the 1st year, the standards emerged from the discussions, undergoing multiple revisions. Later, grade-level benchmarks and vignettes to provide examples of the standards in action were added. Standards, benchmarks, and vignettes represent different degrees of generality, but let us focus on the standards as drafted by MELAF and submitted to the State Board in the fall of 1994. These initial standards are the clearest statement of the language arts professionals’ vision (see Figure 1). Understanding that vision is pivotal to understanding the reform.


Central to our story is the way this effort combined organizational elements such as state oversight, coordination, and evaluation with intellectual and pedagogical notions that reside inside curricular disciplines. Let us present and discuss these standards as a pedagogical and intellectual statement that emerged from the participants’ readings, lectures, discussions, and scores of revisions.

The standards are based on the constructivist dictum that meaning is created by the reader and that the reader actively negotiates language through his or her own frame of reference, drawing on prior knowledge, sociocultural lenses, and individual dispositions. The standards support integration of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing. Skills, a term that warms the heart of The Detroit News, Michigan’s Chamber of Commerce, and the (then) State Board of Education, are not discounted, but the standards suggest students learn them in the context of language activities (Standard 6). Because these are content—not performance—standards, they never say, “students will know.” Rather, they say students will “understand, explore, view, use, develop, monitor . . .” Literacy learning is not a foreign entity, an abstraction; it is a personal tool, personally empowering, and one acquires and uses it in personal ways. Pedagogies that require students to actively “do” literacy are celebrated, and students are encouraged to develop personal criteria for engagement (Standards 5, 6, 10). As such, the standards are associated with pedagogies such as readers’ and writers’ workshop, whole language, and thematic units.

Students are to not merely read books, plays, and poetry; they are to “interact” (Standard 3) with literature and more, to “explore the constraints and possibilities of. . . . texts” (Standard 6). They are to create language usage, to “demonstrate the power of their voices,” and to “view themselves as authors and actors” (Standard 4). They are to “develop . . . personal, shared, and academic criteria for the enjoyment, appreciation and evaluation of . . . texts” (Standard 10).

Students’ active engagement is the goal, as in authentic instruction that relates school knowledge to real-world contexts (Standards 7, 8, 9). Standards 3, 6, and 10 reflect literary theory’s reliance on intertextuality, which focuses on the reader actively constructing meaning by connecting text to text (Barthes, 1975, 1977). Links may occur through quotation, through source texts, through the idiosyncratic connections made by a reader’s perceptions and experience (Hartman, 1995). Standards 7, 8, and 9 are designed to make language arts personally meaningful. Students are to bring subject matter to school with them to “investigate important issues and problems” (Standard 9), “to take action that affects their lives . . .” (Standard 8), “to view themselves as authors and actors,” and write about “enduring issues and recurring problems” (Standard 7).

Furthermore, the standards—as in 2 and 3—avoid any phrase like “Western civilization” or “common culture,” choosing instead to affirm America’s “different linguistic communities” and its “diverse societies and cultures.” Although Standard 2 recognizes the primacy of English, it is phrased to recognize other languages and language patterns, as is Standard 3, which stresses “respect for diverse societies and cultures.” Lost in the group’s enthusiasm for multiculturalism was the fact that the expressive volubility that Standards 1, 4, and 7 encourage is a characteristic limited to a few—and mostly upper class—Western cultures.

Explicit attention is called to the act of writing (Standards 1, 4, 6, 9), which does not emerge mysteriously and perfectly but through brainstorming, drafting, and editing (Elbow, 1973). Speaking, listening, and viewing demand conscious deployment of skills. Students might become aware of their own communicative skills and processes by receiving feedback from teachers and peers, writing in reflective journals, evaluating their own output, logging their reading by genre, or assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Reading too is central (Standards 3, 6, 9), but what students are to read is left open by the term “text”—a favorite intellectual tool of the semioticians—which might be anything written, printed, or graphically represented. A text is whatever conveys meaning, be it a sign, word, graphical layout, cultural product, image, literary work, or pattern. Meanings are, by necessity, dispersed and deferred (Derrida, 1967, 1976).

“Voice,” as used in Standard 4, is an interesting term. At one level, everyone has one. Hence, a student creating and sharing any product will in some sense exhibit voice. At a second level voice, as used here, it connotes active participation in a populist democracy, the means through which students edge toward civic life and “take action that affects their lives” (Standard 8). At a third level and to some feminists, voice suggests women’s developing autonomy, their move away from silent, received roles in families, schools, and other institutions (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986). All three levels are present in Standard 4.

There is also the matter of the standards’ ideology, a term some of the MELAF participants objected to when we used it. We mean nothing derogatory but instead in the literal sense of the word, “a systemic body of concepts,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, as a way to recognize that the standards present a coherent vision of language, learning, and life.

Within the ideology is a strong dose of romanticism, traced perhaps to the 17th century literature that validates inner experience, imagination, and personal meaning. Rousseau, the quintessential romanticist, believed that man is essentially good and happiest in a state of nature, free from the institutions and artificial restraints of organized society. Related to romanticism is multiculturalism, which directs attention toward the country’s shifting demographics and egalitarian ideals and takes a pluralist stance toward language awareness (Banks, 1993).

Associated with multiculturalism is a discarding of the notion that there is a best way of speaking and writing English and a canon that exemplifies America’s common culture. Standard 3 is a striking statement of literary and cultural relativism. Rather than culture-as-canon, the standards present culture-as-mosaic, to which different racial and ethnic groups contribute and whose contributions should be recognized. MELAF standards counter the notion that culture is a mere repository of already decided-upon works that hold a privileged place in society. Culture emerges through democratic discussion. Both romanticism and multiculturalism promote the idea that the learner can fuel his or her own intellectual and linguistic growth.

A third idea, constructivism, covers a wide range of ideas and practices (Phillips, 1995). Constructivists argue that learners are not passive recipients of whatever schools pass on; instead, learners shape and sculpt received stimuli with their biological capacities, sociocultural norms, cognitive habits, and psychological dispositions. Similarly, students do not merely decode strings of sounds to form words, nor string words together to determine meaning. Constructivists argue that learners construct meaning from text by making informed guesses derived from sound-symbol relationships, normative patterns of text and communication, and syntax and context clues triggered by prior knowledge. Moreover, they do so in the company of other learners, creating common and shared knowledge.

There is also within the ideology expressed in the standards a strong element of poststructuralism, which draws attention to language as a social practice, created in the ongoing dialectic between self and society. Poststructuralism has an inherent distaste for status and authority and denies the validity of finally analyzed and correct interpretations, offering instead answers that are permeable, relative to time, place, and circumstance. The final element in the ideology is feminism, which is implied in several standards. Like multiculturalism, feminism stresses the variety of learners and ways of learning, rather than depending on normative and prescriptive models or traditionally accepted, and perhaps patriarchal, academic practices.

Overlapping and complementary, these ideas—romanticism, multiculturalism, constructivism, feminism, and poststructuralism—are part of the broad 20th century sweep from positivism to relativism, from canonical to personal meaning. They reflect a contemporary suspicion of objective knowledge and a hermeneutical suspicion of the relation between knowledge and interest. As a set, these ideas emphasize the personal over the communal, multi- over mono-culture, critique over catechism. As curricular standards, they prepare children for a future that is not an image of the past. It was this tacit agreement about this set of ideas that enabled the MELAF group to proceed through the exercise of standards setting without debilitating disagreements.

In sum, the governor and legislature, responding to demands for reduced property taxes, choice and charters, and the perennial cry for school improvement, stirred the waters of the state’s educational system. Rising to the surface was a long-associated set of language arts professionals with well-considered ideas about practice who welcomed the opportunity to put state cachet behind their ideas. It was important to make those ideas clear because when the standards left MELAF’s internal discussions and entered the public discourse, those ideas about language arts—not educational improvement or systemic reform—became the focus.


Just prior to the January 1995 State Board meeting at which MELAF’s proposals were to be presented were the November 1994 elections, in which the Republicans retained the governor’s office and won a majority in the state legislature and on the State Board of Education. The erstwhile State Board minority was now the majority, and at the January 1995 meeting that majority picked MELAF’s request to apply for a continuation of funds to illustrate what it did not like about the educational system: federal funding, progressive and child-centered curriculum, and a state bureaucracy that determines curriculum and tests outcomes.

This new board majority had their own reform agenda: dismantle the Michigan Department of Education; eliminate the 1,000-page school code; relax teacher certification; provide state funding for charter, private, and even private religious, schools; and eliminate the public schools’ monopoly on tax money and students. The board agenda was greeted enthusiastically by advocates of charter and home schools, lobbyists for conservative organizations (one of whom—at a public hearing—vowed to “rid the schools of the John Dewey industrial model”), school prayer backers, and its own conservative members who referred to the public schools as “government schools” or more pointedly, as “a government monopoly that needs to be broken up” and (sometimes) a “centrally planned economy in a communist state.” This majority said it wanted to “rescue the educational system from the education bureaucrats and return it to the parents” (The Detroit News, 1995, p. 8A).

The board majority—like the Republican Party—was both libertarian and moralist. The libertarian side saw the standards as both advocating and being advocated by a swollen, expensive, out of touch, and too liberal MDE, which interfered with citizens’ rights to choose their own form of schooling. This side of the board was represented by its president, who believed in a publicly funded system of private schools, a system characterized by “choice, charter and market,” as he liked to say. His main supporter on the board was an economics professor who home schooled his own children and later opened his own charter school in one of the project’s demonstration districts and who, at board meetings, would on occasion read aloud from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. His suggestion was that, rather than spend 1.5 million federal dollars on MELAF, the state just “buy a language arts curriculum for $500.”

The board’s moralist side saw the standards’ child-centeredness, constructivism, and multiculturalism as evidence of cultural and linguistic relativism, which they believe is responsible for the poor performance and behavior of American students. Their comments give evidence of a belief that social stability depends on teaching mainstream culture and respect for that culture, and though they might admit that culture is socially constructed, they do not trust schoolchildren to construct it. Hence, they disparaged the standards for vagueness, for offering no concrete recommendations about what students should learn, for failing to indicate where instruction was supposed to lead, and for giving no hint as to how teachers would know when their goals were met. The moralists wanted performance standards with reading lists, grammar, spelling, phonics, sentence diagramming, and books specified by title. “Where’s Moby Dick?” one wanted to know.

At one point, the board said they would not approve the project’s continuation unless the management was transferred from the “too-liberal” University of Michigan to a rural intermediate school district:

State Board plans to expel U-M as core curriculum consultant: “We’re not going to be using U of M anymore” . . . “They’ve spent almost a million dollars and the product we’re gotten from them isn’t very good.” Said State Board member, Gary Wolfram. “The value received for the money just isn’t there” added Board Member Sharon Wise. (The Detroit News, 1995, p. A-1)


The State Board had the headlines, but the MDE had a legislative mandate and, along with MELAF, a federal contract to fulfill. As the responsible bureaucracy, the MDE had to mediate between the State Board, which by the state’s constitution approves curriculum, and MELAF, which represented the state’s language arts establishment. Subsequently, the project director went to the board and explained that the board was not free to transfer a federal contract from one fiscal agent to another. The MDE personnel who, following state statue, had taken the core curriculum to public hearings, worked with MELAF on some changes that would satisfy—or at least not enrage—the board.

The process began in the fall of 1994 with the MDE holding a series of regional meetings and videoconferences to showcase the standards and elicit feedback. Alongside general support, several areas of concern surfaced in the public meetings, including the fear that the emphasis on “all students” might not take into account special needs students, that the standards lacked attention to basic skills, overemphasized whole language, and abandoned phonics. Some respondents criticized the standards as wordy, too cognitively complex for younger students, and inappropriately value-aden. Some parents feared that the standards’ implied values might conflict with those promoted at home.

As a result of public comments and board reactions, several changes were suggested. The phrase “formal situations within schools, communities, and workplaces” was added to Standard 2, which had appeared to endorse the use of nonstandard dialects. The label of Standard 3 was changed from “Diversity and Culture” to “Literature” to dilute its multicultural thrust and to assure critics that the students would read books. The MDE responded to concerns about the difficulty of measuring “cultural respect” and to the worries that a “focus on diversity would fragment society.” It also responded to concerns that classic literature received insufficient attention. Thus Standard 3 was changed from “Understand and respect diverse societies and cultures, including their own, through their interaction with literature and other oral, visual, and written texts” to “Interact with a wide variety of classic and contemporary literature and other texts to seek information, ideas, enjoyment, and understanding, of their individuality, our common humanity, and the rich diversity in our society.”

The MDE/MELAF group kept the name of Standard 4 but shifted its language from the more self-referenced “view themselves as authors and actors and demonstrate the power of their voices” to the more society referenced “view themselves as effective speakers and writers and demonstrate their expressive abilities.” The name of Standard 5 was changed from “Self-regulation and Reflection” to “Skills and Processes.” In the public hearings, “self-regulation” had raised the fear that the standards would encourage unregulated behaviors. Also toned down were notions of multiculturalism. The word “genre” was eliminated from Standard 6 because it had attracted considerable ridicule from the board.

Several other lines were also changed. Whereas an early version of Standard 8 called on students to “take action that affects their lives and the lives of others,” the final version said only that students should “apply knowledge . . . to their lives and the lives of others.” The board and some parents had said they did not want students “running around and taking action.” And whereas the original Standard 3 had called on students to “understand and respect diverse societies and cultures,” the revised version said that students should “seek information, ideas, enjoyment, and understanding of . . . the rich diversity of our society.”

The MDE personnel worked with project leaders to change aspects of the standards that made reference to personal experiences, cultural and linguistic pluralism, and literacy as personal and community empowerment. It added emphasis on skills, literature, formal use of language, and cultural assimilation. But it did not substantially change a set of standards that had emerged from a professional consensus that the MDE itself had initiated and—through the USDE—funded. As a cograntee of MELAF, the MDE had been part of the process from the beginning. Although the MDE suggested and pushed alterations, they did not change the central ideas.

As Kingdon (1984) pointed out, civil servants—in this case the MDE—need the support of interest groups—in this case the language arts professionals. The MDE is closer to legislation; the MELAF group is closer to practice. Each needs the other. Additionally, the MDE had to move a set of suggested standards through a political process—replete with public participation and subsequent response to public feedback—into legal code and statue. True, their bureaucratic caution was exacerbated by the board’s political leanings, but their task was to move the standards project forward, and they were doing it. The final version of the MELAF standards appear in Figure 2.

Project participants had been dismayed over the State Board’s actions and reactions, and some were incensed by the board’s attempt to pillory the project director. Although some project participants resigned, not wanting to compromise with the State Board, most—including the core group—stayed with the project, recognizing that deserting the project on principle would negate the gains already achieved. Some spoke of prior naivete about educational politics and their disappointment that the State Board could so swiftly circumvent a year of professional consensus building. But in our view, the board did not circumvent the process. It participated in and played its constitutionally legitimized role.


There are three parts to our story. First, the MELAF standards-creating effort; second, the revision efforts; and third, the role of teachers in the project. The third describes teacher participation and illustrates both the extent of the language arts establishment and the importance of teachers in legitimating the MELAF enterprise.1

Renorming language arts with constructivist teaching and learning, whole language, problem solving, flexible skills, cooperative teaching, and integrated approaches has been going on for decades and had come to dominate the professional discourse long before the project started. Members of the core group said that the movement began 30 years previous with James Grey’s Bay Area Writing Project, which advocated teachers teaching teachers and writing teachers becoming writers. Demonstration district teachers had learned that credo from several sources: the National Board of Professional leaching Standards, graduate classes, professional organizations and professional development seminars, colleagues, and writing projects. Several MELAF teachers had been in district workshops with three of the project leaders and were already doing what the reforms advocated. All volunteered for the project as individuals. Unlike reforms that attempt to obtain compliance from a school’s entire staff, this project elicited none of the acrimony that Muncey and McQuillan (1996) described in their study of the Coalition of Essential Schools reforms, which focused on schools qua schools, where uncooperative colleagues could and did initiate counterefforts.


Throughout, MELAF teachers enjoyed the support of their district administrators. Although some administrators were convinced that the suggested approaches were the best way to teach language arts (several attended the MELAF training sessions), all were pleased to see teachers involved and taking charge of the curriculum. Administrators were pleased also by a project that showed their districts to be keeping up-to-date in the newly competitive student market, where 85% of funds came from the state, where funds were allocated on a per-pupil basis, and where any student could leave the district and take his or her foundation allowance. Reforming the district curriculum around emerging state standards was evidence of districts “doing something” about curriculum.

As a group, the MELAF teachers were looking for solutions to the practical problems of teaching language arts. They were quite critical of basal texts, 20 spelling words a week and the test on Friday, grammar, diagramming, and mandated reading lists. The more experienced talked disparagingly of the years they spent skilling and drilling (“killing and drilling” as they say) and spoke enthusiastically of their first encounter with a colleague, consultant, professor, or supervisor who told them about whole language, writing across the curriculum, writers’ workshop, or integrated language arts. Experience taught these teachers that readers frame their reactions from their experience, that interpretations are influenced by language, codes, culture, and identities, and that if students are encouraged to write from personal experience, they are more likely to attend to their writing and reading. These teachers believed that students are more likely to engage in language in purposeful contexts and that students need multiple opportunities to read, write, speak, and listen. Each had volunteered for a project that promised to help him or her continue on a personally chosen trajectory of professional development.

Exhibiting little of the privatism, conservatism, and isolation that Lortie (1975) wrote about 25 years ago and that still defines many teachers’ working lives, demonstration site teachers were not only out of their classrooms and leading curricular change, they took advantage of MELAF resources and encouragement to do literacy the way they wanted their students to do it. They checked out books from the project library, read and shared reactions with colleagues, wrote reflective journals, and published articles. Some conferenced about their writing with colleagues or together kept a “walking journal” and published their reflections. Others said that they were taking time to read professional articles and noted that they viewed themselves as writers who shared their work with colleagues and students.

Many reported that they felt newly literate. They had taken seriously the relationships between language learning and usage, between experience, meaning, and literacy, and their own need—as language arts teachers—to become practitioner-researchers and to participate in discourse communities (Bransford, 1979; Bussis, Chittenden, Amarel, & Kalusner, 1985; Stock, 2000).

Some teachers organized building study groups. Others chaired North Central Association accreditation committees where they worked to make the standards the building norm. Still others served as department chairs and interested their colleagues in reading professional articles and revamping courses. In one district where a citizens group advocating direct instruction and phonics moved to replace school board members who supported the reforms, MELAF teachers organized a countercampaign and succeeded in reelecting their board supporters.

In statewide arenas, MELAF teachers presented and facilitated at conferences, and some were invited to run demonstration programs for other districts. Others wrote a proposal to serve as a visitation site for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual meeting; still others presented at NCTE, Michigan Council of Teachers of English (MCTE), Michigan Reading Association (MRA), American Educational Research Association (AERA) and intermediate school districts. Several wrote articles during MELAF summer institutes and distributed the articles via publications through the Literacy Consortium (an integrated amalgamation of the state’s language arts associations). And later, when the standards had become part of the state’s curriculum and when districts were concerned about their students passing the associated state tests, several teachers received visitors wanting to see the recommended practices in action.

Many teachers said they could not always keep the standards, benchmarks, and vignettes straight—”Everything is connected to everything”—but they had no trouble translating the message into practical advice: “Make the curriculum fit the kid, not the kid the curriculum . . . Teaching print makes kids word-callers. . . .Introduce subject matter with something fun. . . . No more killing-and-drilling. . . . Let them write what they care about.” Several admitted, too, that teaching with the new methods was hard, “I didn’t know how to start; in the beginning, it was worse than teaching in the old way. I was having them write recipes.”

In addition to changing their own behavior, MELAF teachers were to demonstrate and encourage colleagues to emulate their efforts. Some ran into the predictable barriers such as closed doors, isolated classrooms, and autonomous colleagues. One principal might support the new methods; another might not. In response to the question, “How many teachers are using the new methods?” the superintendent in one demonstration district said, “They’re all doing it.” In the same district, a principal said, “Some are doing it.” But no demonstration teacher would admit to more than “just a few doing it.” We always asked the teachers, “What are the other teachers doing?” Middle and elementary teachers could identify by name those few colleagues were doing language arts the way the standards suggested, but high school teachers admitted that they “had no way of knowing.”

Yet the effort attracted a substantial number of teachers in the four districts, teachers who were not only changing or had changed their practice but who also were willing to participate in MELAF and connect their schools to the standards. Our effort did not extend to district changes, so we have no comment on their success except to say that the demonstration districts, and many more, are at present committed to putting language arts in line with state standards.

Toward the end of the project, MELAF teachers were asked by project leaders to explain the revised standards to the State Board. Earlier we argued that the original—and to some degree, the revised—standards bespoke a mixture of romanticism, multiculturalism, constructivism, feminism, and poststructuralism, which the State Board found offensive. Going back to that mixture, the presenting teachers made no Rousseauian distinction between the individual and society, and they affirmed no natural and happy human condition apart from the institutions and restraints of organized society. They assured the board that they do teach phonics, grammar, spelling, and the classics, and that standards and benchmarks, which appear culturally and linguistically relative, would indeed lead to conservative social ends. They affirmed their agreement with the board that the happiest people are those who get along in workplace, school, and community, and who become the law-abiding citizens that teachers see themselves as. They assured the board further that more students would become that way if teaching elicits students’ interests. Further, they argued that eliciting student interest and involvement does not encourage disrespect for American culture; it is simply good pedagogy.

Although not addressing ideology directly, the teachers affirmed the standards’ romanticism, feminism, and multiculturalism, but only insofar as they lead to personal respect and social responsibility. Although they argued from a commonsense form of constructivism, they ignored the poststructuralist critique of values and authority. They gave a conservative twist to the more radical standards and spoke to the board’s moralist and conservative sides, assuring skeptical members that what appeared as linguistic relativism and cultural anarchy would lead to desirable social ends.

The board was quite respectful and appeared convinced, or at least not unconvinced, but it refused to “approve” the standards. It merely “accepted” them, adding that the curricular standards for all academic areas would be suggested, not mandated, and that Michigan’s 567 school districts—while required by law to develop curricula—could use the state standards as “models.” The State Board also added two standards of its own, placing then as Standards 1 and 2, to be followed with the revised MELAF standards we enumerated earlier (see Figure 2):

Standard 1. All students will read and comprehend general technical material.

Standard 2. All students will demonstrate the ability to write clear and grammatically correct sentences, paragraphs and compositions.

In the fall of 1996, at what was to be the culmination of the whole curricular effort, the board listened to MELAF participants who spoke in favor of the benchmarks (which were intended to articulate students’ developmental progress toward each standard). They listened also to a group of language arts people that the board had funded with Goals 2000 money and from whom they hoped for an alternative view of language arts. The latter group—all but one of whom was from outside the state—argued for phonics, direct instruction, and 26 letters and 33 sounds with 95% accuracy, and attacked the MELAF standards and benchmarks as vague, abstract, and without direction.

At the end of that meeting, the board president recommended that the work “be allowed to continue” but that “the Board recognized that some things need to be addressed.” The new state superintendent, who had been appointed by the governor in part to calm the board (and who later told the researchers that on that day and about that issue he “did not want a fight”), said that the standards and benchmarks needed some “wordsmithing” and that he would get back to project leaders. Whereupon MDE staff, invested in the project and committed to concluding a contract with the USDE, went ahead and published MELAF standards and benchmarks, along with those from social studies, mathematics and science, and put them out to the to the schools with the following caveat:

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Michigan State Board of Education and no official endorsement by the Michigan State Board of Education should be inferred. (Michigan Department of Education, 1996)


Our story—of a federally backed state initiative capitalized on by a professional network, opposed by politically elected body, moderated by a bureaucracy, and channeled into practice by (some) teachers—illustrates what several have already noted about educational policy making. That schools are a theater for playing out cultural conflicts has been noted by Cohen and Neufeld (1981). That practice and policy interact has been noted by Cohen and Ball (1990). That it is “incredibly hard . . . to make something happen across layers of government and institutions” has been noted by McLaughlin (1987). That teachers have to be included in reform has been noted by Tyack and Cuban (1995), and that the system frustrates central power has been noted by Cohen and Spillane (1990). Policy making, as a set of overlapping games, has been noted by Firestone (1989), and education’s formal organization as an arena in which interest groups compete for public recognition was noted by Cusick (1993). Thus, there is much here that our story reaffirms.

But every story contains unique lessons, and the MELAF effort has its own lessons. First is the depth and intellectual coherence of what we called the state’s language arts establishment. It included the MDE, universities, professional associations, districts, and teachers. The effort was in action long before the project, was quickly mobilized, and legitimately presented itself as speaking for Michigan language arts. There are opposing views of language arts, but when the State Board wanted to access and publicize those views, they had to go outside the state. The organizational success of the project lay in its ability to present itself as the legitimate representative of Michigan’s language arts professionals and, more, to present the standards as ideationally coherent. That the teachers softened the standards with their practice did not mean that they were less committed to the ideas.

A second lesson is the ability of the MDE acting on legislative mandate to do their work in the face of shifting, even hostile, politics. The standards were written, passed through a political process, and sent to districts eager to present an up-to-date and test-aligned curriculum. The standards gave the MDE a stronger presence in districts and gave districts the organizationally coherent face that they need. True, when the standards entered schools, they ran into the well-documented barriers to changing teaching. But educational policy is not only about changing practice; it is also about system coherence and public confidence, both of which were served by the project.

Third, we all know, echoing Tyack, Cuban, McLaughlin, and others, that teachers have to be included in reform. Our story illustrates what they contribute. Not only did teachers legitimize the reforms by joining and doing the project’s work, they also legitimized the reforms to critics and gave the standards a practical and reassuring slant that mollified a hostile State Board. They turned radical ideology into a palatable pedagogy and so deflected the board’s criticisms. A politician can publicly disparage a premier university but not a fifth-grade teacher.

Finally, let us suggest that the effort significantly contributed to systemic reform because it helped ratchet together several of the system’s pieces and created a cohesion not previously present. Let us further suggest that the effort contributed to what Durkheim (1949) calls a system’s “organic solidarity.” The evidence is weaker than one might like, but as Durkheim says, “solidarity is a completely moral phenomenon which taken by itself does not lend itself to exact observation nor indeed to measurement” (p. 64). In the absence of “exact observation,” let us consider Michigan’s educational scene if none of what we described happened: if the Goals 2000 money had not been received; if the legislators not attempted to improve curriculum; if the MDE had not called on the language arts people nor the language arts people on one another; if the State Board had not found its voice relative to MELAF and its limits relative to the MDE; and if, demonstration site teachers had not left their classrooms to join with colleagues nor confronted the State Board with their practices.

The events as they came together may not have been systemic reform. But the interaction among the system’s separate parts, the increased awareness that even while performing separate roles the participants were mutually dependent, and that reforms being discussed at the state were assisting teachers solve practical problems, all contribute to our conclusion that the project pushed the system’s pieces toward a greater realization of one another’s power and a greater awareness of their mutual interdependence. Hence, we would argue that although this language arts effort may not have been as far-reaching as reformers call for, it still brought about changes in the direction of systemic reform.

The research reported here was supported by the College of Education at Michigan State University and the Spencer Foundation (grant # 199600129). Earlier drafts of this piece benefited considerably from the feedback of anonymous reviewers, Kathryn Bell, Laura Roop, Suzanne M. Wilson, and Karen Wixson.


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PHILIP CUSICK is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. He is the author of Inside High School, The Egalitarian Ideal and the American High School, The Educational System: Its Nature and Logic, and a coauthor of Selling Students Short. He is currently writing a book on lives of learning.

JENNIFER BORMAN is a research and development specialist with the Education Alliance at Brown University. She is currently researching professional development outcomes in high-poverty schools as part of the Northeast and Islands Regional Education Laboratory. Her interests include curriculum policy, teacher learning, and literacy. She is the author of “Practitioners’ Learning and School Reform: Lessons from ‘Extension with Parallel Block Scheduling’” in the Journal of Educational Policy and recently finished working on Voices of English Language Learners, a video.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 4, 2002, p. 765-786
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10892, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 2:48:07 PM

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  • Philip Cusick
    Michigan State University
    PHILIP CUSICK is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. He is the author of Inside High School, The Egalitarian Ideal and the American High School, The Educational System: Its Nature and Logic, and a coauthor of Selling Students Short. He is currently writing a book on lives of learning.
  • Jennifer Borman
    Brown University
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    JENNIFER BORMAN is a research and development specialist with the Education Alliance at Brown University. She is currently researching professional development outcomes in high-poverty schools as part of the Northeast and Islands Regional Education Laboratory. Her interests include curriculum policy, teacher learning, and literacy. She is the author of “Practitioners’ Learning and School Reform: Lessons from ‘Extension with Parallel Block Scheduling’ in the Journal of Educational Policy and recently finished working on "Voices of English Language Learners," a video.
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