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Standards Deviation: How Schools Misunderstand Education Policy

reviewed by Carla Edlefson - 2004

coverTitle: Standards Deviation: How Schools Misunderstand Education Policy
Author(s): James P. Spillane
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674013239, Pages: 205, Year: 2004
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James P. Spillane has developed a cognitive theory of human “sense-making” to explain what he learned about the implementation of state curricular standards in school districts. The research reported in this volume focuses on the school district’s role in the interactions between the national, state, and district policies designed to affect classroom instruction.

The study was conducted in

Michigan over several years, and used a multi-site case study design with nine local school districts. Five of the districts were selected because they had a reputation for being innovative in terms of instructional practices. Of the nine, three districts were mid-sized cities, two were suburban, and four were rural. The policies in question were new standards for mathematics and science instruction.

Spillane and his colleagues collected documents and conducted interviews with state-level actors, and they collected district policy documents and conducted 165 interviews with district policymakers. They administered the Teacher Questionnaire of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to all the third- and fourth-grade teachers and to all seventh- and eighth-grade mathematics and science teachers in the nine districts and interviewed and observed 32 of the teachers, chosen on the basis of their questionnaire responses.

Spillane took what he called an “interactive policymaking perspective,” in which he assumed that a) district level people make as well as “take” policy about instruction; b) state and federal policy influences the classroom through local policy; and c) state and federal policy is only part of the influence on local policy. Thus the research questions had to do with the role of the school district with respect to instructional standards, the school district’s response to state and national standards, how the district role changes as state standards become clearer and more authoritative, and how the school district’s own initiatives affected the implementation of state and national standards. The study found that local policymakers for instruction tended to be the curriculum and instruction specialists, rather than superintendents, school boards, or parents.

The state mathematics and instructional standards, coupled with the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), did indeed have an impact on local districts. Districts that had no previous local standards for mathematics and science instruction had to develop some and submit them to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). Districts that had had previous policies revised them. Particularly because continued state accreditation and funding were tied to performance on the MEAP, districts were motivated to change. These pressures on districts gave the local policymakers (curriculum and instruction specialists) more clout within their districts. The area of district policy that was most influenced by the state standards was topic coverage and sequencing of the curriculum. However, although the aims of the state policy included more rigorous content and student understanding of the inquiry process, only three of the districts studied pursued those objectives. These three districts Spillane referred to as “high-support” districts.

According to Spillane, conventional explanations of implementation are based on rational choice theory or principle-agent theory. These theories attribute failures in the local implementation of state or federal policy to people at the local level who make a conscious or unconscious decision not to implement the policy the way it was intended. Spillane’s cognitive approach holds that even if local people want to implement the new policy, they first have to make sense of it. People’s sense-making is key to the way that policy gets implemented. Sense-making is “an active process of interpretation that draws on the sense-maker’s experiences, knowledge, beliefs and attitudes” (p. 76). People have a tendency to misunderstand new ideas as being virtually the same thing as ideas they already have. So for example, a curriculum director mistakenly believed that the new mathematics standards were just talking about the same kinds of story problems we’ve always had. People also tend to compare new ideas with previously held ideas on the basis of surface similarities, rather than deeper structural aspects. So a curriculum director might have interpreted the new standards as calling for making problems more relevant to students’ lives, while missing the idea that the standards called for students’ being able to understand the scientific inquiry process.

Spillane found that in high support districts, policymakers had developed deeper level understandings of the standards compared to policymakers in low-support districts. The formal position held by a policymaker did not matter. Sense-making theory suggests two factors that help determine whether people construct deeper level understandings of new ideas. The factors are expertise about the subject matter, and long-term intensive thought and discussion about the new ideas.

The study found that sense-making requires resources: human resources in the form of knowledge and expertise; social resources, consisting of social networks and norms of trust; and resources of staff, time, and materials. The MDE had very few resources to support implementation of the new standards. Locally, the high-support districts had policymakers who knew where the human resources were and acted to mobilize them. So for example if there were mathematics teachers with a high level of expertise or a high level of interest in changing their instruction, those teachers were enlisted in the sense-making, i.e., the interpretation of the new standards. High-support districts also used the help of the professional associations and the universities to bolster their expertise. They built on the trust between administrators and teachers in creating opportunities to dialogue about instructional practices. High-support districts spent a lot of time working on understanding the new standards, while low-support districts used their time only to meet procedural requirements of the MDE. At least one less-wealthy district found ways to use scarce resources creatively in order to invest the time in understanding the standards. So whether or not district policies incorporated more rigorous content and student understanding of the inquiry process depended partly on the availability and use of sense-making resources.

Sense-making also helped to explain individual teachers’ uses of the new instructional standards in their classrooms. Findings based on in-depth studies of 25 teachers showed that teachers developed deeper understandings of the standards if they a) had opportunities to interact with other educators about the standards, b) had time to develop the deeper understandings, and c) developed a sense of obligation to the others in their group to change instructional practices. Districts were key in fostering teachers’ deeper understandings when they facilitated “coherence and focus in teachers’ opportunities for sense-making” (p. 160). In other words, professional development, adoption of new text books, and other district initiatives were coordinated toward implementation of the standards. But teachers’ own expertise, skills, and networks affected their sense-making as well.

In a review of research on school district structure and policy, Elmore (1993) found most districts exerted only weak and scattered influence on teaching. Few district-level administrators were assigned curriculum and instruction responsibility. Decisions on curriculum and teaching were passed down to classroom teachers without much support or guidance. Reform policies emanating from outside the district were successful only if some district level administrator took a personal interest. Since the early 1990s more states have adopted curriculum standards and frameworks and instituted assessments to measure student learning. Spillane’s study found evidence that the more recent state initiatives may have prodded districts into a more active role in curriculum and instruction.

Spillane is an excellent writer, and the book reads well. He uses examples from the case study districts very effectively, bringing the reader along to the conclusions. The sense-making theory combined with the case study data enriches our understanding of how policymaking can begin to change classroom instruction.


Elmore, R.F. (1993). The role of local school districts in instructional improvement. In S.H. Fuhrman (Ed.). Designing coherent education policy: Improving the system. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2267-2270
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11356, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 9:47:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Carla Edlefson
    Ashland University
    E-mail Author
    CARLA EDLEFSON is Professor of Educational Administration at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. Her research areas are leadership and educational politics and policy. Recent publications include “Assessing the Results of School Improvement Efforts,?in the Journal of the Ohio Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (2003), and “The Impact of Litigation on School Facilities Funding in Ohio,?with Robert Barrow, in the Journal of Education Finance, (2001). Her current research involves an interstate comparison of the effects of legislative term limits and the economic downturn on state education budgets.
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