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Negotiating Mandates and Memory: Inside a Small Schools Network for Immigrant Youth

by Reva Jaffe-Walter - 2008

Context: Networks are seen as important vehicles for educators’ professional development because they provide opportunities for educators to develop their teaching and leadership capacities and establish forums for educator resistance. Networks that also function as intermediary organizations provide spaces in which educators and network leaders can bridge and buffer the external demands of accountability policies.

Focus of Study: This article considers how the Internationals Network for Public Schools (Internationals Network) contends with the often incompatible external demands of current accountability policies, and the internal professional and pedagogical practices of their schools. First, this article explores the challenges that the International schools encounter as they negotiate commitments to inquiry-based learning and local decision making in the context of top-down mandates. Second, it discusses the history, practices, and internal challenges of the network. Finally, it provides examples of how the network acts as a bridge and buffer for the schools as it negotiates current external accountability pressures.

Setting: The International High Schools serve a population of recently arrived immigrant youth from over 90 countries, who speak over 50 languages and come from socioeconomic backgrounds that qualify most for free lunch. The International High Schools constitute a network of nine public high schools throughout New York City and one newly opened school in Oakland, California. The term network is used here to refer to both the nonprofit intermediary organization, Internationals Network, and the community of Internationals educators across schools.

Research Design: This case study engages Shore and Wright’s approach to the anthropology of policy that involves exploring policies through various sites to understand how the discourses, provisions, and technologies of education policies are encountered, experienced, and negotiated by different members of a community. This article is based on participant observation of network meetings and retreats, and interviews with educators and leaders within the Internationals Network that took place over a period of 2 years.

Findings: This study finds that the role of the network is critical in the Internationals context because it creates spaces for fostering professional community and contending with the multiple external demands of accountability policies. This study also concludes that the institutional knowledge and historical memory that has grown over time within and between International schools is a significant resource for educators as they negotiate external challenges. Finally, this study calls for an accountability of policy itself in which policy makers consider how education policies are experienced by youth, educators, and schools.

Within New York, a city that has the lowest Hispanic graduation rate of any city in the country, and where more students who are English language learners (ELLs) drop out of high school than graduate, there exists a group of small public high schools that defy the accelerating patterns of educational exclusion (New York City Department of Education, 2006; Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004). These schools, the Internationals, find themselves situated within a federal, state, and local policy environment hostile to immigrants who are ELLs, to teachers’ professional communities, and to inquiry-based learning and performance-based assessments. Yet, the International High Schools continue to work against the tide of detrimental policies while sustaining school communities dedicated to the needs of immigrant youth.

This article considers how the Internationals Network for Public Schools (Internationals Network) contends with the often incompatible external demands of current accountability policies, and the internal professional and pedagogical practices of their schools. Based on participant observation and interviews with educators and leaders within the Internationals Network, this analysis seeks to understand how educators encounter, resist, and negotiate the demands of local, state, and federal accountability mandates. First, this article explores the challenges that the International schools encounter as they negotiate commitments to inquiry-based learning and local decision making in the context of these top-down mandates. Second, it discusses the history, practices, and internal challenges of the network. Finally, it provides examples of how the network negotiates current external accountability pressures. In doing so, it considers the role of the network as it creates critical spaces for fostering professional community and contending with multiple external demands.

The International High Schools serve a population of recently arrived immigrant youth from over 90 countries, who speak over 50 languages and come from socioeconomic backgrounds that qualify most for free lunch. The International High Schools constitute a network of nine public high schools throughout New York City and one newly opened school in Oakland, California. Like other small schools around the nation, the Internationals are part of a small schools movement that has long resisted policies and practices of exclusion and are oriented toward serving the intellectual and emotional needs of students who are vulnerable in today’s schools (see Ayers, Klonsky, & Lyon, 2000; Fine, 2005; Meier, 1995; Raywid, 1997; Wasley, Fine, King, & Powell, 2001). The small size of the Internationals fosters supportive school cultures and professional communities that are able to resist the dominant discourse of exclusion and develop “actively explicit agendas geared toward the transmission of institutional support to minority children and youth” (Stanton-Salazar, 1997, p. 22).

Current neoliberal policy prescriptions that call for tightening controls on schools in the form of testing, an emphasis on “expert” knowledge, and punitive accountability measures threaten the visions, practices, and collaborative communities of small schools (Cook & Tashlik, 2005; Fine, 2005; Sadovnik & Semel, 2006). Indeed, many small schools like the Internationals now find themselves in a policy environment that is very different from when they were first established in the early 1990s. The move toward privatization and standardization, and the hegemony of high-stakes testing regimes threaten many of the professional and pedagogical commitments that are the hallmarks of small schools; test-based accountability mandates threaten commitments to inquiry-based learning and performance-based assessments (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2006; McNeil 2000; Smith, 1991), as well as commitments to shared decision making and deep collaboration within teachers’ professional communities (Ball, 2003; also Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2006).

Educators in small schools are subject to increasing number of accountability mandates that use what Ball (2003) described as the “policy technologies of education reform” (p. 217). By employing sanctions and creating narrow definitions of school success, accountability policies redefine what it means to be a teacher and what it means to “successfully educate” youth. Internationals educators are subject to the demands of accountability requirements from federal, state, and local reform initiatives. These demands include sustaining school funding under the No Child Left Behind Education Act of 2001, contending with the high-stakes testing requirements of the New York State Regents, maintaining a successful school profile on New York City’s school report cards, which are used to “market” schools, and operating within the New York City Department of Education’s accountability requirements and bureaucratic mandates. In addition, they must contend with the barriers that test-based accountability create for immigrant students who are ELLs (Batt, Kim, & Sunderman, 2005; Fine, Jaffe-Walter, Pedraza, Stoudt, & Futch, 2007; Gotbaum, 2002; Sunderman, Kim, & Orfield, 2005).


As a result of globalization and an unprecedented wave of immigration, growing numbers of immigrant youth are entering schools in the United States. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of immigrant children in U.S. schools has more than tripled, from 6% to 20%. The majority of these immigrant youth are ELLs, and they are entering the nation’s most troubled schools. Ninety four percent of the children of immigrants are living in major cities across the country and thus are far more likely to attend schools that are highly segregated and that have the least qualified teachers and the lowest per-student funding ratios (Urban Institute, 2005).

Although the U.S. economy demands immigrant labor, public institutions—schools, prisons, and health care institutions in particular—are the sites where national anxieties fuel public policies for exclusion (Olsen, 1997; Suarez-Orozco, 2001; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Further, public schools have become the places in which we mediate crises over diversity (Olsen). As a result, education policies are increasingly infused with a nationalist discourse that calls for the elimination of difference—the assimilation and Americanization of immigrant youth (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001). With a focus on social control and management, schools increasingly frame cultural and linguistic differences as challenges to be overcome or deficits to be corrected (Suarez-Orozco; Valenzuela, 1999). In the case of students who are ELLs, policies that reify test-based accountability and that undermine culturally responsive modes of teaching put these young people at risk.

Given No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on test-based accountability, many states are choosing to adopt high-stakes exit exams that are associated with ever-increasing dropout rates among ELLs (see Allensworth, 2004; Haney, 2000; McNeil, 2005; Valenzuela, 2005; Yeager, Chudowsky, & Sullivan, 2005). After California and Texas, New York has the highest number of ELLs and children of immigrants in its schools in the nation, the greatest percentage of whom attend New York City schools (Urban Institute, 2005). According to a recent longitudinal study by the NYC Department of Education (2006), a 7-year follow-up study of the graduation outcomes of students who are ELLs, more of these students dropped out of high school than graduated among the 2000, 2001, and 2002 cohorts. The report concludes that “fewer ELLS are earning a high school diploma than in previous classes, a trend that bears following in future classes”(p. 21). This longitudinal study, like others published by the New York City Department of Education in 2000 and 2001, continues to postulate that the considerable dropout rate among ELLs is likely due to New York State’s “stringent” testing requirement but fails to provide policy recommendations to address the issue. New York City’s lack of action in response to this data suggests that higher dropout is an acceptable trade-off that can be tolerated in the name of higher standards (Lipman, 2004; McDermott, 2007).

Because schools serving ELLs are more likely to be labeled as failing under the test-based accountability policies of NCLB, these students are increasingly pushed out of schools. In 2000–2001, the first year that the statewide Regents1 exams were required, 55,000 students were discharged from New York City Public Schools (Gotbaum, 2002). The Harvard Civil Rights project points to NCLB’s negative consequences for schools: “Unfortunately, the law has unintended consequences that could label a school as needing improvement simply for enrolling a large LEP (Limited English Proficient) population” (Batt et al., 2005, p. 11). The current policy environment drives school practices such as pushout, dropout, and grade retention, and the growing abuse of special education referrals. Although schools are the sites where hostile policies meet youth, schools can also buffer the adverse effect of such policies. The discussion that follows suggests that networks become an important site of protection for schools that seek to buffer the “unintended consequences” of accountability policies.


In the context of these many layers of top-down mandates, there has been a proliferation of “ networks” designed, in some cases, as critical spaces for reinforcing common commitments of similar schools and negotiating external pressures. The term network is used here to refer to both the nonprofit intermediary organization, Internationals Network, and the community of Internationals educators across schools. The practices of this network are borne out of a long history of collaboration across schools and repeated instances of resistance to external mandates. This history spans from the opening of the International High School at LaGuardia Community College in 1985, to the work of The International Schools Partnership, a confederation of three International schools established in the 1990s, to the establishment of the Internationals Network for Public Schools in 2004.2 The Internationals Network engages the institutional knowledge and historical memory that has grown over time within and between International schools (Galletta & Ayala, 2008; Wineburg, Mosborg, Porat, & Duncan, 2007).

The early literature on educational networks in the 1980s and 1990s references groups of likeminded educators gathered from across disparate educational sites to engage in professional development (Lieberman & Grolnick, 1996; Pennell & Firestone, 1996). Networks serving educators from across sites provide opportunities for educators to engage in “informed dissent from the knowledge of experts and the policies of those in positions of authority” in order to “express their reservations with recommended policies and advance their own views of good practice” (Pennell & Firestone, 1996, p. 240; El Haj, 2003).

More recently, we find the proliferation of networks like the Internationals that involve a specific community of educators who work in schools joined by common principles and student populations, and supported by a nonprofit intermediary organization. Both types of networks are seen as important vehicles for teacher learning because they provide opportunities for educators to develop their capacities as leaders, encourage the flow of new ideas from the network into individual schools, and provide forums for educator resistance (Lieberman & Grolnick, 1996; Little, 1999; McDonald & Klein, 2003; Rogers, 2007). Rogers explores the professional development practices of a national school network, the Middle College National Consortium, which is structured to improve schools by accumulating a collective of “practitioner knowledge” across a network. Following Rogers’s work, this article seeks to provide images of the work of a network as it builds a teachers’ professional community that spans individual schools (Cochran- Smith & Lytle, 1999, 2006; Little, 1999; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001).

In addition to providing forums in which educators can express dissent about policies that challenge their work, networks serving a community of schools can provide opportunities for educators to develop strategies for negotiating the external demands of policies. The emerging literature on intermediary organizations provides examples of how networks can act as bridges and buffers to negotiate external demands in the space between policy makers and schools (Honig, 2004; Honig & Hatch, 2004). McDonald, Klein, and Riordan (2004) described how a small schools network engages in the work of political buffering as schools encounter problems reconciling their unique school practices with state and local policy dictates. This article explores the way in which networks like the Internationals Network attempt to “craft coherence” between the external demands of current accountability policies and the unique internal practices of small schools (Honig & Hatch).


Prior to this study, I was part of a team that conducted a quantitative and qualitative study of the Internationals High Schools graduation and dropout rates, and graduates’ experiences of the schools and practices (Fine et al., 2007; Fine, Stoudt, & Futch, 2005). This case study engages Shore and Wright’s (1997) approach to the anthropology of policy that involves exploring policies through various sites to understand how the discourses, provisions, and technologies of education policies are encountered, experienced, and negotiated by different members of a community. To document the organization, practices, and struggles of Internationals Network as it mediates and negotiates the external demands of policy, this study involved participant observations, interviews, and site document analysis.

I engaged in participant observations of a principals’ leadership retreat and observations of network meetings over the course of a year. These observations focused on the ways in which principals and network leaders developed collective understandings of external accountability mandates, and their proposed strategies for charting a course that was consistent with the practices of their schools. This study included interviews with individuals from Internationals Network, principals, and teachers. Interviews were semi structured and based on a protocol designed to elicit information regarding relationships between network practices and school practices, the challenges and benefits of working across schools, governance practices within schools and network, and how the schools and the network experience and negotiate local, state, and federal policies. The interviews lasted between 1 and 2 hours, and most were taped and transcribed. In addition, I analyzed site documents from the Internationals Network, including professional development agendas, committee meeting minutes, and historical site documents from the International Schools Partnership.


 The participant observations and interview data were combined and analyzed together in an iterative process of coding data for preexistent theoretically derived themes about accountability mandates and practices, governance, relationships, conflicts, and networks. During the course of data collection, however, a number of new theoretical and more granular codes emerged. This analysis considers the network’s strategies for strengthening culture across schools, such as the use of collective memories and the emergence and leadership of educators who are culture carriers within the network. It consideres the practices of mediation and buffering, which involves instances in which the network negotiates with external organizations, and contradictions of policy/practice, including the varied tensions of resistance, innovation, and compromise that surface when schools are trying to survive within a test-driven system.


In many small schools, educators’ practices that center on the needs of their students are often in conflict with bureaucratic processes and policies that define how schools should be run. Ricardo Stanton-Salazar described how “the primacy of bureaucratic processes over the needs of children” leads to institutional exclusion for working-class and ethnic minority students (Stanton-Salazar, 1997, p. 23; Fine, 1991). Since the opening of the first International high school, educators have been at the center of the work to define school practices and structures that best meet the needs of their immigrant students who are ELLs even though these practices are often at odds with local policies.

In the early days of the first school, International High School at LaGuardia Community College, which was established in 1985, school leaders brought educators together to collectively consider how the school might better serve the needs of its immigrant students. After a period of intensive observation and discussion, educators decided to change the structure of the school by establishing extended class periods for project-based work, heterogeneous student groupings, dedicated time in the school week for teacher collaboration, and a democratic governance structure. To implement these new structures that were not aligned with the logic of external policies around staffing, scheduling, and financing, school leaders engaged in extensive negotiations with the union, the Board of Education, and the state (Schmerler, 2002). Honig and Hatch (2004) described schools’ ongoing challenges to “craft coherence” between internal practices and external policy mandates. They pointed out that “in schools, political values of democratic governance and participation, inclusiveness and local determination complicate attempts to streamline goals and strategies from the outside in” (p. 17). Since their founding, the International schools have had to establish and negotiate their unique school designs within the context of top-down, local, state, and federal policies.

Although a full discussion of the practices of the International schools is beyond the scope of this article, we briefly describe some of the critical elements of these spaces that the network and the schools seek to protect. In focus groups for an earlier study of the Internationals, graduates spoke of the aspects of the schools that they felt most contributed to their successful secondary and postsecondary transitions and described the small supportive communities of the Internationals (Fine et al., 2005). One graduate described,

It was such a comfort zone for me, you know. I didn’t know any English. Didn’t know where to turn to… I would come in early in the morning and go home probably at eight o’clock at night. Actually not go home, go to work, we had a little business. (p. 27)

Further, many of the interviewed students had attended junior high/middle schools where they remember “want[ing] to stay quiet” (p. 21). They feared humiliation because of accents and isolation endured in hallways and on soccer fields. At the Internationals, in contrast, “everybody has an accent” (p. 13). These graduates described school communities that are characterized by strong relationships between students and adults, and a curriculum that engages students’ native languages and experiences from their home countries. Researchers who cite the high dropout rates of immigrant youth and explore the institutional practices of exclusion in American schools describe the importance of schools that embrace the hybrid experiences of these youth and foster caring relationships (Lee, 2005; Stanton-Salazar, 1997; Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008; Valenzuela, 1999).

In addition to citing the emotional support that they received, graduates described how the school’s teaching and assessment practices fostered the development of academic skills. Students described in great detail the portfolio process in which they were required to defend their work to a panel of teachers and external reviewers. This process is particularly important for ELLs because the skills of writing, revising, and speaking are critical for postsecondary success. Students spoke about how the structure of portfolio assessment encouraged them to engage in critical work while using newly emerging language skills. One graduate said, “because we’re newcomers, because we’re new immigrants and English is our second language, portfolio gives us more flexibility to understand ourselves and to express ourselves, you know, into paper, and develop our ideas” (Fine et al., 2005, p. 15). This student described her need for “flexibility” in the form of a school environment that responds to her needs as she seeks to “understand” and “express” herself. The portfolio is an example of an Internationals practice that is structured to provide opportunities for immigrant youth to develop critical academic skills while also making sense of their transnational experiences (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001). In the next section, I will explore the way in which educators’ abilities to implement the portfolio assessment process is increasingly constrained by current accountability mandates.

The teaching and alternative assessment practices of the Internationals support substantially higher graduation and college acceptance rates as compared with other New York City schools. A quantitative analysis of the outcomes of the three oldest Internationals reveals that for students who entered International schools3 in 1998, the final graduation rate was 88.7%, compared with a 49.6% graduation rate for ELLs citywide. In addition, over 90% of these graduates were accepted to colleges when they graduated (Fine et al., 2007, 2005). Despite the Internationals’ abilities to retain and graduate students, the schools still face substantial pressures because success under NCLB is defined in terms of test scores rather than graduation rates.


As state and federal policy makers under NCLB valorize and prioritize test scores, immigrant youth, teachers, and schools must negotiate the day-to-day realities of such policies. The relentless pressure of high-stakes testing affects all of the Internationals, but each school has a different relationship to the mandated New York State Regents.4 As a result of the waiver secured by the Internationals Partnership, the oldest three schools are only required to give students two Regents exams, whereas all the newer Internationals are required to give students five Regents exams. Principals of newer schools expressed that educators from older schools “don’t understand what it is like to have to get kids through five Regents and keep the integrity of the portfolio assessment process.” Indeed, a member of network leadership acknowledged that the “the portfolio assessment process will have to be different in the new schools that have to give five tests.” Whereas the collaborative work of the Internationals Partnership provided protection for the oldest three Internationals, the newer schools have considerably more exposure to accountability pressures.

A teacher reflected on the way in which he and his students experienced accountability policies:

High-level administrators have very narrowly defined what data is. To them, data never involve talking to students and asking them about the challenges they face as immigrants in the U.S.; data never involve seeing the frustration that some students experience as they sit for an exam, often for hours beyond the test time because of accommodations they are allowed, for the third time; data never involve discovering the feelings of hopelessness and pessimism that students feel about the future because a high school diploma seems out of reach.

In contrast to the way in which policy makers define school success in terms of test scores, this educator defines success in terms of his abilities to sustain student hope in the face of high-stakes testing. Internationals educators seek to avoid the unintended consequences of policy by encouraging their students to work through their feelings of hopelessness and pessimism to overcome challenges. Data reveal the way in which accountability pressures complicate educators’ work to provide emotional and academic support for their immigrant youth who are ELLs.


“There will always be a tension between the test-based culture and the project-based culture, but it’s our job as principals to protect our schools from outside attack and to protect our teachers.” As described by this principal, many of the core commitments and practices of the Internationals are at odds with the logic of current accountability mandates. Like other schools, the Internationals must contend with the loss of instructional time to the demands of testing, and, just as important, the Internationals are challenged to sustain the core pedagogical practices of the school (Smith, 1991). For example, educators are stretched to maintain their portfolio assessment practices while satisfying the demands of high-stakes testing. One principal described the challenges:

We are committed to portfolio but unlike the older Internationals, we have to give our kids five Regents. Giving Regents takes a lot of time, and sometimes portfolios get less time than they deserve because teachers are busy giving and grading Regents at the same time they are preparing their students for their portfolios. It’s tough; the time we spend on tests sends a message to the kids about what is important.

This principal’s concern about the time and energy consumed by testing was echoed by several other informants who described the lack of time for portfolio presentations and the logistical challenges of scheduling portfolio presentations and administering tests. In addition, this principal alluded to the way in which students perceive the value the school community places on the portfolio process. While educators work to strengthen the process of portfolio assessment in their schools, accountability mandates continue to challenge this work.

Under the pressures of accountability mandates, core practices once considered foundational, such as internships, have become vulnerable. Internship programs were once a requirement in all International schools as a part of a core commitment to experiential learning and community collaboration.5 As schools experienced increased pressure to dedicate more of the school day to preparing students for the Regents exams, internship programs were restructured, reduced, or even eliminated in some cases.6

Educators struggle to hold onto core International practices, and although they know that these practices are critical for their ELL students, they must make difficult choices when faced with external pressures. An administrator of the International that had discontinued its internship program is working to reestablish internships because as a former graduate of an International, she knew firsthand how internships provided important opportunities for immigrant youth to build essential skills while establishing vital connections within the local community.

In another case, a principal described how the threat of high-stakes testing led his school to pull back from its commitment to heterogeneous grouping. In its first 4 years, the school combined students from Grades 9–12 in heterogeneously grouped classes similar to the example of International High School at LaGuardia Community College. The school then changed its structure, establishing separate grades for students in Grades 9–12. As the current principal stated, “we were afraid, we knew the Regents were coming, we had to prepare our kids and we had to get organized. We didn’t want to sacrifice a group of students for our principles.”

Over the course of several years, as educators began to witness how heterogeneous grouping supported peer collaboration and saw its value in practice in other Internationals, this school chose to return to a heterogeneously grouped 9th and 10th grade. Specifically, they found that heterogeneous grouping facilitated the kind of deep learning that provided students with the skills they needed to pass the tests and strengthen the community of the school. In addition, a network leader suggested that this school’s decision to return to heterogeneous grouping was due to the fact that educators “had the confidence to return to heterogeneous grouping after they saw that it was working in all of the new schools.” There are cases in which accountability pressures lead schools to shift practices away from core principles, and then instances in which educators revive historic practices as they witness their value in their classrooms and in peer schools.


Although educators carry the weight of accountability pressures, the costs are substantial. In our interviews, there were many references to teacher fear in the face of accountability pressures; educators described how “new teachers panic,” saying, “we were afraid, we knew that the Regents were coming.” Stephen J. Ball (2003) examined the ways in which the technologies of accountability policies shape teacher’s identities. He found that the proliferation of target setting, appraisal systems, and output comparison causes “physical and emotional damage to teachers and high levels of existential anxiety and dread” (p. 219). Internationals educators live in the specter of local, state, and federal accountability requirements as they support the multiple needs of the immigrant youth in their classrooms. They express fears about the consequences that their immigrant students will face if they don’t pass the tests, as seen in the words of the principal who worries about “sacrificing a group of kids for our principles.” Too often, educators are put in difficult situations in which they must choose between trusting their own local understandings about how to best support their students, and letting accountability fears drive their classroom practices.

One principal described the challenges that new teachers face when confronted with accountability pressures: “New teachers panic that they won’t be able to cover everything on the tests and they pull back from deep inquiry.” This principal cited examples of new teachers who lacked an understanding of how to prepare students for the tests within the context of interdisciplinary project learning. In another interview, a principal described fear as “second guessing”: “The second guessing is counter-productive, we have many teachers that are intellectually committed to project-based teaching but not emotionally committed. They get worried about the kids and fall back into traditional ways of teaching.”

Cuban (1984) and Elmore (1996) suggested that it is these “traditional ways of teaching” that frustrate the implementation of successful reforms that can potentially transform schools. Indeed, much of the professional development work of the Internationals focuses on supporting educators collectively to see beyond traditional teaching strategies for educating ELLs. However, the idea that new reforms fail because of teachers’ resistance to new ideas does not acknowledge the weight of external accountability pressures that teachers must work beneath. These pressures stifle creativity and innovation and influence educators’ understandings of their work. A principal said, “Whenever you think of anything new to try, you always remember the tests.” Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2006) described how accountability pressures under NCLB lead teachers to “reduce their practice to a narrow set of skills that increasingly bypass the kinds of professional judgments and knowledge of students and communities that many regard as the distinguishing features of excellent practice” (p. 11).

In addition, pressure to prepare students for the Regents often creates divisions within the professional communities of the schools. One teacher described feelings of frustration when working with colleagues who limited participation in interdisciplinary collaboration and insisted on maintaining a narrow focus on the disciplinary knowledge covered on the test. She explained, “At one point during a planning meeting our science teacher said that she cannot teach anything that doesn’t have to do with the Regents.” Although the schools have core commitments to collaboration, and dedicated time within the school week for this work, there are still cases in which accountability pressures cause teachers to isolate themselves within their professional communities. This reflects Pauline Lipman’s (2005) description of school accountability as “the lived experience of shattered solidarities” (p. 321).

In this context, the network is critical because it provides a space for educators to explore ways of implementing core commitments in the context of external pressures. Educators described their ongoing efforts to strengthen shared commitments through professional development within their schools and with other educators across the network. Several educators described how despite their anxieties, over time they came to understand that rich, deep inquiry-based curriculum would ultimately enable students to gain the essential skills that they need to pass the tests, and yet others still feel the obvious obligation to “cover” material on the tests. A principal spoke to the tensions between accountability requirements and Internationals’ practices: “When the testing culture that values memorization clashes with our school culture that values deep understanding, we know we need more PD [professional development].” A considerable amount of the work of the network is focused on professional development activities that reinforce the common commitments of the schools.


This section provides some glimpses into the life of a network as it engages in the dialectic of internal development and external negotiation. It explores how the Internationals Network grew from a history of collaboration and educator participation within and across schools. While providing spaces for professional development and community collaboration, the network engages in the complex dance of negotiating external pressures and internal history, and balancing the local autonomy of schools and the core principles of the network.

Internationals Network reinforces schools’ commitments to ongoing collaboration and shared decision making. Putting educators at the center of its work, the Internationals use what Rogers (2007) described as a network strategy of engaging “practitioners as integral players and leaders in developing and sharing the knowledge necessary to carry out educational reform” (p. 218). An example of such practitioner involvement in the work of the network is the professional development planning process, in which the network funds teacher representatives from the schools to plan professional development work. The purpose of this work is to build educator capacity and encourage the “cross-fertilization” of knowledge throughout the network. This work includes teacher intervisitations and network professional development activities that are led by experienced educators who have refined areas of practice. In contrast to professional development models that rely on outside providers or the transmission of a predetermined agenda and the use of educational “experts,” professional development workshops reflect the local needs within educators’ classrooms and schools (McDonald & Klein, 2003; Pennell & Firestone, 1996).

The network engages educators in its work to shape network practices and structures that respond to the changing needs of community members. The professional development structures of the network allow educators to shape the direction of the work. For example, the network supports a request-for-proposal process that provides funding for educators to work across schools in teacher-directed workgroups. This provides opportunities for educators to solve the pressing and particular needs that they face in their schools. For instance, one group of guidance counselors from three schools was funded by the network to create a college admissions resource guide that included information about how to support their undocumented students through the college admissions process.

In this way, the Internationals Network looks to community members to articulate common principles. Not only does the network engage educators in professional development across schools, but it also engages them in the work of defining what it means to be an International school. In one instance, network leaders brought principals together in a leadership retreat to articulate the core principles of the network.

Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network, pointed out that the network depends on the work of its members, and it cannot act (or exist) autonomously:

We [the nonprofit] grew up after our schools grew up . . . it wasn’t until after our fifth and sixth schools that we actually became a nonprofit. The first thing we did the first year was we simply had people come together and say “so what do we think makes an International”. . . we worked with the wording until everyone was satisfied and everyone now would say yes those are the five principles that unite us.

But because the work of reaching internal consensus about common commitments is often difficult, significant time and space are required for educators to challenge established truths and to continue redefining practice.


As the Internationals educators continue to redefine what it means to be an International, the network must find the balance between common commitments and local variation (McDonald, Klein, Riordan, & Broun, 2003). When asked about what it means to be an International school, principals and former principals agreed that all the schools were dedicated to the same set of common principles but that each school could implement those principles in different ways:

I think there is room for variation at each school, it’s all in how we interpret the principles, but there are things that could challenge whether a school could be an International . . . for example, if the curriculum was focused on the Regents or the school had 40-minute periods and didn’t support the project approach.

The point at which a local variation threatens the idea of what it means to be an International is often unclear. In particular, the schools have had many difficult conversations about how to satisfy accountability demands while remaining faithful to the core principles. The network works to strengthen commitments from within through established relationships that span generations and schools and by building the trust necessary to talk about difference. In this space between external pressures and educator knowledge, educators continue to redefine what it means to be an International within their individual schools and the network.

The network enables a kind of support and flexibility that schools need to survive intact in the current policy context. Ann Lieberman (2000) described how networks are characterized by a flexibility that allows them to meet the changing needs of their community: “Unlike bureaucratic organizations, networks are organized around the interests and needs of their participants, building agendas sensitive to their individual and collective development as educators. They can change quickly and invent new structures and activities that are responsive to their members” (p. 222).

This flexibility becomes more important given the changing nature of the policy landscape and political environment. As the schools continually face new external challenges and threats to their students, practices, and professional communities, the network attempts to remain limber enough to provide the kinds of support that schools and educators require.


While the network builds community by strengthening relationships across schools, participatory practices are also an important strategy for cultivating leadership. The network builds educators’ leadership capacities by soliciting them to lead professional development workshops7 and to participate in workgroups focused on broader network initiatives. The network’s shared decision-making practices broaden the leadership base of the network and strengthen its ability to resist external pressures. Engaging teachers in the leadership of the schools and the network builds capacity from within and mitigates the risks of a school’s dependence on any single leader (Sadovnik & Semel, 2006).

Mechanisms in place within the network help to support internal practices, challenge external pressures, and mine the schools’ collective history for Internationals’ commitments to teaching and learning. Much of this work is undertaken by educators who are considered culture carriers.8 The local knowledge and shared culture of the International schools travel with and between experienced teachers who are culture carriers and who migrate from established International schools to start new ones. In his work on scaling up reform, Richard Elmore (1996) described this strategy of school reform, in which educators steeped in the practices of an exemplary school start other schools “using the genetic material of their own knowledge and understanding” (p. 18). To date, 8 of the 10 current principals in the International schools have spent more than 5 years teaching within the Internationals. Several began their careers as new teachers at International High School at LaGuardia Community College, and one began with Internationals as a paraprofessional. In addition, one current assistant principal was a student in the first graduating class of the International High School at LaGuardia Community College.

Teachers and principals who “grew up” in International schools carry the shared understandings, commitments, and community norms from their old schools as they create new International high schools and contend with the ongoing challenges of negotiating accountability practices. They have in their biographies and tool boxes significant and longstanding relationships with old and new Internationals, all within reach for support. One principal described his relationships within the network:

I couldn’t survive without the other schools. Being a network of likeminded schools is so important because we share resources from budgets, schedules, operations. It’s also important to know that I can pick up the phone for help and I won’t have to preface every conversation with an explanation about how we do things here.

In many interviews, individuals described their deep connections to educators in other schools. This principal went on to describe how he and a group of teachers regularly socialize with educators from another school. In addition to the ways in which the Internationals Network encourages cross-fertilization through formal structures, educators obtain resources and emotional support through their informal practices of working across schools. These relationships strengthen the professional community of the network.

As the network grows beyond its small size, it will have to adapt its practices to manage the challenges of growth. When new school openings were limited in number, well-paced, and confined to New York City, the use of culture carriers was an effective strategy for disseminating the culture of Internationals: sustaining common commitments and working through the terrain of significant differences. Now, as Internationals Network faces a new round of school openings in California, it will need to recruit more school leaders and educators from the outside and will not be able to rely exclusively on culture carriers. So, the network will have to commit more energy to the enculturation of educators who are new to the Internationals. Seeing this challenge, much of the network’s recent work has been focused on providing tools and professional development geared toward scaffolding learning for new teachers and providing opportunities for them to work with experienced educators (Wenger, 1998).

Rogers (2007) described this dilemma related to the growth of school networks: “Increasing popularity brings in new members, who may not understand or share the deep convictions that were developed among original members over time” (p. 216). As the network grows, there is considerable discussion about the need to make the model more explicit for new schools. The question then emerges: how to keep explicit from becoming a new form of imposed mandate. The network must struggle with how to nurture practices that value educator knowledge and participation while maintaining a longstanding and well-crafted design for educating ELLs with demonstrated success.

Commitments to the local knowledge of educators are particularly important in schools with long histories of educating immigrant youth. In these schools, it is recognized that the youth, the educators, and the families carry knowledge about how teaching and learning can strengthen rather than undermine the skills that youth import. There is a delicate knitting together of varied forms of knowledge—and an explicit rejection of the belief that experts are above, outside, or detached. Instead, there is a collaborative harvesting of knowledge and reflection, between and among educators, to determine how best to support young people in their cultural and academic journeys.


As the Internationals engage in the work of educating immigrant students, these schools have historically negotiated a number of distinct external pressures and threats. Within interviews and observations, principals and teachers describe these instances of negotiation. Whereas the first example describes the work of the International Schools Partnership and takes place before the establishment of the nonprofit intermediary organization, Internationals Network, this example establishes a tradition of educators’ collaborative work to bridge and buffer external demands within the Internationals (Honig & Hatch, 2004).

As the standards movement dominated the local and state policy context in the late 1990s, educators from the three International schools believed that the Regents exams—five content-based, high-stakes examinations required for graduation—were neither valid for their students nor appropriate for the interdisciplinary structures and practices of their schools. With the establishment of the International Schools Partnership, a network of the three International schools, educators collaborated in workgroups across the Internationals to both resist external threats and build educators’ capacity to develop and implement portfolio assessments within their classrooms. In collaboration with the New York Performance Standards Consortium (Cook & Tashlik, 2005; Foote, 2007), the schools secured a variance from the Regents exams.

This historical example established an Internationals tradition of resisting policies that are in conflict with core practices. Pennell and Firestone (1996) described how teacher networks provide a vehicle for educators to express dissent about policies that threaten their work. But in the case of Internationals, resistance involves not only buffering policies that are inconsonant with the work of the schools, but also building educators’ capacities to implement institutional practices that support the emotional and academic needs of their ELL students. The Internationals Network creates opportunities for educators to engage in the kind of teacher-led professional development, described by Susan Little, (1993) that “equip[s] teachers individually and collectively to act as shapers, promoters, and well-informed critics of reform” (p. 130; also Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2006).

Through the work of negotiating common external pressures, educators identify with an Internationals community and history that transcend their roles in individual schools (Lieberman & McLaughlin, 1992). In interviews and observations, we found that educators frequently referenced individuals and events from earlier days in the Internationals’ history. Etienne Wenger (1998) has argued that “in the process of sustaining a practice, we become invested in what we do, as well as in each other and our shared history”(p. 89; see also Galletta & Ayala, 2008).

In a network meeting devoted to discussing student-centered learning, one educator referenced a debate with a colleague that occurred in the early days of the first International: “At Queens, David and I used to always debate whether it is better to put in the scaffolding for kids ahead of time, assuming that they will need it, or, whether you should build it in as you go.” In addition, there were references to earlier instances of resistance to inconsonant local policies as educators met to strategize about how to contend with new challenges: “Remember how Eric used to talk about creative compliance.”

The Internationals Network creates opportunities for educators and schools to engage “collective memories” of resistance and collaboration. Wineburg et al. (2007) argued that institutional memory is passed down over time through the rituals of organizations. Thus, it is through the work of the network, in meetings and workgroups, that we witness stories of adaptation, experimentation, and collective memories that illuminate the intricate labor of educator practice within the Internationals schools and network.

In the summer of 2006, Internationals Network brought new and experienced principals together for its annual leadership retreat. A major focus of the retreat was to decide how to respond to a new Department of Education (DOE) mandate to establish formative assessments that were essentially multiple-choice tests to be administered every 6–8 weeks in all classes that lead up to a Regents exam. In this session, principals had to decide whether to administer these tests—essentially a series of mini-Regents exams—or to develop a common formative assessment system for the International high schools. After a long day of work and debate, one principal, a founding member of the first International high school, invoked the collective memory of the Internationals’ commitments to project-based curriculum and portfolio assessment, and pleaded with the group:

This ties to our identity, if we are really portfolio and project schools. Once we give in and let it slip in, the Regents culture is going to affect our instruction. Maybe not this year, but down the road. Rather than giving in and letting the system take us over, we should muddle through and try to buy some time.

Late in the afternoon, the principals returned to a conversation about the work of the International Schools Partnership in the 1990s, which created the original portfolio alternative assessment system. This invocation of the past ultimately facilitated a decision to move forward with work across schools to develop an Internationals formative assessment. This was an instance in which collective memory helped to move the group out of a difficult place and reclaim and reinstantiate historic commitments of these schools.

This example also represents a series of critical actions taken by the Internationals Network; network leadership was able to mitigate the threat to the schools and their practices by acting early when they first heard of the impending new standardized test requirement. By acting before the new mandate was clearly established, leaders were able to influence the conditions of compliance (Honig & Hatch, 2004). The network was able to bridge external demands by negotiating with policy makers and bringing information about policy changes back to the principals for collective consideration.

In addition to formative assessments, there are other instances in which the network has actively worked between the schools and the DOE. For instance, the network has negotiated local policy requirements regarding admissions procedures, as well as curriculum and leadership development requirements. In some cases, this work involves providing local policy makers with information about the needs of the schools, whereas in other cases, the network buffers the schools from incoherent mandates by creating proposals for alternative procedures that are developed by the network and the school communities.

But the challenges continue; the work of realigning the DOE mandates to fit Internationals practices takes time away from professional development and team collaboration within schools and network meetings. A teacher described his involvement in developing rubrics for the Internationals Formative Assessment:

Our 11th-grade team has done its best to divide this work so that no one person bears the burden. Given the alternative of another standardized test, this is, of course, infinitely preferable. However, collecting the data for data-driven instruction occupies way too much of our emotional and intellectual energy, and this all comes on top of preparing students for five Regents exams, the results of which provide no real information for providing high-quality, rigorous, and engaging instruction.

This educator described how accountability mandates continue to limit the space available for the ongoing work of educating students, reflecting Stephen J. Ball’s (2003) finding that “acquiring the performative information necessary for perfect control consumes so much energy that it drastically reduces the energy available for making improvement inputs” (p. 221). Educators in small schools are already called on to perform many different roles beyond their teaching. Layered on top of those additional demands, accountability mandates weigh heavily on educators. The Internationals have had to craft practices and policies that fit between mandates and memories while also listening closely to the needs of their immigrant students.


These stories of network resistance and collaboration provide insight into the complex work that educators undertake in sustaining small schools dedicated to educating immigrant youth. Together, the schools and Internationals Network provide broad support for educators and small schools that might otherwise find it difficult to navigate this harsh terrain on their own (Sadovnik & Semel, 2006). Yet, as the network works to buffer external demands and stave off the “collateral damage” (Nichols & Berliner, 2007; McNeil, 2000) of accountability policies, there are always new demands and attendant compromises. While immigrant youth too often pay a severe price for the presumably unintended negative consequences of high-stakes accountability regimes, at the Internationals, the network, principals, and teachers buffer the experiences of students, holding in the pressures and anxieties of testing while strengthening connections across the network for support. As accountability policies impose top-down mandates on community—suppressing local voices, ignoring economic and political inequalities (Anyon, 2005), and driving practices of exclusion for immigrant youth in the name of high standards—Internationals educators engage the historical memory and institutional resources within the network.

The network then emerges as a crucial site for understanding the possibilities and the dangers of public education in the face of external challenges. But it is significant to note that these network spaces that support educators’ ongoing work together across schools have only been possible with substantial funding from private foundations. And so there is also a series of complex negotiations that occur within the network in the space where public and private dollars mingle; the network must mediate the needs of the school communities with the desires of funders, and the demands of city, state, and federal policies with the practices of the schools. The network does a remarkable job of doing this and keeping these practices transparent and participatory. And yet we might ask, Why do public schools that are educating immigrant youth– or any youth, for that matter—need to be “protected”? And what happens to schools that don’t get this protection?

Thus, this article is a call for a new form of accountability: that is, the accountability of policy. It seeks to imagine mechanisms and practices by which policy makers can hear, explicitly, how presumably well-intended policies play out in real schools. More specifically, education policies need to create incentives for schools to retain and educate vulnerable youth, and provide funding for educators to work collaboratively within and across schools to develop practices based on their local understandings of the needs of their students. In the end, policy needs to be held accountable for its outcomes. Indeed, we have seen the limits of top-down reform, and it is choking the fine spaces that dare to educate all children (Fine, personal communication, 2006).


Special thanks to Michelle Fine, Stacey Lee, Bethany Rogers, Susan Wright, Gideon Walter, Mayida Zaal, Brian Carolan, Floyd Hammack, Valerie Futch, Brett Stoudt and the reviewers for comments on earlier drafts of this document. Thanks also to Claire Sylvan and Daria Witt from the Internationals Network and to all the members of the Internationals community.


1. The Regents exams are five content-based examinations—English Language Arts, Math, Global Studies, U.S. History and Government, and Science—required in New York State for high school graduation.

2. It is significant to note that all the formal collaborative work across schools has been funded by grants from private foundations. The International Schools Partnership was funded by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation, which supported the creation of school networks. The Internationals Network was established and is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

3. This study focused on the three International high schools that had ninth-grade students entering in the fall of 1998. It measured outcomes for 2002 (4-year graduation), 2003, 2004, and 2005 (7-year graduation rate). 

4 At present, all New York Internationals schools are required to administer two of the Regents exams, and three schools are required to administer five. Three Internationals are members of the New York Performance Standards Consortium and thereby hold variances from most Regents exams. The Regents exams are content-based high-stakes examinations designed for native English speakers and have been found to be neither reliable nor valid assessments of the performance of ELLs (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000).

5. Focus groups with graduates revealed multiple instances in which internships were instrumental in helping students envision pathways to college and careers.

6. One school dropped the internship program, one reduced the internship from two semesters to one, and several schools shifted the timing because of the intensive demands of the Regents exams during the junior year.

7. Over 90% of Internationals professional development workshops are led by Internationals educators.

8. I heard this term first used by Bernadette Anand at a Small Schools Conference at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2002.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 2040-2066
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15181, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:35:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Reva Jaffe-Walter
    City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    REVA JAFFE-WALTER taught at the Manhattan International High School for 5 years. She is currently a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research interests include immigrant youth and schools, anthropology of policy, and urban education reform. An article she co-authored, “Swimming: On Oxygen, Resistance, and Possibility for Immigrant Youth under Siege” was recently published in Anthropology & Education Quarterly. She is also conducting research on the experiences of immigrant youth in Danish schools.
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