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An Examination of Teachers’ Perceptions of Principal Support for Change and Teachers’ Collaboration and Communication Around Literacy Instruction in Reading First Schools


by Dan Berebitsky, Roger D. Goddard & Joanne F. Carlisle - 2014

Background/Context: Little research has directly examined whether principal leadership can increase the degree to which teachers work together regularly in focused ways around content. Prior research has shown that reform efforts seeking to alter the process of teaching can be successful if teachers collaborate to build capacity and improve instruction. Furthermore, the research literature has highlighted supportive principal leadership as a key component of teachers’ perception of an effective collaborative change process.

Purpose: This study examines the empirical link between teachers’ perceptions of principal support for change and teachers’ reports of the degree of collaboration and communication with one another around literacy.

Setting: The data for this study was collected in all 165 Reading First schools in Michigan in the 2006-2007 school year.

Subjects: Survey data was collected from 1,738 teachers across all schools.

Research Design: Data for this study was collected as part of the evaluation of Reading First in Michigan. Literacy teachers in kindergarten through third grade completed surveys at three points throughout the school year (fall, winter, and spring). These surveys contained questions about principal support for change and collaboration and communication around literacy.

Data Collection and Analysis: The primary analytic method employed in this study was multilevel modeling. Factor analysis and full information maximum likelihood estimation were also used.

Findings/Results: The measure of principal support for change was a significant positive predictor of teachers’ assessment of the degree of regular collaboration and communication around reading instruction; a one standard deviation increase in teachers’ reports of principal support for change was associated with a 0.202 standard deviation increase in teachers’ assessment of the degree of collaboration and communication around literacy when controlling for the other variables in the model.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This paper demonstrates that the degree to which teachers report collaboration and communication around literacy in Reading First schools is significantly related to their perceptions of principal support for change. If policymakers expect teachers to collaborate around issues of instruction, then they need to consider the principal’s role in supporting change in the school by encouraging teachers to improve their instruction and take the risks associated with innovation. In sum, the results of this study are important for educators, as the role of the principal is potentially critical for positive changes in teacher collaboration and, consequently, student achievement in high-poverty schools.


INTRODUCTION


As federal and state governments have enacted policies to leverage higher levels of student achievement, the quality of classroom instruction has become increasingly central to school improvement. However, the improvement of instruction at scale has been a great challenge for schools and districts, and as the literature on improving instruction at a large scale is underdeveloped (Coburn, 2003; Cohen, Moffitt, & Goldin, 2007; Stein, 2004), practitioners and policymakers have focused their efforts on a few specific factors that have the potential to support the improvement of instruction. One factor that has received a great deal of attention is the support of school-based leadership. Several researchers have suggested that effective school leadership is essential to the improvement of teaching and learning (e.g., Hallinger, 2003, 2005; Louis, Dretzke, & Wahlstrom, 2009). School leaders, and especially principals, are catalysts for changes within schools (Leithwood, Patten, & Jantzi, 2010), and these leaders support instruction through many avenues, including the development of teachers’ professional capacity and the creation and maintenance of a positive normative school environment (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010). Specifically, the principal, as a key person in the change process, may foster an environment that promotes teachers working together around issues of instructional improvement (Supovitz, Sirinides, & May, 2010), as well as initiate focus on instruction and content and set strategic goals (May, 2007). The principal is also critical to sustaining reform efforts through maintaining funding and time allowances and holding teachers accountable for implementation of reform. Not surprisingly, Bryk et al. (2010) characterize principals as the “drivers” of school improvement.


Given the importance of the principal in the reform process, we ask whether teachers’ perceptions of their principals’ support for change are related to their reports of discussing literacy and working together on instructional improvement. Bryk et al. (2010) wrote “School administrator support for change is defined as encouraging teachers to take risks and try new instructional methods as well as addressing poor teaching performance” (as cited in Rosa, 2011, pp. 41–42). Researchers have highlighted the importance of school-based leaders setting goals, building capacity, and redesigning organizations (Leithwood, Lewis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004), but few studies have focused specifically on how a principal’s support for change influences teachers’ improvement efforts. It is through this support for change that we believe principals can foster, as well as maintain, forms of communication and collaboration that support instructional improvement within schools.


Another approach to school improvement that has received research support involves how teachers work together to improve their practice (e.g., Pounder, 1998, 1999) and how such collaboration is related to student achievement (Goddard, Goddard, & Tschannen-Moran, 2007). The act of teachers working together around instruction provides them with important learning opportunities; according to Goddard et al. (2007, p. 879), “the more teachers collaborate, the more they are able to converse knowledgeably about theories, methods, and processes of teaching and learning, and thus improve their instruction.” Few studies, however, have investigated whether school leadership is important to teachers’ collective work in the context of explicit reforms aimed at improving instruction at scale. In this paper, we look at how teachers’ perceptions of a principal’s support for instructional change in a school are associated with teachers’ reports of collaboration and communication in the context of a large-scale reform initiative.


LITERATURE REVIEW


Our research focuses on these issues by examining the link between teachers’ perceptions of the principal’s support for school-wide improvement in reading and their sense of instructional improvement work through collaboration and communication in the context of Reading First in Michigan. As part of Title I in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Reading First is a major federally funded initiative designed to improve the reading skills of students in kindergarten through third grade. The legislation specifically targeted elementary schools serving large proportions of students living in poverty. The expectation was that sufficient research on reading instruction had been carried out to identify effective practices, and these practices constituted what the legislation and guidance from the federal government referred to as scientific-based reading instruction. Several research syntheses (the most well-known compilations of recommendations of effective practices, e.g., National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) were influential in the decisions made by legislators and educational leaders about the particular principles and requirements that served as the mechanism for change in the Reading First initiative. These included: (1) use of programs, materials, and assessments supported by reading research; (2) instruction in the five essential components of early reading instruction (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension); (3) extensive professional development for teachers that taught them about research-supported practices in teaching reading; (4) school-wide support and collaboration to address issues of effective reading instruction; and (5) preparing teachers to effectively screen, identify, and overcome “reading barriers” facing their students (U.S. Department of Education, 2002, p. 1).


READING FIRST CONTEXT


In Michigan, where our research was conducted, the State Department of Education’s proposal to the USDOE for Reading First funding cited the principal as a key resource for instructional improvement, and that he or she must be equipped to deal with the complexities and problems that would need to be addressed for effective improvement in literacy to occur (Michigan Department of Education, 2002). However, the particular roles principals were to take to support teachers and facilitate the reform were not fully specified. Another central tenet of the Reading First program in Michigan was that teachers meet regularly and work together to promote the use of effective practices in reading instruction. “Groups of teachers within a school can provide the support and guidance for one another that becomes the basis for continued progress in implementing effective literacy practices” (Michigan Department of Education, 2002). All Reading First schools were to conduct regular grade-level faculty meetings in order to promote communication around strategies of teaching reading. Each school was also required to have a literacy coach who was asked to “initiate and maintain teacher collaboration to address issues of explicit reading instruction in grades K-3 and sustain the impact of the Reading First program” (Michigan Department of Education, 2002).


Given that the Reading First legislation explicitly calls for school-wide support for teachers’ collaboration and communication around literacy, we argue that schools participating in this program offer an outstanding context in which to investigate whether principal support for change is related to the degree to which teachers’ perceive that they are actively engaged in communication and collaboration around literacy instruction. Our approach is informed by the findings of other researchers who have argued that successful implementation of reform programs requires the active participation of both principals and teachers (Desimone, 2002; Elmore, 2004). In addition, the literature has shown that teacher collaboration, especially around specific areas of instruction, can be a decisive feature that matters to the success of reform efforts (e.g., Hord, 1997). Moreover, several researchers posit that principal support is key to any collaborative effort in schools (e.g., Bryk et al., 2010; Crow, 1998). Finally, reforms tend to be ineffective when teachers and administrators are unwilling and/or unable to work together on improvements in teachers’ practices; thus, principal support for improving instruction is likely crucial to reform success. We turn next to discussion of the literature on principal leadership and teacher communication and collaboration to situate our research.


PRINCIPAL LEADERSHIP AND TEACHER COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION


The central question investigated in this work is whether teachers’ perceptions of the level of principals’ support for change is related to the degree to which they report communication and collaboration around literacy in their schools. Prior research has demonstrated that “learning opportunities heighten with faculty collaboration, increasing the number of knowledge exchangers within schools, augmenting teachers’ instructional repertoires as they confront instructional decisions” (Rosenholtz, 1989, p. 433). Recently, Parise and Spillane (2010) demonstrated that teachers were more likely to change their practice in both mathematics and English language arts when, according to survey responses, teachers sought advice on instruction and had more collaborative discussion.  


Although conceptualized in different ways in the education literature, collaboration and communication provide related and relevant conceptual underpinnings for our study of the potential effects of supportive school leadership in the context of Reading First schools. Hart defined collaboration as the “cooperation of equals who voluntarily share decision making and work toward common goals” (Hart, 1998, p. 90), a definition that aptly describes the work of the teachers whose schools were committed to the Reading First program. Hord (1981, 1986) theorized that collaboration encompasses joint planning, implementation, and evaluation among the individuals/organizations participating in the venture; in addition, responsibility and authority for important decisions are shared (Hoyt, 1978). Another definition can be found in the organizational theory literature where collaboration is conceptualized as lateral coordination designed to increase innovation and efficiency around a specific organizational issue (Bolman & Deal, 2003; Goddard et al., 2007).


Many authors posit that for collaboration to be effective, critical structural and cultural components must be present. In Reading First schools that are involved in improvement of reading instruction, teachers clearly have shared interests and needs, and all parties stand to benefit from the endeavor (Hord, 1986). However, barriers to collaboration and effective communication need to be addressed. Norms of competition and isolation, which are commonly found in schools, must be left behind in a collaborative environment (Kruse, Louis, & Bryk, 1995; Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, & Rodriguez, 2005). “Patience, persistence, and a willingness to share are invaluable” (Hord, 1981, p. 13). All members must have positive attitudes toward the endeavor, as one counterproductive person can easily bring the group to a halt (Brownell, Yeager, Rennells, & Riley, 1997; Dorsch, 1996; Galvin, 1998; Hamilton & Richardson, 1995).


Communication around instruction has been identified as a central feature of teacher collaboration in the literature. Nearly all studies of collaboration cite efficient and regular communication among teachers (Galvin, 1998; Pounder, 1998; Reilly, 2001). Moreover, the improvement of reading instruction requires ample time and opportunity for teachers to meet and discuss issues of teaching and learning (Brownell et al., 1997; Hord, 1986); communication should be open, frequent, and center around credible information to support problem-solving (Reilly, 2001). In addition, high-quality school-level communication has been directly linked to student achievement in reading. For example, Taylor, Pearson, Clark, and Walpole (2000) conducted a mixed-methods study of 14 high-poverty primary schools to examine what school and classroom factors were related to student achievement in reading. Among other factors, the authors measured the quality of communication and collaboration at a school level through teacher survey responses and interview data. Statistical analyses showed that schools where communication and collaboration were identified as being frequent and effective made better gains in measures of fluency and retelling, whereas communication was often reported to be a problem in the least effective schools. In a case study of one particularly effective school, “[c]ommunication across and within grades was the key” to successfully implementing externally mandated reform (Walpole, 2002, p. 207).


Adequate consultation with and support from administration has also been identified as an important part of successful teacher collaboration (Brownell et al., 1997; Crow, 1998; Rosenholtz, 1989). School leaders do not have a direct effect on student achievement, but they do shape the structure of the school day, the school’s culture, and the use of resources (Hallinger & Heck, 1996; Korkmaz, 2007; Leithwood et al., 2004; Nettles & Herrington, 2007). According to Fullan (2002), successful school leadership for “deeper learning . . . problem solving, and thinking skills” (p. 16) requires principals who can develop school cultures that encourage communication and collaboration among teachers that is centered on solving problems of instruction (Supovitz et al., 2010). Indeed, Heifetz (1994) and Heifetz and Laurie (1997) argue that adaptive solutions to organizational problems involving the work of the faculty depend in large measure on creative and intelligent collective work.


Thus, faculty support and agreement, often gained through frequent opportunities to exchange information and work together to improve instruction, is critical to the success of any lasting change in schools. We argue that to sustain such work, principal support is critical (Hord, 1997; Little, 1982; Morse, 2000). Indeed, a great deal of research indicates that principals are central to the initiation and successful implementation of organizational changes aimed at improving student learning (e.g., Bryk et al., 2010; Sebring & Bryk, 2000) through their interactions with teachers and management of the school (Leithwood et al., 2004).


In a review of the educational leadership literature, Supovitz et al. (2010) identified three common actions of the principal that best support improvement in teaching and learning:


1.

Setting mission and goals of the school

2.

Actively supporting instruction

3.

Encouraging an environment of collaboration and trust


Setting the mission and goals for schools involves defining the vision for the organization, communicating that vision, and setting goals to achieve that vision. Principal activities around this action can include creating high performance expectations, monitoring organizational performance, and promoting effective communication and collaboration (Leithwood et al., 2004). Principals can also motivate teachers to improve instruction by communicating goals and fostering commitment to them (Adams & Kirst, 1999).


Principals that effectively support improvement in instruction actively support instruction by creating a learning ethos and providing hands-on support for teachers (Supovitz et al., 2010). In their meta-analysis of leadership studies, Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe (2008) identified goal setting and planning, promoting and participating in teacher learning and development, and evaluation of teachers and the curriculum as having significant indirect effects on student achievement.


The third action of effective school leaders involves encouraging an environment of collaboration and trust. Leithwood et al. (2004) argued that effective principals work to strengthen schools and build collaborative practices. Researchers have also found that high-performing elementary and high schools were led by principals who actively worked to create an environment of collaboration in which faculty and administrators worked together to coordinate instructional programs and solve instructional issues (Heck, Larson, & Marcoulides, 1990). Supovitz et al. (2010) employed multilevel Structural Equation Modeling to show that principal leadership had an indirect effect on student learning through the direct influence of leadership on the communication and collaboration around instruction between peer teachers.


Although reform and change are not synonymous, the two are related insofar as one is not likely without the other. Thus, for principals to effectively support teachers in the improvement of instruction, support for change is widely accepted as a central leadership responsibility (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005; Yukl, 2002). In this paper, we use the term principal support for change to refer to the perception that the principal supports change in a school and encourages teachers to improve their instruction through taking risks and trying new teaching methods. Principals that support change encourage teachers to improve instruction (Leithwood, Tomlinson, & Genges, 1996; Sebring & Bryk, 2000) by changing school-wide norms and providing teachers with the resources to learn and implement new ideas and practices (Finnigan, 2010). In addition, these principals can facilitate instructional improvement by introducing teachers to new ideas (Leithwood & Montgomery, 1982; Sebring & Bryk, 2000).


Few studies have looked directly at teachers’ perceptions of a principal’s support for change. Finnigan (2010) studied the relationship between a principal’s support for change and teachers’ attitudes and beliefs by employing survey data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Importantly, Finnigan found that teachers’ motivation and efficacy (what she terms “expectancy”) were positively related to principal support for change. Rosa (2011) framed principal support for change as a facilitating factor of other leadership aspects including inclusive leadership, teacher-administrator trust, and instructional leadership. In her study of the implementation of a teacher-evaluation system in a school district, Rosa employed mixed methods to find a moderate relationship between school administrators’ support for change and reported implementation of the teacher-evaluation system. However, neither study investigated this relationship in the context of a major federal reform initiative, nor did they specifically examine whether principal support for change was related to teacher collaboration and communication around literacy instruction. It is these areas our paper explores. Hence, we designed this study to explore the connection between teachers’ perceptions of principal support for change and their reports of communication and collaboration around literacy instruction in Reading First schools.


One research project that provided impetus for our study was an implementation evaluation of the CIERA School Change Framework (Taylor et al., 2005). Taylor and her colleagues developed their model of school reform in literacy by studying aspects of both school and classroom functioning in schools that “beat the odds” by bringing about more improvement in students’ reading achievement than would be expected. Similar to Reading First, their model prioritized teachers’ opportunities to work together to improve their knowledge of effective instruction. They believed that reflective dialogue, deprivatization of practice, and collaborative efforts enhanced shared understandings and strengthened relationships within a school. They argued that for significant improvement in instruction and students’ academic performance, schools must adopt an attitude of continuous improvement and shared commitment.


Subsequently, these researchers implemented the School Change Framework in 13 schools with the purpose of determining whether quality of implementation was associated with improvements in students’ reading and writing (Taylor et al., 2003). Noting that most reform efforts focused on either classroom improvement or school-wide improvement, the researchers were committed to examining both factors. As in Reading First schools, teachers participated in regular professional-development meetings in order to learn about effective instruction and to share ideas and activities to improve literacy instruction. In addition, the reform targeted such characteristics of school effectiveness as the quality of leadership, collaboration, home-school links, and the overall fidelity to reform.


In designing a study of the implementation of their model, Taylor et al. (2005) chose to focus on teachers’ views of their school’s response to the program. The teachers were interviewed three times during the year with questions focused on building collaboration in the delivery of reading instruction, reflecting on and changing reading instruction, collaborating in professional development, and building strong leadership. Rubric scoring of the interviews and other indices of implementation (e.g., logs of meetings) were used in multilevel analyses of the association between classroom and school efforts and students’ progress in literacy. Results indicated that reform effort ratings were positively related to students’ spring standardized reading comprehension scores.1


In discussing their results, the researchers noted that just deciding to commit to a reform effort (i.e., to bring something new into the school) was not enough, as a number of the schools did not experience improvement in students’ literacy. They stated that

what matters is sustained collaborative work with colleagues in school-wide efforts and refocused classroom instruction to improve students’ reading achievement (p. 64). They remarked as well that teacher leaders and principals were critical in the process. School leaders make it possible for everyone to focus on the goal of improving reading achievement, for example, by supporting professional development and giving teachers time to work together. The results of studies of the CIERA School Change Framework were influential in the design of the Reading First program. However, because of the small number of participating schools (n=13), further study is needed to examine teachers’ perceptions of principal support and the effectiveness of their efforts to work collaboratively toward improvement in reading instruction.


HYPOTHESIS AND RATIONALE


We hypothesize that in the context of the Michigan Reading First reform program, the greater the degree to which teachers perceive that principals support change in the school, the greater extent to which teachers report higher levels of collaboration and communication around the improvement of literacy instruction. Multiple studies highlighted the influence that principals have on teachers’ collaboration and communication (Supovitz et al., 2010; Taylor et al., 2005), but these studies did not delve into exactly which facets of leadership are associated with teachers’ collective work. We believe that principal support for change is critical to teachers’ collaboration and communication, and a key implementation component of the Reading First reform program. Because we analyze data from the fifth year of Reading First implementation, our findings have the potential to inform whether or not principal support for change explains variability among Reading First schools in the degree to which teacher collaboration and communication around literacy is achieved. Given the effect that collaboration and communication can have on the improvement of instruction at scale, we feel that it is important to examine whether teachers’ perceptions of principal support for change are related to their reports of collaboration and communication around literacy instruction.


METHOD


In this section we describe our data sources, measures, and the primary analytic method we employed to test our guiding hypothesis.


DATA SOURCE


In the 2006-2007 school year, 165 Michigan elementary schools participated in Reading First; these schools were selected based on their high levels of poverty and historically low levels of achievement in reading. The data used in this study are part of the evaluation of Reading First in Michigan, and as part of that study, literacy teachers in kindergarten through third grade completed surveys at three points throughout the school year (fall, winter, and spring).


MEASURES


Measures for both teachers’ views of the degree of collaboration and communication around literacy and principal support for change were taken from a survey that teachers completed in January of 2007, which was the fifth year of Reading First implementation in the state of Michigan. The survey had a response rate of 93.5% with 1,738 teachers completing it. Survey data were the best avenue to address our research question because of the large number of schools in Michigan participating in Reading First. Interviews or open-ended questionnaires would allow for the possibility of delving more deeply into teachers’ perceptions, but these kinds of data were not possible across 165 schools and more than 1,700 teachers. We also felt that it was important to look at the relationship between teachers’ views of their principal’s support for change and teacher collaboration and communication around literacy. As teachers are the ones that are potentially altering their instruction, their perceptions of the level of principal support for change and the level of collaboration and communication around literacy in the school should be informative. Moreover, substantial precedent exists for the utility of teacher perception measures in research on principal leadership (Finnigan, 2010; Rosa, 2011) and in other areas, such as studies of individual and collective efficacy perceptions (e.g., Bandura, 1993; Goddard & Goddard, 2001). Supovitz et al. (2010) also chose to specifically focus on teacher perceptions given the wide variance in perception of instructional leadership seen when comparing teacher and principal responses. Unless specified otherwise, we use the terms principal support for change and collaboration and communication around literacy to refer to teachers’ perceptions of principal support for change and teachers’ perceptions of collaboration and communication around literacy.


To assess the level of collaboration and communication around literacy in the school, we developed a measure that reflected principal features of Reading First as outlined in the federal guidance (U.S. Department of Education, April 2002) and the state’s approved Reading First plan. We adapted items that Taylor et al. (2005) used in their interviews with teachers. These included the following:


1. Building collaboration (perception). Scoring ranged from 0 when teachers worked in isolation to 3 for cross-grade level talk, collaboration on delivery of reading program, collaboration on professional development, collaborative learning community, and positive climate.

2. Instructional reflection and change. Scoring ranged from 0 for little or no reflection on instructional practice by the individual classroom teacher to 3 for teachers who indicated they were intentionally reflecting on their practice and seriously working with others to improve their practice.

3. Leadership building. Scoring ranged from 0 for teachers who expressed dissatisfaction with their school and administration to 3 for teachers who said that the principal or administrative staff were strong leaders who involved teachers in leadership and provided time for teachers to operate as a collaborative learning community.


Our construct included four Likert-scale items, which are listed in Table 1. Teachers responded to items about the time they have to share teaching ideas (“In my school, there are frequent opportunities to share ideas about how to teach literacy better”), assistance from content experts (“The literacy coach/specialist does not provide sufficient assistance in teaching reading”), usefulness of formally scheduled time (“Weekly grade-level meetings are a valuable opportunity to collaborate with colleagues on issues related to literacy”), and quality of communication around issues of literacy instruction (“There is poor building-level communication about children’s literacy achievement and about curriculum implementation”). The mapping of these items onto important concepts identified in the literature review, similar to those used by Taylor et al. (2005), provided some evidence of validity (American Educational Research Association et al., 1999), as the items tap into many important aspects of collaboration identified in the literature. These include communication (e.g., Pounder, 1998; Reilly, 2001), adequate resources such as time (e.g., Englert & Tarrant, 1995; Johnson, 1998; Taylor et al., 2005), and a commitment to work with other teachers and content experts toward improvement (e.g., Brownell et al., 1997; Hord, 1981; Taylor et al., 2005).


Two of the four items were negatively worded and were thus reverse coded for the purpose of analysis. We employed principal axis factoring to create a single factor from the four items, and the factor analysis resulted in a single factor with an eigenvalue of 1.510 and a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.705. Individual item loadings ranged from 0.532 to 0.648. The items all load on one factor with sufficient, though not strong, factor loadings and reliability coefficient (American Educational Research Association et al., 1999).


Table 1. Collaboration and Communication Around Literacy Instruction Factor Loadings

   

Items

 

Loadings

In my school, there are frequent opportunities to share ideas about how to teach literacy better.

 

0.648

The literacy coach/specialist does not provide sufficient assistance in teaching reading (reverse coded).

 

0.615

Weekly grade-level meetings are a valuable opportunity to collaborate with colleagues on issues related to literacy.

 

0.655

There is poor building-level communication about children’s literacy achievement and about curriculum implementation (reverse coded).

 

0.532

Note. The collaboration factor items have an eigenvalue of 1.510 and a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.705.


Our measure of principal support for change was based on teachers’ responses to four survey items, which were all taken from the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s teacher survey measure of support for change (2000). The original Consortium construct contained seven items and focused on both support for change from principals and other teachers. However, we chose to focus specifically on the principal in this analysis, given our research question. This scale is the same scale employed by Rosa (2011) and similar to the scale employed by Finnigan (2010). Finnigan employed two additional items (“The principal at this school removes poorly performing teachers from the school” and “The principal at this school provides materials and equipment I need for my teaching”) that we felt tapped into functions of the principal other than support for changing instruction. The four Likert scale items were aggregated to the school level, and principal axis factoring was used to create a single factor with an eigenvalue of 3.170 and a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.936. The four items, which had loadings between 0.929 and 0.788, can be found in Table 2.


Table 2. Principal Support for Change Factor Loadings

   

Items

 

Loadings

The principal at this school is willing to make changes.

 

0.929

The principal at this school supports and encourages teachers to take risks.

 

0.929

The principal at this school encourages teachers to try new methods of instruction.

 

0.907

Most changes introduced at this school receive strong support from the principal.

 

0.788

Note. The factor has an eigenvalue of 3.170 and a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.936.


Because the extant literature suggests that teacher collaboration is related to student achievement (e.g., Goddard et al., 2007), we deemed it important to control for dimensions of school context that investigators often find related to student achievement because of their potential to explain variation in our collaboration and communication outcome measure and thus to minimize omitted variable bias, as also argued by Taylor et al. (2005). Specifically, we included measures of the proportion of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch in each school, which represents the school average socioeconomic status, the proportion of students of color served by schools, and school mean prior achievement, as measured by past performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). In addition, based on previous meta-analytic research by Hanushek (1989) and Hedges, Laine, and Greenwald (1994) suggesting their potential importance to student outcomes, we included covariates for school-level student-teacher ratio and teacher-level education and experience.


ANALYTIC APPROACH


Because our data were multilevel (i.e., teachers nested in schools), our primary analytic method was multilevel or Hierarchical Linear Modeling (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002). At the teacher level, we controlled for variation in teachers’ professional background—specifically, attainment of a master’s degree, years of teaching experience, and the content area in which a teacher earned his or her bachelor’s degree (Early Childhood, Reading/Literacy, Special Education, Other, and the comparison group of Elementary Education). These three variables represent a basic proxy for a teacher’s experience and education. At level two, we felt it important that our model take the school context into consideration. Thus, the level-two model includes school-level controls for student-to-teacher ratio, percentage of minority students (non-White and non-Asian), the percentage of students that are eligible for the Free/Reduced Lunch program (FRL), and prior achievement. Prior achievement was measured by aggregating standardized results on the ITBS Reading Comprehension subtest from first, second, and third graders in the previous school year.


At the teacher level, we had a small amount of missing data on our measures due to teachers skipping certain items or responding improperly to items. For the measure of collaboration and communication, 65 out of 1,738 teachers were missing on at least one of the four items, and for the principal support factor, 69 teachers were missing on at least one of the four items. In regards to the teacher-level covariates: 43 teachers were missing master’s, 115 teachers were missing area of bachelor’s specialization, and 35 teachers were missing years of experience. At the school level, only two schools did not have achievement data from the year prior to the studied year. Schools had complete data on all other school-level covariates.


As we did not want to lose the teachers in our analysis and the missing data satisfied the missing-at-random assumption, we decided to use multiple imputation to retain our full sample. Specifically, we employed a full-information maximum likelihood estimation method, which utilizes all available data to estimate the parameter values (Enders, 2001). Mplus 6.1 was used to conduct the multiple imputation and subsequent models.


To summarize, we investigated the factors that contribute to teacher’s collaboration and communication around reading instruction among Reading First schools. Multilevel modeling was the natural choice of analytic method given the multilevel nature of our data and research question with teachers nested in schools with a single principal. We constructed a two-level multilevel model. All variables in Level 1 were uncentered and fixed. At Level 2, all variables were grand mean centered to aid our interpretation of the coefficients.  


RESULTS


Descriptive statistics at both the teacher and school levels can be found in Table 3. Of the 1,738 teachers in the 165 schools, 61% had a master’s degree. The average years of teaching experience for the sample was 14.90 years with a standard deviation of 9.54. A large majority of the teachers earned their bachelor’s degree in elementary education (67%) with 8% having a degree in early childhood, 1% in reading/literacy, 9% in special education, and 8% in a different area.


Table 3. Descriptive Information

 

Mean/Percentage

Standard Deviation

Teachers:

  

Years of Teaching Experience (n=1,687)

14.90

9.54

Master’s (n=1,695)

Area of Bachelor’s Degree (n=1,623):

61%

 

  Elementary Education

67%

 

  Early Childhood

8%

 

  Reading/Literacy

1%

 

  Special Education

9%

 

  Other

8%

 
   

Schools:

  

Student Teacher Ratio (n=165)

16.46

3.14

% Minority Students (n=165)

62%

35%

% Free/Reduced-Price Lunch Students  (n=165)

74%

24%

Prior Achievement (n=163)

-0.07

0.37


While the schools in Reading First were characterized by high levels of poverty and historically low achievement, they did still vary demographically. Of the 165 schools in the sample, the mean percentage of minority students was 62%, but the standard deviation of 35% indicated a wide variance in percentage across the sample. The average school also had 74% of the student body eligible for free/subsidized lunch, and again, the standard deviation of 24% indicated that schools in the sample varied in the proportion of low socioeconomic students. The mean student-teacher ratio was 16.46 with a standard deviation of 3.14. Across the schools, the mean ITBS reading comprehension standardized score was -0.07 with a standard deviation of 0.37, which indicated that some schools had higher levels of prior achievement than others in the sample.


Table 4 contains a correlation matrix of the school-level variables. The correlations show that the level of principal support for change was significantly associated with prior achievement, with the numbers indicating that schools where the teachers perceived a high level of principal support tended to have higher prior achievement. In addition, prior achievement was significantly and negatively correlated with all of the other school contextual variables. In addition, the percentage of minority students and percentage of students receiving free/subsidized lunch were highly correlated. Given the dichotomous nature of all the teacher-level variables, save the collaboration and communication factor, a correlation matrix was not appropriate at this level.


Table 4. Correlation Matrix of School-Level Variables (n=165)

 

Principal Support

Student-Teacher Ratio

% Minority

% FRL Eligible

Prior Achievement

Principal Support

1.00

    

Student-Teacher Ratio

-0.008

1.00

   

% Minority

-0.105

0.084

1.00

  

% FRL Eligible

-0.140

-0.076

0.569***

1.00

 

Prior Achievement

0.229**

-0.215**

-0.326***

-0.375***

1.00

~ p<.1, *p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001


Variance decomposition statistics for the multilevel model are included in Table 5. The fully unconditional model was used to examine sources of variation. Importantly, the intraclass correlation coefficient indicated 22% of the variance in the outcome measure occurred between schools. This indicates that nearly a fourth of the variance in the collaboration and communication around literacy factor occurred systematically between schools, which is important, as this indicates that schools clearly differed in teachers’ reports of the degree to which they collaborated in ways consistent with the value placed on teacher collaboration articulated by the state’s Reading First plan.


Table 5. Variance Decomposition Statistics From Fully Unconditional Model and Full Model


Fully Unconditional Model


Statistic

Within School Variance (s2)

0.552

Between School Variance (t00)

0.150

Intraclass Correlation Coefficient

0.223


Full Model

 

Within School Variance (s2)

0.547

Between School Variance (t00)

0.114

Explained Between School Variance

0.240


Results for the full multilevel model can be found in Table 6. With regard to our primary research question, the measure of principal support for change was a significant positive predictor of teachers’ assessment of the degree of regular collaboration and communication around reading instruction; a one standard deviation increase in teachers’ reports of principal support for change was associated with a 0.202 standard deviation increase in teachers’ assessment of the degree of collaboration and communication around literacy when controlling for the other variables in the model. In other words, the more teachers in a school perceived their principal as supporting teacher risk-taking, encouraging new instructional methods, and willing to make changes, the greater the degree to which they reported collaboration around literacy, frequent sharing of teaching ideas, sufficient assistance from a literacy coach, and quality communication around literacy. The effect was also significant at the p<.001 level, with a t-statistics of 5.578, indicating a small standard error in relation to the coefficient, which lends credence to the strength of the relationship.


Table 6. Multilevel Analysis of the Relationship of Teacher and School Characteristics to Collaboration and Communication

 

B

SE

T-ratio

Teacher Level (n=1,738)

    

Master’s

 

-0.109*

0.043

 -2.540

Years of Teaching Experience

 

0.004~

0.002

1.749

Area of Bachelor’sa:

    

  Early Childhood

 

-0.047

0.072

-0.655

  Reading/Literacy

 

0.095

0.212

0.450

  Special Education

 

-0.111

0.069

-1.594

  Other

 

0.036

0.076

0.467

     

School Level (n=165)

    

Principal Supportb

 

0.202***

0.036

5.578

Student-Teacher Ratiob

 

0.014

0.012

1.241

% Free/Reduced-Price Lunch Studentsb

 

0.185

0.172

1.081

% Minority Studentsb

 

-0.003

0.116

-0.025

Prior Achievementb

 

0.013

0.105

0.121

a. Comparison group is Elementary Education.

b. Variables are centered on its grand mean.

~ p<.1, *p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001


None of the school-level covariates were significantly related to the degree of collaboration and communication around literacy instruction. While the percentage of students receiving free/subsidized lunch, the percentage of minority students, student-teacher ratio, and prior achievement were not significantly related to the level of collaboration and communication, we felt that they were all important indicators of the school context and good covariates for the model. Interestingly, the coefficient for the percentage of students receiving free/subsidized lunch was positive, which indicated that the schools in our sample with a higher percentage of free/reduced-price lunch students tended to report higher levels of collaboration and communication around literacy, but the large standard error means that we cannot claim that the coefficient is different from zero. The prior achievement and student-teacher ratio controls were also positive, but as with the percentage of free/subsidized-lunch students, the coefficients cannot be considered to be significantly different than zero.


At the teacher level, we found that teachers with a master’s degree reported significantly lower levels of collaboration and communication around issues of literacy and instruction. On the other hand, teachers with more years of experience were significantly more positive about collaboration and communication in their schools. The area in which teachers earned their bachelor’s degree did not significantly influence teachers’ assessment of collaboration at their school. These findings will be explored further in the Discussion section.


The variance decomposition statistics for the fully specified model, shown in Table 5, indicate that teachers’ perceptions of the level of principal support for change and the other covariates accounted for over 24% of the systematic between-school variance in teachers’ perceptions of collaboration and communication around literacy in their school. Though our model does not explain all of the between-school variance in collaboration and communication, we feel that explaining roughly one fourth of the variance is a good indication that teachers’ perceptions of principal support for change is an important correlate of the level of collaboration and communication in the school given the reliability of our outcome measure.


DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION


Large-scale reform efforts have struggled to consistently improve instruction, with many reforms, such as Title I, having mixed results (Borman & D’Agostino, 1996). Reading First is no exception, with researchers finding that it has produced inconsistent statistical improvement in student achievement (Gamse et al., 2008; Moss et al., 2008). To make sense of this, we believe more careful attention to the conditions of implementation under which such programs best achieve their objectives is needed. As we observed above, researchers have argued that one of the means by which instruction may be improved involves consistent faculty collaboration (Rosenholtz, 1989), especially when that collaboration enables teachers to engage in high-quality communication for the purpose of school-wide instructional improvement.


In addition, studies in the literature have highlighted the importance of principal leadership in shaping the degree of teachers’ collaboration around issues of instruction (e.g., Supovitz et al., 2010; Taylor et al., 2005), and principal support is critical to the implementation of organizational change (e.g., Bryk et al., 2010; Sebring & Bryk, 2000). Given both theoretical and empirical support for these aspects of effective school change, it is surprising that studies of Reading First have not examined the extent to which principal support for change is related to teachers’ investment in improving literacy. As Taylor et al. (2005) found, both the quality of classroom instruction and the school-wide reform effort, led by the principal, accounted for school improvement in literacy achievement. To contribute to this line of inquiry, we hypothesized that teachers’ perceptions of a principal’s support for change are associated with their reported level of collaboration and communication around literacy in Reading First schools.


The Reading First schools in Michigan provided an interesting context in which to study the relationship between principal support and teacher collaboration and communication around literacy. Indeed, the federal Reading First legislation called for school-wide support that fosters collaboration to address issues of effective reading instruction (U.S. Department of Education, 2002), but these calls largely emphasized the provision of adequate materials and professional development for teachers. The Michigan Department of Education proposal for federal funding was, however, more explicit in requiring the support and participation of the principal in school-wide efforts to improve reading (Michigan Department of Education, 2002). The state recognized the importance of the principal in effecting instructional change in the school, thus providing a rich context for the investigation of our primary research question.


The results of the multilevel model support the main hypothesis of the study: After adjusting for the influence of teacher and school socio-demographic background, teachers’ assessment of principal support for change makes a unique positive contribution to teachers’ reports of collaboration and communication around literacy in Reading First schools. Specifically, the findings indicate that a one standard deviation increase in the reported level of principal support for change was associated with a 0.202 standard deviation increase in the level and degree of collaboration and communication among teachers around literacy. This finding allows for the possibility that the effectiveness of programs such as Reading First may be difficult to detect because of differential implementation related to key mediating factors. That is, to the degree that program effectiveness depends on teachers effectively communicating and collaborating around literacy instruction, our findings suggest reformers and researchers alike should carefully attend to mediating variables such as principal support for change. Thus, we suggest that additional implementation studies of Reading First that consider the role of principal support in achieving the changes called for by the program are warranted. More generally, researchers may wish to consider the role of principals’ actions, such as support for change, in the implementation of different reforms aimed at instructional improvement. Teacher collaboration and communication around instruction is often a central tenet of that improvement in high-poverty, low-achieving schools, such as the ones we studied here.


The positive and significant association of teachers’ reports of principal support for change with the reported levels of collaboration and communication align with previous work that highlighted the link between principal leadership and teacher collaboration (Supovitz et al., 2010; Taylor et al., 2005). One way in which the findings reported in this paper contribute to this line of inquiry is by looking at a large, diverse sample of schools across a whole state. Taylor et al. examined only 13 schools in their study, and while Supovitz et al. had a larger sample of 52 schools, the sample was limited to a single, midsized urban district. Our study included 165 schools that varied in urbanicity, size, and student-body demographics. The findings presented in this paper also contribute to the literature by focusing on a large-scale reform effort. Given the paucity of research on improving instruction at a large scale (Coburn, 2003; Cohen et al., 2007; Stein, 2004), it is important to explore how both school level and classroom factors, such as principal leadership and teacher collaboration, influence reform implementation. Taylor et al. looked at principal leadership and teachers’ collaborative practices in the context of a reform initiative, but the larger scope of Reading First in Michigan allows us to extend their work.


The findings of our main analysis also indicate other areas for potential future work. For example, because our full model accounted for roughly one fourth of the variance in collaboration and communication between schools, future researchers should explore what, in addition to the influence of the principal, affects the degree to which teachers’ collaborate and communicate around literacy in Reading First schools. At the teacher level, we found that on average, teacher experience, as measured by the number of years as a teacher, was a positive predictor of collaboration and communication, whereas teachers with master’s degrees were somewhat less likely to report higher levels of collaboration and communication than those without a master’s degree. It is unclear why teachers with more education would report less collaboration and communication, but it is possible that these teachers may view collaboration differently than their peers. For example, the experience of completing a master’s program in education may lead teachers to hold different standards for what constitutes high-quality collaboration and communication around literacy, and thus they might be more likely to disagree with statements such as “Weekly grade-level meetings are a valuable opportunity to collaborate with colleagues on issues related to literacy.” The significant and positive relation between teaching experience and the outcome suggests new teachers are more likely to perceive lower degrees of collaboration and communication in their schools as compared to their more experienced counterparts, at least in the Reading First schools we studied. Such a finding suggests that in addition to principal support for change, schools may also need systematic approaches to engage new and experienced teachers collaboratively around literacy instruction.


It is also important to consider both the internal and external validity of this study. First, this research draws internal validity from the consistency between our theoretical rationale and findings, both of which suggest a strong linkage between teachers’ perceptions of principal support for change and teachers’ reports of collaboration and communication around literacy. In addition, in order not to misestimate standard errors and increase the chance of a Type 1 error by conducting a teacher-level analysis, we employed multilevel modeling techniques to account for the nested nature of our data (teachers nested in schools). Finally, we included both teacher- and school-level covariates to test for other factors that might explain teachers’ reported levels of collaboration and communication around literacy instruction. Indeed, one of the more compelling findings is that even after controlling for school social context and prior achievement, as well as teachers’ education and experience, the strongest predictor of teachers’ reports of collaboration and communication around literacy was their perceptions of principal support for change. Regarding external validity, our data are drawn from the population of schools participating in Reading First in Michigan; thus, it is likely that our findings generalize to similar groups. Moreover, although there are contextual differences across the states, it is likely that core components of Reading First, including the call for school-wide support and collaboration, will be the same in other states. Thus, while it is for future researchers to determine the degree to which principal support for change may impact teacher collaboration and communication in other Reading First schools, our results suggest that principal support is likely an important mediating variable in the attainment of Reading First goals.   


The study also has some limitations that future research should address. Causal claims cannot be made about exactly how a principal’s support for change influences teacher collaboration in schools, as we neither had a measure of collaboration and communication in the prior year nor an experimental manipulation of principal support for change. In addition, the teacher collaboration and communication measure, while sufficient, was not as reliable as one might prefer; thus, subsequent studies might explore developing a more reliable scale to measure teacher collaboration and communication around literacy instruction. Furthermore, the data for this study come solely from teacher survey responses. Researchers might also assess principal beliefs directly and consider their match with the faculty’s perceptions, as both are likely crucial to truly understand how a principal supports change. Finally, future researchers may wish to investigate the particular ways in which principals put in place structures and supports that provide teachers with encouragement to make changes to their instructional practice.


Many major reforms aim to alter classroom practice, and it is possible that higher levels of collaboration and communication centered on instruction may facilitate necessary transformations of practice. The Reading First program set out to improve literacy instruction for early elementary students living in poverty in several specific ways, including through teacher collaboration and communication. This paper demonstrates that the degree to which teachers report such collaboration and communication in Reading First schools is significantly related to their perceptions of principal support for change. If policymakers expect teachers to collaborate around issues of instruction, then they need to consider the principal’s role in supporting change in the school by encouraging teachers to improve their instruction and take the risks associated with innovation. In sum, the results of this study are important for educators, as the role of the principal is potentially critical for positive changes in teacher collaboration and, consequently, student achievement in high-poverty schools.


Acknowledgments


The authors would like to thank the Reading First program administrators, principals, and teachers for their openness and assistance in the research process. The authors would also like to thank Minjung Kim for her statistical assistance with the analysis.


Notes


1. Results were analyzed across grades 2-5. They found that reform effort ratings were positively related to students’ spring standardized reading comprehension scores, accounting for 17% of the between-school variance (ES=.29). In the discussion section, the authors reported that the greater the level of implementation, the greater the growth in students’ reading comprehension. The effect was moderately large (65% of the between-school variance for reading comprehension, ES=.49) over a two-year period.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 4, 2014, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17401, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 5:42:32 PM

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About the Author
  • Dan Berebitsky
    Southern Methodist University
    E-mail Author
    DAN BEREBITSKY is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Policy and Leadership department in the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University. His research focuses on the connections between school culture and instructional leadership. Recent research has appeared in Elementary School Journal, Scientific Studies of Reading, and Educational Administration Quarterly. Berebitsky is a former IES Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and in 2010, he was awarded the William J. Davis Award by UCEA for most outstanding article appearing in EAQ, with his coauthors, Roger D. Goddard and Serena Salloum.
  • Roger Goddard
    McREL
    E-mail Author
    ROGER D. GODDARD is a Senior Fellow at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL). He is also currently Co-Principal Investigator of a randomized control trial evaluating the causal impact of McREL’s Balanced Leadership program for school leaders sponsored by IES and Associate Editor for Educational Administration Quarterly. His research focuses on the social psychology of school organization and leadership with a particular emphasis on the conceptualization, measurement, sources, and impacts of efficacy beliefs. A former National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Post-doctoral Fellow, his most recent research has appeared in the Elementary School Journal, Educational Researcher, and Educational Administration Quarterly.
  • Joanne Carlisle
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    JOANNE F. CARLISLE is Professor Emerita in the School of Education, University of Michigan. Her research interests focus on the relation of language and literacy development with a special interest in children for whom language and literacy acquisition presents unusual challenges. Recently, her research projects have focused on effective teaching of reading in the early elementary years, including a study of models of professional development for teachers of reading, a study of assessment of teachers’ knowledge about reading, and development of an interactive Web-based program to provide opportunities for teachers to gain experience analyzing the effectiveness of early reading instruction, called Case Studies in Reading Lessons. She was responsible for the evaluation of the Reading First program in Michigan.
 
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