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Joining the Dots: The Challenge of Creating Coherent School Improvement

by Viviane Robinson, Linda Bendikson, Stuart McNaughton, Aaron Wilson & Tong Zhu - 2017

Background/Context: Sustained school improvement requires adequate organizational and instructional coherence, yet, in typical high schools, subject department organization, norms of teacher professional autonomy, and involvement in multiple initiatives present powerful obstacles to forging a coherent approach to improvement. This study examines the relationships among coordination, coherence, and improved achievement in five New Zealand high schools voluntarily participating in an initiative to improve the achievement outcomes of underserved student groups.

Purpose: The first purpose of this study is to develop a theoretical framework for describing and evaluating coordination and coherence and to apply it to the implementation of an improvement initiative. The second purpose is to examine the relationship between coherence and longitudinal trends in pass rates on national qualifications.

Research Design: Adjusted odds ratios were used to compare the pass rates of students in the five high schools before and after the intervention. This analysis, conducted independently of the study of school coherence, yielded a group of schools whose pass rates had improved and a second group that had maintained stable pass rates through the course of the intervention. Using case studies written for each of the schools, we systematically compared the schools in each group on degree of coordination in five domains of activity and in overall coherence.

Findings: There were considerable differences in degree of coordination between the two groups in three of the five domains. Improving schools were more tightly coordinated in how they organized to achieve results, in teacher professional learning, and in strategic leadership. Principal capability and willingness to address barriers to improved achievement, which was part of strategic leadership, was markedly greater in the improving than in the maintaining schools. In the remaining two domains, goal-setting and teacher culture, differences were smaller but still in the expected direction. The overall coherence of each improving school was independently evaluated as high, while the maintaining schools were evaluated as low or medium in overall coherence.

Conclusions: We discuss the implications of coordination and coherence for the successful implementation of any school improvement initiative. We argue that, since educational work contains weak cues about the adequacy of the performance of any component activity, we cannot rely on adequate coordination emerging through the interactions of interdependent agents. More emphasis must be given, in coordination theory and improvement practice, to steering such interactions through task design, widely distributed expertise, and strategic leadership.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 8, 2017, p. 1-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21946, Date Accessed: 9/19/2021 11:02:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Viviane Robinson
    The University of Auckland
    E-mail Author
    VIVIANE ROBINSON is a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland and Academic Director of its Centre for Educational Leadership. Her research interests include the analysis and development of the leadership and organizational capabilities associated with school effectiveness and improvement. Recent publications include “From Persuasion to Learning: An Intervention to Improve Leaders’ Response to Disagreement,” in Leadership and Policy in Schools, and “The Interpersonal Challenges of Instructional Leadership: Principals’ Effectiveness in Conversations About Performance Issues,” in Educational Administration Quarterly.
  • Linda Bendikson
    The University of Auckland
    E-mail Author
    LINDA BENDIKSON is Director of the University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership. In this role, Linda and her team develop and deliver professional development for school leaders and conduct research. Linda’s current research concerns the goal-setting and problem-solving behaviors of secondary principals. Her recent publications include “Assessing the Comparative Performance of Secondary Schools,” in Journal of Educational Administration.
  • Stuart McNaughton
    The University of Auckland
    E-mail Author
    STUART MCNAUGHTON is Professor of Education and Director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre at The University of Auckland. He researches literacy and language development, the design of effective educational programs for culturally and linguistically diverse populations, and cultural processes in development. He is a member of the Reading Hall of Fame and the Literacy Research Panel of the International Literacy Association and is the Chief Education Scientific Advisor to the New Zealand government.
  • Aaron Wilson
    The University of Auckland
    E-mail Author
    AARON WILSON in a lecturer in literacy in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland and an Associate Director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre. Aaron’s main research interest is in literacy teaching and learning in secondary school subject areas. Recent publications include “Opportunity to Learn About Disciplinary Literacy in Senior Secondary English Classrooms in New Zealand,” in The Curriculum Journal, and “Raising Literacy Levels Using Digital Learning: A Design-Based Approach in New Zealand,” in The Curriculum Journal.
  • Tong Zhu
    The University of Auckland
    E-mail Author
    TONG ZHU works at the Woolf Fisher Research Centre in advanced statistical modelling and data visualization. Tong has worked in probability theory, statistical computing, and optimization of stochastic networks with application to telecommunications networks. His current research interests include the analysis of hierarchical structured data (with particular application to New Zealand primary and secondary student achievement data), categorical data analysis, applied statistics, and data visualization.
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