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Aligned Instructional Policy and Ambitious Pedagogy: Exploring Instructional Reform from the Classroom Perspective

by James P. Spillane & Nancy E. Jennings - 1997

In recent years national, state, and local education reformers have paid increasing attention to two ideas about school reform. The first centers on ensuring more ambitious instruction for all students. The second has to do with crafting more coherent and closely aligned policies to support this ambitious instruction. This article explores these two popular reform ideas from the perspective of classroom teaching. We examine nine elementary school teachers?responses to their local school districtís efforts to press more ambitious ideas about literacy instruction. We argue that although the policy alignment strategy may be effective in changing surface-level aspects of teaching, it may be considerably less effective in reforming other difficult-to- reach dimensions of classroom practice (i.e., task and discourse). Further, we highlight the difficulties involved in figuring out the extent to which these recent reforms find their way into classroom practice.

In recent years national, state, and local education reformers have paid increasing attention to two ideas about school reform. The first centers on ensuring more ambitious instruction for all students. The second has to do with crafting more coherent and closely aligned policies to support this ambitious instruction. This article explores these two popular reform ideas from the perspective of classroom teaching. We examine nine elementary school teachers responses to their local school districts efforts to press more ambitious ideas about literacy instruction. We argue that although the policy alignment strategy may be effective in changing surface-level aspects of teaching, it may be considerably less effective in reforming other difficult-to-reach dimensions of classroom practice (i.e., task and discourse). Further, we highlight the difficulties involved in figuring out the extent to which these recent reforms find their way into classroom practice.

Two related ideas have recently gained considerable currency in the school reform discourse. Although they are but two in an array of competing proposals for school reform, these ideas have great appeal and policymakers at all levels of the system appear to be taking heed. The first involves ensuring that all students, not just an academic elite, have real opportunities to master more demanding learning goals (see, e.g., Smith & ODay, 1991). To achieve these demanding learning outcomes many scholars and reformers are set on creating a more ambitious pedagogy in which all students encounter subjects in ways that more closely resemble disciplinary and other real-world contexts. Most scholars acknowledge that dramatic changes in current classroom practices will be needed in order to realize this vision of more ambitious instruction. To revise teaching in this direction, reformers propose more coherent policies that support demanding learning goals (Fuhrman & Massell, 1992; Smith & Day, 1991). Coherence, then, is the second idea. Many school reformers at the federal (see, e.g., U.S. Dept. of Education, 1994), state (see, e.g., Kentucky Department of Education), and local levels are working to create coherent policy systems by aligning key policies to support demanding learning goals. The National Science Foundations Statewide Systemic Initiative is also an example of coherence.

Implicit in the idea of policy coherence is a theory about teaching teachers (Elmore, 1996). Because all policies require some learning by those who must carry them out, each policy entails some sort of pedagogy (Cohen & Barnes, 1993a, 1993b). Without consciously taking up the role, policymakers often become teachers of their new ideas and practitioners become learners of these ideas. Policymakers faith in policy coherence appears to rest on the pedagogical theory that learners (i.e., teachers) are more likely to get and enact congruent messages about instruction.

Previous research sheds some light on the efficacy of this strategy in changing local practice. Research on state-level efforts to align curriculum and assessment in the 1980s suggests that these initiatives did influence practice (Clune, White, & Patterson, 1989; Fuhrman, Clune, & Elmore, 1988; Hanson, 1989). But reformers in the early 1980s mostly set their sights on surface aspects of practice and used proxies for learning (Sedlak, Wheeler, Pullin, & Cusick, 1986) as indicators of their success. New state graduation requirements, for example, contributed to middle- and low-achieving students, taking significantly more academic courses, especially in mathematics and science. What was taught in these classes was not explored. Recent instructional reforms, however, propose to fundamentally transform how practitioners engage students with material, what students encounter as subject matter, and the way they learn. Certainly, these proposals will require changes in surface dimensions of practice (e.g., grouping arrangements, classroom materials). But they will also necessitate changes in other aspects of practice, including the way students interact with each other and the teacher, the way teachers treat students ideas and thinking, and what is valued as knowing. Scholars inform us that these dimensions of practice are especially resilient to change (Cuban, 1993; Tyack & Tobin, 1994). Whether the recent push for more coherent policy can support such a radical shift in teaching practice remains to be seen.

In this article we explore how more coherent education policies that support ambitious learning goals influence teachers practice. We use as a site for our exploration a suburban school district that aligned its curriculum policies and practices around ambitious language arts goals in the mid-1980s. Although our findings are grounded in one school districts reform efforts, we believe they can provide some insights into the probable effects of more coherent policy in general.

In the first section of the article, after discussing our research methodology, we document the districts strategy for instructional reform. In the second section we explore what teachers made of their districts reform efforts. Examining nine teachers language arts instruction, we consider the extent to which the districts instructional policies, which were aligned to support ambitious learning goals, influenced practice. Our account suggests that the conclusions one draws about the efficacy of the districts reform strategy depend on the level at which one analyzes practice. This analysis highlights the challenges recent reforms pose for policy analysts who have to figure out the progress of recent reforms in local practice. We take this issue up in the third section, where we also take a look at the influences on teachers attempts to revise their practice. Our analysis suggests that much more than aligned policy messages come into play. We argue that in order to fundamentally change practice, reformers must consider practitioners learning from policy. Scholars argue that what teachers learn about practice is shaped by much more than the occasions for learning provided by policymakers and others. What teachers learn is also shaped by what they bring to these learning occasions, including their beliefs and knowledge and their dispositions to learn (Jennings, 1996; Kennedy, 1991; Richardson, 1990). Our account supports this perspective.


This article draws from the work of the Educational Policy and Practice Study (EPPS), which is investigating the relations between policy and teachers practice in three states, California, Michigan, and South Carolina (Ball, 1994; Cohen & Ball, 1990; Jennings, 1995; Prince, Ball, & Luks, 1995; Spillane, 1996; Wilson, Peterson, Ball, & Cohen, 1996). We focus on one of the four Michigan districts in the EPPS study, taking an in-depth look at practice in nine classrooms in this district.

We used a case-study approach to investigate teachers responses to district policies because scholars tell us this method is well suited to in-depth analysis of complex issues like classroom teaching (Shulman, 1987; Stake, 1995). In-depth cases can highlight important questions for further investigation and provide insights that may be useful in other related contexts (Erickson, 1986; Peshkin, 1993).

We collected data in Parkwood between 1991 and 1994. We interviewed twenty-two local reformers including central office administrators, school administrators, and classroom teachers. Each interview lasted from sixty to ninety minutes, and was audiotaped and transcribed. Some informants were interviewed more than once. We also observed and interviewed nine classroom teachers over this period. Our strategy for selecting teachers involved two steps. Initially, we asked local reformers to identify three schools that represented the range of effort to implement the districts proposals for revising language arts instruction. We requested two schools that had managed to significantly revise language arts instruction and one in which there was only modest change in language arts teaching. We then asked the principals and learning specialists in these schools to identify teachers whose language arts teaching was representative of the range of variation within their schools. Given our selection methods and the number of teachers we studied, we cannot generalize our findings to all teachers in the district. Based on our conversations with district administrators and lead teachers, we believe that the teachers we studied provide a sense of the range of variation in teachers responses to the reforms.

During visits to these nine classrooms we took detailed notes and on occasion audiotaped parts of lessons. After each observation, we wrote field notes of our observations, detailing the lessons we observed and addressing the analytical issues outlined in the observation guide. We also conducted a semi-structured interview after each observation. Although we followed interview protocols, the questions were open-ended, which allowed teachers to identify salient issues. In addition, we attended staff-development workshops and analyzed curriculum documents such as curriculum guidelines, tests, and textbooks.

We used an observation guide and interview protocols developed by the EPPS research team to gather data. The observation guide focused on categories such as the nature of instructional materials and tasks, classroom activities, discourse patterns, grouping arrangements, use of texts, and student engagement. We used two interview protocols with teachers. The post-observation interview focused on the lessons observed and included questions about the teachers objectives, teaching strategies, sense of student mastery of the content, and sources of instructional ideas. The second protocol addressed teachers understanding of, and opportunities to learn about, mathematics and literacy reforms. We used a third protocol for our interviews with district administrators.

Data collection and data analysis were integrated (Miles & Huberman, 1984). Analyzing interview and observation data early in the study enabled us to identify issues that we explored in subsequent data collection. This approach meant that we were able to check out working hypotheses that began to emerge from our initial data analysis, clarifying our understanding of teachers responses to the reforms as we searched for confirming and disconfirming evidence. This strategy was especially important given the findings reported in this article. We coded our observation data initially using categories that included materials used, grouping practices, writing activities students engaged in, and reading strategies taught. Our initial data analysis suggested significant uniformity in language arts practice among the nine classrooms and offered striking evidence that the districts proposals for reforming instruction were finding their way into practice. For example, we found that all nine teachers were using similar materials (e.g., literature-based reading programs and trade books) and similar activities (e.g., Writers Workshop) with students. These materials and classroom activities resonated with the districts reform proposals.

Still, our early discussions of the observation data we collected suggested that there was considerable variation in instruction among the nine classrooms. For example, it was evident from our conversations about the observation data that the discussions teachers orchestrated about writing and literature, as well as the questions and exercises they pressed students to grapple with, differed significantly across classrooms. Noticing these differences we revised our analytical frame so that it would enable us to systematically track these below-the-surface differences in pedagogy among classrooms. This revised analytical frame focused on classroom tasks and discourse patterns and we used it to re-code our observation data. We also used these categories to guide the remainder of our data collection in the nine classrooms. We coded the interview data using categories such as beliefs about language arts instruction, opportunities to learn about practice, and response to the districts reform initiatives.


The district we studied had a reputation for instructional innovation. District office staff had engaged actively with curriculum reform for almost two decades.1 In the 1970s a number of schools in the district were noted for their efforts to enact innovative instructional programs, such as multiage grading and the British Infant School Philosophy. The district served students from two middle-income communitiesthe median income for the various townships the school district served was between $40,000 and $50,000. Education was highly valued, and the community had high expectations for the performance of the school district and the students.

In the late 1970s, the central office aspired to assume instructional leadership for the school district because, as one principal recalled, of a real back to basics push from the general public. New central office staff were hired. District-wide curriculum guides were developed, a basal reading program was mandated, and teachers were required to administer end-of-unit and end-of-book tests as well as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills at each grade level. The view of reading instruction these policies supported centered on the rote acquisition of reading skills. The reading curriculum involved a series of hierarchically ordered, discrete reading skills and vocabulary. Even reading comprehension was broken into a series of isolated skills (e.g., main idea, authors purpose, cause and effect) that students were expected to memorize and practice. And students ability to comprehend text was largely seen as a matter of locating examples of the skills they memorized in short passages. In this view, reading instruction was about teaching discrete reading skills, chiefly through rote memorization and isolated practice.

In the mid-1980s, some innovative administrators initiated a major revision of the districts policies about reading. Rather than the focus on discrete reading skills that the back-to-basics effort had produced, these administrators wanted a more holistic approach to reading. They sought instructional practices that would help students develop a sense of the connection between reading and writing and an understanding that reading and writing were about communicating ideas: reading as a process of understanding others ideas and writing as a process of communicating ones own ideas. They wanted students engaged with a curriculum that provided more authentic and genuine experiences with text.

This move was in part a response to a revised state reading policy that sought to shift the focus of reading instruction from drilling discrete decoding skills to helping students make sense of text. It was also a response to then current research about reading and learning with which some district administrators were familiar. The emphasis on isolated bits of vocabulary and low-level reading skills and the use of controlled readers that dominated the existing reading curriculum were replaced by an emphasis on reading literature, comprehension of text, and more authentic reading and writing experiences for students. Consider the districts new reading philosophy statement:

Reading, one component of the language process, is dynamic. The meaning of the message which the reader constructs is dependent upon the interaction of the readers background experiences, the authors purpose for writing the material, the type of material being read, and the readers purpose for reading it. (District Reading Curriculum)2

By 1987, district administrators had developed a new curriculum guide for reading, adopted new curricular materials, revised their student assessment policies, and organized an extensive professional development program about reading.

District curriculum guides outlined ambitious learning goals for each grade level describing materials and strategies that teachers could use to achieve these goals. These documents were extensive. The early elementary curriculum guide, for example, took up over 100 pages. Reading goals included developing the students ability to (1) evaluate and react critically to what has been read, (2) integrate information within a text, and (3) understand his/her own purpose(s) for reading text (District Reading Curriculum). These reading guides emphasized comprehension over isolated skills and encouraged teachers to actively involve students in making sense of the texts they read. According to these guides, good readers are not those who can read short pieces of text and answer literal comprehension questions, but those who can read longer, more complete, authentic texts about a variety of topics and respond to them thoughtfully and critically. They encouraged the use of real literature, the integration of reading and writing, and attention to students stages of literacy development. Further, the guides provided detailed descriptions of reading and writing strategies, such as story grammar, semantic mapping, and Directed-Reading-Thinking-Activity (D-R-T-A). New district goals for writing included reminding students that as authors they too must have intentions for their writing, students will be willing to share their writing with others, consider the suggestions of others and respond positively and helpfully to the writing of others, and students will begin to consider the audience and purposes of their writing (District Reading Curriculum).

District policies on textbooks and curriculum materials were closely aligned with these learning goals. Schools could choose from three literature-based reading programs to replace their traditional basal readers and workbooks. These reading programs paid attention to students ability to construct meaning from text and the reading comprehension strategies. Further, they used real literature rather than short choppy reading selections with controlled vocabulary. Moreover, administrators encouraged teachers to purchase childrens trade books instead of a commercial reading program. Workbooks and practice books that provided students with practice and drill in discrete reading skills were banned.

District-mandated student assessment also changed. In grades four, seven, and ten a new state reading test that focused on students ability to comprehend longer reading selections replaced the old state test, which measured students acquisition of low-level reading skills. The district also adopted a whole-language student assessment instrument. This test integrated reading and writing assessment, requiring students to respond to open-ended questions about text passages. Testing received significant attention in this district because parents paid close attention to test scores. District administrators also developed new report cards that included evaluations of students comprehension ability, attitudes toward reading, reading habits, ability to make predictions, and facility in literary discussions.

Between 1986 and 1992, district administrators organized numerous staff-development workshops to provide teachers with opportunities to learn about reforming their reading instruction. While teacher participation in these workshops was voluntary, organizers worked through building principals and lead teachers to persuade teachers to participate. These workshops were extensive. For example, one of the districts staff-development programs was a series of ten three-hour workshops in which nationally recognized researchers presented their ideas about literacy and literacy instruction. Many workshops, especially those organized between 1986 and 1988, focused on the theoretical underpinnings of new ideas about language arts instruction as well as new pedagogical approaches, including reading comprehension strategies, use of literature to teach reading, integration of reading and writing instruction, and the writing process approach.

To ensure that teachers were attending to the districts efforts to revise reading curriculum and instruction, the director of elementary education and her assistant visited schools to monitor instruction. Speaking about their monitoring visits, district administrators typically focused on classroom materials, grouping arrangements, and instructional activities. Visits were taken seriously: Banned materials (e.g., workbooks) were confiscated. Teachers who were seen as teaching in ways not supportive of the districts new approaches were encouraged to attend workshops and classes. Limited central office personnel, however, meant that most teachers were visited no more than twice yearly.

District administrators worked to align their instructional policies to support ambitious learning goals for language arts. While different administrators emphasized different aspects of the districts reform proposal, all supported changing instruction. Only one educator who was involved with the districts reform efforts questioned the limited attention given to phonics and decoding skills. Some other administrators, however, did not see the districts reforms as undermining instruction in phonics and decoding skills. Surprisingly, there was no sustained widespread effort by community groups to undermine the districts reform efforts, though we suspect this may have changed in recent years as attacks on whole language have gathered momentum in the state and nationally.

These district policy messages supported ideas about literacy instruction that were consistent with those state policymakers were advocating. District reformers also checked to make sure teachers were revising their teaching. Moreover, administrators employed a variety of other informal strategies to add further clout to their reform initiatives. Recruitment was one such strategy. A number of teachers told us that a significant proportion of their job interviews was devoted to their ideas about literacy teaching and the extent to which they fit with the districts whole-language philosophy. Another teacher remembered that she had to teach a reading lesson as part of her interview.

Most administrators seemed to believe that aligning key district policies (e.g., curriculum guides and materials, assessment) was essential in order to get teachers to change their practice. One senior administrator summed up the districts reform strategy when she noted, If you dont mandate change, it doesnt happen. This strategy does have a certain appeal. There is, however, a certain irony here in that the message about instruction district reformers were broadcasting suggested that what is learned depends not only on what is taught but on what learners bring to the learning situation. Yet their efforts to help teachers understand this message about instruction ignored that advice for the most part. The central administration did not teach [and] treat the teachers in a developmentally appropriate way, a member of the districts reading task force explained; they expected that everybody was at the same place at the same time and they [teachers] would move to this other place. Some district reformers seemed convinced that teachers, regardless of their beliefs and knowledge, would change their teaching if the district office sent them coherent signals that supported ambitious practice.


We observed and interviewed nine second-and fifth-grade teachers between 1991 and 1995. Seven of them worked at two of the districts more instructionally innovative elementary schoolsHoward Elementary and Hubbard Elementary (see Table 1). The remaining two teachers worked at Atwood Elementary, which had a reputation for being one of the districts least innovative schools.


As we listened to and watched these teachers, it was clear to us that the messages from the district office about reforming language arts instruction were reflected in teachers talk and practice. Prominent in all of their discourse about language arts was the idea of using literature rather than traditional basal readers to teach reading. All nine were using literature exclusively to teach reading. Only one relied regularly on a commercially produced literature-based reading program. The others used trade books almost exclusively. These nine teachers exposed students to a variety of literary genres, used both fiction and nonfiction texts, and provided class time for students to read books of their choice. Another idea prominent in teachers talk and reflected in their teaching was the centrality of students ability to understand and make sense of texts. Teachers talked about emphasizing students ability to comprehend and discuss text. Although reading skills were taught, they were usually embedded in reading and writing lessons and never appeared to dominate the literacy curriculum in these classrooms.

Other ideas reflected in teachers talk and practice included the writing process, integration of reading and writing instruction, and establishing connections between language arts and other subject areas. Using Writers Workshop (i.e., the writing process) extensively, these teachers provided ample opportunities for students to construct, edit, and publish their own texts. All were working to integrate different aspects of their language curriculum. For instance, eight taught literacy in a way that made explicit links between reading and writing. Most created lessons covering multiple subject areas connected by themes such as friendship and space. These similarities among the nine teachers in their language arts instruction were striking. To what extent did these classroom practices represent reformed instruction?

Compared with the accounts of practice portrayed in some earlier studies, the language arts instruction we observed suggests significant change. We found no evidence of the traditional reading curriculum others (e.g., Durkin, 19781979; Goodlad, 1984) documented in the 1970sa curriculum in which drill and skill dominated. Further, when the practices we observed are compared with central administrators and school principals descriptions of instruction in the district prior to the mid-1980s, there appears to be tremendous change. For example, administrators talked about basal readers, discrete skill instruction, and ability-selected reading groups being commonplace just ten years previously. Some teachers corroborated these accounts of changed practice with stories of their own past practices.

But in talking with these teachers, the concept of change became muddied. Four of the nine teachers had been teaching less than five years. Most of these teachers did not see their practice as significantly changed in that it resembled what they had learned about teaching language arts in their recent preservice education. One remarked, Im a recent grad . . . so this whole-language [approach] is what I learned in college. Another said, It [language arts teaching] hasnt changed because thats how I learned [in college]. Using childrens literature and engaging students in the writing process were part and parcel of these four teachers preservice education.

The situation was different for the five experienced teachers in our sample. These teachers reported significant shifts in their instruction over the past few years. One major change they identified was replacing the basal reading program with childrens literature. As a second-grade teacher said, We no longer plod through a basal, reading story after story . . . we teach reading through real books. Another remarked, Weve been using trade books instead of our basal [reading program] and for me that was different because I was trained [in] basals and the workbooks. All but one teacher had relied on basal reading programs almost exclusively to teach reading previously. Another change these teachers pinpointed concerned teaching skills in the context of reading and writing rather than in isolated drill sessions. A second-grade teacher commented, Ten years ago . . . we would have had a phonics workbook. We would have had a sound for the day and worked with it but it would have been filling out the workbook page. The most dramatic change reported by these five teachers involved using the writing process or Writers Workshop. One fifth-grade teacher noted:

The writing process is different than what we used to call creative writing. Creative writing teachers gave one assignment, students wrote on it, they handed it to them [teachers] as a finished product and students never learned how to look at it, seeing that it had a voice, did it sound like they wanted it to sound? It was given to the teacher and it came back all inked up and the teacher did all the work. . . . Writing process is more ownership for the child.

For these teachers, introducing the writing process was a dramatic departure from their past practice.

Our account up to now suggests that the ambitious language arts goals that reformers advanced through their aligned policies, including recruitment criteria, had taken root in classrooms. It would appear, then, that some optimism is in order with respect to the efficacy of the districts reform strategy in moving instruction in more ambitious directions. For all nine teachers, key ideas from district policies figured prominently in their teaching. What is even more striking is that, contrary to our expectations, there was considerable uniformity across these nine classrooms in teachers practice. Moreover, district policies and programs (e.g., professional development workshops, mandated textbooks and materials) featured prominently in teachers talk about revising their practice, and were identified by novice teachers as important affirmations of the instructional approaches they learned in preservice education courses.

But district administrators were not the only ones offering teachers advice about practice. These nine teachers identified sources aside from district policies that were important influences on their language arts instruction. They reported occasions outside the school system to learn about language arts teaching. These included university courses, professional journals, and conversations with teachers in other districts. So while the districts reform strategy influenced these teachers practice, it was only one of many influences.

Although these teachers instructional practices shared many common traits that were in sync with the districts policy messages, they also revealed some significant differences. Moving beyond the level of the materials (e.g., childrens literature), the activities teachers used (e.g., Writers Workshop), and the aspects of literacy they focused on (e.g., comprehension over skill instruction), we uncovered significant differences in practice. Looking more closely at these teachers classroom practices we found that indicators such as literature and the writing process camouflaged significant variance in teachers responses to the districts aligned policy messages. These observations raised important questions for us about the school districts success in transforming teaching.


To elaborate on the variance we observed among these teachers we focused on two dimensions of their teaching practiceinstructional tasks and classroom discourse. Task refers to the questions and exercises students engage with in classrooms. Discourse has to do with the way in which teacher and students interact with each other. It concerns whose ideas are valued and how the truth of something is determined.3 These two dimensions of classroom life seem crucial to the enactment of the reforms, for if the more ambitious literacy goals that district reformers advanced are to be realized in classrooms, both the tasks that teachers orchestrate and the discourse norms they nurture would have to change (Butler & Turbill, 1987; Calkins, 1986; Farris & Kaczmarski, 1988; Kirby, Latta, & Vinz, 1988; Lamme, 1989).

Concentrating on three of the nine teachers, we present mini-cases of their literacy teaching, using task and discourse patterns as a gauge for what it meant to know and be literate in these classrooms. A veteran teacher, Mrs. Adams has spent the last fifteen of her more than twenty years in teaching working in the district. She taught fifth grade at one of the districts less innovative schools. Adams enjoyed reading and writing herself and she transferred this passion to her classroom. She was always working to reconstruct her language arts instruction and was excited about her efforts. Adams constructed an extensive array of opportunities both inside and outside the school system to learn about language arts instruction. For Adams these learning opportunities included everything from her own teaching to her involvement with a writing group where participants shared and critiqued each others writing.

Ms. Stern has taught at a neighboring school for the last five years, first in the resource room and later in second grade. The school in which Ms. Stern teaches has a reputation of being among the most innovative in the district and Ms. Stern thinks she was hired, in part, because of her innovative preservice education. Ms. Stern learned to teach language arts from professors who advocated many of the same instructional practices advocated by administratorswhole language, Writers Workshop, connections between reading and writing. She believed in these practices because as a child she had difficulty learning to read with traditional methods. Unlike Mrs. Adams, though, Ms. Stern was not an active reader or writer herself. And she did not often attempt to find opportunities to learn more about language arts instruction. Because the ideas about teaching language arts in her preservice education classes matched well, in Ms. Sterns opinion, with the districts focus, she was content to play out what she already knew in her classroom. Like Ms. Stern, Ms. Camps learned to teach reading in the same innovative ways from her preservice education. The year that we began our study was Ms. Campss first year teaching and she talked often of the connection between what she learned in her methods classes and her classroom instruction. For Ms. Camps the districts reform ideas were not novel. In her early twenties, Ms. Camps had not only been taught these ideas in her education courses, but had experienced many of them in her own schooling (e.g., reading literature rather than basal readers). She taught fifth grade in another of the districts innovative schools.

We selected these three teachers for closer analysis because they captured the range of variation on dimensions of task and discourse patterns among the nine classrooms. Moreover, they represented the range of teaching experience of the teachers in our studyone beginning, one with five years experience, and one veteran teacher. We begin with reading instruction, presenting mini-cases from Adamss and Campss classrooms. We then turn our attention to writing lessons from Sterns and Adamss classrooms.

In comparing teaching between second- and fifth-grade classrooms we were careful to take grade-level differences into account, especially differences in students stage of language development. In gathering and analyzing the data, for example, we strove to ensure that our analysis of teaching practice was not based on items such as students fluency with vocabulary or their writing ability. Reformers have outlined certain features of reform-minded classrooms that apply across grade levels. For instance, the English Coalition Conference, which described good elements of language arts instruction kindergarten through college, suggests that reading and writing at all grade levels should provide the following kind of learning opportunities:

Teaching students how and why different ways of reading can find different meanings in the same text can provide important experiences in understanding and appreciating opposing perspectives. Learning about many different kinds of writing and ways of thinking which are the subject matter of the language arts curriculum can expand the capacity of students to imagine and value worlds other than their own. The ability to communicate their views in oral and written form and to listen with comprehension to the views of others is also indispensable . . . and enhancing this ability is a major aim of language arts instruction. (Lloyd-Jones & Lunsford, 1989, p. xx)

Using task and discourse, we were able to analyze the learning opportunities offered to students by comparing equivalent indicators of instruction, regardless of grade level. In presenting these cases we highlight the cross-classroom variance that underlay the surface-level similarities described avoid.


Adamss Reading Teaching

In Mrs. Adamss fifth-grade classroom literacy was an important pursuit.4 Her room was cluttered with childrens literature. Secondhand novels, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and sets of trade books filled much of the classroom space. Adamss reading lessons typically centered on trade books and key literary ideas. Consider one reading lesson.

On this particular morning, there were twenty-six fifth graders in class. Students desks were clustered into four distinct groups, which varied in size from five to twelve students. These grouping arrangements were rarely adhered to in reading lessons, however, as students ordinarily found a comfortable spot on the floor or on the couch at the front of the room. This particular morning was no different.

After completing Lois Lowrys Number the Stars (1989) on the previous day, students decided that they would work in small groups, with each group focusing on a different section of the novel. Each group was to dramatize a scene from the book and identify which parts of the scene were based in historical fact and which were fiction. We had sat down yesterday and we talked . . . what should we do now to end the book, Mrs. Adams explained, and they each came in with an idea of what we should do. So this really was a conglomeration of their ideas and mine. This approach is not unusual: Students ideas frequently become topics for literacy lessons in this classroom.

During the first five or ten minutes of the lesson, one student, Mandy, shared with the class an interview she had completed with a Navy aviation machinist who had lived through World War II (each student was interviewing someone who had lived through World War II in conjunction with their study of Lois Lowrys book). A brief discussion followed about ways in which Mandy might use the information she had gathered to write a piece of historical fiction. For the next fifteen minutes students worked on their group activity (i.e., dramatizing a selection from the text). These group conversations focused on everything from who would play which role to whether particular parts of the text were based on historical fact. All students appeared to be actively participating in the lesson. When Adams called the class back together after about twenty minutes, students returned quickly to the front of the room, where they formed a semicircle around the blackboard. Adams devoted the remainder of the class to presentations from three of the small groups. Each group dramatized a scene from the section of the text they were working with and then students discussed factual and fictionalized aspects of that particular selection.

The first group dramatized a part in the story in which the Danish king rides his horse by Nazi troops who are occupying Denmark (Lowry, 1989, pp. 1114). When they had finished, Adams raised the question whether this part of the book was fact or fiction. The two boys who had dramatized the scene thought it was fiction but based on fact. They knew that the Nazis had not actually killed the Danish king. A lively discussion ensued, as Adams enthusiastically pushed students to reason about the text. Do you think this [incident] added to the story? she asked. Does anyone else besides me think that the Germans would leave the Danish king alone? Students eagerly engaged with the teachers question:

CHAD: I think the Germans left the king alone because the Danes would have been angry if they had killed their king.

T: What in the text tells you that the Danes would have been angry if the Germans had killed the king?

CHAD: What the boy said to the soldier. He said [Chad read from the book]: The boy looked right at the soldier, and he said, All of Denmark is his bodyguard. This tells us that the Danes loved their king and would have been upset if the Germans had killed him.

JOYCE: They let the king ride by because they didnt know who he was.

T: Think of what we discussed in social studies about World War II.

MARY: I think it didnt make any difference whether the king was alive or not so the Germans didnt bother him.

TONY: I agree with Joyce. Because why would the soldier have asked the boy who the man on horseback was if he knew he was the king? [Tony reads from the text]. Who is that man who rides past here every morning on his horse? the German soldier had asked.

Equally lively discussions followed the other two group presentations, as students used both textual and nontextual evidence to reason about their ideas and challenge each others opinions. Adams navigated these conversations by steering the discussion in various directions, constantly modeling ways of interpreting texts for students, and ensuring that all students actively participated. Although she nurtured her students ideas and opinions, as she does in all reading lessons, she insisted that students substantiate their ideas.

Bringing the lesson to a close, Adams asked students about what they had learned. One student offered, By adding to the historical fact it makes the story much more interesting. If she had not put in the extra details it would have been boring. Other students added similar comments and Adams brought closure to the lesson remarking, We can embellish historical facts with fiction to make our stories more interesting and exciting. Adams was clearly animated by this lesson. You feel like theyre ninety-year old adults having a literary meeting, she exclaimed to the observer, and its wonderful.

Campss Reading Teaching

Like Mrs. Adamss classroom, Jessica Campss fifth-grade class looked open and full of interesting spaces. There were books and student writing all around the room and children sat in clusters of four to accommodate cooperative learning. Most days started off with a silent reading period in which Ms. Camps and the students read from books of their choice. For formal reading instruction students read novels, biographies, and short stories. Students kept daily journals and wrote numerous other pieces of text about which they conferenced with their peers, either individually or with the whole class. Literacy events were the main focus of the day. Although mathematics and science were taught, they were often infused with writing and reading activities.

Ms. Campss use of literature shared many features of Mrs. Adamss literacy instruction. Ms. Camps had students read and discuss chapters of novels and nonfiction works. But there were also marked differences between literacy teaching in these two classrooms.

During one lesson, Ms. Campss students were reading a biography of Paul Revere as their reading text. The class had been studying the Revolutionary War and Camps chose this book to connect reading and social studies. Camps started off the discussion of the biography by asking students who had fired the first shot in the war. The class got into a heated debate. Some argued that it was the British because the minutemen were told not to fire unless fired upon. Others got confused as to who was told not to fire. One boy argued passionately that he thought it was the minutemen because most of them were only fourteen or fifteen years old and would have gotten anxious. Camps accepted every ones answer with comments such as good thinking or interesting idea. One girl suggested to a classmate that he show her what in the book made him come up with his idea. He responded, I dont have to do that because she is asking our opinions. After a couple of minutes, Ms. Camps, without settling anything, asked the class to move on to the next question. A few students wanted to know who was right.

STEPHEN: But whos right? Are we both right?

T: It says in the book that even historians argue about this.

STEPHEN: So we are both right, right? What should we mark down on our sheet?

T: How can you be wrong when I asked for what you think?

During the same lesson, Camps asked students another question on the study sheet she had given them, whether Paul Revere wanted to be put on trial for cowardliness or not. One boy argued that he would have wanted to so that he could clear his name. Others thought it was too risky and Revere would have avoided it. This discussion went on for a long time and students vehemently argued their positions. No students, though, used the text to support their arguments. After quite a long time, a girlShirleysaid that she thought the question asked if Revere wanted to be put on a trail and she said no because the British would have followed him too easily. Camps responded, Now thats very interesting. Thats one possible answer. When the girl asked if she was correct, Ms. Camps responded that she was because thats how you interpreted the question.

Comparing Campss and Adamss Reading Instruction

Both teachers organized classroom tasks that actively involved students reasoning about text, and the issues students reasoned about were authentic when viewed from an epistemological perspective. Although these teachers shared their own ideas with students, they rarely offered these opinions and ideas as the last word on an issue. Discourse norms supported the notion that students had a legitimate role to play in constructing knowledge. Moreover, students readily challenged each others ideas about text. In this respect, Campss reading instruction was similar to Adamss.

But there were also marked differences between discourse patterns in these two classrooms. In Ms. Campss classroom there seemed to be no shared expectation that students justify their interpretations of the texts they read. Ms. Camps never asked her students to justify their ideas with evidence from the text or some convincing argument. Indeed, her response to Shirleys confusion about trail and trial suggests that in Ms. Campss view having an opinion about text was all that mattered. These discourse norms contrasted sharply with those evident in Mrs. Adamss classroom. In responding to students, Adams did much more than applaud their opinions. She constantly pressed students to support their ideas. In offering interpretations or challenging the interpretations of others, students (and the teacher) had to support their ideas with a convincing argument based on evidence from either the text or some other source. Discourse norms that required students to justify all ideas and opinions with a convincing argument were firmly established in Adamss classroom. Through the questions she posed and her own participation in the class discussions, Mrs. Adams constantly modeled for students ways of substantiating their ideas about text. Being literate in Adamss classroom, then, involved much more than simply having and voicing an opinion about text. It involved defending that opinion using epistemological conventions, such as a convincing argument grounded in textual evidence.


We also uncovered considerable differences among classrooms in how teachers taught writing. What at one level looked like very similar writing instruction turned out very different on closer analysis. Consider two examples.

Adamss Writing Teaching

Mrs. Adams was clear about her literacy goals for student s, as she explained, My goal is that I want them [students] all to be authors and I consider them to be authors. Like the other teachers we studied, Mrs. Adams used the writing-process approach to teach writing. Students engaged in pre-writing activities, drafted their compositions, composed text, revised and edited their texts, and published these compositions. Throughout the process, students conferred with Adams. Consider by way of example a writing lesson we observed.

On one March afternoon there were twenty-five students present. When informed that it was time for Writers Workshop, students quickly gathered their writing folders, found a comfortable space either on the floor or at one of many tables, and began writing. Students appeared enthusiastic, an impression Mrs. Adams confirmed when she remarked: Students love Writers Workshop; never before had I this attitude to writing. Mrs. Adams explained that students selected their own topic and the only teacher-established precondition for writing during this particular marking period was that students had to write about an actual event, although embellishment was allowed.

Working quietly for about fifteen minutes, students concentrated on their own work while Mrs. Adams sat at a table toward the back of the room composing her own text. Occasionally, a few students conversed with each other about some part of their texts. One student, for example, sought his neighbors help with a sentence he was having some difficulty withthe sentence was, in his opinion, boring. His neighbor offered advice, suggesting that more detail and a few adjectives might improve the boring sentence.

Suddenly Mrs. Adams got up, announcing that she had rewritten the introduction to her story about the carnival and wanted feedback. As she read both the old and new versions to the class, students listened with interest. Ill probably have to change it quite a few times before I get it right, she said, and then asked the class what they thought. Most students indicated that they thought it was a vast improvement. One girl, for example, remarked that she thought the first sentence of the new version was much more interesting . . . it makes you want to read the story. Another student expressed some concern about the accuracy of the text.

PAUL: Shouldnt it be the quack, quack rather than chirp, chirp?

T: I was thinking about thatI couldnt remember . . . everything that happened when I visited the carnival as a little girl with my parents. I had to make up some of mine [my story]. Is it okay to add details?

PAUL: Yes. But I dont think ducks say chirp, chirp . . . I know we can add details but shouldnt we try and be accurate with things like sounds?

Teacher and students returned to their writing for another ten or fifteen minutes before Mrs. Adams interrupted again to ask if anyone would like to share their stories so they could get help from their colleagues. Four students eagerly volunteered. Peter read the first two paragraphs from his story about getting a new dog named Patches. When he had finished other students offered advice:

MARCIE I like the words you used.

PETER: Which words?

MARCIE: Like scraggly and meekly.

T: Okay, why do you like them? What do they add to the story?

MARCIE: They tell us more about Patches; its like we can almost see him.

MARC: Why did you call the dog Patches?

PETER: Because he had spotty feet.

MARC: You could put that in the story.

T: Thats a good suggestion Marc; [turning to Peter she went on] Marc would like to know that so you might want to say it [in your story].

PETER: Okay [recording the advice in his writing folder].

Three more students read their stories and received similar feedback from their classmates. Students complimentary remarks were blended with helpful and substantial suggestions for the authors revision work.

Sterns Writing Teaching

As in Adamss and Campss classroom, evidence of nontraditional literacy instruction abounds in Ms. Sterns room.5 Bookcases overflowing with books circle the room. Student writing is displayed everywhere. Children throughout the day read, discuss, and produce text. For example, on one Monday in Sterns class, students started out the day writing about their weekend events. They continued writing on their Weekend News and working on other writing projects for almost an hour. After writing time, Ms. Stern read an informational book on dinosaurs and paleontologists. She asked the class questions on the difference between this book and fictional stories on dinosaurs they had read. The only nonliteracy event of the day was a thirty-minute mathematics lesson on place value. Ms. Stern uses process writing (Writers Workshop) to teach writing and trade books for reading, and embeds her reading skill instruction in texts students read. Students keep both reading and writing logs to record their own progress in literacy.

Most mornings Ms. Stern begins the day with writing. Students work individually to write, edit, or publish their text. Students keep their unfinished pieces in writing folders so that when Ms. Stern announces writing time, they can start to work independently where they left off. During one writing session, Ms. Stern offered to talk with five students about their work. She set up five individual conferences. Most of these students were in the middle of writing stories about events that had happened in their lives. Similar to Adamss assignment, Ms. Stern had asked students to write about something that had actually happened to them, although they could expand on the event in order to make a good story. Stern said she chose to talk with these five students during this particular lesson because she knew they were having some problems with their text and she wanted to help them find their own solutions to problems.

Ms. Stern started off her conference with one boy, Ryan, by commenting on his opening sentence:

T: I was reading your book over the weekend and I wanted to talk to you about it. You start off, Sunday we went to Grandmas house. Normally we want to start off a story with something interesting or exciting to grab the reader. Can you think of something?


T: Well, we need a different way to start the story because it wasnt last Sunday, was it?

RYAN: [Shakes his head].

T: It was one Sunday, wasnt it?

RYAN: It was Super Bowl Sunday.

T: So you could write Super Bowl Sunday was fun at Grandmas.

RYAN: [Doesnt respond].

Without saying anything, Ryan took his paper and sat down. After a few minutes, he had crossed off his original opening sentence and wrote Super Bowl Sunday was fun at Grandmas. He made no other changes and put his story in the box for finished texts. The other four student conferences were similar to Ryans. Ms. Stern offered her suggestions to students. Students never contested these suggestions, responding with only brief replies. Students then made the changes Stern suggested and completed their stories. They did not talk with others about their work, nor did they do anything other than make the changes Ms. Stern offered.

Like Mrs. Adams, Ms. Stern also provided opportunities for students to seek peer feedback on their work through what she calls authors chair, which she holds twice a week. This is a time when students can read their texts to the whole class for feedback. In Ms. Sterns routine student authors asked the class a specific question, which the class was to keep in mind as they listened to the story. These questions included such things as, After listening to my story, what do you think I should name the girl in my story? or Can you tell me if my pictures go along with the story? Ms. Stern said that having student authors frame their reading in this way helps other students listen more attentively and offers more constructive help to their peers. But the routine rarely appeared to be as helpful as Sterns comment would indicate. For example, during one authors chair session, Jennie shared her story about penguins with the group. Before she began reading her story, Ms. Stern asked Jennie if she had a question to ask the group.

JENNIE: I want you to see if Ive answered the question in my story about why penguins cant fly. [Jennie reads her report, which did answer the question.]

GROUP: [Claps]

JAKE: I like your pictures.

EMILY: I think your story was very nice.

JENNIE: Thank you.

T: Okay.

LINDSEY: I liked your story about penguins.

T: Okay. [Jennie sat down.]

Jennies experience was not atypical. Most frequently authors read their writing, stopped and stared at their audience after they finished, and then sat down when the audience clapped. If there were comments, they were genericI really liked your story; Did you write your story by yourself?and not answers to the questions the authors asked. On another day, two girls read their story about a girl who went to the store with her mother to buy a bean bag chair. They giggled and mumbled through the story so that it was hard to hear them, but when they finished reading they asked a serious questionhow could they end the story? The only feedback they got was from a friend of theirs who said she found the story interesting. Stern, who was writing the daily schedule on the board during the reading activity and setting up a mathematics activity for the next lesson, did not respond to the authors. Rarely did Stern sit with her students and listen to the authors read. And she did not comment on students questions or answers. Frequently, her only intervention in the time period was to ask who was next to sit in the chair. After doing authors chair, students were instructed to revise their texts, but students in Ms. Sterns class rarely changed text because of comments they received from their peers. No students requested further help from peers.

Comparing Adamss and Sterns Writing Instruction

These two teachers offered their students opportunities to write independently on topics largely of their own choosing. They engaged their students in writing tasksdrafting text, editing it, conferring with someone about it, rewriting it, and then publishing itwhich reflected a process approach to writing. In this respect, the writing tasks Ms. Stern orchestrated were similar to those orchestrated by Mrs. Adams. But with respect to writing tasks, there was at least one important difference between these two classrooms. In contrast to Adams, Stern never posed questions that pushed her students to offer substantive feedback on their peers work. Having an opinion about a peers writing was all that Stern seemed to expect and require of her students. Contrast with this Adamss classroom, where students were expected to offer substantive feedback on their peers compositions. And they had to justify this feedback. Adams made these expectations clear in the questions she posed, and through these questions, she managed to engage students in writing tasks that helped them appreciate what was involved in composing their own texts.

Moreover, the discourse around text in the two classrooms was very different, which contributed to making the nature of the classroom tasks different. In Sterns class, there were few occasions in which students actually engaged in serious dialogue about their texts, nor did Stern ever press this sort of dialogue. Discourse around text was limited to short responses or suggestions from others that students accepted without comment or challenge. The discourse in Ryans writing conference, for instance, was more telling Ryan what to do than conversing with him about his text. Students seemed to passively accept the teachers opinion as final, as the right answer.

Even during an opportunity for students to comment on each others texts, such as authors chair, talk about text was constrained. Discourse norms in Sterns classroom did not support the notion that students contributions might help other students revise their texts. Unlike Adams, Stern does not herself engage in writing nor does she share any of her writing with her students. Except for specific changes that Ms. Stern pointed out, student writers in her class altered their text little in response to peer feedback. Whereas in Mrs. Adamss class students used other students and Mrs. Adamss comments to think about their text, in Ms. Sterns class the comments appeared to be largely perfunctory. Indeed, it was difficult to see how the discourse that went on around writing in Ms. Sterns classroom would contribute to the development of students writing skills. In contrast, the discourse Adams encouraged around writing was concretely tied to helping students improve their writing ability.

To summarize, at one, somewhat gross level of analysis, all nine teachers in our study appeared to be teaching in ways that were roughly in line with the districts policy messages about language arts. But taking a closer look at three teachers practice, by comparing tasks and discourse patterns across classrooms, we documented significant variance in the way the districts aligned policy messages played out in teaching. These three teachers practices represent the range of variance in task and discourse patterns across the nine classrooms we studied. The task and discourse patterns in two other classrooms, one fifth grade and one second grade, resembled those we described in Mrs. Adamss classroom. In another four classrooms, the task and discourse patterns we observed were more similar to those we found in Ms. Campss and Ms. Sterns classrooms.

Because reformers propose such fundamental changes in practice, we must expect some variance because some teachers learn faster than others. Furthermore, some teachers have much more to learn in order to reconstruct their practice than others. Taking a closer look at these three teachers learning about their practice below, we suggest that more than time for learning is at play in understanding the variance in teaching across these classrooms.


To understand the variance in practice among these three classrooms, we must understand something about these three teachers opportunities to learn about their language arts practice. Certainly, the district mobilized an extensive array of opportunities for teachers to learn about reconstructing their practice including workshops on language arts, new instructional materials, and curricular guides. To understand teachers learning opportunities, however, we have to focus on more than the curriculum (e.g., workshops, curriculum guides, curricular materials) that district administrators mobilize to help them change. What teachers understand from these opportunities is shaped by their prior knowledge, beliefs, and experiences (Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990; Porter, Floden, Freeman, Schmidt, & Schwille, 1988; Schwille et al., 1983; Stake & Easley, 1978). Just like students, teachers opportunities to learn about reconstructing their teaching are shaped in important ways by what they bring (e.g., knowledge, dispositions, commitments) to their learning (Ball, 1995; Jennings, 1996; Spillane, 1995). We must, then, look at more than the districts extensive reform efforts. We must also explore who these teachers were as learners about language arts teaching, especially their personal resourcescommitments, dispositions, and knowledgefor learning.

These three teachers dispositions to learn about revising their language arts teaching varied from one another. Mrs. Adams was committed to reconstructing her language arts teaching. She was constantly searching for new ideas. Although she had introduced dramatic changes in her practice, especially her writing instruction, over the past few years, she believed there was still much room for improvement. Im always trying to improve, she explained, thats just something that I do. Camps, like Adams, was committed to learning more about teaching language arts and had applied to a masters program in education. At the time of our study, Ms. Camps was, in the abstract, very interested in reflecting on her language arts instruction. But like many beginning teachers, she was overwhelmed by a variety of teaching concerns, mostly classroom management. She believed that she had little space in her life to seriously consider nuances of her language arts instruction. In contrast to both Adams and Camp, Stern spoke of few experiences in her five years of teaching that had enticed her to learn about her language arts practice. She commented that most teachers were still playing catch-up, needing to learn what she already knew because of her preservice education.

These dispositions influenced the manner in which these three teachers viewed the districts reform efforts. Consider Adamss and Sterns experience with district workshops by way of example. Although they both attended the same district workshops about language arts, they interpreted these opportunities differently. Mrs. Adams thought a main focus of these workshops was writing and saw them as a valuable opportunity for learning new ideas about her teaching. In contrast, Stern said she did not find district workshops helpful because they explained practices she perceived to be what I already do. She commented:

Well, we ate lunch a lot. . . . Sometimes what they were talking about, depending on what level you were at in terms of change, it didnt apply. Yet, you had to sit there the whole week.

Ms. Stern did not mention writing as a key piece of the in-service training nor did she talk about learning new ideas about writing from the workshops. Rather, she said the workshops focused on whole-language instruction, particularly use of trade books, and developmentally appropriate practice. Sterns and Adamss differing views of district workshops were in part a result of differences in their dispositions to learn. Stern did not perceive these workshops as opportunities to learn.

There is more. These three teachers also differed from each other in their interest in and experience with literature and writing. Adams loved to read and write herself and was enthusiastic about these pursuits: Its so real life. Its so experiential. Its so engrossing. She belonged to a writers group. Listening to her talk about novels she had read recently, one was immediately struck by her ease in analyzing and critiquing these texts. The situation was entirely different for Ms. Stern. With a young child at home and a husband starting his own business, Stern said she had little time to read. The only writing she did was to edit her churchs monthly newsletter. Ms. Camps spoke of her desire to read and write, but created little time for these pursuits.

These teachers experiences with literature and writing were important in understanding their efforts to revise their practice: They influenced the intellectual resources the teachers had to make sense of the districts proposals for language arts instruction. Mrs. Adams viewed her own reading and writing as an important resource in helping her think about her practice. From struggling with her own writing and listening to her peers perspectives on her writing, she developed an appreciation for the craft of writing and the value of peer feedback in improving ones writing skill. She used these experiences and insights to reconstruct her writing instruction. Moreover, her experience as a writer helped her understand the writing process, which she encountered in district professional development workshops and curricular guides, as an approach that captured the craft of writing. Much of what she learned about the writing process made sense to her because it resonated with her own writing experiences. For Mrs. Adams the writing process was not just some new classroom activity. It was a process that captured the challenges she experienced in composing textreal writing. Ms. Camps and Ms. Stern called on very different resources when constructing their literary practices. Their major resource was their preservice education, where they learned to teach using innovative practices. Unlike Adams, they had constructed for themselves few opportunities to experience these new instructional approaches from a readers or writers perspective. For them, the activities they learned about in their methods classes were what reading and writing instruction should look like. They were unable to evaluate their activities from the perspective of their own reading and writing. When it came to the opportunities mobilized by the district, then, Mrs. Adamss stance as a learner was different from that of Ms. Camps and Ms. Stern.

These teachers stories suggest that what teachers learn about practice from aligned policies depends as much on who they are as learners as it does on the kinds of opportunities reformers offer to them. And who teachers are as learners about their practice includes their dispositions to learn, their commitments to literature and writing as intellectual pursuits, and their prior knowledge of and experiences with these pursuits.


Our account suggests at least two issues about recent attempts to press for more ambitious learning goals through policy alignment. One concerns the connection between coherent policy and ambitious practice. The other concerns the task of analyzing this relationship. In light of the data presented above, we consider both issues.


One reading of our account is that the policy alignment strategy has worked well in getting teachers to adopt a more ambitious pedagogy. Viewing practice through a broad lens, it appears that the districts aligned messages about literacy teaching contributed to a practice that was ambitious and aligned to the districts policy messages. Taking a closer and more detailed look at practice by analyzing task and discourse patterns, however, suggests that the alignment strategy was less effective. On closer scrutiny of classroom practices, then, we suggest a somewhat less optimistic reading: The alignment strategy may not be sufficient to move some essential dimensions of classroom practicetask and discoursein a more ambitious direction. Although aligning policies so that they support challenging learning goals appears to be effective in encouraging surface-level changes (e.g., materials, grouping arrangements), it appears to be less successful in getting at more difficult-to-reach dimensions of teaching (e.g., classroom discourse patterns). Aligning policy may be an important first step, but we suggest that more than alignment will be necessary to fundamentally change teaching practice.

What else aside from policy coherence or alignment might reformers take into account as they craft policy? The responses of the teachers we studied to their districts reform efforts suggests at least two potentially helpful pointers. One concerns the policy texts that district administrators crafted. It seems more than a coincidence that when district policymakers offered more elaborate images of reformed teaching we found significant uniformity across the nine classrooms. District policies, for example, were quite explicit about the materials teachers were to use (and not use) in their classrooms. In all classrooms we found teachers using literature to teach reading and no evidence of practice books.

But when the districts policy texts offered less elaborated images of reformed practice, we found significantly less consistency among classrooms. District administrators, for example, wanted teachers to teach students to express their opinions and react critically to text. Stated goals included the learner will evaluate different texts and the learner will establish and justify personal opinions of various literary forms (District Curriculum Guide). Aside from these general statements, however, teachers were offered no explicit guidance about helping students to articulate their ideas about text. These general statements were likely to raise as many questions about practice for teachers as they were likely to answer. Our mini-cases document considerable variability among classrooms in what teachers made out of these goals.

Reformers, then, may need to develop more elaborated and vivid images of the ambitious practice they propose. This of course is no small feat. Although the recent work of national associations and scholars suggests that more elaborated images of ambitious teaching are possible, the likelihood of developing detailed scripts of this type of teaching is not strong. Inherent in the ambitious instruction reformers speak of is the notion that teachers and students should interact in classrooms in ways that cannot be precisely specified from the outside by reformers. While it may be possible to offer specific advice to teachers about the materials they should use and certain activities they should include, when it comes to the way in which classroom discourse should play out around a particular text or topic prescriptive recipes seem unlikely.

A second pointer that emerged from our study focuses on what teachers, as learners, bring to policy texts. Teachers enact policies in diverse ways because they bring to policy different knowledge, commitments, and dispositions, which influence their understanding of the reform messages. Some teachers in our study used the district policy documents as opportunities to learn about practice. Others did not. Recall that for Ms. Stern district workshops were not valuable largely because she perceived them as giving her information she already knew. She commented often on how consistent they were with her preservice education. If Ms. Stern had perceived some dissonance between her existing understanding of literacy instruction and the districts messages she might have perceived the workshops as greater opportunities to learn. Regardless of policymakers efforts to align instructional policies, their potency to reform classroom instruction will depend to a great extent on teachers willingness to learn from them. Moreover, teachers may learn very different ideas about practice from similar learning opportunities because they bring different prior experiences and knowledge to the learning situation.

In addition to developing more coherent policies, then, reformers may also want to consider ways of crafting policies that take more account of what we know about teacher learning. Seeing teachers as learners would bring into policy-design conversations the things we know about learnersthat they respond to learning opportunities in different ways; that they bring to their learning dispositions, experiences, and knowledge that influence how and what they learn; and that their learning takes time and hard work. If policy were viewed as an occasion for teachers to learn, then reformers, when crafting policies, might ask such questions as: What might teachers learn about teaching, learning, and subject matter from these policies? How might they learn these things? How might policies not only engage teachers with alternative visions of instruction but also help them appreciate the similarities and differences between these visions and their own current theories and practices? How might we construct curriculum frameworks so that a teacher like Ms. Camps has an opportunity to appreciate the differences between her approach to teaching students about text and Mrs. Adamss approach? How might a teacher like Ms. Stern come to see the dissonance between her current practice and the ideas about practice being advanced by reformers? These are quite different questions about policy design from those currently being asked, which focus more on policy coherence and consistency.


Our second question centers on what policy analysts might count as evidence of ambitious pedagogy: What might they count as evidence for the enactment of these policies that call for more ambitious teaching and learning? Policy analysts face some difficult challenges. Our account highlights the difficulties inherent in figuring out whether, and to what extent, these recent reforms have taken root in classrooms. Depending on the indicators analysts use, their verdicts could easily turn out very differently. Using two different gauges for ambitious teaching, we have shown that it is relatively easy to arrive at very different conclusions about the extent to which recent proposals for more ambitious pedagogy have permeated practice. Should policy analysts be content with indicators, such as teachers using literature to teach reading or evidence of teachers using activities such as Writers Workshop? Or would a more in-depth analysis of the tasks and discourse patterns, similar to what we present in this article, be necessary to figure out how these new policies are playing out in classrooms?

We have taken a definite stand on what we believe is important for policy analysts to look at in practice. We understand recent reforms as efforts to make the language arts knowledge students are exposed to in schools more authentic by engaging them in the real use of real texts (Altwerger, Edelsky, & Flores, 1987) and allowing them to experience writing in the real (Willinsky, 1990). Moreover, we agree with scholars (Calkins, 1986; Goodman, 1989; Willinsky, 1990) who argue that tasks and discourse norms must change if we want to transform language arts teaching. Thus, we analyzed tasks and discourse patterns to gauge the progress of reformers proposals in classrooms. We argue that if these recent reforms are meant to help all students encounter language arts in a more demanding and authentic manner, then policy analysts cannot rely solely on indicators such as the materials and the activities teachers use. Rather, they must sit in classrooms and figure out what type of knowledge classroom tasks and discourse patterns support. We argue, based on our data, that the conclusions we draw about the progress of instructional reform depend on what we count as evidence of those reforms in practice.

Aligning messages sent does not necessarily align the messages teachers receive or act on in practice. Creating consistent policies in support of ambitious literacy content standards at best can be only one component of any effort to move language arts instruction in more ambitious directions. We argue that the variance we document in teachers responses to the districts reform efforts had to do with how and what teachers learned from these policies. To understand teachers enactment of policy we have to explore their opportunities to learn from it. And, as with any learners, teachers opportunities to learn are influenced by much more than what is taught (i.e., the reformers curriculum about revising literacy instruction). Teachers learning about reconstructing their practice is also influenced by the dispositions, knowledge, and skills they bring to policy. If teacher learning is critical, then we may have to move away from a view of instructional policy as a vehicle for putting ideas into practice. Instead, thinking about teachers as learners from policy rather than implementors or doers of policymakers proposals suggests some new issues for policymakers to consider in designing policy. The problem is trying to figure out how policy might educate.

We are indebted to Deborah Ball, David Cohen, Robert Floden, S. G. Grant, Bill McDiarmid, Suzanne Wilson, and four anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article. We are also indebted to our colleagues in the Educational Policy and Practice Study at Michigan State University, especially Carol Barnes, Dan Chazan, Steve Mattson, Sue Poppink, and Karl Wheatley, who worked with us in studying the school district. Work on this article was supported by the Educational Policy and Practice Study, which is funded in part by Michigan State University, and by grants from the Pew Charitable Trust (Grant No. 91-04343-000); Carnegie Corporation of New York (Grant No. B. 5638); the National Science Foundation (Grant No. ESI-9153834); the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) and the National Center for Research on Teachers Learning (NCRTL), both of which are funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (Grant No. OERI-G0008690011 and No. OERI-R-117G10011-94). The views expressed in this article are ours and are not necessarily shared by the grantors. This article was a collaborative effort. We each contributed equally.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 3, 1997, p. 449-481
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9618, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 1:54:25 AM

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About the Author
  • James Spillane
    Northwestern University
    E-mail Author
    Dr. Spillane's work focuses on intergovernmental relations in education and the implementation of educational policy. Specifically, his work explores the policy implementation process at the school district, school, and classroom levels. A former teacher, his work focuses on relations between policy and practice, both administrative and teaching practice, especially with respect to policies that are designed to improve classroom teaching and learning. While building on the implementation research tradition, Spillane's also uses research on teaching and learning as well as work in cognitive science to frame his work.
  • Nancy Jennings
    Bowdoin College
    E-mail Author
    Nancy Jennings has been an assistant professor of education at Bowdoin College since 1994. Ms. Jennings has a B.A. in Classical Languages and a Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, and Social Policy. Her areas of interest are instructional reform, educational policy, and rural schooling.
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