CPRE : Consortium for Policy Research in Education

Policy, Administration, & the Technical Core: Designing Infrastructures to Support Recoupling

Featured research by James P. Spillane and colleagues:

A perennial challenge in America has revolved around something of a ménage-a-trois – relations between government policy, local school district and school administration, and the core technical work of schooling – teaching and learning. For over a quarter century, the research read as a lament for the decoupled or loosely coupled nature of relations between policy, administration, and instruction.  Recent work suggests things may be changing. 

At the very least, local educators appear to be working at recoupling policy, school administration, and instruction.  Specifically, work by Spillane and his colleagues explores local efforts at recoupling government policy with school administrative practice and teaching.  This work opens up the ‘black box’ between government policy and classroom teaching, exploring how local education systems and schools selectively work at recoupling policy, administration, and instruction in core elementary school subjects.  

Recent papers from this program of research report some key findings from the work:

  • The design and redesign of district and school organizational infrastructures, in the creation of organizational routines and formal leadership positions that are explicitly tied to teaching, featured prominently in local efforts at recoupling policy, administration, and teaching. Working at coupling government regulation with classroom teaching, school leaders transformed their formal organizational infrastructures, paying particular attention to designing new organizational routines. Analyzing the performance of these routines, Spillane and colleagues show how both government regulation and instruction featured prominently, if selectively, and explore how routines enabled coupling by promoting standardization through alignment with common standards, by monitoring teacher and student performance, and by making aspects of instruction transparent (Spillane, Parise, Sherer, 2011).  This work shows how routines institutionalize a set of practices in schools through school staff participation in the performance of organizational routines that promote particular norms with respect to classroom instruction (e.g., instructional standardization and transparency). As staff participate in the performance of these organizational routines and come to take them for granted, government regulation, or perhaps more correctly some of the core ideas advanced through regulation about teaching and its improvement, becomes embedded in the school’s formal infrastructure.  In this way, new ideas about practice become embedded in formal organizational infrastructure, taking hold and persisting over time to the extent that school staff participate in performing the routines.  
  • More recent papers (Spillane, Kim, & Frank, 2012; Hopkins, Spillane, et al, 2013; Spillane & Hopkins, 2013) document how the school’s formal organizational infrastructure for supporting instruction shapes teachers’ and school leaders’ work around core elementary school subjects. To begin with, while school leaders’ and teachers’ individual characteristics (e.g., race and gender) influence their instructional advice or information seeking behavior, the formal organization in the form of grade-level assignment, having a formally designated leadership position, and teaching a single grade trumps individual characteristics (Spillane, Kim, & Frank, 2012). Another study reports on one local school district’s efforts to redesign its system-level and school-level infrastructure for mathematics instruction through the adoption of a new curriculum, training of teacher leaders for elementary school mathematics, creation of math coaches in selected schools along with the introduction of new organizational routines.  This study shows how the district’s infrastructure redesign efforts contributed to changes in school leaders’ and teachers’ advice and information seeking interactions related to mathematics and these changes were in turn associated with shifts in teachers’ beliefs about and practices in mathematics toward inquiry-oriented approaches consistent with district curriculum.
  • Taken together, this work offers some direction for local policymakers and school administrators concerned with developing social capital and promoting teachers’ learning from their peers.  The work points to the importance of the formal organizational infrastructure in shaping teachers’ and school leaders’ advice and information seeking practice.  Changing formal infrastructures at the school-level can contribute to changes in everyday interactions among school staff about instruction.  Considering that formally designated school leaders are more likely to provide advice and information, school and district administrators should take seriously the selection of individuals for these positions.  With respect to grade-level assignment, Spillane and colleagues’ analysis suggests that grade-level assignment affects instructional advice and information providing and receiving practice among staff. Without deliberate intervention over time, teachers of one grade level may not be able to access the knowledge possessed by those in other grades.  By reassigning teachers to different grades, school leaders can enable the formation of new advice and information ties among school staff. Moreover, considering that ties from prior years are strongly associated with current ties, reassigning teachers to new grades also promotes cross-grade interactions.

 Explore Spillane's research and findings in the four publications below:

Start date: 
January 2011
End date: 
January 2015