The Ecology of the School
Elements of the ecology, i.e., the physical, material, inorganic
aspects of schools, impact school improvement efforts. The availability of
resources for change is one of these elements that has a powerful impact.
Physical arrangements for organizing persons, scheduling patterns in the
school, the size of the school, and the degree of safety in the school also
can facilitate or impede interactions that are meaningful for school
improvement. Other factors, such as the demographic patterns of the school
and working conditions exert influence on change as well. Finally, the
policies and rules that govern the school are an influential inorganic
element. Those seeking lasting school improvement must face the fact that
effective change takes time and resources.
Those seeking lasting school improvement must face the fact that effective
change takes time and resources. Limited funds may mean that certain
types of improvements are never considered. The availability of
school resources influences implementation strategies. According
to Corbett, Dawson, and Firestone (1984), when time for planning
and implementation activities or money to purchase materials is
scarce, change activities will not make much progress. Funding is
also important because underfunding a project may result in the
inability to address problems until the next fiscal year (Pink,
1990). If resources are not available for the school improvement
effort, leaders must realize that in order to acquire resources,
other groups or persons may have to be persuaded, converted to supporters,
or even bypassed (Miles & Louis, 1990). Allowing the time needed
for new programs to demonstrate results is often overlooked as a
bridge to school improvement.
Many change efforts fail simply because not enough was invested in
them in terms of time (Deal, 1985; Deal & Kennedy, 1982; Sarason, 1982). It
has been noted often that districts are vulnerable to faddism in their
desire for quick-fix solutions to mounting problems (Carlson, 1987; Everson,
Scollay, Gavert, & Garcia, 1986; Johnston, Bickel, & Wallace, 1990; Melvin,
1991; Pink, 1990; Simpson, 1990). Allowing the time needed for new programs
to demonstrate results is often overlooked as a bridge to school
improvement. Slavin (1989) points out:
If education is ever to stop the swinging of the pendulum and
make significant progress in increasing student achievement, it
must first change the ground rules under which innovations are
selected, implemented, evaluated, and institutionalized…One of
the most important reasons for the continuing existence of the
educational pendulum is that educators rarely wait for or demand
hard evidence before adopting new practices on a wide scale (p.
Because it takes time to weld people into a team, this task requires
great patience. "A particular mind-set for managing change: one
that emphasizes process over specific content, recognizes organizational
change as a unit-by-unit learning process rather than a series of
programs, and acknowledges the payoffs that result from persistence
over a long period of time as opposed to quick fixes" is what is
needed (Beer, Eisenstat, & Spector, 1990, p. 166). Three factors
that impact the amount of time necessary for change are urgency
or a crisis situation, the attractiveness of the proposed change
to individuals, and the strength of the culture that exists (Deal
& Kennedy, 1982).
In addition to the limits placed on school improvement by the availability
of time and money, the physical structures of schools may also facilitate
or impede change. In their study of urban school change, Louis and
Miles (1990) cite constraints of the physical plant as a major source
of implementation problems. Physical arrangements can contribute
to the isolation of teachers both physically and emotionally. As
Lortie (1975, cited in Fullan, 1991) found in his study of 6000
teachers, the cellular organization of schools keeps teachers physically
apart from other professionals in the school. This isolation then
impacts teacher attitudes and limits the relationships between teachers,
students, administrators, and the community -- relationships that
are essential factors in the change process.
Because they are restricted to the classroom and tend to have a
limited network of ongoing professionally-based interaction within
their schools or with their professional peers, most teachers have
limited contact with new ideas (Fullan, 1991). On the other hand, a
study conducted by Smith and Keith (1971) shows how, even in a
physical environment that is conducive to interaction, an "aggregate
of people who are interdependent yet isolated" may exist (p. 247).
The staff of the school that they studied had a philosophy of freedom
and of high communication levels, yet "people [did not] talk about
significant events" (Smith & Keith, 1971, p. 247). This seems to
indicate that the physical environment may contribute to isolation, but
does not entirely explain it.
Structures in the school that contribute to teacher isolation and the
feeling that the individual cannot make a difference are indeed
barriers to school improvement efforts. Modifications in the physical
arrangement of schools in order to facilitate professional interaction
between teachers will reduce this isolation.
Physical arrangements also can contribute to student feelings of
isolation and alienation. These feelings of isolation and alienation by
students contribute to dropping out of school. Lawton, Leithwood,
Batcher, Donaldson, and Stewart (1988) observe that "research on
school related factors…has focused largely on student behaviors in
school on the implicit assumption that it is the student who must
change to fit the school…[E]fforts to reduce the number of dropouts
ought to assume that it is the school rather than or in addition to the
student which needs to change" (p. 27).
Secondary students, in particular, must cope with a structure with
which no worker in the real world would be saddled (Shanker, 1989).
Shanker (1989) describes some of these conditions:
They're put into a room to work with 30 or more of their peers,
with whom they cannot communicate. The teacher gives them their
tasks, and, when the bell rings 40 or so minutes later, they have
to gather up their belongings and head to another "work station"
for a whole new set of tasks with a new "supervisor" who has a
different personality and, very likely, a different method of
operation. This routine is repeated six or seven times a day…All
youngsters are expected to have sufficient motivation and self-discipline
to get down to serious work on day one in anticipation of a "reward"
far down the road -- something most adults need all their fortitude
to accomplish. (p. 3)
Fullan (1991) points out that students' active involvement in the
school improvement effort is an essential ingredient in successful
implementation. Student attitudes are affected when the structure
of the school contributes to their isolation and alienation.
Cuban (1989) notes that the graded school is one of the most inflexible
structures of schooling. After reviewing the history of schooling
in the United States, he describes the graded school as a source
of academic failure among at-risk students and calls for the redesign
of this school structure. Due to the acute pressure to educate all
children efficiently and inexpensively, Cuban (1989) argues, the
structure of schools is not even on the agenda for change. This
is an example of how historical precedence in the school may limit
school improvement efforts.
Spady (1988) believes that the organization of schools around the
calendar, the clock and the schedule, exerts a pervasive influence on
the thinking of those who work and study in them. This focus on
time, along with the legal mandate to keep students in the custody of
the school for fixed periods of time, may result in teachers adopting
the unproductive syndromes of "putting in time" and "covering
material" (Spady, 1988). Examination of the organizational patterns
of schools by those leading school improvement efforts is an
important component of the change process.
Several researchers have found that the size of the school is a physical
characteristic that may either support or block school improvement,
especially those efforts designed to improve schooling for at-risk
students. Fowler and Walberg (1991) found that increased school
size has negative effects upon student participation, satisfaction,
and attendance and adversely affects the school climate and a student's
ability to identify with the school and its activities. In a 1987
study, Pittman and Haughwout estimate that the dropout rate at a
school increases one percent for every 400-student increase in the
high school population. Bryk and Thum (1989) found that the effects
of school size on absenteeism and dropout were substantial, "but
mostly indirect, acting to either facilitate (in small schools)
or inhibit (in larger schools) the development and maintenance of
a social environment conducive to student and faculty engagement
with the school" (p. 26).
Monk's (1986) study of curriculum offerings concluded that
benefits to the curriculum gained by size of enrollment peaked at 400
students. His conclusion is that high school enrollments be
maintained at around 400 students. Below that number, "additional
students translated into the school's ability to offer larger classes,
improved students' access to courses and more specialized teacher
assignments. Above 400, increases in enrollment made little
difference in terms of these indicators" (Monk, 1986, p. 24).
Several researchers have found that small size tends to promote a
sense of community in the school (Barker & Gump, 1964; Bryk &
Driscoll, 1988; Pittman & Haughwout, 1987). In a 1973 study of the
Montgomery County, Maryland, schools, "smaller schools had more
innovative teachers, staffs that had a voice in running the schools, a
family atmosphere, close community relationships, and a principal
who could make the best use of the staff" (Hobbs, 1989, p. 6).
In a study of 14 schools that have been successful in their efforts
aimed at at-risk students, Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, and
Fernandez (1989) found that certain structural characteristics were
common in 12 of the schools. A small school size, defined in the
study as less than 500 students, was one of these characteristics. Small
size "promotes collegiality, makes democratic governance easier and
fosters the consensus-building that sustains commitment to school
goals.…In general, the larger the school the more difficult it is to
sustain sensitive one-on-one relations between educators and students,
students and students, and educators themselves" (Wehlage, Rutter,
Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez, 1989, p. 144). In large schools a
breakdown occurs in communication, feedback about performance,
and staff involvement in decision making (Hallinger, Bickman, &
Davis, 1990). All of these qualities are important to facilitating lasting
school improvement, as noted later in this paper.
Gottfredson (1985) examined the effects of school size on school
disorder. In her study of large schools compared to small alternative
schools for at-risk students, she found that large schools tend to be
characterized by a lack of communication between teachers and
administration and confusion regarding school policies. This can lead
to school disorder because "teachers lose confidence in the
administration and feel ineffective" (p. 41). Schein (1985) suggests
that large size can lead to disruptive behavior. "Few circumstances
cause as much breakdown of normal behavior patterns as excessive
crowding, rendering any private space a physical impossibility" (p.
Demographic changes can pressure schools to adopt and implement new policies
(Fullan, 1991). Fullan explains that environmental changes external
to the school impinge on it, increasing readiness to implement innovations.
Demographic changes such as population shifts and redistricting
decisions influence change efforts.
Another demographic variable, employment growth, has been
found to be significantly and positively related to the proportion of
college graduates in the population and to the high school dropout
rate in a study of rural schools (Hobbs, 1991). The greater the
employment growth in rural areas the higher the school dropout rate.
According to Hobbs (1991), this finding is logical due to great
increases in demand for employees in consumer services, e.g. retail,
food, and travel services, in rapid growth areas. Students may find
these types of jobs readily available for them if they drop out of
school. This type of demographic change influences school
improvement efforts for at-risk students.
According to Fullan (1991), the working conditions of teachers in the vast
majority of schools are not conducive to sustained teacher innovation.
To improve teacher performance, the work environment must enhance
teachers' sense of professionalism and decrease their career dissatisfaction.
Conley, Bacharach, and Bauer (1989) found that in elementary schools
where teachers perceive class size as manageable, the level of dissatisfaction
is lower than in schools where teachers perceive class size as less
manageable. A lower level of career dissatisfaction also was reported
in elementary schools where teachers perceive an absence of student
learning problems. Further, when elementary teachers reported an
absence of student behavior problems, they also reported a lower
level of career dissatisfaction. Consistent with findings from elementary
schools, in secondary schools, the perceived presence of student
learning problems and student behavior problems emerged as predictors
of teacher career dissatisfaction.
Sarason (1982) reports that the untested assumption that few
others think the same way keeps school staff from expressing ideas
for improving the school. Arrangements that increase isolation and
frustrate change efforts include: the fact that "existing [structures] for
discussion and planning within the school (faculty meetings; teacher-
principal contacts, teacher-supervisor contacts, etc.) are based on the
principle of avoidance of controversy; at all levels (teacher, principal,
administrator) there is the feeling of individual impotence; [and,
finally], there is acceptance of the untested assumption that the public
will oppose any meaningful or drastic change in existing regularities"
(Sarason, 1982, p. 102).
Local, state, and federal policies
When the ideas held about how schools should operate are written down,
regulations, rules, and policies are produced. Because schools are
public agencies, they must adhere to local, state, and federal regulations
that make it difficult for schools to set their own educational
goals. According to Clune's (1991) historical review of educational
policy, these policies have not been effective or coordinated (i.e.,
pointed in the same direction) in improving achievement. Clune (1991)
points out that the United States has produced more educational
policy than any other country, but it has been the least effective.
This vast array of regulations runs counter to the findings of Chubb
and Moe (1990), who found that schools with a greater percentage
of academically achieving students have "substantial school autonomy
from direct external control" (p. 183). Likewise, Wehlage et al.
(1989) found in their study of schools successful with at-risk students
that "without exception, educators cited autonomy as significant
in their ability to construct programs that respond to students"
"Desired connections between policies and practices are difficult
to find. Policies are seldom carried out to the letter" (Deal, 1985, p.
603). This may be true due to the loosely coupled nature of schools,
a concept discussed in the culture section of this paper. Fine (1991)
describes how some policies, such as allocation formulas and required
procedures for student discharge, actually exacerbated the dropout
problem in particular schools.
Past attempts to reform schools have generally sought to use
policy mandates to drive changes from top to bottom in schools.
"This strategy either has not worked or, at best, has gone as far as it
can in creating authentic and sustained change in our schools. Some
of the most essential elements necessary to restructure a school -
commitment, engagement, or sense of invention cannot be mandated"
(Lieberman & Miller, 1990, p. 759). According to Cuban (1988), a
lack of understanding regarding "first-order" changes, which are
defined as attempts to make what already exists more efficient and
effective without altering basic organizational features, and "second-
order" reforms, which seek to change fundamental organizational
structures, has resulted in ineffective solutions.
It seems more is known about factors that contribute to
educational outcomes than is reflected by educational reform policies.
Hobbs (1988) notes that the work of Kerr (1984) devoted itself to the
problem of why schools are not doing better considering what is
known. Kerr's analysis focused on bureaucracy, professionalization,
and "research systems" as barriers to the alignment of knowledge
Levine (1991) argues that "substantial change in instruction
frequently requires departures from district or state policies and
regulations" (p. 391). In a review of the literature on school and
community influences, Shields (1990) notes that states can limit local
efforts with restrictive regulations or promote local efforts through
such strategies as increased funds, technical assistance and cooperative
efforts between school districts and state departments. District and
state policies that foster building autonomy, build alliances with the
community, and encourage the sharing of information, skills and
understanding can improve and maintain effective classroom
instruction (Shields, 1990).
The existence of state test scores may lead state officials to assume
more responsibility for the schools, to feel obliged to act to solve
problems and, if necessary, to make curricular policy directly,
according to Corcoran (1985). The use of state tests appears to be
associated with increased administrative control over both the process
and the content of instruction (Corcoran, 1985; Shields, 1990).
Basic education policy should be shaped at state and district levels,
but the day-to-day decision-making should shift to the local school,
according to a report of the Carnegie Foundation (1988). This report
concludes that what is needed is school-based authority with
accountability at the school level.
The inorganic aspects of the school are important due to their impact on the
development of attitudes and beliefs, the facilitation of relationships,
and the establishment of a widely shared culture. Elements of the
ecology can facilitate or impede efforts to improve schools' capacity
to implement changes that support at-risk students.
The lack of resources is a major barrier to sustained change
efforts. These resources include not only money, but also time.
Patience with implementation efforts and student outcomes translates
to a willingness to allow the time necessary for change.
When the organizational pattern of the school creates a focus on
custody and control rather than instruction and improvement, it too
impedes change. Crowded, disorderly schools feed this mission of
control and create an environment that decreases teacher career
satisfaction and limits innovation. Modifications to the school
organization to reduce levels of isolation and alienation move the
school closer to a context supportive of lasting school change.
Rules, regulations, and policies at the national, state and district
level may constrain or enhance successful implementation efforts.
Knowledge about the types of policies that will increase student
achievement and address the second-order level of change is needed.
These policies, however, need to allow autonomy for day-to-day
decisions at the local site.