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School Organization

The characteristics of school organizations and their reactions to change are critical to success in educational reform. This chapter discusses organizational changes in governance, curriculum, assessment and evaluation, students, time, staff, space, and instruction that can help implement Project 2061's vision of science, mathematics, and technology education reform.

Organizational change, in order to be effective and sustainable, may need to be incremental, and it must accommodate the need to simplify complexity in schools and classrooms. We form organizations in part to manage the complexity of a disorganized world and to create stability and predictability where none exists naturally. Simplification is necessary to the health of an organization and the well-being of its members. In schools, where staff are responsible for large numbers of students and a variety of content subjects in the course of a day, the need to reduce complexity is especially important.

We begin with a general analysis of lessons gleaned from the historical influences on school organization, followed by discussion of how reforms might be implemented in the organization of governance, curriculum, assessment and evaluation, students, time, staff, space, and instruction. Finally, to augment this discussion, we examine the process of change at one of six School District Centers where Project 2061 principles are being deliberately employed.

Guiding Philosophy

The philosophical underpinnings of Project 2061 guide the possibilities for and characteristics of organizational change. Specifically, two educational perspectives are embraced that, in the past, have been viewed as mutually exclusive. One orientation involves structuring science teaching and learning around predetermined knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students are expected to master over the course of 13 years of schooling. The other is that of a more child-centered, student-initiated, inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning that requires a less rigid and more improvisational form of pedagogy than is normally found in math and science classrooms.

Implicit in this second educational orientation is Project 2061's notion of reflective literacy as a key component of scientific literacy. Reflective literacy is the ability to know and understand a concept and to connect it meaningfully to other ideas when making decisions or interpreting information. For example, reflective literacy might lead a person to realize all the potential ramifications of logging a given tree, including the potential disruption of the tree's relationships with other organisms, the complexity of those relationships, the difficulty of predicting the ramifications of those disruptions, and so on.

Concern with reflective literacy suggests a break with accountability-based, outcome-oriented reform movements of the past such as competency-based education and mastery learning. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that students will develop the habits of mind that promote this sort of deliberate thought process without opportunities to practice. And it is particularly difficult to imagine meaningful practice opportunities occurring in environments that are overly structured and teacher directed, as is currently the case in many, if not most, classrooms.

Project 2061 is not simply a curriculum reform project but is committed to the reform of the entire educational system. Indeed, curriculum reforms in science and mathematics will inevitably die out quickly if they are superimposed upon the existing educational system. Consequently, many aspects of schools and school systems must be altered to realize this vision of reflective, long-term learning. Hence the need for examining the possible types of change with which this chapter is concerned.

Lessons from History

Historical analysis alerts us to move cautiously when implementing change; to avoid change for the sake of change; and, when changes in school organization are deemed necessary, to be sensitive to the need to accommodate increased complexity. As demonstrated by Cuban (1995), there are similarities between early reform initiatives and the ideas now being advanced by Project 2061 and other science education reformers. Earlier initiatives, however, had a limited impact on practice over the long haul, largely because of the stability of the age-graded school, which had been imported from Prussia in the 19th century. The age-graded school revolutionized the governance, structures, cultures, and practices of schooling and teaching. Embedded within the concept of an age-graded structure were a host of other organizational components: self-contained classrooms, curriculum divided into segments, time schedules for teaching subject matter and skills, tests to determine whether the knowledge and skills have been learned, promotion to the next grade for those who attain the minimum levels set for each grade, and remedial work for those who are left behind.

The age-graded school, in turn, helped create other characteristics of schooling. Because the school building itself isolates teachers into self-contained classrooms, monitoring and supervision are complicated, as is collaborative work with peers. Age-graded schools also helped create certain pedagogical and classroom organization commonplaces, including teacher-centered instructional practices such as whole-group instruction and arranging desks in rows, and teacher-established routines for students, such as hand raising. Other efficiency practices include lecturing, recitation, seat work, text-based homework and, more recently, weekly multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank tests. These practices are grounded in teachers' belief systems about instruction, and changing these accepted norms means changing a set of cultural beliefs.

Variation among school and classroom practices and norms does exist. However, the dominant tendencies in the school and classroom regularities described above are well documented, and their ubiquity and durability are well established. Not only do these commonplaces respond to the needs of a specific type of organization-contemporary American schools-they also accommodate certain inevitable characteristics of all organizations, including the need to simplify complexity.

Facets of Needed Change

Changes in the commonplaces of schools can occur. However, we should attempt only those changes that are essential to the success of reform, and we should attempt them only if we are committed to finding ways to reduce any complexity that those changes introduce.

Organization of Governance

Since the mid-1980s, the interrelated notions of site-based management and shared decision-making have been central to many contemporary reform agendas. In addition, most of the models produced by the six Project 2061 School-District Centers recommended some sort of shared decision-making at the school site.

In contrast to current thinking, we are a bit more ambivalent about site-based management and shared decision-making, although supportive of the aspirations underlying these concepts. A large amount of discretion on the part of teachers and site-based administrators seems essential for several reasons. First, the only viable generalization educational research has produced is that there are no generalizations which hold in all places, at all times, and for all students. Educators at the local site need discretion so they can respond to the idiosyncrasies they encounter in their work. Second, teaching and learning are ultimately human enterprises rather than mechanical processes. The enthusiasm of a teacher matters in the learning process, and one important way to generate teacher enthusiasm is to give teachers ownership over what they do. Third, schools are loosely coupled organizations. Often, hierarchical control from the top leads to little more than token compliance and procedural display at lower levels of the structure.

Beyond these general reasons for providing a great deal of school site discretion, there is also a reason based in science reform. If reform aims to promote reflective literacy, and if more informed, locally contextual approaches to learning are required to develop reflective literacy, then teachers must engage in a flexible sort of pedagogy that cannot be choreographed from on high. They need freedom to respond to students' initiatives and to shape students' interests and concerns into educationally worthwhile activities. This kind of freedom requires some local discretion over issues such as budget, use of time, and grouping of students.

Science Teachers Reporting Strong Control

Although goals of the site-based management/shared decision-making are important for education in general and science education reform in particular, the common means used to achieve their objectives-committees or teams-may need to be replaced. These committees generally consist of administrators, teachers, and sometimes parents. The empirical evidence about site-based governance teams is equivocal (David, 1989). Of particular concern, however, is that such structures-even those focused on curriculum and instruction-may violate the guiding principle related to complexity. Rather than simplifying schools, they add both organizational and political complexity by bringing school board politics down to the building level and making every principal a highly politicized quasi-superintendent.

Site-based management might be better realized by relying less on formally constituted site-based management teams and more on informal mechanisms. Specifically, this would mean, among other things, appointing administrators who practice democratic decision making. Models of democratic leadership and decision making are rooted in several principles: eschewing the use of power, whether in the form of brute force or the iron fist covered by a velvet glove; being open to ideas; welcoming criticism; and basing decisions on evidence and argument (Argyris & Schon, 1975).

It also may be better to rely less on bureaucratic mechanisms (rules and written policies) to run schools and school districts and more on cultural mechanisms (stories, myths, and rituals) that provide direction but also allow for greater discretion over how the belief system gets played out locally. Furthermore, when formal school and district policies must be written, these policies should not be so general as to be meaningless but also not so tightly defined as to provide no discretion for individual schools and individual teachers. This strategy is especially important in the area of curriculum organization.

Organization of Curriculum

State frameworks, district curricula, curriculum guidelines, textbooks, and other resources provide the basis for curriculum organization. Historically, curriculum documents either have been so general and vague that they have collected dust on office shelves and had little impact on classroom practice (often the fate of state and district curriculum guides) or they have provided a closely followed script which has choreographed, to a large extent, the teaching and learning process (the role frequently played by textbooks).

If science education reform is to be successfully implemented, some middle ground between these two extremes must be found. On the one hand, the need to reduce complexity in the lives of teachers suggests the need for curriculum materials that are more than dust catchers. On the other hand, a commitment to reflective literacy, which in turn implies commitment to more student-centered learning and more inquiry-based teaching, requires that learners and teachers have frequent opportunities to structure the learning and teaching process. In addition, a successful curriculum should attend not only to science content itself, but also to assessment that is linked with instruction, allowing teachers to identify preconceptions and assess multiple areas and levels of student performance and literacy.

In all of this, an appropriate balance between direction and discretion must be struck. Some might argue that the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) provide the proper balance in specificity. They serve a useful political function by creating a large tent under which many groups and individuals who hold conflicting views can gather. For the purpose of developing learning materials, Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1993) could be used to create texts that strike a balance between direction and discretion. However, one point needs to be clear: benchmarks should not be treated as competencies to be discretely taught and assessed. A competency-based approach undermines the interdisciplinary, reflective literacy that Project 2061 promotes.

Reorganizing the curriculum around specific national, state, or local goals could, in the short term, introduce new complications for teachers. A greater and more effective use of computers and other technology might be one way to manage complexity in reform-based schools. Technology's potential as a teaching tool is only beginning to be explored. Computers and other technology, for example, could allow students to do highly complex simulations and help teachers keep detailed records of performance. However, the fact that today's technology has a greater capacity to accommodate complexity that technologies used in the past, does not, in and of itself, mean that the person using the technology has acquired a similar sort of ability.

Although experimentation with relatively dramatic technological solutions to issues of curriculum organization may be useful, such experimentation should not preclude more modest and incremental explorations of the potential of existing technologies that support teaching. For example, new types of text material may be able to accommodate the ideas of science education reform and may even be a stimulus for change. The availability of selected individual modules and chapters could support teachers' efforts to implement interdisciplinary curricula and allow flexibility in meeting students' needs.

Assessment and Evaluation

The organization of assessment and evaluation is related to the organization of curriculum. Assessment and evaluation, after all, are often the tails that wag the curriculum dogs. In fact, they are one of the few effective means of promoting hierarchical control in what is generally a loosely coupled system. These topics are developed in Blueprints' Chapter 8: Assessment. Therefore, we merely wish to make the following interrelated points:

Organization of Students

If meaningful reform of classroom practice is to occur, changing internal commonplaces is at least as important as governance and curriculum. The grouping of students is the first of these internal, structural variables. At least two main changes are possible in grouping students for successful implementation of reform: teachers, or teams of teachers, could work with multiage groups, and teachers, or teams of teachers, could work with the same group of students for more than one year.

Ability-Grouped Math Classes, by Nation

Using either or both of these strategies would result in de facto changes in instructional practice. For example, if the class were composed of students with a wide range of ages, it would be difficult to perpetuate the myth that all students in a class are or should be at the same developmental level in science. Consequently, teachers would be less likely to rely exclusively on whole group instruction and common assignments. Additionally, a teacher who works with students over prolonged periods of time may feel less pressure to unnaturally and inappropriately force mastery of science benchmarks at the end of a specific curriculum unit. The teacher may, in other words, be less anxious about coverage and more likely to use the benchmarks as developmental markers rather than as competencies which must be mastered at a particular time. Finally, these ways of organizing students allow for blurring the sharp distinctions currently made between science subjects and between science and other subject areas, enhancing interdisciplinary learning.

Although both these strategies add considerable complexity to the classroom, keeping students with teachers for more than one year should also simplify the teacher's work somewhat. This is particularly true in the beginning of the year when teachers usually must get to know a completely new class of students. Continuing students might also help to socialize new students. Still, even with these advantages, the added complexity associated with grouping strategies is great. To compensate, the age range assigned to any teacher may have to be limited.

Percentage of Students in Ability grouped classes

Moreover, multi-age grouping and assigning students to a teacher for more than one year is likely to be unpopular with both students and their parents. These strategies break with tradition and disrupt people's images of what school is and ought to be. They also require that parents and students reassess the notion of learning as simply a linear, additive process and teaching as a process of disseminating information.

Although these concerns suggest that reformers proceed cautiously, the system must be shaken up at least somewhat if instructional practices are to change and certain goals of science education reform are to be achieved. Altering the way we group students may be one way of doing this.

Organization of Time

Another organizational structure that could, and perhaps should, be altered is the 50-minute class period. It is difficult to see how teachers can engage in flexible teaching, and how students can design meaningful inquiry in the fractured school day that exists in most schools. Changes in school schedules could range from modest to relatively dramatic and include these three possibilities: double blocking, in which subjects remain discrete, but are taught in 100-minute periods for half a year rather than in 50-minute periods for the entire year; teaching, or team teaching, two or more subjects in a double period over the course of a year; and using a "mosaic" scheduling approach that combines longer and shorter blocks of time. These approaches have both potential benefits and costs. Double-blocking will broaden the repertoire of teaching strategies beyond lecturing, but increase the time devoted to seat work and teacher planning. Teaching two or more subjects in a double period will encourage curriculum integration, but demand greater content knowledge of teachers.

Average Instructional Time in School in Nine Countries

The mosaic approach alters the existing organization of time in schools most radically. This might be considered a virtue, yet because it considerably complicates the school environment, its viability seems doubtful. In most schools, flexibility might be better provided by assigning a block of periods and a particular space to a group of teachers and their students rather than trying to implement the mosaic model school-wide. Such a strategy creates schools within schools, providing flexibility without altering the traditional period organization.

Organization of Staff

Creating relatively small units of teachers and students with large degrees of control over their use of time and space has several advantages. First, reducing the size of an organization reduces the number of variables that must be taken into account when scheduling, thus making more complex use of time possible. Also, when size is limited, teams of teachers can develop schedules through face to face interaction, thus permitting more improvisation and negotiation.

Teaming also opens the door for more interdisciplinary work, which may be necessary simply to cover, in something other than a didactic way, the vast number of benchmarks. If responsibility for science literacy is limited to science and mathematics classes and an occasional class in technology, teachers may be overwhelmed by coverage anxiety and resort to didactic teaching and rote learning. Finally, teaming provides opportunities for mentoring and helps newcomers to develop professional practice in a supportive group.

Despite these potential advantages, teaming and schools within schools should not be viewed as panaceas. The idea of schools within schools has been around for some time, but in most places it has not taken hold. If science education reform endorses the notion of teaming-and the emphasis on joint planning and commitment to making connections across disciplines and fields virtually requires team effort-they must also realize that various supports are needed to make teaming work. Teachers, for instance, need substantial periods of time to work together-ideally a large block of time once a week-for planning. One way to create time during school is to engage students in community service, extracurricular activities, apprenticeships, independent projects, or similar activities one day a week. This strategy, of course, may add to the complexity of schooling because placements need to be arranged and students need to be monitored. Other activities, such as athletics, the arts, and library research, can be scheduled without a great deal of extra effort.

Elements of High-School Restructuring

Team members also need training in handling conflict productively and in using planning time effectively. This means more than an occasional in-service session. Rather, coaches are required, at least during the beginning stages of team building and, ideally, beyond this point. Money currently devoted to formal staff development programs might be used to support this more informal approach to creating "learning organizations." University resources might be employed to support team-coaching programs. Other resources and professional networks may be needed in rural areas. However, the limited empirical information available from professional development schools suggests that these staff support and development activities also add complexity to school life.

Organization of Space

Altering physical space can be an effective agent of change. The way we organize space sets the stage for certain things to happen and sends important symbolic messages. Tearing down walls literally can lead to tearing down walls interpersonally. (Of course, in many architecturally open schools built in the 1960s and early 1970s, teachers simply built makeshift walls.) The following strategies may support science reform:

One other way to "shake things up" in schools from a space standpoint is to let students out into the community. Yet, opening school doors adds tremendous complexity to school organization. The monitoring of student attendance, for example-a traditional function of schools that is not likely to be abandoned-becomes considerably more difficult when students are spread throughout the community.

Even if we treat the process of opening up schools to the community more metaphorically than literally by bringing community members into the school, we still add complexity to school and classroom life. What is an administrator or biology teacher to do when the local association of fundamentalist ministers offers to teach a course in scientific creationism? Although school boards and other entities can limit this complexity, teachers and administrators will still spend considerable time negotiating conflicting agendas and other issues introduced by an open door policy. Because of this potential, before a school or school system considers such reorganizations of space, it should weigh the costs along with the benefits.

Some First Steps Toward Change

As we have seen, the change process itself inevitably adds complexity to organizational life. Change disrupts organizational stability, and this disruption adds a degree of unpredictability to the already complex process of schooling. It is as if we must transform a car into an airplane (or possibly a rocket ship) while still driving the car down the road. How can we manage such a process without crashing the vehicle? The experiences of Project 2061's San Francisco School-District Center illustrate some of the general principles of implementing reforms.

The district developed a technology of teaching called "challenge-based learning," which involved organizing units around a challenge to students such as building a kayak that would float a specified distance. (See Blueprints' Chapter 6: Curriculum Connections for a more detailed description of this challenge activity.) In short, challenge-based learning balanced direction and discretion.

There was a conscious effort to accommodate diversity among schools and teachers in the district. Not all teachers in the district were expected to implement challenge-based learning, for instance. Equally important, the district offered strategies to help teachers who might be persuaded to teach this way. Interested teachers could move incrementally toward this sort of teaching, beginning with kits and later moving on to create their own challenge-based learning units.

The director of the local initiative was amazingly patient and positive-the quintessential example of someone who waits for and makes the most of teachable moments. He truly believed that teachers would, in time, see the worth of reform ideas and, consequently, that they did not have to be manipulated into "buying in." The director was not, however, a totally passive change agent. He engaged in selling reform ideas to the district's teachers and administrators. He was, in fact, a consummate practitioner of cultural leadership.

The antithesis of a bureaucratic strategy was also employed to link science education reform with the many other initiatives going on in the San Francisco Unified School District. There was no attempt to bring these initiatives under one governance structure, undoubtedly an impossible task. Rather, attempts to coordinate the science education strategy with other district initiatives were characterized by informality, serendipity, and improvisation.

San Francisco's Project 2061 team was always recruiting new members, rather than having a small group of insiders run the project and risking resentment by other teachers in the district. The team continued to expand as new members joined, some older members took a sabbatical from direct involvement, and other older members opted back into direct participation. New programs such as summer school or special after school programs were used to increase involvement and bring in new members. Programs like these, outside the regular school day, provided opportunities to experiment with different ways of teaching without having to contend with many of the constraints of the regular school setting. This strategy, in short, was a way of minimizing complexity; it was, in a sense, another example of the district's gradual approach to change.

This sketch of one district's efforts to implement reforms is important because it provides evidence that Project 2061's ideas are beginning to take hold (albeit, quite slowly and less than completely). This is a viable model for how to drive the car while simultaneously trying to make it soar. The process is messy, slow, and incremental, but it illustrates a fundamental principle that cannot be ignored: the need to recognize and somehow accommodate the organizational complexity of schools.


This chapter has focused on the organization of governance, curriculum, assessment and evaluation, students, time, staff and instruction, considering how each might be altered to facilitate the implementation of Project 2061's vision of science teaching and learning. Historical analysis alerts us to the need to simplify complexity in organizational life. This need has led to amazingly stable structures in schools-structures to which schools generally revert in the face of the increased complexity that reform efforts create. This does not mean that change in school organization is impossible, rather that reformers must move incrementally and acknowledge the need for simplification and resistance to change.

As reform progresses, recommendations for change will be developed. Among potential recommendations to support the vision of science education reform in the organization of science and mathematics education, in this chapter we have identified these:

Organization of Governance

Organization of Curriculum Organization of Assessment and Evaluation Organization of Students Organization of Time Organization of Staff Organization of Space As noted previously, change naturally disrupts organizational stability and thereby adds a degree of unpredictability to the already complex process of schooling. We must therefore move cautiously, avoid change for change's sake, and be sensitive to the need to simplify complexity. But change in school organization is possible-indeed it is necessary if the goals of science education reform are to be achieved.

References and Bibliography
Chapter 6 Curriculum Connections


Blueprints Online
Project 2061
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Washington, DC

Copyright © 1998 by American Association for the Advancement of Science