Change agents, advocates, allies or observers? Jennifer Karnopp reflects on the field of educational change

This months’ Lead the Change interview features Dr. Jennifer Karnopp discussing her work on how reform efforts are impacted by the socio-political context of the schools and communities in which they are implemented. Karnopp is a former teacher and school leader who will join the Department of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at San Diego State University in the Fall of 2021.

Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions.

For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Jennifer Karnopp: Educational change means many different things to different people. Even among members of the Educational Change SIG, you will find many different opinions regarding the who, what, where, why and how of educational change. At the same time, we are now at a point in history where both the systemic nature of racism in the United States and throughout the world and its negative consequences are undeniable. Inequities in the educational system and the need for deep, systemic change is clear. This places scholars of educational change in a position of responsibility to focus attention on this pressing issue and support the change process through multiple avenues—through our scholarship, through advocacy efforts, and by working directly with schools and communities to realize change goals. I believe that faculty also have an obligation to address the issue of systemic racism and other forms of institutional oppression in their roles as teachers and mentors. This includes looking critically at course content and program structures to surface and address any issues of bias including across program, course, and content access; in the topics that are given primacy in the space; in the perspectives promoted through course readings; and in how discussion topics are framed and encouraged. My thinking in this area is influenced by the concept of rightful presence, as described by Calabrese, Barton and Tan (2020).

“Inequities in the educational system and the need for deep, systemic change is clear. This places scholars of educational change in a position of responsibility to focus attention on this pressing issue.”

For me personally, over this past year I have thought deeply about my own role as an educational change researcher—have I been a change agent, an advocate, an ally, or an observer? Is that enough? As a result, I have done what many in the field are now doing. I am listening more, educating myself on the history of race in America and the institutional racism that is the legacy of this history through the work of Ibram Kendi (2016) and Isabel Wilkerson (2020). Community Engaged Leadership for Social Justice (DeMathews, 2020) is another excellent resource focused on school leadership. I am thinking differently about my own approach to the study of educational change. I have always recognized that schools are embedded within communities and that this influences change efforts, but I now have a deeper appreciation for how the history of a community is interwoven with the present and that this history and the current reality both need to be understood when studying the implementation of a localized school reform. My research has always explored relationships in reform, but, in the past, I have focused on who is engaged in change implementation. Over this past year, I have become more interested in who is left out of reform-related decision making and why.

I am now collaborating with a colleague on a new research project, the first since completing my dissertation. This new project examines the implementation of culturally responsive teaching practices in a district undergoing a demographic shift. In many ways, the research design is similar to that of my dissertation, “Structures and relationships: A mixed-methods study exploring the flow of knowledge entitled “Structures and relationships: A mixed-methods study exploring the flow of knowledge relating to a recent initiative in one rural school district” which focused on how educators in one rural school district utilized organizational structures and social relationships to access and share knowledge about new instructional practices related to a recent change initiative. However, in this new project I am excited to integrate some of the take-aways from this past year of self-reflection.

Specifically, three details make this project a step towards my being a more active participant in the dismantling of systemic racism in schools. First, the change of focus is one intended to reduce racial inequities in schooling within a district. Second, as a part of understanding the study context, I am looking beyond district practices and digging into the history of the community with an eye towards issues of race. Third, our research design pushes us to look beyond the actions and attitudes of those active in the implementation of this reform and attend to those whose voices are not included in the planning and/or implementation. Taken together, I am hopeful that these design elements will result in research that deepens understandings of change processes designed to address issues of equity that is rich in context-specific details. Such details are important for informing the work of future change agents as they consider strategies for their local context, and also for researchers, as it can provided critical clues as to how variations in context influence outcomes.

LtC: In your dissertation you highlight how teachers’ relationships and interactions with colleagues shaped their understanding and enactment of reform initiatives. What would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and use of organizational theory?

JK: Before pursuing my PhD, I was a classroom teacher and a school principal. I knew from experience that while instructional coaches, professional development, and other resources are helpful for learning about new initiatives, educators rely heavily on one another to make sense of how to actually implement these changes in their classrooms. While there is research that examines how organizational routines support change and how educators support one another, my dissertation contributed new understandings of how school routines and informal relationships interact to impact change implementation. This was an area identified by Penuel, et al. (2010) as in need of further exploration. I found that the way that principals utilized school roles and routines impacted opportunities for informal interactions among educators, and educators developed informal, yet consistent, patterns of interactions that served as informal knowledge-building structures that these educators relied upon to make sense of new classroom practices (Karnopp, forthcoming).

From a theory perspective, I utilized knowledge creation theory (Nonaka, 1994) and structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) to create a framework for understanding organizational learning in schools. While knowledge creation theory explains how educators utilize interaction spaces to discuss and make sense of new ideas until they become a part of the fabric of the organization, structuration theory explains how knowledge creation spaces emerge or fall into disuse. To date, I have not found any empirical studies that bring these two theories into conversation with one another. In this way, I believe my work contributes to the scholarship on organizational change.

I think the field of Educational Change can learn a few lessons from this work. First, organizational structures, such as resources, roles and routines work in conjunction with positive collegial relationships among educators to support changes in educator practice. While resources and routines are important, it is equally important that educators have access to knowledgeable individuals whom they trust and the time and space to have conversations for gaining knowledge of and engaging in sensemaking about new practices. School leaders should recognize that the choices they make regarding the allocation of resources, classroom assignments and school schedules shapes the opportunities educators have to interact with one another. These interactions can influence the depth and breadth of reform implementation, and so it is important to ensure that choices regarding these routine structures align with reform goals. This may be particularly important in under-resourced districts where formal supports, such as instructional coaches, structured communities of inquiry and embedded professional development may be sparse.

LtC: Some of your recent work looks to better articulate the nature of systemic reform into vision and action. What implications might such work have for policy/practice interactions with colleagues and students in the field and/or for educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students?

JK: Systemic reform requires two components—a clear vision of change and a plan of action that provides a path for attaining the vision. This articulation of vision and action benefits from the integration of both top-down and bottom-up approaches to the change process. Top down elements effectively promote a vision, provide incentives and resources and remove barriers. However, bottom-up approaches facilitate the development of a shared vision, bring in diverse voices, address local needs and increase buy-in. Integrating the two encourages and facilitates systemic change in a way that addresses the needs and leverages the assets of the local community context (Reigeluth & Karnopp, 2020). Practically speaking, approaching change in this way takes time. While an initial idea, or vision for change may start with a core group of leaders, change agents need to bring in a broad range of stakeholders and think carefully about the structures they will utilize to broaden, organize, facilitate and communicate the work. This includes providing the time and space for conversations to happen. From a policy perspective, flexibility is key to allow for the variations in vision and action that are likely to result from stakeholder attention to local needs. Schools will need financial resources to support the work of systemic change, and policies that serve as barriers to change, such as those that rely on standardized testing for accountability need to be removed and rethought.

“Systemic reform requires two components—a clear vision of change and a plan of action.”

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

JK: Schools are incredibly complex systems, which is, in part, why so many change efforts struggle. I believe reform that takes a systemic approach is most impactful and sustainable, but the successful implementation of complex systems-level change continues to be a challenge. To realize systemic change, school leaders need a clear vision that is supported by thoughtfully aligned strategic action. Those in the field of Educational Change can support individuals and groups through the change process by stepping into the role of guide or facilitator, not to direct or dictate the details of change implementation, but to help schools and communities to identify their own change goals and navigate the process. As researchers, we bring knowledge of best practices based on current evidence, as well as knowledge of the inquiry process. We are well positioned to use these skills and knowledge to support local efforts to develop context-specific visions and action plans for change. Collaborative structures, such as research-practice partnerships hold promise as effective ways for educational change researchers to work side-by-side with schools and districts to support their change goals while also contributing to scholarly understandings of change processes. In terms of teaching, faculty might also provide support by developing local capacity through courses that teach future school leaders about effective, collaborative change strategies such as design thinking or improvement science.

“Reform that takes a systemic approach is most impactful and sustainable.”

In my work, I see formal network structures and improvement science as having a lot of potential to support local efforts to enact systemic change. The process provides a structure that promotes collaborative and inclusive inquiry as schools work towards their vision. The formal network element provides an organizational structure to facilitate interactions, collect data, monitor progress and strategically scale successful strategies, while the collaborative inquiry process facilitates the positive, professional interactions that are so important to educators’ enactment of new practices. Such networked structures have the potential to not only facilitate communication and collaboration among educators, researchers and other stakeholders to address problems of practice, but also to support reform implementation across a district or region by informing practice and supporting policy advocacy (Karnopp, 2020; Lochmiller & Karnopp, 2020).

What really excites me about networked improvement communities is the sense of empowerment educators develop through their engagement in the process. It is a very different approach to reform than teachers are accustomed in that these communities center, value and leverage their expertise and daily classroom practice. This sense of empowerment may be helpful for encouraging buy-in and sustaining the hard work of system change. Looking forward, those in the field might explore how information gained through structured collaborative inquiry approaches could not only inform implementation, but also galvanize stakeholders at the district and state levels to develop sustainable practices, policies and implementation guidelines that are sensitive to variations in local context.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

JK: There is a lot to be excited about in the field of educational change. We often think in terms of student outcomes when it comes to visions for change. Moving forward, I think issues of equity will further shape and refine how we define positive student outcomes and subsequently, our visions for change. In terms of implementation, the body of literature exploring social relationships in the context of educational change has made, and I believe will continue to make important contributions to our understandings of implementation processes. This work provides a valuable socio-cultural perspective that challenges those in the field to attend more closely to local context in the study of reforms, including the lived experiences of teachers. As we gain greater understanding of the role and nature of relationships in reform, I anticipate future research in this area to expand beyond descriptive studies to explore how social network analysis of educator information and advice interactions may serve as an indicator of change readiness, as a tool to inform school change implementation, and/or to evaluate the depth and breadth of reform uptake. In regards to educational change research broadly, I believe that future research will examine more deeply the complexity of change—how the community, educators and formal organizational structures interact and influence reform efforts. I hope that there will be increased attention to whose voices are included and left out of change efforts.


DeMatthews, D.E. (2018). Community Engaged Leadership for Social Justice: A Critical Approach in Urban Schools (1st ed.). Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Karnopp, J.R. (under review). Hidden Structures: How roles, routines and relationships interact to support a knowledge network.

Karnopp, J. R. (2020). Ties that bind: Knowledge movement and tie formation in a regional principal’s learning network. Voices in Reform. 3(1), 55-76.

Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: the definitive history of racist ideas in America. New York: Nation Books.

Lochmiller, C.M. and Karnopp, J.R. (2020). Initiating a Network’s Renewal: Charting the Development of Reading Recovery’s Networked Improvement Community. Journal of Reading Recovery. Spring 2020, 27-34.

Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.

Penuel, W.R., Riel, M., Joshi, A., Pearlman, L., Kim, C.M., & Frank, K.A. (2010). The alignment of the informal and formal organizational supports for reform: Implications for improving teaching in schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(1), 57-95.

Reigeluth, C.M., and Karnopp, J.R. (2020) Vision and Action: Two sides of the coin for systemic change in education systems. TechTrends.

Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: the origins of our discontents. First edition. New York: Random House.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

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