Leadership, Improvement and Educational Change: The Lead the Change Interview with Chad R. Lochmiller

This week, the Lead the Change (LtC) interview features a conversation with Chad R. Lochmiller, an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Indiana University Bloomington. His research examines issues related to educational leadership, with a particular focus on instructional leadership, continuous improvement, and strategic resource allocation. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.

The Lead the Change series highlights promising research and practice and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change to spark conversation and collaboration. The LtC series is a product of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association; Jennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator

Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme was 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?

Chad Lochmiller: I think education scholars, particularly those who study educational change, have a moral obligation to use their research to identify and disrupt perpetual cycles of oppression, inequity, and injustice in educational organizations and practices. This obligation applies regardless of what we study or the methods we use. This isn’t always comfortable work for folks who look like me, a white, male academic, and it requires a conscious choice to focus on these issues. I’ll also be unequivocal in stating that, because of my identity, I have disproportionately benefitted from the inequitable structure of our society, its educational institutions, and our workplaces. I have benefitted because folks who look like me set up the system to reward similarity and disparage difference. This isn’t right. In our increasingly diverse society, it’s fundamentally wrong when scholars turn a blind eye toward the very system that perpetuates these cycles of inequity and has privileged their own academic rise.

This is true of public elementary and secondary schools in the United States, as well. I often recall the words of Ron Edmonds (1979), whose landmark work on schooling for students from low-income backgrounds prompted much of the debate about what constitutes an effective (and equitable) school. In his seminal work, he noted that “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us” and that “Whether or not we do it must fully depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far” (p. 23). Focusing on equity and orienting our scholarship toward issues that perpetuate injustice is a choice. It’s the choice for scholars, for journal reviewers and editors, for tenure reviewers, for hiring committees, and for institutions of higher education. It’s on all of us to take on these issues, but especially those of us who have benefitted disproportionately.

As Ron Edmunds said: “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us” and “Whether or not we do it must fully depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far”

Now, as I write this, I have to admit that I have not done enough to address equity issues in my own scholarship nor taken enough actions to promote equity through my research. It’s a weakness in my research and I own that weakness because of the choices that I made. It’s also something that I am working to address by choosing to situate my work with a stronger equity/justice frame. For instance, in work that I am starting on school district strategic planning, I am looking specifically at the ways districts frame equity issues as part of their overall strategy for organizational improvement. Coviello and DeMatthews (2021) just published a piece on the community-level engagement around district equity issues. I want to understand how districts prioritize equity as a strategic improvement goal and follow-up with these commitments through differential investments for historically under-served students. In other words, do they put their money where their mouth is when they say they’re investing in equity? There are clearly some districts who do. But there are also many who treat these issues like a politically convenient talking point that receives no sustained attention in their practice.

Finally, as an instructor, I also try to address these issues more focally in my classes. I teach Indiana University Bloomington’s school improvement course for pre-service administrators and have introduced research that addresses issues of culturally responsive school leadership, disproportionality, and other issues that are appropriately considered in broader conversations about district and school improvement. I’ve asked students to read Anjalé Welton’s (2013) work, “Even More Racially Isolated than Before: Problematizing the Vision for ‘Diversity’ in a Racially Mixed High School.” I use this piece to help my students see diversity as a strength from which to build their improvement efforts. This piece, along with others like it, has created some really impactful conversations in my courses. I’ve found that students are increasingly speaking about their commitment to take up difficult conversations in their schools, challenge issues related to racial diversity that confront their schools, and ultimately make the choice (as urged by Edmonds) that schools will serve all of their students.

LtC: Given some of your work focused on how new teacher evaluation policies shape principal practice and the types and scope of supports needed for them to effectively implement such policies, what are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?   

CB: The adoption of new teacher evaluation policies throughout the Obama administration was the classic example of a well-intentioned policy that went terribly wrong. State policymakers who adopted the policies failed to consider the real-world impact of the policy on districts and schools. In this case, policymakers incorrectly assumed that leaders within system had the capacity to implement new evaluation practices without significantly increasing resources, providing adequate professional learning supports, or building new infrastructure to help manage data. Districts incorrectly assumed that principals had the capacity to manage new evaluation requirements without fundamentally reconsidering who should be involved in or responsible for the evaluation process. What became clear as this initiative wore on was that school leaders could handle ‘quick’ evaluations with relative ease but lacked the capacity to handle the required ‘comprehensive’ evaluations that were used with early career classroom teachers and a sample of teachers selected for review each year. As the number of teachers who required comprehensive evaluations increased, the evaluative burden simply grew too much for principals to handle. In sum, the system basically collapsed under its own weight (Lochmiller & Mancinelli, 2019).

If we step back and think about this as a broader policy issue, there are three major implications that we need to consider:  First, education policy tends to be heavy on prescription, but light on incentives for change. Policymakers tend to state what will be required of educators with the hope that this is enough. They rarely offer the same kind of detail when specifying how educators will be supported, which we know is vital for the success of any change initiative. Policymakers, including district leaders, clearly need to think more holistically. They need to consider what systems will need to be built and/or which existing systems might need to be leveraged. Instead of introducing wholesale changes in education practice, as they attempted to in the case of evaluation, it behooves them to make more modest changes that are more strategically focused. For example, some of the work done by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the Building Teacher Effectiveness Network (BTEN) is an excellent example of districts working collaboratively to make progressive enhancements in their practice.

“Education policy tends to be heavy on prescription but light on incentives for change.”

Second, when policy aims to address practice, we need to consider whether practitioners have the capacity to accept new responsibilities. When educators don’t have the capacity to accept a new responsibility, I think it creates a policy selection phenomenon that is detrimental to policy implementation and organizational change. Prior research has described this as ‘street-level bureaucracy’ (Weatherly & Lipsky, 1977), a phenomenon that characterizes how frontline policy implementers tend to make sense of policy requirements in ways that fit their local context. In my view, policy selection relates to how educators strategically ignore policies that pose too significant a burden for them to adopt in their practice. I think it relates to Down’s (1957) notion of policy ignorance, which speaks to the costs of educating oneself about a policy relative to the potential benefits that one might derive from doing so. Educators tend to ignore (or loosely implement) policies that they think will not contribute to improved practices or outcomes. This reflects their own understanding about what constitutes good practice, and it ultimately contributes to unevenness in the implementation of policies. I think this exacerbates some of the difficulties achieving coherence in the education system, which are still not well understood.

Finally, given the increasing need to capture, analyze, and report information in education, policymakers need to consider the information infrastructure that policy changes may require. As I learned by studying evaluation policy, absent consideration of the information infrastructure, we end up with Google Spreadsheets because many classroom teachers use technology that is familiar to them or already embedded within their practice. This makes understanding the effect of a policy more difficult and presents challenges to learn how to improve the policy over time. It also misses an important recognition – technology tools can be useful in guiding educator practice. Thus, if we want to change fundamental practices, it behooves policymakers to consider how technology can be used to streamline what information is deemed important and thus sensitize what practices educators attend to.

LtC: In some of your recent work, you find that content-specific leadership practices are important not only for instructional improvement in science and math but also as a means of enhancing distributed or shared leadership practices. Given your findings, what do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice to address these issues in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike?

CB: My interest in content-specific leadership (Lochmiller, 2015; 2016) started because I saw pre-service administrators struggling to evaluate classroom teachers in content areas with which they had no previous experience. I found that pre-service principals were especially hesitant to evaluate teachers in mathematics and science because they perceived these subjects were too complex to understand. Through my research, I’ve seen that principals often avoid these subjects by delegating supervisory responsibility to other members of their administrative teams or by offering generic feedback that attends to classroom conditions but does not really promote reflection that could contribute to changes in instructional practice. My work in this area seeks to identify tools, strategies, and other supports that help administrators engage in more productive supervisory conversations and/or to help them reconceptualize the leadership function in their schools to promote more attentive supervision in mathematics and science. This includes advocating to district leaders and policymakers to allow non-administrators to participate in peer evaluation as well as creating coaching structures in buildings that provide greater support to teachers in these subject areas. Certainly, this work is also motivated because of the vast inequities that we see in access to high-quality mathematics and science instruction as well as the differential outcomes that have been reported in mathematics and science for low-income students, students of color, students who are learning the English language, and students with disabilities. So, to my earlier point, this is one area of my work where I’ve been really intentional about making connections between my research and the (in)equities in schools.

“Educators need tools. They need models. They need processes that help them identify what changes need to be made and how these changes look once they are implemented.”

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?    

CB: My basic belief is that educators need tools. They need models. They need processes that help them identify what changes need to be made and how these changes look once they are implemented. One of the reasons that I’ve been so interested in improvement science (and Networked Improvement Communities) is that this model for improvement puts a great deal of power in the hands of educators to envision new practices, processes or structures that can fuel long-sought transformation. Improvement science is a form of disciplined inquiry that seeks to improve educational practices through the systematic application of small-scale tests of change. Networked Improvement Communities serve as social learning structure to guide largescale improvement activities focused on a common aim. In truth, I’m less interested in these ideas as an academic exercise than as a tool to help schools experiment with practices in ways that could potentially contribute to something better. I also think that this work is timely because of what we’ve experienced in the past year with COVID-19. When you take away the schoolhouse, you end up with students, teachers, instruction, and social networks. That’s the essence of schooling. So, I think it’s beneficial to explore improvement activities that marry these foundational qualities with a disciplined improvement process.

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

CB: I think we need to think about the field in two ways. In the short term, my sense is that we’re going to see a lot of research that describes the effects of COVID-19 on different practices in schools. This will likely point to COVID-19 as a significant disruption in educational organizations, an external force for change, a crisis that necessitated management by leaders and teachers, and insights about how schools used technology to facilitate rapid educational change given the uncertainty of the moment. I’d also hope to see some critical appraisals of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, students residing in rural communities, etc.

Once we get outside of this recovery period, I think the field is poised for some really exciting advances over the next several years. This period has taught us some important new ways of working, interacting, and organizing educational systems, including schools. These urge us to consider what schools and the school day look like, for whom this model works, and how this model might be amended to better serve students. I think this creates opportunities to raise important questions about inequities that the COVID era has made much more transparent. That’s where my excitement about the field comes from – we are living in a unique moment where we might be able to revisit our long-held conceptions of educational change so that they better reflect the diverse society that we live in. We might actually be able to make education systems work better for the students who attend them.  

References

Coviello, J., & DeMatthews, D. E. (2021). Knowing your audience: Understanding urban superintendent’s process of framing equitable change. Journal of Educational Administration, online first. https://doi.org/10.1108/JEA-07-2020-0164

Down, A. (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.

Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational leadership37(1), 15-24.

Lochmiller, C. R. (2015). Exploring principal leadership for math and science. Journal of School Leadership25(1), 24-53.

Lochmiller, C. R. (2016). Examining administrators’ instructional feedback to high school math and science teachers. Educational Administration Quarterly52(1), 75-109.

Lochmiller, C. R., & Mancinelli, J. L. (2019). Principals’ instructional leadership under statewide teacher evaluation reform. International Journal of Educational Management, 33(4), 629-643.

Weatherley, R., & Lipsky, M. (1977). Street-level bureaucrats and institutional innovation: Implementing special education reform. Harvard Educational Review, 47(2), 171–197.

Welton, A. (2013). Even more racially isolated than before: Problematizing the vision for “diversity” in a racially mixed high school. Teachers College Record115(11), 1-42.

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