Collaboration, Coherence and Learning in Educational Improvement: A Conversation with Elizabeth Leisy Stosich

In this month’s Lead the Change Interview, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich talks about her work focusing on understanding how district, school, and teacher leaders can work together to strengthen the quality and equity of students’ learning opportunities and outcomes. Stosich is Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of the Division of Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy at Fordham University. The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website

Lead the change (Ltc): The 2023 AERA theme is Interrogating Consequential Education Research in Pursuit of Truth and charges researchers and practitioners with creating and using education research to disrupt institutionalized forms of discrimination. The call urges scholars to challenge traditional methods of inquiry in order to create increasingly useful, responsive, and equity-oriented research that can be used by schools to develop informed policies and practices to better support students. What specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Elizabeth Leisy Stosich (ELS): I appreciate how AERA’s theme this year urges us as scholars to take responsibility for critically considering not simply what we research but how we approach our research and the consequences of these decisions. As educational scholars, we are (hopefully) deeply invested in understanding and supporting meaningful improvements in schools and systems. Yet, as educators and scholars, one challenge we face is that we each bring our own biases to understanding problems in education and, correspondingly, the change that is needed. These biases can lead us to define problems and identify solutions in particular ways, ways that may not reflect the actual problem as experienced by those closest it. For example, as a scholar focused primarily on instructional improvement, I can be quick to identify problems as student learning challenges that require new professional learning for teachers and school leaders. When you’re a hammer, every problem requires a nail. For me and many of the educational leaders I work with, we can be quick to see each problem as simply requiring new or different teacher PD. We can also be slow to give up on ideas that we’ve deeply invested in even when they either are a poor fit for the problem or we see little evidence of authentic improvement.

As educational change scholars, I think a central aspect of centering equity and pursuing truth is to engage as partners with the stakeholders closest to the “change.” In improvement science this is often described as being “user” centered. When we partner with practitioners, we need to take time to carefully understand and define the problems we seek to address with our change efforts. These initial decisions have important implications for the change work we take up. I think we are much more likely to be successful in supporting meaningful change when we engage in shared problem diagnosis and solution identification as partners with educators and the students and communities they serve. Through this collaborative process, we can bring more diverse perspectives to defining the problems we center in our change efforts.

Ltc: In your work, you examine relationships between school leaders on decision-making teams and during policy implementation. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

ELS: In my own research (Stosich, 2020, 2021) as well as a number of large survey studies one thing stands out: principals think they are involving teachers in decision-making and teachers do not agree. Looking closely at decision-making in instructional leadership teams (ILTs), I found one explanation for this gap; principals typically involve teachers in decision-making only superficially. For example, principals may ask teachers to decide whether or not to move forward with a proposed initiative (e.g., Should we do lesson study?) rather than engaging them more fully as partners in problem diagnosis and solution identification (e.g., How could we work together to strengthen our instruction?).

This is a big problem for two reasons. First, truly engaging teachers as partners in decision-making is a powerful leadership practice because it allows for teachers to draw on their instructional expertise and knowledge of students and colleagues to inform the decision. Second, when principals and teachers make decisions together, principals gain teachers’ commitment for implementation as part of the decision-making process. When principals only engage teachers superficially in decision-making, they don’t benefit from teachers’ knowledge in shaping the decision and are unlikely to gain their commitment for implementing the proposed solution.

“Through this collaborative process, we can bring more diverse perspectives to defining the problems we center in our change efforts.”

Ltc: In your recent work investigating how educators experience policy shifts in high-accountability contexts, you find that policy alignment, thoughtful sequencing, slower pace, and extensive support can be helpful in creating successful change. How might your findings help scholars and practitioners imagine and implement policy changes more effectively? 

ELS: I think we would benefit from paying greater attention to the larger environmental conditions we are creating for policy change. What are the conditions we are creating and what do they feel like for the educators responsible for policy implementation?

In a strategy activity in my book with Michelle Forman and Candice Bocala, The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement for Schools, we ask educators to reflect on the question: What does it feel like to be a teacher in this school? I think this question is essential in policy change. Do teachers feel like they are focused and engaged in sustained learning in an effort to implement a change that will result in meaningful benefits for students? Or are they overwhelmed by multiple initiatives with little time to really understand and apply new learning about these ideas in their classroom? We typically pair ambitious policy goals with pretty limited support for learning what changes are necessary to meet these goals. Changing practice is difficult and time-consuming work!

My research looking specifically at principals suggests that when principals acknowledge the challenge presented by new instructional policies and frame this challenge as one that requires learning to work with students and content in new ways, they are more likely to close the gap between current practice and policy goals than when they frame the challenge as one of simply executing new approaches (Stosich, 2017). As research from Amy Edmondson and others suggests, when we frame policy change as a “learning” rather than an “execution” challenge, we acknowledge that we don’t know everything we need to know to meet our goals for policy change and, thus, open ourselves to new learning and change. An execution challenge is more appropriate for routine changes, which are rarely the focus of policy change.

In my research with Emily Hodge on the Common Core (Hodge & Stosich, 2022), we found that when policies are introduced in rapid succession even those that are connected and reinforcing can be experienced by teachers and leaders as overwhelming and incoherent. This is particularly true when you introduce high-stakes accountability. We need a supportive environment for learning and change during policy implementation, one that provides the time and support necessary for learning and change before introducing accountability. This should include sustained, job-embedded opportunities for professional learning about the policy change and systems that reinforce and support this learning, such as aligned curriculum and assessment materials and ongoing, developmental feedback for teachers and school leaders.

“Learning is challenging but also rewarding—something we need to acknowledge and celebrate.”

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?

ELS: Be part of the change yourself! As scholars, we learn and change our thinking all the time (hopefully!) based on new understanding we gain from those with whom we study and work.

We need to share openly with our partners about how we are shifting our beliefs and practice and why. I think this modeling is important for reinforcing the idea that learning and change is an opportunity for growth and not simply an admission of weakness. Just this past fall I really shifted how I think about how people connect and develop relationships through improvement work after a comment from a member of our doctoral program led me to question some of my assumptions. I always assumed that we build the relationships that support our collaborative learning and improvement through working together towards shared goals. A student remarked with some surprise that we seemed to just “get right down to business” working on identifying and addressing problems of practice before really getting to know each other on a more personal level. This comment really struck a chord with me and led me to think more deeply about the very personal nature of change and what relationships could best support our collective change efforts. I tried to reflect openly about this change and how her thinking had changed my own during the course in hopes that this would encourage others to be open to change. I also thanked her—learning is challenging but also rewarding—something we need to acknowledge and celebrate.

Still, change can be personally challenging. Something I read in James Spillane’s (2004) book about standards implementation has stuck with me for a long time: when we ask people to learn new ways of doing familiar things, we risk damaging their self-concept. Essentially, when we ask people to change what they are already doing, we ask them to admit that what they have been doing wasn’t good enough and needs to change. This can feel a lot like telling me that I’m not good enough. I think the change process becomes less daunting when we share openly and model how we are changing our own beliefs and practices. This is important for people in all roles but particularly for leaders—are you asking others to be open to change without being open to change yourself? This creates an inhospitable environment for authentic learning and change, which requires acknowledging the limitations of our current knowledge and being open to new ideas and approaches.

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

ELS: I am excited about the more critical lenses educational leaders and scholars are bringing to their work in educational change. In doing so, there has been greater attention to not only issues of achievement and access but also issues of identity and power as part the focus of change. For instance, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some very exciting work happening in a Bronx Community School District that involves networks of principals working together to address three equity-focused issues: reducing racial disproportionality in chronic absenteeism, strengthening culturally responsive-sustaining education (CRSE), and creating more affirming and inclusive school environments. In my view, chronic absenteeism is an access issue, while the district’s work on strengthening CRSE addresses issues of identity—including ensuring students’ identity is reflected in the curriculum—and power, as they teach students to understand and address systems of oppression. I am energized by the focus on more holistic, student-centered, and culturally responsive discussions of learning and change taking place in so many districts and schools.

My favorite recent book is Decoteau Irby’s Stuck improving: Racial equity and school leadership. One important lesson I took from his research on racial equity improvement is that centering Black and Brown people’s perspectives, what he describes as “Black and Brown people’s influential presence,” is essential for understanding problems and monitoring progress (and setbacks) with attention to the influence of race and racism. This involves much more than simply seeking out the perspectives of Black and Brown youth, educators, and community members on the change work at one point in time. Instead, it involves building the organization—the school or district—in ways that will ensure Black and Brown people are not only present but actively influencing our change work at every step—including the problems we identify, the decisions we make about how to work on them, and all our learning along the way.

References

Forman, M. L., Stosich, E. L., & Bocala, C. (2017). The internal coherence framework: Creating the conditions for continuous improvement in schools. Harvard Education Press.

Hodge, E. & Stosich, E. L. (2022). Accountability, alignment, and coherence: How educators made sense of complex policy environments in the Common Core era. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. https://doi.org/10.3102/01623737221079650

Irby, D. J. (2021). Stuck improving: Racial equity and school leadership. Harvard Education Press.

Spillane, J. P. (2004). Standards deviation: How schools misunderstand educational policy. Harvard University Press.

Stosich, E. L. (2017). Leading in a time of ambitious reform: Principals in high-poverty urban elementary schools frame the challenge of the Common Core State Standards. Elementary School Journal, 117(4), 539-565. https://doi.org/10.1086/691585

Stosich, E. L. (2020). Central office leadership for instructional improvement: Developing collaborative leadership among principals and instructional leadership team members. Teachers College Record, 122(9). https://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=23383
Stosich, E. L. (2021). “Are we an advisory board or a decision making entity?”: Teachers’ involvement in decision making in instructional leadership teams. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/15700763.2021.1995879

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