Tag Archives: School reform

Culturally Responsive Leadership, Faith, and School Reform: A Conversation with Miriam D. Ezzani

This month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview features Miriam D. Ezzani, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at Texas Christian University. Dr. Ezzani studies culturally responsive leadership within the contexts of district and school reform and Islamic school leadership. 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 AssociationJennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.

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?

Miriam D. Ezzani; Given what we know, and have known, for some time, about the need to dismantle oppressive systems within the field of education, educational change scholars have a moral responsibility to develop educational leaders who are change agents for social justice. Like many of my colleagues, we entered the field of education to make a difference in the lives of the people whom we serve, and the society in which we live. The culmination of our everyday work is ultimately our legacy, individually and collectively. One of the steps I take to heed the call is to ask myself, “What legacy do I aspire to achieve? How will I get there?” Data are leverage points for change in our lives and our everyday work. From qualitative and quantitative research, we know how systemic racism manifests in our society and specifically in schooling systems (e.g., inequitable funding, disproportionate discipline, persistent opportunity gaps, tracking, low expectations, under and over-representation of students of color in advanced academics and special education, respectively (Datnow & Park, 2018; Fabelo et al., 2011; Khalifa, 2020; Liou et al., 2016)). To date, we have yet to make good on the promise of public education, which should be defined as success for all children, no matter their race/ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation, faith, ableness, and/or socioeconomic status. Those in power who inherited and benefit from these systems are lashing out to maintain the status quo.

Case in point-there is strong resistance to educational change scholars and educational leaders trying to dismantle existing systems and structures of racism, such as policies that maintain tracking, unfair discipline, and policing practices in schools, which contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Some state legislators are adopting laws to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in K-12 public schools and colleges and universities. Lawmakers in Texas (HB 3979) and states such as Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota filed bills that would cut funding to schools with curricula that include the Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times 1619 project by Nikole Hannah-Jones. In a powerful effort to speak truth to power, the 1619 project places slavery and racism as central to the founding and history of America. It links it to the systemic racism that plagues our country today. Yet, the existing power structure is fiercely working to stomp out academic freedom.

“The existing power structure is fiercely working to stomp out academic freedom.”

Meanwhile, on the higher education front, there are 78 institutions that have joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium (USS). I’m proud to say my institution, Texas Christian University (TCU), is a member. The consortium is a collaboration between universities to share best practices and guiding principles to engage in “truth-telling projects” that address their institutional histories. These institutions have committed to invest resources to research and acknowledge and atone for their ties to the slave trade and racism in their institution’s history, policies, and practices. Because educational change scholars reside in higher education, yet influence K-12 public education, we have a dual responsibility. We must leverage our scholarship by forging relationships within and outside of our universities to dialogue and take action toward dismantling systemic structures that hamper the advancement of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and question leaders when they are unaware or turn a blind eye to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the curriculum or student recruitment, or faculty hiring and retention practices.

I serve on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee at the college and university levels. In collaboration with my colleagues in the College of Education at TCU, we form partnerships with K-12 school districts to research and develop plans to enact educational change that provides access and equity for students from historically minoritized communities. With every relationship, we increase our bandwidth and opportunities to influence the field of education. Most educators do not realize inequity exists due to biases in their education. Therefore, the most powerful action we can take collectively is to design our educational leadership programs and what we teach in our classrooms to develop leaders for social justice.

LtC: Given some of your work focused on how principals can create systems and structures to support reflective and anti-oppressive practices, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

MDE: Formative experiences as a student at the University of Southern California, as a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a school leader inspired my focus on underserved students vis-à-vis education reform aimed at equity and social justice. I define underserved as students who do not receive equitable resources due to racism, ethnicism, sexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, lingualism, or faithism. My concern for these students is rooted in my personal experience. As the daughter of Yemeni Muslim immigrants, I am aware of the role, or lack thereof, that education plays in one’s life. My research foci align with a unifying goal to examine how educational leaders plan, implement, and sustain reform efforts to support equitable and socially just schooling experiences for historically minoritized students, specifically on issues of race and faith.

My recently published piece in the Journal of School Leadership highlights the work of a school principal, Ms. DiFalco (pseudonym), who instituted systems and structures that challenge systemic racism (Ezzani, 2021). We could learn from how she implemented reflective and anti-oppressive practices at Lyon Elementary School. The findings of this two-year study reinforce that social justice advocacy and action can be leveraged by data-informed leadership. Black students made up 15 percent of the school’s population but accounted for more than 80% of written discipline plans. The principal coupled quantitative data with qualitative data. She spent more than half of her time in the hallways and classrooms, monitoring teachers’ behaviors and interactions with students. She met privately with teachers to reflect their mannerisms back to them. The intention behind these coaching conversations was to help teachers understand what it looked like and felt like to be a student in their classroom and guide them through critical self-reflection. The learning of self-reflective skills was anchored in the very core values that the teachers themselves created. Her role as the school leader was to help teachers through the reasoning process to make meaning of their experiences with their Black students and also to see that their actions were incongruent with their espoused core values.

“Social justice advocacy and action can be leveraged by data-informed leadership.”

The use of reflective practice in social justice leadership offers a way to respond to oppressive practices. At the end of the day, educational change scholars and their colleagues need to develop educational leaders who practice what some scholars describe as critical activism or courageous leadership (Brooks, 2012; Singleton, 2012). Ms. DiFalco engaged in systemic professional learning focused on race, despite district leaders’ avoidance of the topic. Her act of deviance for the benefit of her Black students was viewed as renegade leadership, where the leader shifts allegiance from the district to the students. Lastly, professional learning should extend beyond the school walls to involve parents and community members. The results suggest that humanizing practices toward Black students should be pursued through professional learning within our districts/schools, in preparation programs, and through university–district partnerships – recognizing that power and “politics is an inescapable reality of educational practice” (Connery & Weiner, 2017, p. 21).

LtC: In some of your recent work, you describe how principals provide processes and supports through the educational system to challenge oppressive social structures. Given your findings on the persistence of various forms of discrimination in schools today, 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?  

MDE: Further to my research on education reform, I’ve engaged in extensive data collection at schools with culturally responsive leaders. I focused on the structures, processes, practices, and strategies implemented by these leaders to make the schooling environment safe and supportive of minoritized populations. Some of these studies were interdisciplinary; thereby, providing a more nuanced focus on culturally responsive leadership. As a result, I published a historiography on an American Muslim school leader in collaboration with Kelley King, an educational historian. With another colleague, Melanie Brooks, who studies Islamic and international education, we explored (a) the complexities of faithism in a study on Islamic education in the U.S. and (b) the development of American Muslim identity focusing on organizational leadership. With a third colleague, Rachel Mun, who studies gifted education, we examined how district and school leaders attend to systemic policies and practices to change the education trajectory for students of color excluded from gifted and advanced academic programs. These studies revealed how and in what ways culturally responsive leaders advance practices and policies that support the development of critical consciousness in teachers and students.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my lines of inquiry is on reform efforts to support equitable and socially just schooling experiences for historically minoritized students, specifically on issues of race and faith. With a focus on faith, Melanie Brooks and I examined how leaders in an Islamic school in the United States engage in culturally relevant leadership to develop the critical social consciousness of their students (Ezzani & Brooks, 2019). This is important given the current intensification of supremacist, anti-immigrant, and nationalist discourse. With such ideologies taught and learned (Apple, 2019), we see these ideologies as educational problems that have critical implications for Muslim students, teachers, and school leaders. Consequently, school leaders must consider their moral responsibility to their Muslim students and arguably society regarding how we teach critical thinking, develop media literacy skills, and guide experiences that cultivate understanding and compassion rather than mistrust and hate (Banks, 2007).

Our findings confirmed the critical role of authentic dialogue, which is learner-centered, to help students recognize and seek to upend oppressive social structures (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Theoharis & Brooks, 2012). These dialogues were inside and external to their faith tradition. For example, Muslim students engaged in interfaith dialogue with Jewish students. In this way, leaders sought to raise the critical consciousness of their students by facilitating dialogue with a faith tradition often perceived to be in conflict with Islam. This is important given that American Muslim students must navigate a world often hostile to Islam and Muslims. Reflexive leadership created an environment for cultural syncretism, wherein space is made for students to both identify as American Muslims and identify with the global ummah, a supranatural community where global Muslims are viewed as equal in light of geographic, cultural, and linguistic differences. In summary, the study speaks to the daily practices and interactions of educators and students. It sheds light on the importance of raising educator and student consciousness while imparting skills on how to be actively and civically engaged. With a dearth of books on American Muslims, and even fewer on leadership and progressive Islamic schooling, Melanie and I are in the throes of writing a book based on recent data collection. The book will provide novel perspectives on formal and informal leadership practices in how a progressive Islamic school develops its youth amid the backdrop of a divisive landscape, vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims.

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?    

MDE: Educational change scholars and those whom we prepare, school and district leaders, are inextricably tied in the effort of transforming K-12 public education as we know it. One strand of my research agenda is the preparation of educational leaders. In a study that examined students’ perceptions of an educational leadership doctoral program, we looked at the redesign of the program (Ezzani & Paufler, 2018; Paufler et al., 2020). The program sought to prepare students to lead learning organizations, engage ethically with the community, advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and develop theory-to-practice solutions that are comprehensive and systemic. The findings provided a better understanding of changes in the program redesign, which supports broader national efforts to reconstitute the doctorate in educational leadership in ways that better prepare scholarly practitioners committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in K-12 public school systems.

“Educational change scholars and those whom we prepare, school and district leaders, are inextricably tied in the effort of transforming K-12 public education as we know it.”

As educational change scholars continue to learn more about the process of program redesign to transform the field, essential features seemed to support students when preparing them to become exceptional scholarly practitioners. For instance, front-loading a research-to-practice approach helped students appreciate complex and systemic problems of practice. We also learned that the cohort model provides a support system for educational leadership students who come to the program from various districts. The study we conducted provided a point of departure, confirming and disconfirming notions in the continuous improvement needed to prepare future leaders that can innovate and generate new ways of developing rigorous, relevant educational opportunities for students. The student’s voice is powerful evidence of program effectiveness. However, evaluating program impact would require the collective engagement of faculty to agree on how to challenge students’ assumptions, involve them in action, and find a way to assess their practices continually. Lastly, we ended by posing the following question: How are students in educational leadership applying their knowledge and skills to affect meaningful change in practice? To this end, Jimerson et al. (2021) articulated that we need to establish data-sharing agreements with school districts to holistically assess the performance of the leaders developed, and whether faculty are achieving the desired programmatic outcomes. 

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

MDE: I’m an optimist at heart. I hope that scholars in the field of educational change across the country play their part in transforming the current educational system – one cohort of educational leadership students at a time. It’s also critical that we work alongside our colleagues in teacher preparation programs so that we’re developing teachers and leaders who can abandon their fears and courageously work toward an anti-racist education system (Diem & Welton, 2020). As educational change scholars, we must rethink what and how we teach. It’s simply not enough to create one diversity course in a program or one cultural foundations class. Several exceptional programs have found ways of integrating content relevant to ethics, equity, social justice, and policy (see Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate).

“I hope that scholars in the field of educational change across the country play their part in transforming the current educational system – one cohort of educational leadership students at a time.”

We need to redesign programs to include mandatory courses that discuss the various intersections of oppression in our society rather than leave them as electives. As long as courses related to diversity, equity, and inclusion largely remain as a one-off to existing curricula (to meet accreditation requirements), we are abrogating our responsibility and contributing to ongoing inequities in our educational system. We need to address more strategically how academic programs are designed and what courses are required to meet the pressing need of developing educational leaders for social justice. However, higher education institutions also need transformation, where teaching is honored and valued equally with scholarship. Faculty will then be motivated to collaboratively revise programs in ways that meet the challenge of Accepting Educational Responsibility to defy social and educational inequities.


Apple, M. W. (2019). Ideology and curriculum, 4th edition. Routledge.

Banks, J. A. (2007). Educating citizens in a multicultural society. Teachers College Press.

Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (2021). Retrieved from https://www.cpedinitiative.org/

Connery, C., & Weiner, J. M. (2017). Direct Democracy’s Threat to Democratic Schools: Ron Unz and the Case of Bilingual Education. in a Democracy, 6.

Datnow, A., & Park, V. (2018). Opening or closing doors for students? Equity and data use in schools. Journal of Educational Change19(2), 131-152.

Diem, S., & Welton, A. D. (2020). Anti-racist Educational Leadership and Policy: Addressing Racism in Public Education. Routledge.

Ezzani, M. (2021). A principal’s approach to leadership for social justice: Advancing reflective and anti-oppressive practices. Journal of School Leadership, 31(3), 227–247. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052684620908347

Ezzani, M. D., & Brooks, M. C. (2019). Culturally relevant leadership: Advancing critical consciousness in American Muslim students. Educational Administration Quarterly, 55(5), 781-811. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X18821358

Ezzani, M. D., & King, K. M. (2018). Whose Jihad? Oral history of an American Muslim educational leader and U.S. public schools. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 50(2), 113-129. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220620.2018.1448369

Ezzani, M.,& Paufler, N. (2018). Doctoral program in educational leadership redesign: Utilizing a multi-criteria framework. Impacting Education: Journal on Transforming Professional Practice, 3(2). http://impactinged.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/ImpactingEd/article/view/70

Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P., & Booth, E. A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Jimerson, J. B., Atwood, E. D., Cook, K. S., Corder, P. F., & McGhee, M. W. (2021). A Retrospective Look at a Partnership-Based Educational Leadership Program Redesign. Partnerships for Leadership Preparation and Development: Facilitators, Barriers and Models for Change, 13.

Khalifa, M. (2020). Culturally responsive school leadership. Harvard Education Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. J. (1995a). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34, 159-165.

Liou, D. D., Marsh, T. E., & Antrop-Gonzalez, R. (2016). The Spatiality of Schooling: A quest for equitable classrooms and high expectations for low-income students of color. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies12(2).

Paufler, N. A., Ezzani, M. D.,Murakami, E. T., Viamontes Quintero, J., Pazey, B. L. (2020). Educational leadership doctoral program evaluation: Student voice as the litmus test. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, https://doi.org/10.1177/1942775120976705

Theoharis, G., & Brooks, J. S. (2012). What every principal needs to know to create equitable and excellent schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

What will change in schools post-pandemic?

The school closures and related educational adaptions throughout the Covid-19 pandemic led to many calls for “re-imagining education,” but which changes in schools actually can be made right now? Which ones will be made in the future? To address these questions, IEN is launching a new series to track both what changes in schools and what does not in order to reveal the conditions and constraints that have to be addressed to transform education over the long term.  The series is part of a long-term project exploring school improvement efforts and educational innovations in both developing and developed contexts. The series pursue issues my co-authors, Jordan Corson and Sarah Van den Berg, and I raised in The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021). The first post in the series comes from Larry Cuban, co-author with David Tyack of Tinkering Toward Utopia(Harvard University Press, 1995), who highlights how calls for ambitious educational reform already may be “downsized” as the realities of returning to school get closer — Thomas Hatch 

Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic

Posted originally on Larry Cuban’s blog on July 15, 2021

The silence is deafening. Perhaps other observers have noted calls for major school reforms, I have not. The pandemic’s closure of public schools in March 2020 and the partial re-opening of schools in fall 2020 and full return to face-to-face instruction in winter 2021 have grabbed mainstream and social media attention. Especially for the rapid expansion of remote instruction and the Zoom marathon that all of us are running.

No reform agenda, however, have I seen for bettering the nation’s public schools. I have yet to detect any groundswell for altering the familiar school organization, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures already in place. There is much reform talk, of course:

Consider the words from a recent report of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights of the disparate effects of the pandemic on white and minority students:

[W]e have a rare moment as a country to take stock and to begin the hard work of building our schools back better and stronger—with the resolve necessary to ensure that our nation’s schools are defined not by disparities but by equity and opportunity for all students.

Or the head of a major administrators’ professional organization:

“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”

Talk is one thing, however, action another. Reform-driven policies have notably been absent from most of the 13,000 school districts spread across 50 states and territories during and after the pandemic, particularly when it comes to repairing inequities prior to and during the Covid-19 crisis.

Consider state and national testing. During the pandemic, the then U.S. Secretary of Education postponed the federally-required National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) until 2022. The current administration has called for standardized tests to be administered in the fall of 2021.

Apart from temporary suspension of nation and state tests, I have yet to hear of or read about any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated. Progressive educators and their allies have surely called for such changes before, during, and after the pandemic’s closing of schools, but beyond exhortations, I have not noted an emerging coalition of school reformers at either the state and federal levels not only endorsing but also funding such efforts.

In fact, as Republicans have taken over most state legislatures–they now control 62 percent of them–, the appetite for funding schools and igniting school reform have shrunk considerably. Although conservative state legislators have called for more teaching of patriotism and less teaching about race, keeping schools as they are remains strong.

Progressive rhetoric for reducing inequalities in funding districts, ending disproportionate assignment of inexperienced teachers to high poverty, largely minority schools, and increasing “ambitious” teaching remains high in mainstream and social media but has yet to lead to substantial adoption of such policies, and most important their implementation in schools and classrooms.

Of course, lack of concrete reform-driven policies and their implementation does not mean that reforms begun prior to the pandemic and then put on hold have disappeared. Those reforms seeking the expansion of remote instruction have gained ground with the sudden switch from face-to-face to screens in March 2020. While surely distance learning now has a secure niche in a school district’s kit-bag of “solutions” to emergency closures, becoming more than an option for parents to choose is, well, doubtful (see here and here).

Remote instruction, then, is, by default, the coercive reform du jour. Yet frequent reports of test score decline and loss of academic skills especially among minority and poor students during the pandemic have yet to push the “pause” button on distance instruction as a choice for parents to have should they reject face-to-face instruction in school classrooms (see here and here).

With the spread of remote instruction as a school reform, what has thus far emerged from the pandemic emergency are not big-ticket, comprehensive overhaul of public schools aimed at reducing inequities among American children and youth but a shrunken version of what the past 18 months have offered.

And that is why I titled this post: Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic.

An Interview with Dennis Shirley: The 100th Anniversary Issue of the Lead the Change Series

This week’s post features an interview with Dennis Shirley, is Professor of Education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, author most recently of The New Imperatives of Educational Change:  Achievement with Integrity. This 100th Anniversary issue is one of a set of interviews this year in which previous interviewees in the Lead the Change (LtC) Series review their previous responses and consider how they might modify/ adjust/add to what they wrote based on their experiences and insights since publication. The fully formatted interview can be found on the LtC website of the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.

LtC: How, and in what ways, has your work evolved since the first publication of this piece? What ideas/points still hold true? Which might you revise?

Dennis Shirley: Since I published my original contribution in Lead the Change in 2012, I have studied school networks and innovations in the US, Canada, Germany, Norway, and South Korea.  This research shows just how transformative joint work by educators across schools and systems can be. In the original 2012 contribution, I was most enthusiastic about community organizing for educational change; since then, however, I have seen how community organizations can be co-opted by powerful corporations and their philanthropic agencies. In one particularly egregious case, a community organizing effort in a struggling inner-city high school that had shown signs of improvement led to half of the school being turned over to a charter management organization. The irony here was that the traditional public school continued improving and the charter school part did not in spite of generous philanthropic support. So, there is good and bad community organizing, and I’m more discriminating about promoting that model now.

The one statement that stands out the most for me from my previous piece is “Educators can help to allay nationalist anxieties that have been exploited in times of economic insecurity.” I wish I had stated that point more emphatically in my 2012 Lead the Change submission, given all that has happened since then with the rise of authoritarian populism and contemporary political polarization. I also wish I had been more outspoken about the challenge of climate change and situated that more centrally in contemporary curriculum reform. Finally, at the time of the submission, I was optimistic about the capacity of policy makers to attend to important research findings and to integrate them into their strategies, but now it is apparent that the educational profession will have to find other ways to influence governments than evidence alone, so that political advocacy and coalition-building must become more central components of our professional identities.

LtC: What do these shifts suggest to you about the field of educational change more broadly?

DS: On the one hand, the field of educational change is a small enterprise in what Amitai Etzioni once called the “semi-professional” of teaching, so we have little impact on our large and often unwieldy school systems.  On the other hand, I think we’ve done a good job punching above our weight and nudging systems in good directions, given the magnitude of the challenges that confront us. Even though the larger political environment is marked by

increased insularity in many countries, including my own, I’m encouraged by the overall tenor of our profession and by educators’ determination to question dangerous political ideologies and their ramifications for our students. Because younger generations are less nostalgic for an idealized past, more curious and open to interactions with others from different cultures, and more concerned about climate change than older generations, we have reason for optimism about the future. New technologies are helpful here, by providing for ease of communication and by enabling students to learn how to check facts and to distinguish conspiracy theories from evidence.  I would like to see these tools used more intentionally and skillfully in our schools—which does not mean that we should be blind to the dangerous aspects of the Internet and social media.

“The righteous indignation of youth at the condition of the world they are inheriting deserves honest acknowledgment and continual encouragement.”

What most excites you about the direction of the field of educational change is going? What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?

Several years ago, I was alarmed by the rise of nationalism and decided that it was time to create an on-line masters’ degree program called “Global Perspectives: Teaching, Curricula, and Learning Environments” at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. I credit this program with providing some of the richest and most rewarding cross-cultural encounters and exchanges I’ve ever experienced. It’s one thing to read about teaching strategies in different places; it’s quite another to have an on-line class with students from Kenya, Nigeria, Germany, Korea, and the US in their classrooms all around the world engaging in spirited debates with one another. Contrary to my worries, students quickly bonded with one another and shared lesson plans and assessment tools in a spirit of collegial generosity. I hope these kinds of experiences both on and off-line will help to promote a new movement of fundamental human solidarity in our schools and societies that will overcome the regrettable tendency to stigmatize outsiders and to impute negative motives to them when none exist. “Love of your country is a beautiful thing,” the cellist Pablo Casals once said, “but why should the love stop at the border?”

LtC: What advice might you have for those interested in affecting change and improvement?

DS: The major piece of advice I would give to anyone entering educational change today would be to avoid the temptation of groupthink. Too often in education, we fall into a kind of mindless parroting of whatever the research du jour is.  Think of the “self-esteem movement,” “emotional intelligence,” “multiple intelligences,” and “growth mindsets,” for example. Each of these ideas spawned a cottage industry of professional development workshops that became all the rage in our schools for years. Eventually, however, it was shown that while each development effort had some basis in fact, each easily became open to misinterpretation and often was implemented in ways damaging for positive youth development. Right now, we are in the midst of a fascination with social and emotional learning in the US (generally referred to well-being elsewhere). I encourage all of us to distinguish between what is positive in this new trend and will help our young people to flourish, and that which is silly happy-talk.  The young know when they are being patronized and appreciate honesty and direct feedback more than we give them credit for. There are serious social and ecological crises that await a rising generation, and the righteous indignation of youth at the condition of the world they are inheriting deserves honest acknowledgment and continual encouragement.

“I would like to see the field of educational change take up this climate challenge in our schools seriously and sustainably.”

LtC: What are the future research directions that should be addressed in the field of educational change?

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.”  Do we love the world, in this specific sense?  I’m not so sure. Confronting the magnitude of the climate change crisis upon us, I can’t help wondering if we’ve been overlooking some fundamental realities about our human condition:  That we are embodied, that we are interdependent with nature, that we exist in a historical chronology in which we are reliant upon one another for sustenance and shelter. It seems we have been evading these ontological truths, have become caught up in other transient pursuits, and now are having to confront our essential contingency in a planet of breathtaking beauty that we have taken for granted and exploited shamelessly. It’s time for a major pivot for all of us. I would like to see the field of educational change take up this climate challenge in our schools seriously and sustainably.

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 SIG; Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor

Bringing Effective Instructional Innovation to Scale through Social Movement in Mexico and Colombia

As part of a symposium focused on educational innovation around the world  at the annual conference of the American Educational Assocation in Chicago next week, we are sharing commentary papers from the participants.  Today’s contribution is from Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. 


The Learning Community Project (LCP) in Mexico and Escuela Nueva in Colombia are examples of effective instructional innovation at scale. When I talk about instructional innovation I refer to pedagogical principles and practices that deliberately disrupt the traditional instructional culture and power relations of schooling. More specifically, an instructional innovation is one that radically redefines the instructional core by deliberately shifting the relationships between teachers and students in the presence of content.

Learning Community Project (LCP)

In the LCP, for example, students select their topics of study from the available collection of topics mastered by a tutor in the group, they develop individual lines of inquiry at their own pace, and are expected to demonstrate their learning in writing and in public presentations to the group and often to the larger community. Once they master a topic, they are expected to become tutors to other students – and even to adults in the group. The boundary between teachers and students becomes blurry, with teachers becoming students and students becoming teachers depending on who masters a particular topic and who is interested in learning it. Tutorial relationships are the key technology to encourage deep learning in these learning communities: the tutor and tutee engage in one-on-one dialogue to make evident what the tutee already knows about a topic, identify areas of struggle, and to crafts questions or point to additional materials so that the the tutee t can come up with her own answers.

Escuela Nueva

Escuela Nueva in Colombia transforms the conventional culture and structure of schooling into a learner-centered participatory model with a flexible promotion mechanism that allows students to move from one grade to another and complete academic units at their own pace. In these multi-grade schools, children work individually and in small groups using learning guides that are by design interactive and dialogue-based as well as learning materials available whenever needed in a “Learning Corner.” Students help each other when they struggle, and ask the teacher for suggestions or comments when necessary. Individual mastery and cooperation are seamlessly integrated into every classroom activity. Teachers constantly move from group to group, tailoring their one-on-one and group interventions to the emerging needs in the classroom. Community participation and a student school government are integrated in the everyday activities of the school, offering multiple opportunities to practice and master democratic behaviors and values.

Innovation, effectiveness, and spread

These are examples of instructional innovation in action. They have radically redefined the instructional core. But innovation per se is meaningless if it doesn’t deepen and improve student learning. Both the LCP and Escuela Nueva have demonstrated significant improvements in student performance on national standardized tests, even though standardized tests have not been their area of focus. Learning Community schools increased in 3 years the percentage of students achieving good and excellent levels in language and math at a faster pace than the national average (DGDGIE, 2012), whereas in the 1990s Escuela Nueva students – mostly from rural schools – consistently outperformed their better-off counterparts in urban schools (Psacharopoulos, Rojas & Velez 1992).

And maybe more importantly, these two models, have spread from a handful to thousands of schools at some point in time. In 2012, LCP model was operating in 9000 public schools across Mexico. In the 1980s, Escuela Nueva had been adopted as national policy and reached 20,000 rural schools in Colombia. These initiatives are similar in their genesis and development to social movements. Upon witnessing powerful learning themselves and observing clear improvements in the learning and engagement of their students, teachers and local educational authorities have mobilized in coordination with project leaders to activate social networks, spread interest and gain support. Leaders of both projects have been able to gain access to institutional power and political influence to disseminate the new pedagogies on a large scale. Dalila López and Gabriel Cámara, historical leaders of the LCP were invited in 2009 to the Department of Innovation at the Mexican Ministry of Education and once there brought in several project leaders to her team. Vicky Colbert, co-founder of Escuela Nueva, was Deputy Minister of Education in Colombia when Escuela Nueva was adopted as a national policy, she also brought to her team teacher leaders with strong experience on instructional innovation. Once in power, these two guiding coalitions developed a progressive partnership between policy and practice, rather than the conventional top-down separation that has characterized education policy in Latin America and abroad . Across the system, project participants, regardless of their formal role in the institution, were expected to practice and model the new pedagogies on a regular basis. 

Conditions and challenges for innovation and spread

Here are, in a nutshell 5 key conditions that were created to enable the large-scale dissemination of the new pedagogies advanced through the LCP and Escuela Nueva.

1) developing a new pedagogy that allows teachers to experience powerful learning themselves and to witness observable improvements in the knowledge, skills and attitudes of their students as a result of changing their practice

2) creating access to multiple opportunities to observe, practice, and refine the new pedagogy (e.g., classroom-based coaching, communities of practice, and school visits/exchanges);

3) gaining the support or permission from local educational authorities to depart from conventional schooling practices

4) starting at the margins of the educational system, where the needs are greatest and the presence of institutional controls over the everyday activities of schools is weaker. This offers tremendous opportunities to radically depart from conventional practice

5) creating a guiding coalition of pedagogical change leaders with access to institutional power and political support to protect and expand the influence of the innovation

A key limitation to the large-scale instructional innovation approach just presented is that it is subject to marginalization or disappearance from the policy arena when there are drastic shifts in the political agenda. This has been the case in both the LCP and Escuela Nueva. At the pinnacle of their success, changes in administration and in system priorities resulted in the departure of the national leadership of these projects from their respective Ministries of Education.

Bureaucratization, ritualization or mechanization of the original model is also a risk when the innovation is brought to scale too quickly, a phenomenon that has been observed in the two cases in question. In both cases, the work to sustain the movements of pedagogical change spurred by these projects and to ensure quality of their core pedagogical practices has continued through NGOs formed by the former leaders of LCP and Escuela Nueva. As is often the case with social movements, their visibility may be reduced for now, but they continue to cultivate a movement that is radically redefining teaching and learning in public schools. In this new phase, the model of dissemination at scale will have to rely more on the power of effective networks to consolidate and spread the new pedagogies reliably and at scale than on formal access to institutional power.

Lockout and reform: A turbulent year for schools in Denmark

Jakob Wandall

Jakob Wandall

As the school year begins again in Denmark, we asked education researcher and consultant Jakob Wandall to take a look back at the lockout that closed the schools last March, review the key disagreements that led to the standoff, and consider the implications for the upcoming school year and beyond.

In Denmark, the month of March is usually the most intense period of time in the school year as teachers and students prepare for final examinations; however, this past year was an exception as schools were closed. The Municipalities Association (KL), backed by the center-left government, closed the schools in an effort to dismantle long-standing teacher privileges that the teachers’ union refused to concede in negotiations. The 99 municipalities in Denmark are responsible for running the public schools.

In the first days of April, the four-week “lockout” of teachers came to an end, but as a result, schools are now valued even more highly by the more than 600,000 pupils and about 60,000 teachers who were affected.

The standoff between the Municipalities Association (KL) and the Danish Teachers’ Union (DLF) raised questions about the viability of the so-called “Danish model” on the public sector labor market, which is largely governed by collective agreements between employers and trade unions, relative equals in negotiations. These two parties are accustomed to reaching agreements without the need for the national government to step in through legislation.

Danish teachers protest during teacher lockout.

Danish teachers protest during teacher lockout.

This dispute arose because the main teachers’ union did not want to give up the principles upon which working hours were regulated. A full-time teacher taught approximately 25 class periods per week (45 minutes per lesson), unless it was decided that the teacher should perform other tasks (e.g. administrative work, guidance of pupils, further education). This equals approximately 19 teaching hours, and a total of 41 working hours per workweek. This pre-lockout arrangement resulted in schedules that consisted of less than 40% of working hours spent teaching, and no obligation for teachers to be present at school during the remaining working hours. Historically, this schedule represented the belief that teachers had a right to work independently on planning and organization.

According to the Danish model if the parties cannot come to an agreement and further negotiations seems useless, there are four possibilities: the prior agreement could be prolonged, the union could strike, the employers could institute a lockout, or the government/parliament could intervene through legislation as a last resort. The idea behind the strike/lockout is that this should hurt both sides: employers lose production and the workers lose wages. In the public sector, where there is loss of production, there is a greater risk for local politicians as the population could turn against them. In this case, there were several unsuccessful attempts by KL to dismantle the existing working time agreement with the teachers prior to the ultimate lockout of March of 2013.

While Danish students usually go to school from about 8 AM to 1 PM and often attend a publicly financed after-school club, the government and a large part of the opposition to the existing agreement wanted to extend the school day.  The additional time would be devoted to academic work and give less time for “free” play, which is something the Danes have always prioritized. Generally, the teachers were against this approach as well as the proposed changes to their workweek, which was viewed as a preliminary step to making the school day longer in the future. They wanted to solidify their right to a specific length of preparation time in a national agreement rather than leave it to local heads of school who may be pressured by budget considerations.

In the media, the government’s reform was presented as very popular; the general school debate over the last decade has been strongly influenced by mediocre PISA results. KL pointed to teachers’ working hours as the main cause of the PISA scores.

The teachers' union DLF, led by Anders Bondo Christensen (left), in grueling negotiations with Michael Ziegler (right) and KL (Photo: Scanpix)

The teachers’ union DLF, led by Anders Bondo Christensen (left), negotiated with Michael Ziegler (right) and KL (Photo: Scanpix)

At the start of the lockout, parents were faced with the prospect of no school and not knowing when it would start again. It was particularly awkward and difficult for the children. But the parents recruited grandparents, took vacation early or brought the kids along to their workplace as many companies established educational facilities or made space available for the kids. The vast majority in the population felt that this was a legitimate fight between municipalities and the teachers union, and that it should be fought without intervention.

On April 2nd, The Danish parliament passed a law that decided the terms and conditions of Danish teachers without consulting them. The DFL argued that the lockout was premature, heavy-handed, and unfairly one-sided in favor of the local authorities. The teachers union had lost the battle.

But what about the teachers? Many of them spent a month trying to mobilize support led by their trade union and used Facebook and email to show the Danes that they were against the action taken by KL. Most appeared to be delighted to get back to work, despite the general opposition to the agreement forced through by the government. After the conflict everyone worked together and the majority felt that there were no negative effects on cooperation inside the school. Many local governments and school leaders silently disapproved of the lockout. Despite the loss of one month, the mandatory tests and examinations were carried out according to plan. Whether the students have learned less will probably never be explored.

On June 8th 2013, the government and a majority of the opposition in the parliament agreed upon the details for a new plan for school reform. Beginning in August of 2014, the students in Denmark will be spending more time in school. At the same time the applications to teacher training colleges in Denmark has dropped dramatically and 1 out of 2 teachers in Denmark is considering leaving the profession.

The debate over whether this additional teaching time will lead to a better school and more proficient students is ongoing. Meanwhile, at this year’s annual Soroe Meeting (a traditional meeting that brings together those most familiar with pressing educational concerns, including members of parliament, educational journalists, civil servants, researchers, and others) invitees met to discuss leadership and preparation for change. This annual meeting has a strong impact on Danish educational policy, which makes this year’s theme (“Klar til fremtidens skole,” meaning  “Ready for the School of the Future”) of great interest to those concerned about what will happen with Denmark’s schools in the near future. While reporters in attendance do not write about what is discussed at this informal meeting, many attendees shared their experiences on Twitter.

For more information:

Denmark: School Reform

Photo: Klaus Holsting

Anders Bondo Christensen
Photo: Klaus Holsting

The latest school reform proposal in Denmark calls for a 25-hour workweek for teachers, inclusion education, measurable goals, and a collaborative discussion about teacher training. Despite the fact that the reform has controversial implications for wages, work hours, and professional development, Anders Bondo Christensen (chairman of the Danish Union of Teachers) has garnered the support of the majority of teachers. Christensen is now hoping that Education Minister Christine Antorini will see that the plan is close to the government’s objectives.

Education Minister Christine Antorini

Education Minister Christine Antorini

However, in a controversial move, Minister Antorini has just  introduced a large-scale study in which more than 3,500 students in a total of 200 schools will be taught in their native languages, including Arabic and Turkish. In a press release, Antorini said, “We want to know more about what helps develop the language skills and knowledge of bilingual students. The trials will use and strengthen the tools that some schools and councils already have available today.”

Danish People's Party Education Spokesperson, Alex Ahrendsten

Danish People’s Party Education Spokesperson, Alex Ahrendsten

Alex Ahrendtsen, Danish People’s Party education spokesman, expressed the his disapproval.  “I’m shocked,” he said. “In the midst of school talks, she allows such a bomb blast.It destroys a really suitable climate for negotiations.” Instead, Ahrendtsen would prefer to see greater efforts to include bilingual students in Danish culture.

Other Nordic countries are debating similar issues and are watching closely.

For more information:

Please consult links embedded in the scan above, as well as those listed below.

Primary School Gets Back Hours in Mother Tongue (link in Danish)

Broad Support for Bondo’s Teacher Initiative (link in Danish)

Liberal Alliance: High school test should not determine access to secondary education (in Danish)