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A two-year qualitative study of mathematics and English teachers in two urban comprehensive high schools investigated how teacher community serves as resource for teacher development and school reform. A school engaged in whole-school reform sustained high teacher commitment and school-level community by constituting professional community strongly at the school level, but its departments displayed varying capacity and disposition to examine problems of teaching and learning at the classroom level. In the second school, innovative teacher communities were constituted strongly at the department level in English and mathematics, but suffered problems of stress and turnover due to weak organizational supports for teacher development and school reform. Findings point both to the potential contribution of professional communities situated in subject departments and the challenge of capitalizing on such communities to advance whole-school reform. The study suggests complex relationships among organizational context, teacher community, teacher development, and institutional reform.
International Journal of
Educational Research 37 (2002) 693–714
Chapter 3
Professional community and the problem of high
school reform
Judith Warren Little
Graduate School of Education, University of California at Berkeley, Tolman hall MC # 1670, Berkeley,
CA 94720-1670, USA
A two-year qualitative study of mathematics and English teachers in two urban
comprehensive high schools investigated how teacher community serves as resource for
teacher development and school reform. A school engaged in whole-school reform sustained
high teacher commitment and school-level community by constituting professional commu-
nity strongly at the school level, but its departments displayed varying capacity and
disposition to examine problems of teaching and learning at the classroom level. In the second
school, innovative teacher communities were constituted strongly at the department level in
English and mathematics, but suffered problems of stress and turnover due to weak
organizational supports for teacher development and school reform. Findings point both to
the potential contribution of professional communities situated in subject departments and the
challenge of capitalizing on such communities to advance whole-school reform. The study
suggests complex relationships among organizational context, teacher community, teacher
development, and institutional reform.
r2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. The problem of reform in the high school
Secondary school reforms of the past two decades have responded to a litany of
criticisms, many of them voiced by teachers as well as outside observers. In a series of
studies completed in the 1980s, critics charged that the high school curriculum in the
This paper is based on research supported by the Spencer and MacArthur Foundations, and by the
Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. Lora Bartlett and Ilana
S. Horn were members of the research team; much of the case analysis was developed jointly by the
research team over a three-year period. Thanks to Leslie Santee Siskin for her comments on an earlier
draft of the paper.
E-mail address: (J.W. Little).
0883-0355/$ - see front matter r2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
United States was superficial and fragmented, sacrificing rigor and coherence to
other compelling interests—most prominently, the interest in maintaining school
attendance and social order. Schools were also faulted for failures of equity and
social justice, particularly those stemming from curricular tracking or streaming, for
bureaucratic controls that curtailed teachers’ professional discretion, and for large
size that bred student anonymity and indifference. Portraits of teaching highlighted a
few stellar examples against a more uniform backdrop of sterile pedagogy.
1.1. The campaign for whole-school reform
One response to these criticisms has been the pursuit of whole-school reform.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, reform advocates sought remedies in a campaign
to ‘‘reinvent’’ or ‘‘restructure’’ the high school by changing every aspect of the
school, from governance to pedagogy. They promoted smaller school size; more
curriculum integration and depth; a more supportive and ‘‘personalized’’ environ-
ment for adolescent students; a more varied pedagogy; assessments more mean-
ingfully linked to curriculum and more reflective of student learning; mechanisms to
promote teacher collaboration; and shared governance. By the end of the 1990s, an
escalating accountability movement had intensified pressures for ‘‘comprehensive’’
change in the high school, while shifting the dominant policy strategy from locally
defined restructuring to centrally defined subject standards and testing regimes.
Yet chronicles of high school reform provide little proof for the notion that whole-
school change models substantially alter teachers’ practice or students’ experience of
schooling in comprehensive high schools. Case study accounts of locally controlled
programs of school restructuring from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s (Little & Dorph,
1998;Muncey & McQuillan, 1996;Newman & Associates, 1996) and more recent
studies of high schools’ responses to the growing accountability movements
(DeBray, Parson, & Woodworth, 2000) portray high schools as changing slowly
and unevenly. Siskin (in press) concludes that ‘‘Despite the steady force of
accountability reform, moving the high school remains a formidable challenge.’’
Seeking explanations for the slow pace and scope of change, researchers and
reform activists have turned to a range of structural, cultural, political and historical
perspectives (for example, Angus & Mirel, 1999;Hargreaves & Macmillan, 1995;
Oakes, Wells, Jones, & Datnow, 1997). Some of the dominant explanations have
centered on organizational size and attendant problems of balkanization; the
multiple and sometimes competing purposes of secondary schooling; teachers’
structural independence and norms of autonomy; and the conservative influence of
powerful external constituencies.
Increasingly, explanations for reform progress or failure have come to focus on
teachers’ stance toward reform, especially as those are organized and expressed
within localized workplace groups or professional communities. Workplace
Among the most widely cited are: Boyer, 1983;Cusick, 1983;Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985;Sizer,
1984. For a summary of the body of criticism targeted at the high school and its role in shaping the current
standards-based reforms, see Siskin (in press).
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714694
relationships and identities form around various points of commonality, both
professional ( the ‘‘math department,’’ the ‘‘9th grade team’’ or the ‘‘coaches’’) and
personal (‘‘the smokers’’ or ‘‘the runners’’). Acknowledging that the professional and
personal overlap in important ways in the school workplace and in teachers’ lives,
this analysis nonetheless concentrates on professional community organized
principally by teachers’ participation in professional activity.
1.2. Significance of subject affiliation and subject departments
One of the central contributions of research on the contexts of secondary school
teaching has been to establish the salience of the subject and subject department in
the work of secondary teachers (Siskin, 1994b; also Grossman & Stodolsky, 1994;
Little, 1993;McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001). Subject departments form an important
locus of teachers’ work and professional community, and emerge as a potentially
powerful factor in shaping teachers’ understanding of and responses to reform (Ball
& Bowe, 1992;Little, 1995;Siskin, 1994a;Talbert & Perry, 1994).
Those who advocate high school reform have often expressed a profound
ambivalence, sometimes bordering on antipathy, toward subject departments. Fully
two-thirds of the high schools in one state-funded program of school restructuring
proposed to replace departments with ‘‘houses’’ or other interdisciplinary arrange-
ments (Little, 1996). Such proposals respond to an image of the department as a tight
constellation of teachers whose subject-centeredness distracts from obligations to
students and threatens whole-school commitments by creating micro-political
competition over resources. Thus:
ycritics charge that departments too often form bastions of curricular
conservatism, enclaves of professional self-interest often at odds with
(or indifferent to) the interests of students, parents, and communities. To those
critics, the department model seems weakly designed to embrace and reconcile the
multiple purposes—intellectual, social, vocational, and civic—pursued by
secondary schools. (Siskin & Little, 1995, p. 2).
Running counter to such claims—or offering an alternative scenario—are
departments that embody what McLaughlin and Talbert (2001) have termed a
teacher learning community.
Siskin and Little, pointing to evidence of specific
exemplars, observe:
At their strongest, subject departmentsyafford teachers a teaching environment
that is intellectually rich, socially congenial, professionally supportive, committed
to the success of its students, and organizationally positioned to secure human
and material resources (Siskin & Little, 1995, p. 1).
In her study of academic departments, Leslie Siskin (1994b) refers to bonded departments as those that
have a high degree of inclusivity and shared commitment; to the extent that those commitments entail an
open and questioning stance toward practice and an ethic of responsibility toward students, the bonded
departments would constitute teacher learning communities.
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 695
At issue, then, is whether, how and under what conditions departments serve as a
resource for whole school change. Acknowledging both the pervasive ambivalence
about departments and their potential promise as sites for innovation and teacher
learning, Siskin and Little (1995, p. 2) ask: If we seek to reinvent or transform
secondary schooling, would we be wise to strengthen departments, or to abandon them?
A recently completed case study of two high schools weighs the contributions of
two scenarios—a ‘‘whole-school reform’’ strategy that subordinates subject identity
to whole-school community; and a ‘‘strong department’’ model strongly oriented
toward reform goals.
2. Case study design
A multi-level case study centered principally on conditions of teacher learning and
teacher commitment among teachers of mathematics and English in two high
schools that we have named East High School and South High School.
Both case
study schools might reasonably be considered among the targets of state policies
aimed at reducing disparities in student achievement and educational attainment,
and thus might also be considered as places where issues of teacher quality and
supports for professional development deserve attention. Both schools enrolled a
student population that was racially and ethnically diverse, although more students
resided in low-income families at East High School (about 33%) than at South
(about 11%). The 12th grade cohort in each school was substantially smaller in size
than the 9th grade cohort (19% smaller at South; 25% smaller at East), indicating a
sizable attrition in student enrollment despite low published rates of annual dropout
(less than 1% in each school). In both schools, fewer than half of the graduates
completed the combination of coursework and testing requirements for admission to
the state’s university system.
However, the two schools presented contrasting cases with regard to their
involvement in whole-school reform, and thus an opportunity to examine the
meaning of reform-oriented professional community in two quite different
organizational contexts. South High School presented a long history of whole-
school reform efforts and a reputation for fostering professional community among
the staff as a whole. East High School had no comparable record of involvement in
whole-school reform, but its mathematics and English departments were portrayed
Schools and individuals have been supplied with pseudonyms to provide anonymity and protect
With the exception of mathematics, students at South High School were more likely to complete
overall coursework eligibility requirements (53%) than those at East (31%). In mathematics, East High
School outperformed South, with substantially more students enrolled in upper level mathematics courses.
Only about one-third of the students in each school took the SAT exam, widely required for application to
four-year colleges and universities. For a more complete profile of the two schools, see Little, Horn, &
Bartlett, 2000; on the differential performance in mathematics, see Horn, 2002.
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714696
as collaborative and innovative by local teacher educators and reform advocates,
and by their respective department heads.
Within these two schools, we constructed a nested design that located English and
mathematics teachers within academic departments and within their wider
organizational and professional contexts. Throughout, we focused on the
ongoing work of teaching and naturally occurring interactions among teachers.
That is, we started with a focus on teachers’ work and teaching lives, mapping
outward from teachers to determine the configuration of teacher learning
opportunities and the influences on teacher commitment. We employed
a range of conventional data sources and methods—observation, interviews,
pen-and-paper instruments, and school documents—but the most crucial of
these were audio- and video-taped records of situated interaction among
teachers.It was these records in particular, subsequently transcribed and analyzed
employing methods of discourse analysis, that enabled us to see how professional
community was constituted and lived in ongoing practice (see also Horn, 2002;
Little, 2002, 2003).
3. Fostering whole-school community: the case of South High School
Nearly 40 teachers and administrators—the entire full-time professional staff of
South High School—are gathered for the two-day staff retreat that opens the
school year.
Two teachers have planned a ‘‘visualization exercise’’ for the group:
‘‘We’re going to visually show you the grade distribution in our school.’’ They
invite 18 participants to stand up and move to one end of the room; each
represents 20 students who earn an A or B grade average, about 42% of the
school’s students. Another 10 are asked to stand, representing the 26% of
students who maintain a C average. Finally, twelve individuals stand and move
together. They represent the nearly one-third of students who account for the
school’s failing or low-achieving students. This last group remains standing while
others sit; now two of the ‘‘failing’’ group also take their seats. The remaining ten,
the group learns, represent 85% of all Fs given, and those go to students—about
one quarter of pupils in the school—who earned 3 or more D’s or F’s in the
previous year.
This scene is emblematic of South High School—an exercise designed to launch a
whole-staff investigation into issues of student success or failure. The school’s
aggregate test scores have risen in recent years, but the aggregate index used to rate
the school masks a sizable group of students who perform poorly. On this occasion,
On the importance of considering how schools are positioned by history and circumstance in relation
to standards-based reforms, see Ball & Bowe, 1992;DeBray et al., 2000;Siskin, in press.
Although South has a student enrollment (about 800) and staff (about 40) substantially larger than
envisioned by advocates of ‘‘small schools,’’ (Meier, 1995;Raywid, 1995, 1999) it would nonetheless
qualify as a relatively small comprehensive high school—a school within the range that Lee & Smith
(1997), based on analysis of a national database, identify as optimal size.
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 697
the staff identified ‘‘student failure’’ as the organizing problem for its own
professional development and inquiry into teaching practice throughout the year.
The two-day retreat—one of several forums for whole-staff discussion throughout
the year—established the year’s priorities, set the tone for discourse among the staff,
introduced newcomers into the culture, and afforded the group an opportunity to
concentrate on tough issues without the distractions of daily work.
Certain cultural, structural, and political features reinforced staff commitment to
whole-school pursuits and perspectives.
Teachers’ conception of teachers’ work and
high school reform was most strongly influenced by the school’s ties with the
Coalition of Essential Schools, a national organization and network of schools that
conceived of teachers as ‘‘generalists’’ who help students to ‘‘learn to use their minds
well’’ rather than as subject specialists who ‘‘cover content.’’
Central to the school’s
values and structural organization was an image of the ‘‘whole student’’ at the core
of teachers’ work. As one Humanities teacher attests: ‘‘I think I could say almost
entirely everybody’s really kid-oriented or student-oriented and the welfare of the
students seems to come first.’’
Teachers at South strongly valued the notion of a schoolwide professional
community dedicated to the reform principles of the Coalition. Several recalled that
the school’s reputation for school-wide community and commitment to reform was a
factor in their seeking a position at the school. Teachers also described a hiring
process in which the criteria and processes centered on a candidate’s familiarity with
whole-school reform ideas and enthusiasm for participating in a schoolwide
professional community. A Humanities teacher with a background in history
My interview was very telling in that they were not very focused at all on
particular subject matter that I would teach. They were interested in my thinking
about the whole school change. They really asked me a lot of questions about
that. ‘Well, how would you feel about having to be a leader in the school and
seeing yourself as much that as a classroom teacher in your subject area?’
The strength of the school’s professional community remained a factor in teachers’
expressed satisfaction. Teachers at South attested to the power of school-wide
professional community as a source of support, stimulation and satisfaction. They
described ‘‘open’’ communication, a sense of ‘‘ease and respect,’’ and a willingness to
grapple with the ‘‘hard work’’ of reaching consensus. When asked to speak of their
I am indebted to Mike Wallace for the argument that integrating cultural and political perspectives
would strengthen analyses of interactions in educational leadership and change. Wallace (2000) poses a set
of organizing questions that link culture with power (for example, how LEA administrators’ professional
culture informs their use of power to orchestrate a particular change). Although I have not worked out a
full set of integrative questions to organize this analysis, I suggest that such questions would also need to
account for the mediating effect of significant structural conditions.
The full set of Coalition principles may be found at One prominent message
is that a school should take account of the academic disciplines in ‘‘helping young people learn to use their
minds well,’’ but that the school should not be limited by efforts simply to ‘‘cover content’’ in ‘‘‘subjects’ as
conventionally defined.’’
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714698
opportunities to learn, teachers consistently listed their ongoing encounters with
colleagues throughout the school. This teacher typifies such responses:
I just think that that regular contact with teachers that I work with at South has
been a really invaluable part of my professional development. y[In the teacher
study groups] the opportunity to be able to just say I’m struggling with this and to
talk about it with people who can understand and sort of give you feedback about
it and share ideas. y[and] I think that the peer coaching that we do here I just
think isyI just can’t say enough good about it. y[It’s] a place to begin looking at
your teaching. yAnd because it’s an ongoing relationship, then you can also use
it to buildy
The school’s values were embodied in numerous structural features of the school
workplace. Whole-school staff activity dominated the structural arrangements for
teachers’ work and much of its professional development. In many respects, the
work week pivoted around the weekly whole-staff meeting, which was always fully
attended and routinely led by one of the teachers. Teachers also formed
interdisciplinary teacher study groups, and satisfied part of their teacher evaluation
obligations through a system of cross-subject peer observation.
In all of these activities and arrangements, whole-school perspectives and
interdisciplinary arrangements predominated, subordinating traditional subject
preoccupations to a sustained focus on the ‘‘whole student.’’ The school replaced
conventional department terminology with an alternative label (‘‘study areas’’), the
broadest of which—encompassing English, history, other social studies fields, and
art—was designated ‘‘humanities.’’ Staff meeting time, a two-hour block once a
week, was devoted primarily to whole-staff projects and topics connected to student
well-being and performance (portfolio assessment of students, issues of student
failure, preparation for a pending school accreditation visit). School-based
opportunities for professional development privileged whole-staff activity or
interdisciplinary groups: a two-day whole-staff retreat to begin each school year;
monthly teacher study groups; peer observation agreements. Department (‘‘study
area’’) meetings occurred on a less frequent basis, approximately once a month.
Formal authority and leadership at South reflected a highly democratic
organization with a flattened hierarchy and an explicitly communitarian stance.
Staff characterized the school as a place where teachers and administrators worked
‘‘side by side’’ to create an environment conducive to professional learning and
students’ well being. The school’s formal governance structure centered on a school
council to which teachers were elected. Teachers and administrators took the council
seriously as a mechanism for preserving the school’s central values and for steering a
schoolwide agenda of reform activity. Teachers also stepped forward on an ad hoc
basis to take the lead on various schoolwide projects and activities.
Finally, the school cultivated external partnerships with organizations focused on
models and processes of whole-school reform. Its conception of restructuring was
most strongly influenced by its long-term ties to the Coalition of Essential Schools. A
more recent partnership with a regional reform consortium—the source of
substantial supplemental funding for the school—also focused on a ‘‘whole-school’’
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 699
perspective, even to the extent of refusing approved ‘‘provider’’ status to professional
development programs or organizations that focused on specific subject areas.
In important respects, the formation of whole-school community and principled
skepticism about high school traditions enabled South High School to interrupt the
powerful ‘‘grammar of schooling’’ (Tyack & Tobin, 1994), cultivating and sustaining
a schoolwide professional community whose members shared a collective
responsibility for school improvement and student success. However, certain
inevitable trade-offs constrained the school in its efforts to make good on its reform
commitments. South High achieved a rather phenomenal record of schoolwide
teacher engagement in reform and commitment to teaching, but its conception of
whole-school reform and its emphasis on whole-school professional community left
it more weakly organized for helping teachers improve teaching practice in those
subject domains in which school success is now measured.
4. The unrealized promise of schoolwide community
The promise of strong community at South High School remained incompletely
realized. Teachers throughout the school displayed an ethos of care and support in
their relationships with students, but their efforts to help those students achieve in
academic coursework seemed constrained by relatively narrow and conventional
conceptions of core academic subject domains, and by limited opportunities to learn
in and from practice linked to actual teaching assignments. Whole-staff meetings,
even though occasionally focused on approaches to action research, appeared to
offer little guidance to teachers in delving into problems of learning and teaching
close to the classroom. With some exceptions, the teachers’ deeply felt and
widespread aspirations to transform the high school teaching and learning presented
a more timid and conventional face in the classroom and in talk among departmental
colleagues. Although our analysis cannot fully account for the influences of
professional community and workplace context on teacher learning and practice, I
attribute the ‘‘unrealized promise’’ of South’s whole-school community to two
4.1. The limitations of a whole-school emphasis and reform partnerships
First, South’s embrace of whole-school reform—and particularly its partnerships
with whole-school reform organizations— resulted in a nearly exclusive emphasis on
school-level data about students and on whole-staff discussions and activities
regarding improvement. As Horn (2002) writes about this school, ‘‘The logic of the
reform seemed to be: If teachers examine school-wide problems, then reconsidera-
tion of classroom practices (which presumably involves subject matter) will follow’’
(p. 55). This assumption mirrored a pattern we had observed in other restructuring
high schools: that recruiting like-minded teachers and rallying whole-school support
for broadly defined improvement goals would translate into capacity for classroom-
level change (Little, 1999; for a comparable analysis of reform in Belgian elementary
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714700
schools, see also Maes, Vandenberghe, & Ghesqui"
ere, 1999). Many teachers spoke
with satisfaction of what a math teacher termed ‘‘the amount of freedom I have to
experiment.’’ Yet as one teacher observed, with concern, ‘‘Most of the restructuring
things that we doy. Most of those things don’t touch on inside the classroom.’’
In addition, the school’s external reform partnerships consumed large amounts of
time and staff attention, curtailing the time available to consider subject-specific
issues of teaching and learning. In particular, the school owed specific obligations to
one of its reform partners, from which it received substantial supplemental resources.
Staff devoted time to preparing progress reports, undergoing formal progress
reviews, and participating in meetings or other professional development activities.
A math teacher commented:
For the most part, it appears that our department collects and reports on data for
our [funders]. We really don’t have time to deal with the issues that we want. We
wrote out a timeline of things we wanted to do and we have department time
that’s been set aside for us, at least one Wednesday out of each month, but every
time we meet, there’s something the school needs us to do.
4.2. The limitations of the ‘‘generalist’’ stance
A second factor in the unrealized promise of the school’s strong professional
community was its interpretation of the teacher role as ‘‘generalist.’’ In its hiring and
teaching assignment practices, the school gave preference to teachers who were
willing to teach or assist student in a range of subjects. In their mentoring and other
professional development practices, the staff opted for arrangements that crossed
subject lines. As one teacher posited, ‘‘Most of it gets down to teaching the art of
teaching, and I think it’s universal.’’
However, teachers were not uniformly confident in their own ability to work
effectively outside their area of primary subject expertise, or confident that
individuals without knowledge of the subject curriculum could effectively aid
students having difficulty. While teachers accepted the notion that being a
‘‘generalist’’ meant putting students’ needs before subject considerations, and many
expressed appreciation for what they learned through conversations across subject
lines, some expressed a wish for more professional development and related
curriculum development opportunities linked directly to their subject teaching fields
and responsibilities. A math teacher lamented:
This year the times we’ve gotten together as a study area have generally been
administrative, they haven’t really been any real staff development. We haven’t
really done any real curriculum development y. And that’s something that I’d
In her analysis of departmental culture and mathematics reform, Aguirre (2002) shows how collective
endorsements of reform exist in combination—and in tension—with well-established norms of
professional autonomy. Maes et al. (1999) conclude that bridging whole-school reform activity to
classroom change requires explicit mechanisms and interventions.
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 701
like to focus on next year because I actually don’t like the way our study area
really is right now.
Others expressed uncertainty and insecurity about teaching or tutoring in areas
with which they had little preparation or experience. A teacher with a background in
history reported that his experience trying to teach an experimental course for
students with reading difficulties made him feel like ‘‘a first year teacher.’’
I agreed to take on [an experimental reading and literacy class]. I had no formal
training in how to teach literacy, but I figured that since I was asked to teach it,
I’d use that as a way to develop my skills to teach literacy. yI still see myself as
struggling through the class. I felt like a first year teacher.
This teacher’s comments pointed to the ways in which subject-specific under-
standings inform a teacher’s capacity to recognize, analyze and respond to students’
learning difficulties. That is, students’ struggles were situated in academic disciplines
in important ways that became evident as teachers talked with us and with one
another about student performance.
By virtue of their norms of ‘‘openness’’ and ‘‘inquiry,’’ members of the
school community were positioned to delve into specific issues of teaching and
learning—those that arise as students grapple with concepts, skills, and relations in
the context of curriculum and instruction—but conversations of this sort were far
less frequent than one might have anticipated. The teachers’ talk, especially
in the Humanities group, revealed well-established collegial relationships but
relatively few and infrequent practices for examining student work and investigating
teaching practice.
The combined emphasis on whole-school community and the ‘‘generalist’’ stance
toward the teacher role resulted in a principled and pragmatic subordination of
subject-specific issues of teaching and learning. Overall, the relative inattention to
subject-related issues of teaching and learning resulted in certain lost opportunities
to inquire into problems of student success and failure (the teachers’ central reform
goal for the year), offer collegial support to new teachers, and advance the school’s
reform agenda.
5. Constituting professional community in the subject department: the case of East
High School
At 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon early in the school year, 7 mathematics teachers
and 2 interns gather for the weekly meeting of the Algebra Group. They devote
more than an hour to discussing specific mathematics problems, how they have
approached teaching them, and how their students have responded. They then
turn to the routine the group calls ‘‘check-in,’’ in which each participant reports
on classroom progress or raises an issue or problem related to teaching and
learning. When it is her turn, Tina (an intern teacher) begins by expressing
pleasure in what her students are able to accomplish, but then expresses her
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714702
frustration with trying to ‘‘close the gap’’ between students she describes as ‘‘fast
learners’’ and ‘‘slow learners’’ in her classes. Others in the group first take up
Tina’s framing of the problem as centering on the capacities of ‘‘fast’’ and ‘‘slow’’
students and how students relate to one another and the tasks of the classroom.
Eventually Guillermo, an experienced teacher and co-chair of the department,
suggests that Tina may be helped by rethinking the very definition of what it
means to be ‘fast’ or ‘slow’: ‘‘yWhat I find is that when I have mindsets like that
that they get in my way in terms of thinking about the curriculum. yI think
that’s from thinking about a group of kids as slow learners. yThat’s how we’re
acclimatized to think about learning. One thing I’m thinking about is the ones that
are moving through things really quickly, often they’re not stopping to think
about what they’re doing, what there is to learn from this activity. yThink of the
ones that you think of as fast learners and figure out what they’re slow at.’’
This episode typifies interaction in the Algebra Group, embodying a set of values
and an established set of practices and conditions that consistently worked to open
up teachers’ opportunities to learn. In addition to openly sharing ideas, materials,
and expertise, the math teachers take the time to do mathematics together, examine
student work and students’ responses to specific activities, and examine their own
assumptions about student learning.
Similarly, teachers in the English Department explicitly framed their collaborative
work as a way to strengthen curriculum (‘‘engage students as readers; introduce
metacognitive strategies; recognize the dynamic nature of texts and reading’’) while
also supporting their own professional development (‘‘create a learning community
among ourselves as teachers’’). Expanding on the latter point, one teacher explained
to colleagues from other departments:
We wanted to really take a stance of inquiry in this process, and really learn from
our work, and do our work by asking questions about what our roles were as
teachers, and what we thought our students might need to know, and what we
would want them to be able to do. And we’ve gone through this process really
through questioning ourselves about how everything’s goingy(9th grade
meeting, March 13, 2000).
Reform-oriented developments at East High School resided almost wholly within
core academic departments. A tradition of relative departmental autonomy,
combined with departmental cultures conducive to innovation, provided the
principal supports for teacher development and school reform.
These supports
were especially visible at certain structured ‘‘collaboration points’’ within each
Of course, departmental autonomy may exert quite variable influence on teachers’ performance and
commitment or on a department’s collective capacity and orientation. At East, English and Math both
represent relatively strong departments with a collective orientation toward improvement and an ethic of
shared responsibility for student success. The history/social studies department is less unified and more
traditional, although it is home to some innovative and reform-oriented individuals. For more on within-
school community and its significance for high school reform, see Little (1999),McLaughlin and Talbert
(2001), and Siskin and Little (1995).
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 703
department: the ‘‘algebra group’’ in math; and the ‘‘academic literacy group’’ in
English. Within these collaboration points, high levels of interdependence among
teachers and high expectations for teacher leadership helped to sustain focus and
continuity. The teachers’ interdependence was rooted in collective agreements about
curriculum and instruction, and shared commitments to improve students’ access to
and success in college preparatory curricula in mathematics and English. The two
departments displayed four features consistent with what McLaughlin and Talbert
(2001) would term a ‘‘teacher learning community.’’
5.1. Flexible, dynamic view of subject as vehicle for reform
Like their counterparts at South High School, teachers at East expressed firm
commitments to student learning and well being and promoted a reform agenda
centered on equity. Unlike the South teachers, who adopted a ‘‘generalist’’ stance as
a means of placing students in the foreground, these teachers sought to engage and
support students by embracing a dynamic stance toward subject specialism. They
treated academic subjects as a central and malleable resource for student learning,
school reform and teacher development. Thus, the math department chair recalls the
department’s history of de-tracking:
We took the best student work we could and used it as a model for every single
kid and believed that every kid could do it. We gave ourselves complete curricular
freedom, it didn’t matter if it was someone’s favorite unit or if somebody thought
it was necessaryy. If it didn’t work in a heterogeneous context and it didn’t work
for every kid, then we didn’t use it. And we hired explicitly with an eye towards
who would find all that exciting and invigorating. So by the end of last year, after
I’d been working on it for 7 years, I think we had the curriculum that genuinely
reflected the expertise of over a dozen people and that met our process goals and
our broader equity-related goals for the course as a whole.
5.2. Dedicated time and activity focused on problems of teaching and learning
Teachers in mathematics and English designated blocks of time each week for
collaborative work within their respective departments, spending correspondingly
little time in whole-staff meetings and school-level activity. English teachers
organized in grade level teams, with one team (the 9th grade ‘‘Academic Literacy’’
group) working intensively to develop a course that would help students acquire
metacognitive strategies for reading complex texts and gain confidence and pleasure
as readers. In weekly meetings of the Algebra Group (involving 7 of the 10 full-time
members of the math department), teachers took up specific dilemmas of student
learning and related issues of teaching practice. In those conversations, they invited
disclosure of teaching problems or uncertainties, and created an environment
conducive to collective problem-solving. (For more detailed examples and analyses
of these conversations, see Horn, 2002;Little, 2003). A teacher comments on the
value of the weekly meetings and the more intensive summer ‘‘Algebra Week:’’
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714704
I know that when I come to the [Algebra Group] meetings, if I bring something
that I don’t understand or it’s something that I’m upset about or something I need
clarification on or something that I just want to process, then I’m going to get
input from those people and it’s going to make a difference for me. Because they
are involved in the process, they care about the process, and they’re educated
about the topic that we’re discussing, which is math.
5.3. Leadership structure and practice
The formation of professional community at East owed a strong debt to
leadership that resided strongly within departments. In the English department, the
work of leadership was widely distributed, with teachers stepping forward to assume
curriculum leadership of grade-level teams or special curriculum projects. The
mathematics department employed a more conventional model of leadership
invested principally in respected department co-chairs. In both departments, but
especially in mathematics, teacher leadership served to maintain a focus on problems
of student performance and instructional improvement, and to mobilize resources
for innovation and teacher development.
The math department provided a particularly clear and compelling case of the
contributions of department leadership to professional community. A succession of
department chairs, sustained through long-term mentoring relationships, served as
the culture-bearers and professional role models for the department. On a daily
basis, the department co-chairs fostered in-depth conversations about teaching and
learning mathematics.
To enable such conversations, the department chairs maintained a wide resource
net and protected the department members against external pressures and
distractions. To secure resources, they cultivated relationships with progressive
teacher preparation programs (a resource for hiring), sought permission and funds
for collective participation in regional mathematics conferences, and maintained ties
with local research universities. Teachers’ reform orientation and progress received
added support from departmental controls over teacher hiring. In a recruitment
announcement distributed by the math department, the chair advised that the
department sought teachers with a ‘‘commitment to collaboration,’’ and added:
All teachers of each course meet weekly to collaborate on lesson plans, discuss
student progress, and share ideas. We believe this tremendous level of
collaboration is one of the things that makes our department unique, and we
think the chance to participate in these conversations is an invaluable opportunity
for any teacher (beginning or otherwise).
As a counterpart to their resource-building strategy, the department co-chairs also
worked to insulate the department from distractions and pressures—a practice
commonly termed ‘‘buffering’’ in the leadership literature, but more vividly
described by one of the co-chairs as ‘‘filtering the fish tank.’’ (While replacing the
blackened filter on a classroom fish tank, the chair commented, ‘‘We’re the filter. We
get rid of all the gunk so the other math teachers can breathe and do their work.’’)
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 705
Written memoranda from the chairs provided the school administration with well-
developed rationales for the department’s curricular choices; explained why the
department would not ask teachers to submit all-purpose emergency lesson plans for
use during unexpected teacher absences; declined to designate instructional time for
special ‘‘test preparation’’ exercises; and outlined a proposal for funding to attend
the regional math conference as a whole department, despite the district’s restrictions
on the availability of substitute teachers. Throughout, the co-chairs engaged in a
principled interpretation of school, district and state policy through the lens of the
group’s values and commitments.
5.4. External ties to subject resources
Finally, the departments’ external ties to colleges and universities, special
programs, and professional networks outside the school expanded the meaningful
boundaries of professional community and constituted strong resources for
curricular innovation and instructional improvement. Unlike the external ties
maintained by South High School, which were centered entirely on organizations
engaged in whole-school reform, those at East were invested entirely in networks,
organizations, or university-based programs engaged in subject-specific reform.
Together, these two departments offer insight into how professional community
constituted at the department level may construct opportunities for teacher learning
and influence teaching practice. The departments vary in some important respects,
but both have developed cohesive professional ties and pursued agendas of
curricular and instructional innovation. At issue, however, are the conditions
required to sustain professional community and reform trajectories centered within
subject departments, while also ensuring that these strong departments add up to
more than the sum of their discrete parts.
6. The vulnerability of professional community in the subject department
Teachers in East High School’s mathematics and English departments worked to
build robust teacher learning communities, but had to sustain them in a school
weakly organized for support, amid an environment of growing external pressures.
Under such conditions, these strong communities could easily be rendered much
weaker. Over the three-year period spanning this study, the English department
suffered a 50% turnover in teachers, including its department chair and 5 teachers
holding grade-level leadership positions, while the math department lost one of the
two co-chairs on whom it relied to preserve the department’s direction and collective
Although English and mathematics teachers achieved collective influence on
teaching and learning, they did so under conditions that left individuals vulnerable
to burnout and the departments in a position of latent instability. Case study
data reveal three principal threats to the sustainability of professional community
and teacher learning: heavy reliance on individual initiative and effort; weak
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714706
organizational supports for teachers’ collective work and professional development;
and growing external pressures for accountability linked to a centrally defined
regime of standards and testing. Altogether, these conditions left the school weakly
positioned to build whole-school capacity and to capitalize on the precedent of the
strong academic departments.
6.1. Reliance on extraordinary individual initiative and effort
In his essay on ‘‘getting to scale with good educational practice,’’ Elmore (1996)
observes the inherent instability of reform initiatives that rely heavily on
extraordinary investments of individual initiative and effort. These departments
provide cases in point. The departments have cultivated strong teacher community
primarily through the ambitious exercise of teacher leadership and large amounts of
uncompensated teacher time.
The sheer magnitude of the teacher leadership responsibilities provoked comment
in both English and math departments. In the English department, with its
expectations for widely distributed responsibilities for coordination and curriculum
development, even teachers in their second or third year of teaching took on
demanding responsibilities. Of the 6 teachers in grade-level leadership positions, all
had fewer than five years of teaching experience. Teachers viewed this leadership
arrangement as a central underpinning of the department’s professional commit-
ments, but also cited the difficulty of entering into a leadership position with little
preparation or guidance (‘‘Nobody knows what I’m supposed to be doing,’’
‘‘Whether or not I’m really moving forward is something I don’t know.’’) As their
tasks and time obligations multiplied, leaders began to express a certain level of guilt
and frustration (‘‘I feel like I haven’t been able to provide a tremendous amount of
support because I have all these other responsibilities’’).
The math department concentrated leadership responsibilities in the role of the
department chair, but the department members were sensitive to the magnitude of
the tasks taken on by the two co-chairs. When asked to consider serving as co-chair,
a 5th-year teacher found the prospects intimidating both with regard to likely time
demands and the scope of the tasks. Asked what she found daunting about the
position, she replied:
That I’m getting paid extra to do this job so of course I’ll work weekends. And, of
course, I’ll work nights. And, of course, if we don’t have a person to teach that
class I’ll take it over or I’ll find someone to do it. I will make the connections with
the colleges and the universities and the credentialing programs to find people
who fit in our programy.yAnd, of course, I’ll figure out the best way to teach
this program. And if I don’t know, then I’ll find someone who does. And I will
organize department meetings. And I’ll take care of the budget. And I’ll make the
connections with the principal that I need to do. And I’ll deal with paper issues
and resource issues and financial issuesyand I will be upbeat and friendly every
day. And I’ll be the best teacher in the world on top of it because how can you be
department chair if you’re not a good teacher. And then, have a life.
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 707
Leadership expectations took their toll on teachers. By the end of the study, the
math co-chair cited above had left classroom teaching and 5 of the 6 English teachers
in grade-level leadership roles had also resigned their teaching positions. While not
all departures can be attributed to the strains of the department’s leadership
responsibilities, nor to those pressures alone, the leadership burden clearly emerges
as a factor.
Exacerbating the demands of teacher leadership at the department level was a
departmental norm of effort and collective participation that manifested itself in
long hours of uncompensated labor (see Bartlett, 2001a, 2002). At both schools, the
formal duty day is approximately 7 and 1/4 hours. Yet according to time diaries the
teachers kept (corroborated by observation), a typical work day for math and
English teachers at East is 11.5 hours, fully 3 hours more than the day logged by
teachers at South. The time the teachers spent together was nearly all
uncompensated time added on to the work day, work week, and work year.
Together, the leadership abilities and time investments present relatively high-
threshold conditions for creating and sustaining strong professional community with
the subject department. It is particularly in combination with weak organizational
supports and escalating external pressures that these conditions create a potential
threat to teacher community.
6.2. Weak organizational supports
The presence of strong, innovative academic departments at East cannot be
attributed to any explicit organizational strategy. While teachers expressed
progressive and ambitious conceptions of their work, the school administration
voiced more conventional and conservative views. By comparison with South High
School, teachers at East High enjoyed few organizational supports for their
collaborative activity or their investment in professional development.
In a comparative analysis of English teachers in each of the schools, Bartlett
(2001b) details the stark differences in the level of organizational support for teacher
development, professional community and reform at the level of subject area
teaching. She develops the notion of differential ‘‘congruence’’ among teachers’ own
conceptions of teaching, the values and conceptions of department-based profes-
sional community, and the conceptions and practices embodied in administrators’
practice at the school and district levels. At East, she finds substantial incongruence
between teachers’ own conceptions and aspirations, individually and collectively,
and the conceptions expressed in administrative language and organizational
practice. This incongruence, she argues, erodes teachers’ engagement and commit-
ment and accounts for expressions of stress (potential burnout) and teachers’
decisions to resign their teaching positions (exit) or shift their reform aspirations
downward (re-orientation).
Perhaps most telling of East’s weak organizational supports, and most indicative
of the contrast between school-level orientation in the two schools, were policies and
practices governing professional development resource allocation. South’s admin-
istration and teaching staff made special efforts to secure and protect professional
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714708
development resources for the school; East neither sought special funding for
professional development nor reserved funding for professional development from
within the school’s designated ‘‘school improvement’’ budget. Rather, the school
required individual teachers to make specific proposals for professional development
funds for specific events. As teachers observed, this practice placed teachers’
professional development in direct competition with resources for students.
You’re never going to get fundedyIt only goes to student-centered activities.
yanything that has to do with like teachers’ professional development or course
planningythat’s just an expectation of your job (English teacher).
As a new teacher, yI feel like the more you go to [conferences in your field],
then the more you knowy. But I don’t feel like there’s a tremendous amount of
support to go to these things. yNo one’s really encouraging anyone to do
anything. yAnd I’m thinking people are in there trying to get money to buy new
band uniforms. I’m going to go in there and ask for money to go to a conference!?
yI just personally can’t go in there and ask (English teacher).
By comparison with South’s rich constellation of professional development
opportunities (annual retreat, weekly blocks of time, summer institutes, teacher
study groups, organized mentoring, peer observation pairings), East High School
organized only two one-day inservice activities and devoted all other whole-school
staff meetings to various administrative business. South’s administrative support for
teachers’ collective participation in professional development—as a whole staff or in
teams—was also absent among administrators at East, where district policy
restricted the number of teachers who could arrange professional development
leaves on any particular day.
6.3. Increasing external pressures
The departments’ efforts to sustain focus and direction were complicated by the
steady escalation in external pressures centered on subject standards and
standardized testing in English and mathematics. Thus, teachers in the English
Department managed to pursue their departmental focus on students’ writing
performance and associated instructional issues for only the first two months of the
school year. By December, departmental meeting agendas became heavily
dominated by topics related to the school’s response to state standards and testing
(curriculum alignment with district and state standards, plans for test preparation).
Sensitivity to the growing state presence also shaped teachers’ incentives for
curriculum development. One English teacher acknowledged to colleagues in a
meeting that the impetus for designing a new 9th grade course
ywas trying to figure out what our school could try to do to respond to what the
state is asking us to do. Our scores are lowest in language arts and reading, and in
anticipation of the conversation being held district wideywe wanted something
of our own creation, so when the heavy hand started coming down, we would
have something of our own creation that we believed in.
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 709
Also anticipating the ‘‘heavy hand’’ of the state and district, teachers in the math
department concentrated on publicly articulating their views in writing to
administrators and in staff meetings. The teachers expressed concern about the
narrow and regressive conception of math they saw in the new state standards, and
about the absence of fit between the grade-level curriculum and the standardized
tests employed by the state. In interviews, teachers spoke of being ‘‘in somewhat of a
backlash’’ and ‘‘totally at odds with the philosophy of what’s going on in the state.’’
6.4. Weak capacity to promote whole-school reform
In many respects, East High School bore the marks of the conventional
departmentalized high school. Taken as a whole, departments within the school
displayed the same kind of variability in department culture, cohesion, and
orientation to innovation that have been recorded in other studies. Employing the
categories developed by Siskin (1994b), the math department epitomized the notion
of a ‘‘bonded’’ department; the English department emerged as a ‘‘bundled’’
department with shared goals but strong norms of autonomy; while the history
department, while home to some innovative individuals, would likely be considered
‘‘fragmented’’ (see also Little, 1993;McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001).
Although individual teachers throughout the school conveyed admiration for the
accomplishments of the English and mathematics departments, the school had no
mechanism for capitalizing on the strengths of these very strong departments as a
means to accomplish schoolwide gains. For example, no other department matched
the math department in its record of helping students successfully complete the
advanced coursework needed for university admission. A science teacher expressed
admiration for the math and English departments, but noted:
What I sometimes come up against with really strong department work is that it
gives people a place to be in the departments that’s really positive [but] it doesn’t
necessarily build synergy within the schooly. Departments have very strong
pictures of what they’re working on, but we don’t know as a school.
In sum, East offers a picture of what can be accomplished by locating teachers’
opportunity to learn close to the work of teaching and learning in a subject domain,
while also showing the need for a schoolwide theory of action that could generate or
result in a more uniform orientation and practice across departments.
Differences in teacher learning opportunity between South and East deserve
comment. South High School is most certainly atypical in its schoolwide focus on
issues of student success and well being, and in its efforts to promote inquiry into
teaching practice. Teachers frequently engaged in conversations about teaching and
learning. However, we never encountered at South conversations of the sheer depth
and generative power that we recorded on a weekly basis in the mathematics
department at East. This is not to suggest that other conversation about students be
abandoned or that all conversations need be bounded by specific subject
perspectives, but rather that conversations that do not regularly deal with the
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714710
complex relationship of teaching, learning and content will fall short in the pursuit of
high school reform.
7. Conclusion
A lengthy campaign to accomplish whole-school reform in the United States has
consistently foundered at the high school level. Analysis of case study data suggests
that the slow and uneven progress of high school reform may result in part from the
widespread embrace of whole-school change models that discount or deliberately
supplant professional community linked to subject affiliations and subject teaching
responsibilities. Yet the analysis also points to the insufficiency of department-based
‘‘teacher learning community’’ alone as a guarantor of reform. Each school, by
virtue of its history and conditions, was positioned to accomplish something that the
other was not, but neither was positioned both to support teacher learning in subject
domains and to sustain teachers’ long-term engagement and persistence with the
work of school improvement.
Returning to the paper’s organizing question: If we seek to reinvent or transform
secondary schooling through whole-school reform, would we be wise to strengthen
departments or abandon them? We have persuasive evidence in this and related
studies that abandoning departments—or more accurately, failing to attend
systematically to the subject-specific aspects of teacher development and school
reform—seriously constrains efforts to transform secondary schooling (Little, 1999;
Siskin, in press). If abandoning subject departments would be a mistake, would
strengthening them yield the intended benefits for teacher development and school
reform? In that regard, the available research leaves us on more uncertain ground.
There are arguably more high schools like East, with one or two strong
progressive departments but minimal school-wide reform activity, than there are
schools like South, with its remarkable unity and focus at the school level. However,
we have yet to uncover an instance of a comprehensive high school in which reform
leaders have sought to strengthen professional community both within and across
subject departments. Indeed, in our entire pool of restructuring schools, representing
numerous case studies of high schools conducted over a period of 14 years, we have
no case in which school leadership and staff have articulated a school-wide strategy
of reform centered on strengthening subject departments. Even in schools where
administrators embraced a reform agenda, they tended to view departments with
considerable ambivalence. For that reason, we have no real evidence, either in the
case of East High School or in the larger pool of reform cases we have collected over
the past decade or so, that a school-level strategy of strengthening departments
would in fact provide a vehicle for comprehensive reform.
Certainly there are several ways that a strategy of strengthening departments
could go wrong. Given limited resources and escalating external pressures, school
leaders would be likely to invest most heavily in departments linked to tested
subjects, thus exacerbating long-standing status differences among departments. The
likely result, ironically, could be to lessen the prospects for schoolwide community
J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714 711
and school-wide attention to student success and well being. To capitalize on the
generative power of strong departments without breeding resentment and fostering
conflict would require a strategy for resource allocation that could widely be deemed
equitable, together with a mechanism for joining department-level interests and
activities to compelling school-wide goals and problems.
Acknowledging the risks and difficulties, the strategy of combining whole-school
reform campaigns with specific supports for teacher learning and teacher community
within subjects nonetheless seems worth testing. The present policy and reform
climate presents a ‘‘daunting set of unfamiliar demands for secondary school staffs’’
(Siskin, in press) that are linked tightly to student performance and teacher capacity
in discrete subject areas. However, individual subject areas do not stand or fall on
their own. External accountability breeds new internal interdependencies. Composite
rankings of schools—like California’s ‘‘Academic Performance Index’’—increase
teachers’ stake in the performance and capacity of departments other than their own.
Within the school, teachers’ capacity to ensure the academic achievement and the
social and emotional well being of all students is arguably enhanced by
communication that spans department boundaries and by an ethos of shared
responsibility for all the school’s students. In sum, the findings of this study point
both to the probable contribution of professional communities situated in subject
departments and to the challenge of capitalizing on such communities to advance
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J.W. Little / Int. J. Educ. Res. 37 (2002) 693–714714
... Each participant was interviewed and provided information on the structure, leadership, and implementation of professional learning communities at the Pesantren. Some empirical studies have linked teacher interaction in professional communities with a focus on student achievement (Hofman and Dijkstra, 2010;Little, 2002;Schechter, 2008;Carpenter, 2015) and those studies have produced a framework for effective professional learning community structure. The studies have presented the overlap between a contributive school culture and common characteristics for effective professional learning. ...
... The studies have presented the overlap between a contributive school culture and common characteristics for effective professional learning. To this end, shared purpose and values, a collaborative culture, problem solving and collective inquiry, and a focus on continuous improvement are all components of a positive school culture, school improvement and an effective professional learning community (Hofman and Dijkstra, 2010;Little, 2002;Schechter, 2008;Carpenter, 2015). ...
The purpose of this paper is to explore supportive and shared leadership structures at one Indonesian Islamic boarding school (Pesantren) as a function of school culture policies and procedures in a professional learning community in the disctrict. A qualitative study was conducted at one Pesantren located in Jambi, an Indonesian province in west part of Sumatra island. We interviewed three administrators and five teachers to get in-depth information about the purpose of this paper. The interview transcriptions were translated, coded, divided into themes, and elaborated in the findings of the paper. The findings of study conclude that Pesantren leaders in the perspective of the participants must provide supportive and shared leadership structures for teachers in order to create positive cultures and effective a professional learning community for the development of the Pesantren. Leaders of the Pesantren must directly cooperate with teaching staff to provide policies and procedures for teachers in the leadership structure to directly impact school improvement through professional learning community collaborative attempts. This study was conducted based on the school culture and professional learning communities literature by exploring existent policies and practices in schools as unique cases. This study is significant to the community as specific cases informing educational leaders especially in Islamic education on mechanisms that may be leveraged to ensure successful implementation of policies and procedures on the leadership and school culture of a professional learning community literature.
... The Learning Action Cell (LAC) is a group of teachers working collaboratively to solve shared challenges in the school as facilitated by their school head or a LAC leader. The LAC is DepEd's take on the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) which aids teachers in constructing knowledge about teaching or revising traditional beliefs about teaching, learning, the community, and education to address the present needs of the learners (Little, 2003). Figure 1 shows the LAC framework. ...
... Other ways in which principals encouraged innovation was through supporting collegial interactions, for instance using ICT (Wong and Li 2011), and setting up learning communities where teachers felt safe to experiment (e.g. Little 2002). Further, increasing teacher autonomy and decision-making leads to a more innovative climate, whereas a top-down prescriptive reform is a barrier to innovation (Park 2012). ...
This systematic literature review analysed research related to education reform published between 2000 and 2020. Empirical evidence from 249 studies identified factors hindering or facilitating the long-term success of reform implementation. Eight overarching, actionable themes were found to influence success. Six themes describe requirements at the school level: the need for shared leadership focused on supporting reform; budgeting and resourcing considerations; the critical role of continuing, high-quality professional learning that is consistent with the reform effort; the need for data collection and evaluation to examine the success of the reform initiative and guide further changes; the importance of engaging stakeholders in the reform process on an ongoing basis; and ensuring staffing stability. At the classroom level, teachers require support in developing a clear understanding of the reform in practice and actionable steps for implementation. Finally, ways in which external entities and advisory teams can help to sustain reform are presented.
... Hord, 1997) considers principal leadership and supportive conditions as the basic characteristics of PLCs, whereas studies on department-level PLCs do not regard principal leadership and school structure and culture as the components of PLCs. In other words, school-level PLCs focus on teachers and administrators working together to promote school improvement, whereas department-level PLCs underline collaborative learning and reflections among a group of teachers to enhance their instructional practice (Harris, 2014;Little, 2002). ...
This study investigated the mediating effects of professional learning community (PLC) components on the relationship between leadership practices and teacher collective efficacy from the perspective of Chinese principals. Survey data were collected from 878 school principals. The results revealed that leadership practices significantly and positively affected the five PLC components, three of which (shared purpose, collective focus on student learning and reflective dialogue) had significant positive effects on teacher collective efficacy. Shared purpose, collective focus on student learning and reflective dialogue significantly mediated the effects of leadership practices on teacher collective efficacy. The practical implications of the findings and suggestions for future research are discussed.
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In spite of the massive body of work reconceptualizing school mathematics in keeping with progressive approaches, research has shown that many school mathematics teachers still opt for more traditional methods. The present study sheds light on the mechanisms that shape mathematics teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, and instructional practices and thereby sheds light on those factors that support or impede the adoption of more reform-based teaching methods in mathematics. By adopting a sociological perspective, the study explores the school mathematics culture based on reflective blogs published by high-school mathematics interns during the year of their professional and cultural socialization. A qualitative analysis of the blogs yielded 10 cultural codes, suggesting that these could be hegemonically reproduced and preserved by the schools’ more experienced mathematics teachers, who also emerged as primary socialization agents during the interns’ induction into the teaching profession. The findings are salient for teacher educators and mentors who aim to promote changes in the pedagogical practices in teaching mathematics in school.
Teachers working to transform classrooms towards equity and justice must resist the continual press of dominant culture, which seeks to reproduce longstanding arrangements of inequity and injustice. Little is known about the learning that supports teachers in this resistance. This article offers the Teacher Learning for Transformation (TLT) framework, which is built from two theoretical pillars: Wenger’s articulation of four aspects of learning in Communities of Practice: meaning, practice, identity, and community; and Holland et al.’s notion of Figured Worlds. The resulting conceptualisation of TLT is a holistic view of multiple aspects of teachers’ learning, which are embedded in and mediated by socio-historical and socio-cultural contexts. I offer an illustrative example of an articulation of the framework to support research on teacher learning towards transformation in a particular context. I comment on ways in which the framework might support further research and design of professional development which aims to support transformative learning towards greater justice in classrooms.
Purpose The purpose of this paper is threefold: first, to explain the link between traditional same-age school structure and the impact this has on a school’s capacity for individual and organisational learning; second, to explain why attempts to develop schools as learning organisations (LOs) invariably reify existing structures and practice, and finally, to provide an example of how and why schools that have adopted a multi-age form of organisation, a vertical tutoring (VT) system, have stumbled upon an embryonic form of LO. Design/methodology/approach This conceptual paper draws on a critical review of the LO literature and its defining characteristics. The paper adopts a multi-disciplinary approach combining autopoiesis and complexity science to explore differences in learning capacity between traditional same-age schools (year or grade-based structure) and schools that have transitioned to multi-age organisation (vertical tutoring system). Findings The traditional form of same-age organisational “grammar” used in secondary schools is highly resistant to change, and any attempts at reform that fail to focus on organisation only reify existing systemic behaviour. VT schools change their form of organisation enabling them to create the capacity needed to absorb the unheard voices of participant actors (staff, students, and parents) and promote individual and organisational learning (constituent features of the LO). Originality/value This conceptual paper argues that for secondary schools to develop any semblance of an LO, they must abandon the restrictions on learning caused by their same-age form of organisation. The VT system provides the kind of organisational template needed.
This research aimed to investigate the academic reform agenda in State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga Indonesia. Examining this reform agenda is interesting to do because this academic reform has become an exemplary agenda which is followed by other Islamic higher education institutions in Indonesia. State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga is the oldest Islamic higher education institution in Indonesia. Its existence is becoming a barometer for the survivability of other Islamic higher education institutions. The stagnation or progress of State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga may become the indicator of the stagnation or progress of other Islamic higher education institutions. Therefore, the academic reform under investigation has had a significant and massive impact on the sustainability of other Islamic universities in Indonesia. This research employed a qualitative type of phenomenology involving 34 informants. These informants were the former dean at the university who served between 2007 and 2011, the head of departments, lecturers, and students. The data were collected by participant observation, indepth interview, and policy document. The results suggested that there were four major agendas of academic reform consisting of study program internationalization, new program opening, the integration of postgraduate management into the faculty and the opening of teacher certification program. These major reforms became the foundation and reference for other Islamic universities as they opened the opportunity for internationalization of Islamic higher education institutions in Indonesia.
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Researchers posit that conditions for improving teaching and learning are strengthened when teachers collectively question ineffective teaching routines, examine new conceptions of teaching and learning, find generative means to acknowledge and respond to difference and conflict, and engage actively in supporting one another's professional growth. Yet relatively little research examines the specific interactions and dynamics by which professional community constitutes a resource for teacher learning and innovations in teaching practice. In particular, few studies go "inside teacher community" to focus closely on the teacher development opportunities and possibilities that reside within ordinary daily work. This paper draws on intensive case studies of teacher knowledge, practice, and learning among teachers of mathematics and English in two high schools to take up the problem of how classroom teaching practice comes to be known, shared, and developed among teachers through their out-of-classroom interactions.
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Structural changes necessary in detracking efforts challenge not only the technical dimensions of schooling, but also the normative and political dimensions. We argue that detracking reform confronts fundamental issues of power, control, and legitimacy that are played out in ideological struggles over the meaning of knowledge, intelligence, ability, and merit. This article presents results from a three-year longitudinal case study of ten racially and socioeconomically mixed secondary schools participating in detracking reform. We connect prevailing norms about race and social class that inform educators', parents', and students' conceptions of intelligence, ability, and giftedness with the local political context of detracking. By examining these ideological aspects of detracking we make a case for reexamining common presumptions that resistance to policies providing greater opportunities to low-income and minority children is driven by rational estimates of the learning costs and benefits associated with such reforms.
This work examines debates about curriculum policy in the American high school and also looks at changes in the institution itself. The authors argue that beginning in the 1930s, American high schools shifted from an emphasis on academic education to a focus on custodial care of adolescents.