Book Notes & Thoughts: The New Institutionalism in Education (2006), Edited by Heinz-Dieter Meyer and Brian Rowan

new institutionalism

Eight chapters into the book and I returned to the beginning to remind myself of the definition of “New Institutionalism.” Amazing how we can get lost in jargon and think we’re understanding what we read. Seriously though, the jargon in this field is terrific! Pages go by when I realize I don’t know what is being said. I know all the words, but not what they actually mean together. As always, this is why I blog, so that I have a chance to put my thoughts into words. It is this act that makes me clarify my thinking.

New institutionalism was a shift in how institutions were studied. Up until the 1970s, there was a focus on the goal of the institution and how it was structured. The people in it were considered rational actors. But researchers at Stanford began to notice that, in fact, institutions were “loosely coupled” (Weick), meaning that what was intended was not actually done. This has often been cited as the reason reforms don’t make an impact. I think of this like trying to move a mattress: you start to lift at one end but the other end is wobbling on its own accord. When we then look at schools today, they are actually quite tightly coupled between standards and assessments, though perhaps not in all realms. Spillane and Burch (chapter 6) write about make “instruction” less monolithic and breaking it down by subject, because math instruction might be tightly coupled with assessments, but social studies might not.

Stanford organization theory researchers proposed that actions taken followed myths and ceremonies, rather than rationality. For example, it might be in a teacher’s best interest to change how they teach because it would raise test scores, but they would reject it because it is not consistent with the mission of the school and would not be considered legitimate schooling by the public. I think of this in the case of Rocketship schools, where kids sit in cubicles staring at screens (or at least this is how it is described). This may improve test scores, but it is not seen widely as a legitimate form of education for all. Importantly, this is neither good nor bad. These practices are complex & contradictory, as Meyer and Rowan say in the introduction (p.11).

New institutionalism also considers influences on education more broadly. In chapter 2, Rowan makes the point that any analysis should be bigger than governance and should consider market exchange as central tenet of educational affairs. (p.17) He goes further to say that governance should also be considered as more than just myth and ceremony. He points here to the consistency of disciplinary practices (such as how math should be learned and taught) despite the myths and ceremonies in schooling and despite administrations that attempt to change these practices.

A key word that comes up many times is “isomorphism.” I thought many times back to my organic chemistry days! This is the question of whether schooling is all being pressure towards the same shape/structure/outcomes/practices or whether there is divergence of shapes. This is still a question.

Meyer writes chapter four about the myth of the common school. I relished this history and found myself writing down incredibly long quotes, wanting to remember it all! Meyer contrasts American common schools as a middle/upper class strategy to assimilate immigrants and “create and strengthen democratic community” (p.56) with the very individualistic German idea of Bildung, which is essentially finding and improving one’s inner self. This has a significant impact on the legacy of schools, where American schools are about inclusiveness and legitimacy, whereas Bildung is more aligned with “educational quality, comprehensiveness, and performance “(p.63). The significance of this is that American schools are the way they are for “historical reasons,” as my family often jokes. We often don’t question much of schools because they are a core institution of our society, “embedded in a grand narrative of social inclusion and opportunity for all. Its creation was testimony to the American faith in social progress, the power of reason, and the promise of human perfectibility. Very few of the great American narratives do not turn, at one point or another, on the public school as a master mechanism for opportunity and advancement. … the ideological, political, and symbolic importance of that institution is hard to overstate as well as the beliefs on which it is founded. As those beliefs weaken, as people, one by one, stop seeing the school as common and inclusive, a launching path of opportunity, as they demand choice and a higher degree of control over the education of their children, in short, as the founding myths crumble, so does the institution” (p.64-65). This is the heady ideas that fuel my desire to study schools and leverage research for improving them.

Further notes:

Chapter 1: Introduction
p. 3 – formal structure of schools are more about legitimacy than technical efficiency
—> interesting connection to Cohen’s chapter about the history of the high school and why it is structured the way it is

p.3-4 objective of institutions analysis: why is this form chosen/selected/built and whose interests are served
p.5 1970s shift in org theory because it wasn’t matching what was happening in schools. ex. bureaucracies are typically tightly controlled, but loose coupling (Weick); highly conservative/stable in practices despite the loose coupling; not determined by technical core (teaching & learning)
—> argument thus that schools are organized around “myths” rather than technical mandates because they must maintain legitimacy, which is public trust
—> this is also why this is called the “new” institutionalism

isomorphism – are educational institutions all converging to a similar form or diversifying?

Three themes:
1) Cognition and social construction of institutions
p.7 institutional change seen as an interest-based process done by rational actors
2) Institutions, states, and markets
3) History, power, and change
p.11 – what is observed is complex & contradictory

Chapter 2: The New Institutionalism and the Study of Educational Organizations: Changing Ideas for Changing Times, by Brian Rowan
– main argument: p16 “a ‘new’ institutional analysis is needed to understand the changing landscape of American education. Such an analysis, I argue, will build on developments in institutional theory over the past two decades to take fuller accounts of the diversity of actors in the institutional environment of American schools; it will better describe the role these actors play in shaping both governance and market arrangements in education; it will explain how pressure for technical efficiencies emerged alongside pressures for political conformity in contemporary American education; and it will aim to study the effects of these factors on the population of organizations that provide instructional services directly to students.”

p.16 “Whereas institutional theorists once viewed the state and the professions as the dominant actors in institutional environments, once saw politics as the main animating force of institutional change, and once postulated ceremonial conformity as the main way organizations gained support and resources, institutional theorist today give attention to a great many agencies and actors in the social environment (including private firms, political interest groups, and primordial groups such as families), study both markets and politics as animating forces in institutional environments, and analyze how institutional environments can promote both efficiency and conformity.”

p. 17
“sector” = organizations that provide similar services to consumers + the orgs and agencies that regularly interact/support/govern these

building from Scott & Meyer (1991): expansive view of organizations, importance of politics, and role of big business

analysis should be bigger than governance and should consider market exchange as central tenet of educational affairs

Chapter 3: Varieties of Institutional Theory: Traditions and Prospects for Educational Research, by Tidwell
– review of institutional theory from sociology and its uses in education
p.33 “I argue that institutional theory becomes useful in educational research when it attends to institutionalization as a political process, when it specifies the mechanisms that drive this process, and when it considers how institutionalization affects both the organization and the conduct of schooling.”

Summary of major thinkers on the process of institutionalization:
p.34 Durkheim – institutions are about “joint human activity and are constituted of sets of symbols, both cognitive (knowledge and belief) and moral (“moral authority”), that fix action into patterns that extend beyond the behavior of any individual.”
Sumner – institution is a concept and a structure. institutions can either be “crescive’ (i.e. emergent) or enacted.” but social structures only become fully institutionalized if they “serve the interests of the powerful elite”
—> This variety of definitions is really three questions:
1. How are we to understand the process of institutionalization, more precisely, the mechanisms involved in institutional formation? To what extent are these mechanisms of deliberate acts of power or of emergence?
2. How are we to understand the role of social institutions in the regulation of conduct? What are the mechanisms through which such regulation occurs? What is the place of individual agency in institutional fields of conduct?
3. In what ways are social institutions constitutive of individual identity and conduct?

p.36 the political nature of institutionalization
p.38 “in accord with Sumner, Durkheim treats institutional formation as primarily a matter of deliberate action rather than emergence.”

Chapter 4: The rise and decline of the common school as an institution: Taking “myth and ceremony” seriously, by Heinz-Dieter Meyer
p. 55 Bildung vs. the Common School
p.56: “The common school is an institution to create and strengthen democratic community as inclusive, equitable, and assimilative. It replaces a loose, inchoate system of local and private education. Bildung, by contrast, is indifferent to the social condition of the people. It aims at the individual’s inner self. While the common school is a sharp weapon against social exclusivity in education, it is a rather blunt instrument when it comes to improve the quality of learning. Bildung, by contrast, lends itself more readily to underscore the importance of educational quality, comprehensiveness, and performance.”
–> fascinating history of the Common School
p.64 “In sum: institutional change is made by identifiable individuals or groups who pursue identifiable goals and objectives (in this analysis: the prevention of an urban crisis). While change typically will have self-interested driving forces and motives, it would be wrong to reduce every change to the selfish motives of this or that group. In certain historic moments institutional innovations, even if pushed by only a part of the social forces available, may yet happen to advance the great good of all.”
p.64-65 “The American public school is one of the core institutions of American society. It is embedded in a grand narrative of social inclusion and opportunity for all. Its creation was testimony to the American faith in social progress, the power of reason, and the promise of human perfectibility. Very few of the great American narratives do not turn, at one point or another, on the public school as a master mechanism for opportunity and advancement. … the ideological, political, and symbolic importance of that institution is hard to overstate as well as the beliefs on which it is founded. As those beliefs weaken, as people, one by one, stop seeing the school as common and inclusive, a launching path of opportunity, as they demand choice and a higher degree of control over the education of their children, in short, as the founding myths crumble, so does the institution.”
p. 65 “By reviving the study of the role of myths and beliefs in the rise and decline of institutions, institutional theory can produce analytical leverage that other perspectives on education lack.”

Chapter 5: The School Improvement Industry in the United States: Why Educational Change is Both Pervasive and Ineffectual, By Brian Rowan
– we need to pay attention to the school improvement “industry” because “understanding how these organizations are structure and function, and how they interact with schools and governing agencies, will round out our knowledge about change in American schools.” (p.68)
– faddishness results from the “selection processes operating within the grants-based economy that produces a high rate of innovation but also a high rate of failure in research and development, technical assistance, and the production and dissemination of innovative instructional programs.” (p.78)
– stabilizing features of instruction, especially textbooks and tests by the K-12 publishing industry – influence both content and method
p.78 “All of this suggests that our usual theories of educational change – both the ones that proclaim the power of local school system autonomy and the ones that call for unified, state-directed reform – are lacking in major respects. As a result, a new image of educational change in the United States might be needed, one that sees educational change as arising out of what Chester Finn (1997, 248) calls “a decentralized universe of models, multiple providers, and consumer choices.” – but in this case choices is more than just parents, it’s the schools/districts/teachers too, and the multiple providers are more than just private/public schools, but a wide variety.

Chapter 6: The Institutional Environment and Instructional Practice: Changing Patterns of Guidance and Control in Public Education, by James Spillane and Patricia Burch

– revisiting “loose coupling” and whether schools are necessarily this way or if it can be changed
– movement away from treating instruction as monolithic
– subject matter as important context for teachers’ work
ex. routines and structures connecting admin with instruction around math are different than language arts which are both significantly more coupled than science or art
– instruction as multidimensional
– several propositions for more nuanced examination of instruction in relation to institutions

Chapter 7: The New Institutionalism Goes to the Market: The Challenge of Rapid Growth in Private K-12 Education, by Scott Davies, Linda Quirke, and Janice Aurini
p.104 “This chapter discusses the implications of the growing and increasingly varied private education market for new institutional theory and evaluates the utility of that theory for comprehending these changes.”
– parallel to the school improvement industry is the “student improvement industry” including tutors, consultants, and various educational advisors
– 60s/70s/80s, instutitonalism described schools as loosely coupled and isomorphic, but over the past 20 years, privatization, standards, and testing movements have changed the educational landscape

New Institutional Theory
Market Theory
Isomorphic versus divergent change
strong normative environment —> unconventional schools risk legitimacy
schools seek niches if their survival depends on accommodating unmet client preferences, and thus markets can reverse pressure for isomorphism and spawn a variety of instructional themes
Recouping through competitive accountability
schools retain loosely coupled structure by evading direct monitoring through nonmeasureable goals, new mandates, or teachers’ professional discretion
schools must signal their quality thus systematically report their outcomes
Formal structure
deeply diffused image of “school” tends to limit educational innovations,
less regulation may weaken formal structures

What these authors observed is supported neither by institutionalism nor by market theory – hybrids of both

P.115 many ways of impact of markets on schools
Cannot change structures too much otherwise risk losing legitimacy
Page 116 markets embedded in institutions: resources regulation competition controls

Chapter 8: Growing Commonalities and Persistent Differences in Higher Education: Universities between Global Models and National Legacies, by Francisco O. Ramirez

This chapter considers how universities “react to a wide range of educational innovations” (p.123) within their historical context. Ramirez compares Oxford and Stanford as emblematic of different models: socially buffered (Oxford) and socially embedded (Stanford).

Ramirez also considers how the world changed after WWII and the “scientization” and “rationalization” of education. There have been decreases in humanities enrollments and increases in the science, social sciences, and technical disciplines like engineering.

There is a discussion between funding sources and the tensions from taking money from business and private sectors. This is completely in line with the embedded model and Stanford’s founding and mission, which is to serve the “children of California”. Here, universities are meant to serve the needs and desires of the day. In the other, more European model, universities are the conservatories of knowledge and must stay at arm’s length from any “tainting” by interested money.


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