Book Notes & Thoughts: Organization Theory

org theory

Over the last few days, I read a textbook. And if I’m honest, I loved it. Graduate school continues to feel like a privilege and a luxury, to learn about ideas that I find interesting, do engaging and meaningful work with teachers and other researchers, and try my best to write in a way that captures my thinking.

I remember a high school English teacher telling me that the easiest (and therefore worst) way to write a summary is to do so chronologically: “And then, and then, and then.” It’s the easiest to write, because it’s also the easiest way to understand. This is what I needed to wrap my head around organization theory, which I want to use for the conceptual framework for my dissertation.

This book, Organization Theory, by Mary Jo Hatch, gave me an entry point into the scope of study, both chronologically (from classical, modern, symbolic/interpretive, to post-modern) and topically (core concepts, decision making, power, politics, change, and learning). Not only did this give me an entry point into this field, but it also allowed me to see where my interests are. What does thinking about schools through the lens allow me to see, understand, and say? And of course, how do I limit my view by seeing it through these theories?

Classical period, 1900 onward; Modern, 1950s onward; Symbolic/Interpretive, 1980s onward; Post-Modern, 1990s onward. Theory = a system of ideas; Social theory = a perspective on reality. Continue reading

Book Notes & Thoughts: Going to Scale with New School Designs: Reinventing high school


As part of our personalized learning in practice study, we visited, studied, and worked with a number of small district charter schools across Wisconsin. We talked a lot about High Tech High and Big Picture Schools. When I found this book (again, perusing the education stacks), it was in the area that I am thinking about: scale, design, and new models for learning. Reading it gave me a window into how to do education research at an organizational level.

Going to Scale with New School Designs: Reinventing High School, by McDonald, Klein, Riordan (2009).

The late 1990s was a time when the small school movement was rising, and there was interest and support for restructuring. This was the time of charters and vouchers, with the idea of choices and new designs. Similar to the Improvement by Design, this book is largely a story of the challenges of replication. In fact, they are an interesting (though unintended) juxtaposition. Whereas the goal of CSR was to replicate large traditional schools, the goal of “going to scale” with Big Picture was to replicate small, instructionally innovative schools. But their questions for inquiry are quite similar: how to install and support their design across contexts?, what challenges might be expected? how to manage these? what are the roles of the designer and client?

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Change Leader, by Fullan


Next up on the read it and return it list is Change Leader: Learning to Do What Matters Most, by Michael Fullan (2011). This book was cited in something I read and I happened to be wandering the education stacks (yes, some people still do this) and I picked it up. I was curious about the first chapter: Practice Drives Theory: Doing is the crucible of change. Definitely in my court.

“All the best concepts to be deeply experientially grounded.” (p. xi) This book comes after Fullan worked on whole-system reform, engaging with practitioners and policymakers to change large, complex education systems. “The most effective leaders use practice as their fertile learning ground. They never go from theory to practice or research evidence to application. They do it the other way around: they try to figure out what’s working, what could be working better, and then look into how research and theory might help.” (p.xii)

  • “Doing is the crucible of change” (p.3)
  • “Effective change leaders … walk into the future through examining their own and others’ best practices, looking for insights they had hitherto not noticed” (p.11)
  • adaptive challenge (require new discoveries and behavioral change) vs. technical problems (we know the answer, solution just needs to be applied) (p.17-18)
  • “balance between capacity building and accountability interventions” (p.19)

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Improvement by Design


It’s been awhile… I think every blogger goes through a spell when it’s really hard to write. In January, I set out a writing plan for the spring, which involved blogging a book per week. Easy, right? I made it through the first month, but the blogging never happened. And now I’m in a total writing block, unable to tap out the literature review that is past due! So, my goal is to get back in the saddle, as they say, and use this for what it’s always been good for: making me write, organize my thoughts, and document my work. I’ve pulled down all the books off my shelf from the library that I’ve read (okay, skimmed) over the past few years. In the next few days, they are going to get reviewed and returned. Forward progress and decluttering!

The first book is Improvement By Design: The Promise of Better Schools, by Cohen, Peurach, Glazer, Gates, and Goldin (2014). I’m all about improvement these days, heading to present a poster at the Carnegie Summit in a week, and I also am increasingly sold on the idea of education as the design for learning, which I wrote about LOOOONG ago, in the days before I did this reading and thinking for a living. So naturally, when I saw the title, I was intrigued.

I’m really curious right now about how people are using words around educational reform right now. The contents of the book talk about improvement, implementation, suitability, and building systems. Interestingly they do NOT say innovation, which is what I usually put alongside improvement. Here are MY definitions of a few terms:

  • Improvement – making the system better
  • Systemic Improvement – using a systems approach to make the system work better
  • Innovation – creative application of a new-to-you idea
  • Infrastructuring – the process of creating the connections, relationships, individual knowledge, and agency for change (based loosely on definitions from Penuel, 2015, and DiSalvo & DiSalvo, 2015)

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Book Notes & Thoughts: How Organizations Develop Activists, by Hahrie Han


The author of this book, Hahrie Han, is a political scientist who gave a riveting, heartfelt, and compelling keynote address at last year’s Carnegie Summit (which I wrote about here). I finally got around to opening the book, which I had out from the library since last spring, in order to get more details.

Over the course of two years, she investigated two civic associations. One thing I liked best about her methods was that she spent a year learning about them and drawing on quantitative data and ethnographic fieldnotes, then returned the next year with small trials to see if her theories played out.

Her goal was to find out why some chapters had high-engagement from their members and others didn’t. She goes to great lengths (which I won’t here) to articulate what she means by high-engagement and how she paired the comparisons.

Ultimately, she describes three different “models of engagement”: lone wolves, mobilizers, and organizers. L0w-engagement sites combined lone wolves and mobilizers, whereas high-engagement combined mobilizers and organizers. Lone wolves are just what they are called: they have individuals who are “star volunteers,” who work alone, power themselves, and do great things, alone. Their focus is on the issue, not the organization. Mobilizers get more people involved. They capitalize on the interest people already have on an issue and get them to show up. For example, this might mean really long email lists that go out with information, which may or may not pay off in terms of people taking action. Finally, organizers focus on developing leadership and capacity. They invest in volunteers by giving them opportunities and support for leadership.

Particularly relevant in the context of civic organizations, a healthy democracy requires that people have a voice. Having the opportunity and knowing how is part of this. How organizations get people to come out and vote, protest, and lead is critical. “By bringing people together for collective activity, associations teach people the basic skills of democratic citizenship while advocating for their members’ interests in the public arena … Through the ways in which they reach and engage people, these associations can become engines of activism that propel people to higher levels of involvement” (p.28).

Reflections: While this book is outside of my field, it was instructive in terms of the methods and formulation of an argument. I’m not sure whether some of these concepts (lone wolves, mobilizers, organizers) will apply directly to my research, but that is why I write about them here, in commonplace book in the commons.

Book Notes & Thoughts: Despite the Best of Intentions, by Lewis & Diamond

best of intentions

The fall semester kicks off tomorrow so I’ve been trying to get a jump on reading. One of my classes is called Race, Class, and Educational Inequality, with Professor John Diamond. He and Amanda Lewis recently (2015) published this book, Despite the Best of Intentions.

Goal of the book: Examine the school based factors of the “racial achievement gap” as it is enacted in practice at a well-resourced, affluent high school that explicitly states diversity as one of their values but still feels like two different schools.

Thesis: “Through a combination of the structural, institutional, and ideological forces and despite the best of intentions of most of those who work in, attend, and participate in the school, racial stratification gets reproduced in places like Riverview” (p.15).

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Book Notes & Thoughts: How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban

phd082508sThis summer I had a long reading list… but my writing list had better deadlines. Inadvertently, I did manage to read this book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers, by Larry Cuban.

Larry Cuban is a Professor Emeritus of Education from Stanford University and very well known for his book (along with David Tyack) called Tinkering toward Utopia on school reform (or lack thereof). I found out that he had been posting on his blog about Personalized Learning, which we’ve also been studying. So I looked up his books and found this one and requested it from the library. But instead of sitting on my desk with all the other books from the library, I started reading it, even when I didn’t really have the time. (Sometimes I call this “productive procrastination.”)

In his book, he examines two questions:

  1. “Over the last century, how have university structures and processes, including curricular reform, influenced the academic work of research and teaching?”
  2. “Why has scholarship trumped teaching in universities?” (p.2)

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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).

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Book Notes & Thoughts: Educating Activist Allies


“There’s something sticky about privileged people studying injustice while participating in institutions garner the more advantage.”

How you teach and where you teach can powerfully undermine or reinforce what you teach.”

As part of my Ideology & Curriculum course this spring, I read this book by Katy Swalwell. The following is a version of the reflection that I wrote for the course, plus my reading notes afterwards.

While other books this semester were difficult to read in the sense that I had little previous experience with the material, this book was like reading about my own schooling and teaching experience. I was a teacher who was indifferent to “diversity” initiatives at first, then slowly intrigued, now actively engaged. For me, it was as part of teacher professional development that I came to reflect on and challenge my understandings of race and privilege. For this reason, it was odd to read this book as I felt like I was both the student and the teacher at Kent Academy. The analysis that Swalwell presents was educational for me both in my understanding of myself and of social justice education with privileged students.

“If we are to interrupt the reproduction of an equal opportunities and outcomes, we must understand how poverty is not just about poor people but about the relationship between people of all classes” (p.12). This quote has two aspects that I thought connected to our class: finding opportunities for interruption (linking to Educating the “Right” Way) and the structural approach of binaries (Bernstein). In other words, you cannot understand poor people without also examining non-poor. Continue reading

Book Notes & Thoughts: The Shopping Mall High School, by Powell, Farrar, and Cohen

shopping mall high school

The semester is over, which means it’s time for reading! The summer around here is actually much busier than the semester, like trying to squeeze all the loose ends into the “free time” when you don’t have classes (oh wait, taking one class).

I’m really excited to geek out this summer about organizational theory. Seriously. I think I’ve gone from my first year “everything is novel and interesting” to my second year “I know what I’m not interested in anymore” and “I want to spend all of my time thinking about…” My advisor is stacking up the books for me to read, and my post today is from the first of those readings.

(As always, these thoughts are rough, non-linear, and littered with more questions than answers. I will say, though, that I have referred to these blog posts often as a way to remember what particular books or articles were about. This continues to be my commonplace book in the commons.)

The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace was written in 1985 as part of a national study of high schools and is the second book in the series. In the introduction, the authors explain the analogy of the shopping mall:

  1. High schools accommodate the range of student needs by offering many options so they can achieve the result they want; there is “something for everybody” (p.2). There are four types of curricula: horizontal (different disciplines), vertical (levels of difficulty), extra-curricular (sports and other nonacademics), and social services (e.g. counseling).
  2. It is for students/families to choose their path, and thus not the school’s responsibility. Schools do not tell kids what to do. If they are happy, they will stay. If they stay, they will graduate.

The authors call these “treaties,” i.e. the compromises made to reach passing grades. “Learning is not discounted or unvalued, but it is profoundly voluntary” (p.4).

David Cohen wrote chapter 5, Origins, focusing on a history of the high school in two periods, 1890 to pre-WWII and the 50s to the 80s.Before starting graduate school, I read Kaestle’s Pillars of the Republic, which was 1790-1860, so this chapter almost picked up right where that left off.

The big debates were between 1) intellectual rigor and the perceived lack of ability by the masses of students enrolling, and 2) whether the curriculum should be academic or practical.

  • “Between them, Elliot and Hall had politely laid out the greatest issue that divided American educators at the time: could all students be expected to pursue an intellectually demanding program of academic study, or should most be given an easier and more practical curriculum? This question was full of implications for schools and for political democracy, but it was quickly settled – in Hall’s favor” (for the practical curriculum) (p.243), and by the 1930s this was in place.
  • “American educators quickly built a system around the assumption that students didn’t have what it took to be serious about the great issues of human life, and that even if they had the wit, they had neither the will nor the futures that would support heavy duty study” (p.244).
  • “Many educators argued that schools had to tie their work to new developments in American society: rapid industrialization, a knowledge explosion, and the efficient style of great corporations” (p.247)
  • “A new organization for high schools would help to turn educators into captains of industry and respected liters of society” (p.248).

Choice is something I’ve been interested in along with the research I’ve done on personalized learning. Many seem to think this is the first time we’ve given students choices, but not so:

  • “Student choice was an essential development in the new system. Reformers argue that students ought to be able to select their courses, and, within limits set by test scores and counselors’ opinions, to select the curriculum in which they would work” (p.258).
  • Choice was not a new idea, Harvard president Elliott had introduced an elective system, and Dewey had also urged educators to have a curriculum that got students interested. Dewey also worried about choices and curriculum, and argued against the “vocationalized and stratified offerings” (p.258-259) Dewey wanted to “marry quality and equality” and choice is not available to all students. Interestingly, it was actually students in the academic track who had less choice in terms of the number of academic courses relative to the vocational tracks.

Of key difference here, however, is that choice is used to keep students in school and to shift responsibility onto the student and the teacher.

I learned that it was not that schools or society wanted to educate everyone: it was a massive increase in enrollment as a result of the financial crises of the 1890s and lack of economic options for adolescents. They were in school because there was no work. So the schools compromised – gave them an easy path to graduation and tried to entice them to learn something along the way. From the beginning, it wasn’t about academics.

“So far, our picture of the high schools’ response to mass enrollment suggests a curious mixture of hope and despair. From one angle the reforms describe just above added up to a massive revision of educational substance and standards, all of it designed to cope with the deluge of students who were believed to be incapable of serious academic work. But the reforms were not an exercise and cynicism. There was 1 billion enthusiasm for the good work that schools would do with the new students. High schools would serve democracy by offering usable study so everyone, rather than dwelling on ab academic abstractions that would interest only a few. It was easy to ignore the great inequalities in what students would learn – for a booming economy needed clerks as much as it needed corporate executives. The reformers’ vision combined deep pessimism about most students is academic capacities with high optimism about schools is capacity to do good” (p.259-260).

“If most students were as incapable as reformers believed, how can we explain the reformers’ astonishing faith in the schools power to redeem them?” (p.260). This quote has interesting resonance with Can Education Change Society?, by Michael Apple, which we read at the end of our class this spring. Clearly we still grapple with whether schools are agentic institutions.

Cohen’s perspective on this: “The answer lies, first, and the simple fact that the reformers were pedagogues…. Second, these educators had been raised in the faith of Horace Mann. Most were small town men, drawn from the protestant heart of the country, where a belief in education’s saving power had deep religious as well as political roots. If education is America’s civic religion these men were among its leading evangelists, struggling to build institutions that would bring the untutored masses into the one true church. Faith of their sort is rarely diminished by evidence about the heathens incapacity; if anything such evidence only heightens evangelical zeal” (p.260).

One of the consequences of these treaties was that if students were not engaged, it was the school’s fault or the curriculum’s fault because it wasn’t engaging the students.

Also very interesting, was the “invention” of adolescence (p.262) by Joseph Kett. Russell and Hall describe adolescence as “the best things are springing up from the human soul” – endless enthusiasm. “If the race is over to advance, it will not be by increasing longevity… But by prolonging [adolescence]” – Hall (p.262). As a former middle school teacher, I agree!

All this talk about “practical curricula” is that it sounds basically like project-based curriculum, which either means it’s incredibly hard to implement or it’s not actually the best way for schools to do this, if they were talking about it in the 20s and 30s and we still can’t seem to do it today hundred years later.

  • “It seems, then, that the reforms discussed here produced the worst of both worlds: new courses, content, and academic standards that were less intellectual and more practical, and a style of teaching that was as dull as reformers had once complained of in Latin and medieval history courses. There was one difference, though: it was much easier for students to get through. Schools could best be more successful, at least in the sense of increasing both enrollment and graduation rates” (p.267).
  • “The practice of passing students through the grades on the basis of age and attendance, rather than academic achievement, soon came to be known as social promotion. That was the final, crucial stone in the foundation of math secondary education, for it meant that progress in school was detached from progress in learning” (p.267-268)
  • “The practical curriculum for every day living that he wanted ‘would give both better mental and better social training to perspective college students and they are getting now.’ [statement by Prosser, Harvard president] There really was a perverse populist slant to this educational Babbittry, a democracy of anti-intellectualism” (p.275).

I found this quote fascinating for it’s commentary about “American” life.

  • “After all education is one of our oldest enthusiasms and vast enterprises another. the combination was bound to please. another reason that so many Americans found high schools to their liking was that the institution tied up many contrary threads in the country’s character: great faith in the good work that schools could do but little confidence in most students’ academic interest or ability; Great faith in the transforming power of curriculum but modest budgets, and thus teacher workloads that would defeat most efforts to make classrooms exciting or challenging; great faith in the Democratic extension of schooling to all but an anti- intellectualism that severely limited educational content for most; great faith in the schools potential for equality, but a school organization that created terrific inequalities. These stunning polarities were the fundamental terms of reference for high schools – the treaties, if one likes, that Americans made in order to extend secondary school to all comers. Educators had managed to build a system of secondary schools in which the popular passion for education and popular contempt for intellectual work were woven tightly together.”

Moving on to the 50s-80s…

  • The reforms of the 1950s – denunciation of academic weaknesses, focus on science and math, attack on the Life Adjustment Education that had begun in the 1930s. (p.281)
  • Also in the 1950s huge increase in the number of students attending college. Ironic though that the more that attended they were being admitted to less selective institutions, so there was less pressure on high schools to have rigorous college prep courses. (p.292)
  • Brown versus board in 1954 the movement for excellence soon became an even more intense movement for equality, and this had a counter effect of eroding the sense of schools as fair progressive and open.
  • There was a continued relaxation of course standards and requirements.

The fate of the 1950s reform is that it was vulnerable to forces beyond the control of schools or reformers – the “selective excellent strategy”(p.296-297) saw that it failed but it didn’t really succeed either:

  1. Rapidly changing national political agenda simply diverted attention from high school
  2. Educators responding to all reform efforts in the same fashion: diversify our offerings to accommodate the pressures for new constituencies, and continue to ease standards and invent interesting courses for the still expanding mass of students judged in capable of serious thought
  3. The 50s reformers did not challenge this tendency

“Here is one of the biggest bargains in the brief history of mass secondary education: intellectual quality would be acceptable to educationists and appealing to reformers as long as it was just another small item in that large cluster of accommodations called the comprehensive high school” (p.297)

This can be seen as terrible or admirable – on the one hand students may be have been short changed, but on the other schools are demanded of by so many different factions, without the resources to do it, that they are remarkably adaptive (p.297) 

In the 70s there was a sense that schools created a bad youth culture, so there was pressure to engage with the community and have students experience work – so there were lots of internship programs. “Even a reform that was aimed at reducing high schools dominion over youth was turned to institutional advantage. The notion that experience should replace cooling became the rationale for adding yet another division to the schools curriculum.” (p.298)

“The reforms aim to improve education by ratcheting up school requirements, yet a large fraction of the students now in high school seem quite immune to such requirements. The students are educationally purposeless. They attend for reasons quite unrelated to learning … opinion surveys show repeatedly that most students, like most adults, do not regard academic work as the primary purpose of schools: they give greater importance to social and vocational matters into personal development. And whatever the reasons for being in school, students are frequently hostage to circumstances that tend to defeat learning … Perhaps high schools teach students what they need most to know: how to endure boredom without protest” (p.303).

“Secondary educators have tried to solve the problem of competing purposes by excepting all of them, and by building an institution that would accommodate the result” (p.306).

As I was reading I kept wondering what my dad’s high school in the 50s was like or my mom’s high school in the 60s. Or my grandma’s in rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late 1930s. Who were their teachers? What did they learn? What did they think of all the curricula or was it just about going to school and socializing?