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Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009

Instruction in High Schools: The Evidence and the Challenge
Tom Corcoran Megan Silander

How Is Instruction Organized in High Schools?

In most of the nation's high schools, instruction is organized by subject or discipline. Most teachers spend each day independently teaching topics in one content area, such as English, mathematics, science, and history, to groups of twenty-five to thirty-five students for forty-five to sixty minutes at a time, working with from one hundred to one hundred and eighty different students over the course of a week. Work outside the classroom is also highly compartmentalized, with teachers organized into departments by their subject matter specialty.6 These prevailing norms reinforce an isolated and independent approach to teaching in high school classrooms. The technical core of instruction often seems to be only loosely coupled to institutional goals and demands, and the prevailing norm is that the larger organizational structures of the school should not interfere with the autonomy of the teacher.7

But researchers examining how instruction is organized have found that organizational structure often, although not necessarily intentionally or consistently, does affect instruction in meaningful ways.8 And, in fact, some educational reform strategies employ structural changes to try to improve instruction, particularly by reorganizing large comprehensive high schools into smaller, more focused learning communities or teacher teams. Implicit in these reform efforts is the idea that the new organizational structures will affect the relationships among teachers and between teachers and students and that these new relationships will alter the ways in which high school teachers teach and students learn.

The Roles of Departments and Teams
Two of the most common and persistent features of high schools are the division of instruction into specific disciplines and the corresponding organization of teachers into departments by academic disciplines.9 The resulting organizational structure shapes assignments of teachers to various courses and categories of students. It also affects teachers' opportunities for support and collaboration, the norms governing their professional responsibilities and instructional practice, the content and focus of their professional development opportunities, and the nature and strength of their professional commitments.10

Until the 1990s, the role of departments, almost universal in the structure of high schools, remained relatively unexamined.11 In recent years, however, researchers have begun investigating the role and strength of departments and their influence on teachers' work lives and classroom practices.12 Studies have found, for example, that strong departments can increase teachers' opportunities for collaboration or innovation and for sharing and dissemination of practices. Strong departments can also foster the development of shared internal accountability norms for teacher and student performance. But they can also be associated with maintenance of the status quo, the use of narrower and fragmented curricula, low expectations of students, and resistance to changes in instruction.13

Leslie Siskin provides a particularly compelling story of subject departments through case studies based on three years of observing three comprehensive public high schools.14 The academic departments in these high schools varied in their strength and salience, and they differed both in their social cohesiveness and in their commitment to a common purpose. Most, however, ranked high in cohesiveness but low in commitment to a common purpose. Affiliation was the glue that held them together, not the possibility of higher achievement. Their members focused more on their individual interests than on collective goals. Department members might share resources, eat lunch together, and according to their personal styles and preferences rather than being guided by any shared vision or goals. In addition to forming social worlds for teachers, these departments allocated and distributed resources. They also made decisions about textbook selection, equipment, tracking policies, and teacher assignments to courses—often basing those decisions on teachers' seniority or training rather than on their instructional effectiveness. Siskin's study suggests that departments with high levels of social cohesion and commitment to common goals and purposes can be powerful mechanisms for establishing shared norms and goals for instruction. But in most of the departments that Siskin examined, instruction was influenced by the department context only when individual teachers chose to seek out and use the resources and instructional strategies of their colleagues.15 Still, the salience of the department as a place for teachers to interact suggests that efforts to improve instructional approaches should take into account their role and its variation within and between schools. For example, when schools have strong departments, designers of instructional improvement initiatives might wisely strengthen the role of department leaders and build their expertise about instruction and coaching.

The organization of departments by subject matter also shapes instructional strategies by reinforcing understandings and beliefs about instruction and learning commonly associated with specific disciplines. Susan Stodolsky and Pamela Grossman, for example, examined how teachers' conceptions of their subject matter affected their curricular activities.16 The study, based on teacher survey data from approximately 400 teachers in sixteen private and public high schools in California and Michigan, found significant differences by discipline in whether teachers perceived their subjects as defined, static, or sequential. Teachers of mathematics and foreign languages, for example, were much more likely than English, science, and social studies teachers to perceive their subjects as sequential, static, and defined. The way teachers perceived their subject was associated with differential decisions about course content, sequence, and pacing, as well as their views and practices regarding the curriculum. For example, social studies teachers, who were less likely to consider their subjects "well-defined," were also least likely to report department agreement about course content and less likely to report developing curricula together with other teachers. Mathematics teachers, most likely to perceive their subject as static and unchanging, were more likely to agree that they "follow the same teacher routines every day."17 Teachers' beliefs about student tracking—grouping students by prior achievement—also differed by discipline. Mathematics teachers, who were most likely to perceive their subjects as sequential, were also most likely to agree that instruction was most effective when students were grouped by past academic achievement, while social studies teachers were least likely to agree.18 The researchers did not observe directly how these differences in perceptions affected classroom instruction, although it seems likely that they would.

Within disciplines, teachers' beliefs and practices about curriculum varied as well, suggesting that subject "subcultures" might shape some beliefs and instructional practices without systematically determining them. The primary lesson of these studies is that taking into account common subject-based perspectives on content and pedagogy, and identifying how differences in underlying conceptions of subject matter relate to and interact with conceptions of good instruction, might enhance the effectiveness of instructional improvement initiatives.

Teacher Teaming
Some reformers aiming to improve instruction have focused on team teaching. Teaming can range from having two teachers work together to plan instruction to making small groups of interdisciplinary or grade-level teachers responsible for a subset of students within a school, working together to plan group activities or even interdisciplinary units of instruction.19 Teaming first became popular in middle schools and has since been adopted by some high schools. The underlying assumption of these reforms is that creating small teams of teachers or work groups will foster more collegial environments, more opportunities for teacher collaboration and knowledge sharing, better coordination of instructional efforts, greater involvement in instructional decisions, and higher staff morale and job satisfaction.20 Teacher teaming rests on the same theories that underlie the adoption of autonomous work groups in industry and public sector institutions. It can also serve as a governance reform, providing teachers more opportunities to participate in school management under the supposition that increased self-management will lead to greater job satisfaction, responsibility, and commitment, and thus less teacher turnover, greater work effort, and better student outcomes. In the private sector, similar approaches have found that flatter hierarchical structures allow for more creativity and innovation.21 But empirical evidence on the relationship between teaming and student learning is limited to small case studies, usually conducted in elementary and middle schools, that tend to focus on team functioning and other mediating factors rather than changes in instructional practice or student learning. What evidence there is suggests that teacher teaming may facilitate changes in instructional strategies and discussions of students' learning that might lead to improved student outcomes. The lack of rigorous evidence that teaming has systematic effects on student achievement means that researchers do not yet know if these reforms pay off.

For example, one study examined a K–12 teacher teaming reform in the Cincinnati Public Schools in which teachers were organized into teams of three to five core academic subject teachers who remained with the same group of students over two years. In addition to teacher teaming, the reforms included a more focused curriculum, new instructional methods and materials, and increased professional development opportunities. Findings from this study, although limited to elementary and middle schools, showed that overall, compared with student performance in similar schools that did not team teachers, teaming did not improve student test scores. But the effects varied by the type of work in which the teacher teams engaged. Teams that focused on the relationship between instruction and student work made greater student learning gains, while teams that worked together but did not focus on instructional practice did not.22 The study suggests that teaming can contribute to improved instruction and higher performance but only if the work of the teams is focused on these outcomes.

More empirical evidence is available on the effectiveness of teaming in other public sector institutions. For example, a meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental empirical research on health-care delivery suggests that team care can lead to better clinical outcomes than can non-team care and that larger, more diverse teams tend to be especially effective.23 Some of these findings are likely applicable to education as well. It is clear, however, that the context within which teams work can affect their effectiveness. Indeed, the research review found that team effectiveness varied by context and discipline and that organizational characteristics, such as leaders' focus on quality improvement, the length of time teams worked together, the physical proximity of team members, and deeply rooted institutional norms about practice, affected the efficacy of teaming.24 This evidence offers lessons for education, where norms of teacher autonomy and disciplinary differences in beliefs about teaching and learning might prove to be barriers to the effective use of teams in some schools.

Professional Learning Communities
Reformers have also tried to increase teacher collaboration and learning by establishing professional learning communities within departments or grades, across a school, or across disciplines outside of schools. Definitions of professional learning communities vary, but all aim to increase teacher collaboration to build teachers' knowledge about students and about teaching and learning, to encourage teachers to share resources, and to create shared norms and views about teaching and learning practices.25

Although not focused specifically on professional learning communities, a study by Valerie Lee and Julia Smith, using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, examined the relationship between student achievement and teachers' cooperation and collective responsibility for student learning. Looking at student gains in achievement from eighth to tenth grade in math, reading, history, and science, and controlling for student demographics and prior achievement and school demographics, Lee and Smith found a positive link between student learning and both teacher cooperation and collective responsibility for student learning. Because the study is cross-sectional, a snapshot in time, and not conducted over multiple years, it is impossible to conclude that reforms to increase collaboration and collective responsibility for student learning necessarily would affect student learning. The authors themselves suggest that teachers' beliefs about the limitations of students' ability to learn—a key component in the collective responsibility factor—may not be mutable.26 It also may be that working in schools in which students are making progress leads to stronger feelings of collective responsibility and willingness to collaborate among teachers. Moreover, other research, such as Andy Hargreaves' study of "contrived collegiality," suggests that compulsory teacher collaboration can be less effective than collaborative relationships that evolve naturally from within a teacher community.27

Small learning communities (SLCs) of teachers and students are a variation on professional learning communities. SLCs can be developed in newly created small schools or in large high schools that are divided into smaller communities. They can take multiple forms, ranging from partial models such as ninth-grade academies and vocational or career academies within existing comprehensive high schools to full wall-to-wall models in which all faculty and students in a building are part of one or more SLCs.28

The rationale for creating both smaller schools and SLCs is that smaller groups of teachers and students will form stronger communities. As a consequence, teachers will provide better guidance and more personal attention for students, and student-teacher relationships will be stronger, resulting in fewer disciplinary problems and safer school environments. Advocates also claim that SLCs will lead to increased teacher empowerment, leadership, and collaboration within and across disciplines, as well as a more efficient administration and a more responsive and focused curriculum.29

The article by Steve Fleischman and Jessica Heppen in this volume surveys research on small schools and small learning communities in depth, so here we simply summarize the empirical research. Researchers have found that free-standing small schools have higher rates of attendance, more positive climates and fewer disciplinary problems, and higher retention and graduation rates, but the evidence of effects on student academic outcomes is mixed.30 The findings from research specifically examining small learning communities and schools within schools are even more mixed, and although they suggest that SLCs can lead to higher academic achievement, the effects seem to be modest and varied.31 Moreover, restructuring large schools into smaller communities often results in greater stratification of student outcomes by race and ethnicity, class, gender, special education status, academic achievement, and behavior.32

The evaluation of a Gates Foundation initiative to establish new small schools and redesign comprehensive high schools into small learning communities found mixed and modest academic effects, with higher student achievement gains in reading than in mathematics. The evaluation also examined instructional methods and found that teachers in the Gates-funded schools were more likely to assign students work relevant to the real world and that assignments tended to be more rigorous in those schools for English, but not for mathematics. Effects on school culture were more uniformly positive: students had higher attendance rates, and both teachers and students reported better school climates, including more personalization and shared goals and focus.33

Interdisciplinary Teaching
Despite the apparent primacy of the disciplines in high schools, some reform efforts have attempted to blur the boundaries among subjects, seeking to help students make stronger connections across different domains of knowledge. Research on interdisciplinary teaching is not extensive, particularly at the high school level, and there is no experimental evidence or even quasi-experimental evidence—that is, a research design in which the experimental and comparison, or control, groups are not randomly assigned—to support contentions that interdisciplinary teaching produces different or better outcomes. Further, the body of research is difficult to summarize given the differing conceptions and approaches to interdisciplinary curriculum.

One review of studies of interdisciplinary programs and teaching found that most focused on integrating English and social studies.34 Researchers found that integrating instruction in these two disciplines increased the amount of student writing and the use of original texts in classes. For example, an evaluation of an integrated social science and literature program in Los Angeles schools found that students in the program had more writing assignments, that their writing was higher in quality and revealed greater conceptual understanding, and that teachers had higher expectations of students in the program than they did of students not in the program.35

A more recent study by Arthur Applebee, Mary Adler, and Sheila Flihan used an ethnographic case study approach to examine the curricula and teaching practices of thirty seventh- through eleventh-grade teachers serving on eleven interdisciplinary teams in New York and California. The study found that their interdisciplinary efforts fell into several categories along a continuum: correlated curricula in which the two disciplines followed parallel lines chronologically or by region; shared curricula in which major concepts were taught across disciplines; and reconstructed curricula in which understandings and concepts were merged across disciplines.36 The finding suggests that organizing instruction by integrating disciplines does not necessarily result in systemic changes to instruction. Barriers to interdisciplinary instruction identified in this and other studies included the extra time and effort required of teachers as well as conflicting beliefs across disciplines about subject matter and the ways in which subject matter should be taught.37

Do New Organizational Forms Improve Teaching and Learning?
In summary, the empirical evidence suggests that changes in the way teachers' work is organized can affect student learning, but only when reforms give explicit attention to instruction. The most promising evidence—though based largely on qualitative cross-sectional studies—relates to the potential efficacy of teacher teaming and professional learning communities and the opportunities they provide for teachers to share and build knowledge about individual students and about teaching and learning. Researchers should examine whether these new organizational forms make it easier for schools to implement specific instructional reforms and whether they lead to sustained efforts to improve instruction.