In recent years, there has been a substantial shift towards greater governmental control over education systems. School improvement initiatives focused on student performance and achievement through a standards based education has resulted in increased accountability of the school system. Under the current No Child Left Behind Act, schools in the United States that do not make Adequate Yearly Progress based on standardized test results are subject to interventions for improvement from state education agencies and are at risk for restructure if improvements are not made.
Schools in the United Kingdom (UK) have also experienced greater centralized control since the implementation of the National Curriculum and introduction of national testing aimed at holding school systems accountable for their performance. Serious penalties and greater governmental inspection are administered to schools which are not able to raise student performance based on results of standardized testing. Reform and change at the system level has "propagated a view of school improvement that is 'top' down' and concerned with outcomes rather than processes" (Harris, 2002, pp.6-7).
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Schools have been given increased responsibility to implement changes for improvement in the face of top-down policy initiatives. How can schools improve when contradictory pressures exist for centralization and decentralization? The Improving the Quality of Education for All (IQEA) project in the United Kingdom has had considerable success in navigating the direction of school improvement as government control over policy continues to dominate (Harris, 2000). Through partnerships and collaboration with the Institute of Education at Cambridge and Nottingham University, schools and local authorities across Great Britain, Whales, Iceland, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and South Africa have benefitted from participating in the IQEA process.
Since the early 1990s, professors and graduate students from Cambridge and Nottingham Universities have promoted the IQEA school improvement model which adapts "external change for internal purposes" (Ainscow & Hopkins, 1992, p. 79). Schools working towards the improvement of internal conditions of the school while adapting to external changes describes the conceptual frame from which the IQEA model operates. Hopkins (1994) from the Cambridge Institute of Education points out:
IQEA works from an assumption that schools are most likely to strengthen their ability to provide enhanced outcomes for all pupils when they adopt ways of working that are consistent with their own aspirations as well as the current reform agenda (p. 4).
Two elements that participation in the IQEA process cultivates in schools are a focus for change centered on continuous development of the teacher and the development of a school culture that is collaborative and supportive of school improvement initiatives.
The IQEA school improvement project involves universities working in partnership with networks of schools. The following school improvement principles, outlined by Harris and Hopkins (2000), form the alliance and create a synergy from which project schools begin the IQEA process:
School improvement is a process that focuses on enhancing the quality of students' learning.
The vision of the school should be one that embraces all members of the school community as both learners and contributors.
The school will secure its internal priorities through adopting external pressures for change and in so doing enhance its capacity for managing change.
The school will seek to use data and action research to drive forward and inform with school improvement efforts.
The school will seek to develop structures and create conditions that encourage collaboration and lead to the empowerment of students and teachers (p. 10).
In addition to the agreed upon school improvement principles, schools participating in the IQEA project are required to recruit a cadre of teachers as leaders charged with the responsibility of leading school change, commit to staff development, and commit to a process of evaluation of the school's internal and external systems. Schools must agree to a three semester commitment with the university with at least 80% of the staff supporting the IQEA initiative (Harris, 2000). Since the IQEA is self funded, it is financially dependent on schools agreeing to join the project.
As a partner with the schools, the university provides "a programme of staff development and a link advisor for each school" (Harris, 2000, p. 2). This link advisor provides support, advice, and critical feed back while promoting the change process within the school.
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IQEA schools use Joyce and Weil's (1996) models of teaching as the impetus for professional learning for teachers in schools. These models of teaching are summarized into four categories of teaching and learning; behavioral systems, information processing, personal development, and social interaction. The IQEA school focuses on one model of teaching at a time promoting teacher development through demonstration, practice, observation, and feedback encouraging professional collaboration and a development of a common language with which colleagues are able to detail aspects of their practice (Harris, 2000).
Teaching staff are supported by offerings of professional development opportunities through the university in which they are networked with and are encouraged to partner with other teachers to teach and observe one another in action. One way that IQEA nurtures reflective practice is through 'lesson study' where teachers work together to design and implement a lesson and then observe one another offering feedback through post-lesson conferences (Ainscow, 2005). This focus on reflection and professional collaboration allows for a co-construction of an instructional framework that may challenge teachers to review their own thinking and experiment with new techniques which are essential in securing improved student outcomes.
Successful leaders place emphasis on pressure and support for school-based change realizing that school improvement cannot happen without both external and internal agency (Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2008). In an effort to develop forms of leadership that facilitate the learning of all students within a school, leadership practice at schools implementing the IQEA process set out to empower others to bring about change. Teacher 'cadres' are assigned to lead and monitor innovation and change during the process and distributive leadership focused on teaching and learning is a shared and flexible role where every staff member eventually takes on a leadership role (Harris, 2000). An overall vision for the school is nurtured by the principal of IQEA schools and staff meetings are occasionally held to consider the work of teaching and learning as it relates to school policy issues.
IQEA schools increase their capacity for change by creating a culture that supports teaching and learning and modifying internal organizational structures to adapt to external changes (Hopkins, 1994). The development of the school is linked to simultaneous work on the internal conditions of the school and professional development goals and desires from teacher participation in shared collaborative learning experiences reflecting on what works in schools. The school's development plan consists of goals and a plan of action with targets and tasks, responsibilities, a timeframe, and an evaluation of the goals as they are reached. When the culture of a school transforms itself and becomes a place of professional collaboration and shared responsibility for learning, external changes imposed on schools are met with less internal turbulence "because they have progressively enhanced their capacity to change as a result of this developmental process" (Hopkins, 1994).
The IQEA School Improvement Model in Action
The importance of educational change has become a priority throughout the world. Many countries are seeking out guidance and consultation in search for a development project aimed at sustainable school improvement. Schools in Iceland, Hong Kong, as well as the UK have implemented IQEA as an approach to school improvement adapting external reforms while addressing the unique context of the school.
In September of 1995, four Icelandic schools consulted with Cambridge University School of Education to introduce a model of school improvement which was whole school focused, promoted school-based evaluation, and evaluation of the impact of implementation on schools (Eggertsdottir, Hannesson, & Sigthorsson, 1998). Each of the schools differed on the degree of commitment to the process, choice of priorities, and allocation of time however all four schools implemented action plans and found ways to monitor, collect, and analyze data.
Following the first two years of implementation of the IQEA, teachers and parents completed a questionnaire and semi-structured interviews were conducted with administrators, teachers, students, and cadre groups from each school. All schools involved in the IQEA process reported increased school development planning, a development of a common professional vocabulary, an increase in collaboration, and a stronger vision of school improvement. Additionally, students benefitted through the implementation of engaged learning strategies, cross-curricular programs, and increased opportunities to express critical thinking. Not all teachers conformed to or agreed to the vision and policies outlined in the IQEA project and this posed a problem with changing the culture of the internal conditions slowing down the process of cultural change the project seeks to create.
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Schools in Hong Kong experienced similar benefits from implementing the When the IQEA process.
One of the aims of the IQEA is to build a culture of collaboration and involvement in schools so that individuals and departments are not working in isolation of one another.
If schools are to improve, then the role of the teacher in regards to teaching and learning in the classroom must be analyzed. Sarason (2004) described productive learning as a process that is personal, social, and transactional. He explained that learning is:
...a process that takes place in a describable context in which participants are in a transactional relationship with each other and, therefore, mutually affect each other's learning experience, and brings into play in seamless ways cognitive content and processes: motivation, attitudes, and emotions (p. 36).
This notion of learning as a transactional process suggests that the teacher and student are in a relationship where both are learning with and from each other. This means that teachers will have to know when students are learning the concepts that are being presented and when they are not. If a teacher is focusing on the lesson cycle and getting through the concepts for the day without regard to how the students are reacting within the context of the learning environment, then learning may not occur even though the teacher followed the lesson sequence and delivered an Oscar winning performance during the act of teaching. A shift from transmission of ready-made knowledge to transaction of learning needs to take place in classrooms. Teachers must learn from their students to know how and when to adapt and adjust teaching techniques based on nuances observed during learning transactions. It is my belief that effective schools are those that are committed to classroom environments which are conducive to promoting productive learning and supportive to teachers as they strive to create classrooms that are safe for students to try out their learning. Hargreaves and Fullan (1988) suggest that "for many students establishing relationships of respect and care is a necessary foundation for intellectual as well as social development" (p. 45). Mutual learning has a better chance of developing when teachers take time to build positive and caring relationships by learning who their students are, inside and outside of the classroom, and directly involving their students in the process of learning.
It is my opinion that the key to transforming classroom environments is by developing teachers as reflective practitioners. There is an assumption that experience is the best teacher but I believe that in the areas of teacher education and teacher development consideration should be given to the evaluation of the experience. Simply engaging in an experience does not necessarily guarantee that we will learn from it. "Our day-to-day experiences as we confront challenges, incidents, and problems in our lives are rich sources of learningâ€¦if accompanied by reflection on action" (Butler, 1992, p. 1). Instructional practices may improve when teachers engage in reflective teaching practices. Shön's reflection-based epistemology of practice provides a frame for the development of personal knowledge and awareness of learning by characterizing the nature of thought into 'Reflection-in-action', 'Reflection-on-action', and 'Reflection-for-action' (Miriam, Cafarella & Baumgartner, 2007). Reflection-in-action involves reflection of practice as it is taking place, reflection-on-action requires the analysis of a situation after it has occurred, and reflection for action is the process of reflecting on practice before an experience has occurred. Teacher reflection with an aim to improve practice will yield positive results however, the key to becoming effective at teaching lies in the willingness and ability for teachers to reflect on their own practice. Engaging in reflective practice is no easy task for teachers but one that I believe has to take top priority in the teaching agenda if we are serious about improving our practice and improving our schools.
Teachers may feel empowered to develop their craft if given the opportunity to choose the direction of their professional learning. I am reminded of a professional development training that I facilitated for a group of middle school teachers. The purpose of the training was to inform the teachers of recent research into second language learning acquisition and to share instructional strategies to develop English language learners' social language while promoting their academic language. I had prepared many interactive activities for the participants in an effort to give the teachers an opportunity to practice some of the strategies that they could use in their classrooms to support linguistic development. Of the fourteen teachers in attendance, seven refused to participate in discussions, were carrying on side conversations, or grading papers clearly disengaged from the learning. I was baffled by this blatant refusal to contribute to the discussions as the other seven teachers openly and willingly shared strategies and concerns that they experienced in their classrooms. It became obvious to me that the seven teachers that refused to engage in the professional development session were sent a directive by their administrator to attend this training. These teachers did not find value in the training because it was not something that they chose to attend, therefore, it was a meaningless waste of a day for them. Teacher development should not be an activity engaged in as an add-on but more of an embedded and continuous process that informs the day-to-day practices in our schools. Hargreaves and Fullan (1998) suggested:
For children to become better learners, teachers must learn how to become better learners too - not just as a one-shot solution to particular crises, but as an ongoing professional obligation...teachers who see teaching as being intrinsically difficult, in which improvement is always possible and necessary, especially in a culturally diverse and technologically complex society (pp 48-49).
I speculate that teachers will develop themselves when they are given the control over their individual professional learning goals.
Teachers may be more likely to develop their craft and participate in reflective practices when schools support a culture of reflection that is dedicated to building in time for teachers to engage in professional conversations about the students that they teach. I propose that professional learning systems which are embedded in the work day may be a more responsible and effective way of promoting continuous improvement and reflection on practice. Developing and refining collaborative systems that promote professional learning opportunities within the campus, across the district, and among other districts may prove to be a better model of sustaining continuous improvement in schools. Hargreaves and Fullan (1998) suggest that the "teaching profession must become a better learning profession - not just incidentally, at teachers' own individual initiative, but also in the very way the job is designed" (p. 83). Creating this framework is a tall order and will require schools to build relationships with one another to develop collegiality in an effort to learn and grow from each other.
Campus leaders have a key role in creating contexts of productive learning and can do so by practicing participative leadership. I suggest that administrators support teachers by acting as facilitators in taking an active role in carrying out campus initiatives that are decided on by teachers. A leader that manages by principles focuses on issues and not on the person, maintains constructive relationships, takes initiative to make things better, and leads by example (Zenger, Musselwhite, Hurson, & Perrin, 1994). I posit that campus administrators possess the ability to empower teachers when they work side by side with team members instead of issuing directives and controlling the work of teachers.
Students and parents should also be invited to share in the quest towards school improvement. I believe that schools have the conditions for improvement when campus leaders and teachers work to create environments that empower students and parents. "Creating positive politics that empowers students, parents, and colleagues alike requires charm, diplomacy, self-mockery, guileless, coming down off one's own pedestal, giving voice to othersâ€¦and generally being able to "read" the micropolitics of the school" (Hargreaves & Fullan, 1998, p. 46). By welcoming parents and students into our schools and involving them in the governance and decision making of the school, we can create conditions for learning that are constructed as a collective endeavor.
In conclusion, it is my opinion that there is hope for schools to improve beginning with the classroom as a mutual learning environment and by developing teachers that possess a voice in the process of change in the campuses where they teach. Ingersoll (2003, p. 223) suggests that teachers have more control over the curriculum that they teach but less control when it comes to social issues such as discipline and the sorting of students. It is my view that empowering teachers in the decision making in schools and involving parents and students in issues that directly affect them may produce positive results. Additionally, school leaders have to be committed to reculturing schools and creating collective partnerships with teachers, students, and parents. Shifting the aim of education from a focus on outputs to a focus on productive learning for leaders, teachers, students, and parents is a way to begin the journey towards building more effective schools.