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Building School Improvement Capacity and Learning Capital: A Swedish Case Study
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education. (SITE)ORCID iD: 0000-0003-1157-7932
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education. (SITE)
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education. (SITE)ORCID iD: 0000-0003-0644-3489
2015 (English)In: Education and Transition. Contributions from Educational Research. ECER 2015, European Conference on Educational Research, Budapest, September 7-11, 2015Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

In school systems around the world there is an increasing focus on students' academic achievement and school result. Sweden is no exception in that respect. Parallel to an intensified control of pupils' level of achievement (cf. PISA), there are increasing demands for school decision makers to gradually improve students' academic performance. The question of how schools are changing and improving thus becomes an important issue for all levels, from policy makers to professionals in schools, but also for researchers. Several decades of research on how school’s improvement efforts ultimately affect student learning highlights the importance of paying attention to the balance between "... individual initiative and school/system change, between internal and external resources and ideas, between pressure for accountability and support for change, and between independence and collaboration "(Hopkins et al., 2014). In this context, the coordination of top-down and bottom-up strategies in schools' improvement work seems to be crucial (Fullan, 1994). At the same time, research shows that the building of schools' development capacity is primarily focused on professional learning and development for principals and teachers, which in turn is expected to improve teaching and student learning (cf. Day, 2012; Stoll 2009). From previous studies of local school improvement work, the results show changes in aspects of principals’ and teachers’ learning, which can be connected to certain improvement strategies (Adolfsson & Håkansson, 2014). This paper will investigate these indications further.

The focus of this paper is to explore schools' capacity building for improvement in terms of professional learning as strategies over time change character from top-down to bottom-up, a perspective seemingly little illuminated in past research. Within the framework of an ongoing three-year research project in six Swedish compulsory schools, the intention here is to elucidate the way in which top-down and bottom up strategies affect schools' improvement in general and the schools' capacity for development of different forms of learning capital in particular. The following research questions are addressed in the paper:

•In what ways are principals' leadership and learning but also teachers' understanding of their teaching and the improvement work in terms of learning capital, related to changes in school improvement strategies?

•What changes in schools overall learning capital and capacity building can be found in relation to changed strategies to initiate and manage local school improvement work?

The theoretical foundation of this study is based on curriculum theory (cf. Lundgren, 1989). From school improvement research there are also certain concepts to acknowledge. One crucial concept is the “nested school system”. It consists of a number of nested sub-systems, e.g. the classroom, teachers working teams, school leadership teams, the local authority et cetera (Resnick, 2010). Although these systems are related internally, school improvement work in each system rests on specific rationalities and incentives (i.e. loosely coupled). Another important concept is “capital”, which refers to different learning qualities in the capacity building of school improvement. Shulman and Shulman (2004) distinguish four forms of capital defining different qualities of schools' capacity building in terms of learning: i) moral or cultural capital, ii) curriculum capital, iii) instructional capital, iv) change capital. The moral or cultural capital means ability to engage in school and teacher team collaborative work and learning about teaching, while curriculum capital involves significant dimensions of teachers' assignments, such as knowledge of school subjects, curriculum, syllabuses, teaching strategies, et cetera. Instructional capital is about the ability to translate theoretical knowledge into practical teaching, while change capital contains the step from participation and training in different school improvement activities to the incorporation of (more or less) changed and more effective ways of teaching (ibid.).

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used

The paper draws on a “classical” theoretical and methodological framework of curriculum theory (i.e. the frame-factor theory), with its different levels of analysis – the societal/ideological level, the curriculum level; and the teaching and classroom level (cf. Lundgren 1989). In order to study and analyse ongoing school development processes and changes in schools’ capital building, different kinds of sources have been used. Throughout the ongoing evaluation project data from the schools’ improvement work have been collected (e.g. local documents, interviews and survey studies with students, teachers, principals, and officials from the local authority), to support analyses of learning capital on different levels.

The main type of source used in this study is focus group interviews with principals (n=8) and teachers (n=80). Another is recordings and field notes from planning meetings that continually were held during the project with principals. In the beginning of the project two group interviews with all participating principals where carried out. After two years a second round of interviews followed up these interviews, with the same principals. A semi-structured interview-guide was used and the interviewer was a research assistant who had not met the group before. In addition approximately 20 group interviews with teachers were carried out. The main focus in these principal and teacher interviews was experiences and views on the schools’ improvement work in general and change in schools’ capacity building, principals’ and teachers’ learning in particular.

Keeping with the theoretical points of departure, the analysis follows a two-step procedure. In the first step the newly collected empirical data was compared to data from previous interviews and planning meetings. With the capital concept (Shulman & Shulman, 2004), the focus in this step of the analysis was to elucidate patterns of change over time in the school’s capacity building. In connection to the frame-factor theory and in accordance with Fullan (2001), meaning that educational processes must be studied in relation to both their external and their internal conditions, these results were in a second step analysed in relation to a continous shift from top down strategies to bottom up strategies for initiation and implementation of local school improvement work.

Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings

The results of the empirical analysis will be presented in terms of changes in schools learning capital and capacity building in relation to changed strategies to initiate and manage local school improvement works. In light of the thesis that different strategies will support different qualities (capital) of the schools’ capacity building in their local improvement work, the results indicate that changes from an emphasis on top-down strategies to an emphasis on bottom-up strategies seems to create conditions for other forms of capital within the scope of the local school improvement work. For example, bottom up (horizontal) strategies seem to in greater extent support the schools’ moral and venture capital building, compared to top down (vertical) strategies. These changes will be discussed in terms of how shifts in school strategies appear in: i) principals' leadership and learning, and ii) teachers' understanding of their teaching and the improvement work.

In light of the concept of the “nested school system” it will finally be argued that different aspects of learning capital are necessary for successful and solid school improvement work. Moreover the results indicates that the organization of local school improvement work has to actively engage all the sub-systems of the school system (i.e. re-couple the nested systems). In other words, successful school improvement strategies, where different aspects of the capital building are included, seem to comprise a balance between top down and bottom up strategies (c.f. Hopkins et al, 2014),

References

Adolfsson, Carl-Henrik & Håkansson, Jan (2014). Learning schools in Sweden – principals understanding of ongoing school improvement in an era of accountability. Contribution to the ECER-konference in Porto, September 2014.

Day, C. (Ed) (2012). The Routledge international handbook of teacher and school development. London: Routledge.

Fullan, M. (1994). Coordinating Top-Down and Bottom-Up strategies for Educational Reform. In Anson, R.J. Systemic reform. Perspectives on Personalizing Education. Washington: US Department of Education.

Hopkins, D., Stringfield, S., Harris, A., Stoll, L, & Mackay, T. (2014). School and system improvement: a narrative state-of-the-art review. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, vol. 25, No 2, 257-281.

Lundgren, U.P., (1989). Att organisera omvärlden: en introduktion till läroplansteori. (Organizing the Surrounding World: Introduction to Curriculum Theory; in Swedish). Stockholm: Utbildningsförlaget på uppdrag av Gymnasieutredningen.

Resnick, Lauren B. (2010). Nested System for the Thinking Curriculum. Educational Researcher, vol. 39 No. 3  183-197.

Shulman, L. S. & Shulman, J. H. (2004). How and what teachers learn: a shifting perspective. Journal of curriculum studies, vol. 36, No. 2, 257-271.

Stoll, L. (2009). Capacity building for school improvement or creating capacity for learning? A changing landscape. Journal of Educational Change. 10, 115-127.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2015.
National Category
Educational Sciences
Research subject
Pedagogics and Educational Sciences
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-50679OAI: oai:DiVA.org:lnu-50679DiVA: diva2:911686
Conference
ECER 2015, European Conference on Educational Research, Budapest, September 7-11
Available from: 2016-03-14 Created: 2016-03-14 Last updated: 2017-02-16Bibliographically approved

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