5 ways teachers respond to new policies and initiatives

iStock_000017916360XSmallHow do you get teachers to change the way they teach reading?

New policies and initiatives are easy for teachers to ignore. But, when suggestions and recommendations come from their coaches, teachers are more likely to make changes in their practices, according to a new study in Reading Research Quarterly. The study examined to what extent 1st and 2nd-grade teachers changed their classroom practices when a large elementary school in Massachusetts adopted the Reading First program.

“When teachers worked with coaches, they accommodated 52% of the Reading First messages they encountered compared with 15% without. This percentage is striking, given that prior studies using this or similar constructs have reported that accommodation is a challenging and relatively rare response,” the researchers report.

Accommodation is one of 5 potential responses teachers have to instruction messages.

These 5 potential responses are:

Rejection—Teachers ignore or dismiss the messages. Teachers may reject the new approach because they do not feel it is appropriate for their students, does not fit with other aspects of their instruction or because of philosophical differences. In this study, teachers rejected 45-55% of the messages they encountered.

Symbolic—Teachers make changes in appearance only, without altering instruction in any real way. Symbolic response was relatively rare in this sample, accounting for just over 2% of teachers’ responses.

Parallel structures—When teachers encounter messages that conflict with their current practices, they sometimes respond by simply adding the new approach to their program without making changes to the pre-existing program. In this study, for example, one teacher continued to teach decoding using context cues while adding the explicit teaching of phonics skills advocated by Reading First.

Assimilation—Teachers interpret and enact messages to fit their underlying assumptions. They then make changes at the surface level even though they might intend to change their existing pedagogical approach. One teacher in the study embraced the idea of explicitly teaching comprehension skills to her students. However, rather than explicitly teaching the skills or strategies, the teacher asked short comprehension questions related to the skill at the end of the story.

Accommodation—Teachers reconstruct their instructional approaches in fundamental ways or change their core assumptions about reading instruction or student learning. “Teachers often enact messages in ways that combine the new with the old (parallel structures and assimilation), leading to a pattern of incremental change,” the researchers write. Yet, at times, teachers respond by rethinking their assumptions and reorganizing routines in more fundamental ways.

Reading coaches essentially play 4 roles in working with teachers; one is educational and 3 are political, the researchers write.

The 4 roles are:

Educative—Coaches help teachers translate broad policy messages into specific classroom practices. Coaches can help teachers analyze their data, discuss the next steps for practice, lead professional development sessions and even co-teach to model new instructional approaches. They also can help teachers push past their first, more superficial responses to change toward deeper understanding and reconstruction of their practice.

Pressuring—As they support teachers’ learning, coaches also invoke the power of administrators to get teachers to make changes in their classrooms. They invoke the names of principals or grantmakers if they do not have authority themselves. In this study, coaches used pressuring in half the Reading First messages they delivered to teachers. However, it was not the most effective strategy. Teachers only responded with accommodation to 36% of messages that involved pressure compared with 69% of messages that did not involve pressure. But, teachers accepted pressuring from coaches better than they did from other administrators, according to the researchers.

Persuading—One of the main ways coaches in the study tried to persuade teachers to make changes was to point out that the new practices from Reading First were similar to what they were already doing or were consistent with their believes and values. The researchers call this strategy “constructive congruence.”

Buffering—Coaches also protect teachers by shielding them from outside pressures. They provide guidance about which messages to ignore or how to respond symbolically. Researchers note that they saw only one instance when teachers responded symbolically without a coach’s involvement. Coaches engage in suble and not-so-suble efforts to influence how teachers respond to improvement initiatives.

Researchers conducted a total of 40 interviews and 26 observation sessions with 7 teachers and their coaches in one elementary school. The researchers collected data during 7 weeklong visits to the school across 2 years. They identified a total of 371 Reading First messages encountered by teachers in the first year of implementation of Reading First from all sources including documents, professional development.

Researchers identified the messages each teacher received and whether the reading coach had discussed this message with the teacher. Messages were also coded according to teacher. Each teacher encountered an average of 53 messages each.

Future research on coaching should give greater attention to the way educational and political actions shape the relationship between coaches and teachers, the researchers write.

“Reading Coaches and the Relationship Between Policy and Practice,” by Cynthia Coburn and Sarah Woulfin, Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 47, Number 1, pps. 5-30.

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