The Cultural Maelstrom of School Change

Ultimately the board-superintendent nexus allows a multiage program to survive … until recently by Patricia Lennon and David Middlemas

One of the most absurd vestiges of yesteryear in our public schools is the widely accepted practice of moving students to different teachers and grade levels every year, leading to an annual mix of new classmates and instructional methodologies.

No respectable body of research or scholarly reflection today gives any credibility to the academic and social legitimacy of segregating students by age and providing them with standard scope-and-sequence learning, yet most teachers and parents would defend this practice to the death.

As we recently discovered, any effort to break up the status quo often bears unanticipated social and political side effects that can discourage even the most resilient educators.

We looked to the concept of multiage grouping as a better instructional process while working for a small, low-performing, economically struggling school district in northwestern New Jersey in the late 1990s. It’s a concept with considerable research support.

In 1992, Barbara Nelson Pavan, professor of educational administration at Temple University, published a review of 64 research studies in her book, The Benefits of Nongraded Schools. Pavan’s analysis revealed that students who completed nongraded primary programs had higher academic achievement than those in graded schools. Students in nongraded intermediate programs had higher or similar academic achievement. A mental health component that was part of 42 of the studies found pupils in nongraded schools had more positive attitudes toward school than did those in graded schools and scored higher on self-esteem inventories.

Promising Beginning

Armed with supportive research, we helped the school district create a single K-1 class at the district’s only elementary school, where the approximately 100 students had been grouped in five traditional, single-age kindergarten classes with approximately 20 students in each class. The teacher who eagerly signed on to pilot the multiage program was a veteran kindergarten teacher who enjoyed personal challenges.

The pilot was designed as a two-year experiment in that the teacher kept half of her single-age kindergarten class (10 students) while sending the other half on to a traditional 1 st grade. Placing 10 incoming kindergarten students alongside the 1 st graders in the multiage classroom for a full school year completed the experimental class.

The data we collected during the pilot supported multiage education as being beneficial in terms of academic achievement and social and emotional growth. Performance of kindergarten students in both the multiage and traditional classrooms were calculated using pre- and post-test scores on a writing rubric at the beginning and end of the school year, along with a year-end spelling and reading assessment.

Comparison of the two groups’ results revealed the mean spelling and reading scores were significantly higher for the kindergarten students in the multiage classroom. In addition, the growth scores on the writing rubric indicated a 10-fold difference in favor of the kindergarten students in the multiage classroom.

The 1st graders in the first year of the study, who were taught by their kindergarten teacher of the previous year, were assessed using the Word Awareness Writing Activity, the Ohio Sight Word List and a locally developed spelling, reading and math assessment. Even though a disproportionately high percentage of 1 st graders in the multiage group were initially eligible for basic skills instruction (71 percent compared to 28 percent in the traditional 1 st-grade classroom), there was no significant difference between the achievement of the 1 st-grade students in the two classrooms on the spelling, reading and math assessments by the end of the school year. In addition, no significant difference on the growth scores was found.

Focus groups involving teachers and parents indicated that students in the multiage setting required less time to adapt to classroom routines, their parents were involved to a higher degree and the students accepted more responsibility at home.

Cultural Conflict

Despite these positive results (or perhaps because of them), an unexpected cultural maelstrom erupted. Almost immediately after early results of the pilot were presented at the joint statewide conference of the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, teachers in single-grade classrooms at the school pressured the pilot teacher to conform to what they considered appropriate levels of productivity. They wanted the multiage classroom teacher to use the same commercially published materials they used and to commit to preparation time comparable to their own.

Their behavior was reminiscent of the employees in a much-quoted study of factory workers with General Electric some 50 years ago. The GE study found that factory workers who were evaluated in terms of their output often pressured others to conform to predetermined levels of productivity. Our study gave credence to the suspicion that peer pressure to conform to mediocre standards is alive in the world of education.

T he multiage teacher, who joined the superintendent and the principal in public presentations, was confronted by jealousy and resentment by other teachers as someone who had been accorded special treatment. The school board’s enthusiastic support of the multiage program raised unfounded complaints that the teacher’s classroom received extra financial support, a misconception fueled by the fact two board members had children enrolled in the multiage class.

Field trips — an initiative of the multiage teacher as a way of extending learning to the real world — led to claims that the multiage class received more money for such outings when in fact they were walking to places like the local bakery, post office and local businesses.

Conflicts erupted between parents of students in the traditional and those in the multiage classes. Negative stereotyping (“You’re not putting your child in THERE, are you?”) demonstrated parents’ basic need to maintain the status quo. Parents of multiage classroom students were distressed and angry about comments that were made to them outside school.

Vying for Control

This experience reaffirmed our belief that many stakeholders who outwardly claim to want schools to change do not support those changes if their personal teaching, learning or parenting behaviors are affected.

Peter B. Vaill, professor of human systems at the School of Business and Public Management at George Washington University, describes this phenomenon in his 1989 book Managing as a Performing Art: New Ideas for a World of Chaotic Change, saying: “The change process is often not so much a matter of clear, objective improvement as it is a competition for control.”

Colleagues vilified the teacher who piloted the multiage class. Friction between constituencies pitted staff against staff, parents against parents. Parents who were not part of the pilot attended board meetings and parent meetings to discredit the program, claiming it was elitist and politically motivated despite the fact the class was open to all.

Because the school district was struggling to meet state academic standards, one would assume any legitimate and sincere effort to improve its standing would be welcome. Instead, the low test scores and the challenge of assimilating a 40 percent Latino population and overcoming high poverty levels (more than 25 percent qualified for the federal lunch program) had ostensibly dispirited the faculty, contributing to a public perception of an ineffectual elementary school. The community was growing frustrated as summer school rosters grew, and special education classifications expanded significantly.

Our effort to regroup students and assign teachers differently brought focus to t he dysfunctional assumption that children who come from poor, bilingual homes with few preschool experiences cannot learn without expensive special services. Suddenly, it was possible that what happened inside the classroom was more important than what happened outside. This was both threatening and destabilizing to guard ians of the status quo.

Linchpin of Change

This leads us to the central tenets of structural change demonstrated in this experiment. The initial solidarity between the superintendent and the board of education was the indisputable linchpin to successful innovation. For successful school change, the expectations expressed by board members and top administrators must be consistent and persistent in the face of opposition and diversion.

After three years and despite some attrition at the administrative level, solidarity among the district’s leadership allowed the program to thrive. Although the superintendent, principal and several board members from the pilot years moved on, the innovation has lasted five years and has continued to grow with two additional K–1 multiage classes, two additional grades 2–3 multiage classes and plans to expand into the intermediate grades — all because of the superintendent and board’s efforts to institutionalized the practice.

Recently, however, the constitution of the seven-member school board has changed with one member actually using the dissolution of multiage grouping as her campaign platform. The school district this year continues to run multiage classrooms at K-1 and 2-3 levels and the administration advocated for an anticipated expansion to a 4-5 class. However, a new board majority has decided to eliminate multiage education from the district’s strategic plan as of September 2005, despite efforts by some educators on the local and state levels to see the program continue. The district administration had hired an expert consultant from the Midwest to run a three-day multiage education institute at the public library that was attended by teachers, administrators and members of the New Jersey Department of Education, which favored the program.

Despite these efforts to bolster the program and communicate its documented educational and social advantages, multiage education will be no more in this New Jersey district. From the point of view of the superintendent, the new board members were able to persuade a board majority that the program was unsuccessful, despite research to the contrary. In the superintendent’s words, “I just got tired of banging my head against the wall and besides I have too many other responsibilities.”

And so it goes. Innovation admittedly requires resources to support behavioral change and initially this community did a great deal to support professional staff in a continuous and coherent manner through staff development and opportunities to visit other multiage schools. This was done so new competencies could be gradually assimilated. While an allocation of resources developed a critical mass of supporters who moved this innovation into the mainstream of practice, the status quo defenders became more energized. Critical mass typically affects cultural momentum, which in turn enables new practices to be institutionalized. However, without that linchpin between the board and the superintendent, all other efforts become feeble.

Getting every staff member on board is not realistic, and that is fine. When the linchpin is in place key stakeholders who support the innovation can help non-believers recognize its benefits. In our project we made it clear that parents always would have a choice of a multiage or traditional classroom for their children, but ultimately even this cannot overcome the defenders of the status quo and a board’s waffling and non-support.

Quantifiable Evidence

School leaders need a strong constitution, along with appropriate research support on the effectiveness of the new method. Venturing forth without solid data is like playing political roulette. Data can be the most powerful ally available to superintendents and boards committed to meaningful change. Even with the data, school change is risky business.

In our experiment, systematic evaluation of the multiage setting using appropriate and accepted assessments of student achievement, combined with qualitative evaluation of faculty and parent opinions, provided the original board with objective and comprehensive information from which to make informed decisions.

Data provide quantifiable evidence of student achievement and can diminish the emotional element involved in what can become a tough political contest. Data-driven decision making can heighten the chances for innovation by gradually building a school culture that emphasizes concrete results that are in the best interest of everyone involved, especially the students. However, even data cannot transcend the importance of a solid linchpin between the board and the superintendent when a well-documented innovation is perceived as an affront to an institution.

Patricia Lennon is superintendent of the Old Tappan School District, 277 Old Tappan Road, Old Tappan, NJ 07675. E-mail: Lenhilt@aol.com; lenhilt@optonline.net. David Middlemas is associate professor of educational statistics and measurement at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, N.J.