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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
Action Research: Classroom Management & School Culture:
Factors and Processes Necessary to Sustain Networks

by Diana Y. Takenaga-Taga
Windsor Hills Math/Science/Aerospace Magnet
AUGUST, 1997

Introduction
Research Background
The First Year, 1991-92
The Second Year, 1992-93
The Third Year, 1993-94
Conclusion of the Three-Year Study
The years, 1994-to the Present
Sustaining Networks
References

Introduction

Windsor Hills Magnet is an elementary school located within the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the fall of 1989, it became a magnet school with a new teaching staff selected for their expertise in science, math, and technology. During a staff meeting in August 1991, a discussion was held on the effectiveness of the science program at the school. The science staff discussed how their current science program did not articulate from kindergarten to grade 6. It was agreed that the science topics taught in the classrooms varied from grade level to grade level, science concepts were not always taught at all grade levels, science disciplines were lacking at some grade levels, and certain science content was repeated at different grade levels. In conclusion, the staff agreed that the current science program was not effectively meeting the needs of the school's students and that the science curriculum needed to be reviewed and changed.

During the next three years, the science staff met on a regular basis to reform their science curriculum and in doing so, formed a working network. A Science Content Matrix was written by the staff, new science curriculum was reviewed and ordered, planning grants were received, the administration was showing support, and the staff was well-motivated. It has been within the last year that the network has developed problems in sustaining itself. Teacher motivation is down, there seems to be less administrative support , and a turn over in the teaching staff has affected communication. Because the network is still considered a viable part of the school's professional development plan by the teachers, there is a need to find out what factors and processes are necessary to sustain the network. How are networks introduced and sustained within a given structure? Can teacher networks be formalized as a professional development process? An attempt to answer these questions will be the focus of this study which will review and address the network processes at Windsor Hills Magnet.

Research Background

According to Cushman (1996), there are nine elements that define a successf ul network, which are summarized by reviewing the writings of Ann Lieberman and Maureen Grolnick, Andy Hargreaves, and others. She lists these elements of a successful network:

  • Building trusting relationships through inquiry and work initiated or chosen by members because of their own needs and carried out together over time.
  • Establishing norms of reflective practice and shared decision making, which provide internal avenues by which to share information.
  • The support of district and building leadership, including respect for true empowerment of teachers, parents, and students rather than "contrived collegiality" in the service of administrative control.
  • A common purpose and the flexibility to adapt and revise that purpose together as the network evolves.
  • Compelling activities that support the central purpose, allow for participants to share their own experience, and extend intermittent "transformative" experiences into actual daily work.
  • Crossing role groups to use both "outside" and "inside" knowledge, balancing theory, research, and practice to solve common problems.
  • A reliable way to provide information to members.
  • Structures and roles that diffuse responsibility and leadership among the members of the organization.
  • An emphasis on informal personal connections in network activities, even at the expense of efficiency or uniformity.
The science network at Windsor Hills contained many of these elements in the first three years of its existence. By analyzing these three years as a science network, a clear understanding of the network processes will emerge. The following sections contain a personal record of what took place at Windsor Hills Magnet.

The First Year, 1991-92
To begin the task of science reform, I first met with our principal, Mrs. Van Zant. We began by planning a way for me to meet with the thirteen science teachers on a regular basis during school hours. Mrs. Van Zant suggested that we have a departmentalized meeting once a month in place of a regular scheduled staff meeting.

In October, I planned for our first departmentalized meeting to take place in my room after school. I knew this was a critical meeting because it could set the tone for any future meetings. We had never met as a science staff before and it seemed important that we should begin working as a collaborative team. With this in mind, I planned for refreshments and an agenda shared with the principal. Agenda items included were: a definition of CSIN, a review of Windsor Hills' science program, an introduction to the Science Framework, the Program Elements Matrix (PEM), the Content Matrix (CM), and announcements. I was basically following the guidelines suggested by CSIN. Charts, information about the Science Framework, examples of Program Element Matrixes and Content Matrixes were shared.

I thought our first meeting ended well despite a very full agenda (which would change as I became familiar with agenda planning). Although there was some resistance from staff members, I thought we were onto a good start. One lesson I had learned in leading groups was that I had to establish common goals before I could expect "buy in" from the participants. Even though our main goal had been established prior to our first meeting, our next step was to write our science goals in a Program Elements Matrix (PEM). Completing a PEM took place at our second meeting. The main elements we wrote into our matrix were articulation, special activities and programs, staff development, money and materials, community resources, and time. These elements would be our focus for the next three years.

It was during our second meeting that we realized we needed to address prior issues. Science Frameworks had to be ordered, some of us needed training in conceptual teaching, and we needed to inventory our science materials. Also, I felt we needed funding to support our meetings. At this time, an opportunity to write a Los Angeles Educational Partnership (LAEP) Target Science Restructuring Grant for the amount of $2000 was made available. If our grant was accepted, support funding could begin in February.

We agreed that an understanding of conceptual teaching was important to our efforts before any work could begin on our Content Matrix. Because we needed to have a basic understanding of conceptual teaching, we invited Janet Thornber, Director of the UCLA Science Project, to present a workshop to us. We were also fortunate to have her daughter on our teaching staff. After meeting with Janet, the remainder of our meetings were spent putting together a life science strand for our Content Matrix. This was a difficult task because everyone still did not have a clear understanding of concept writing or teaching even though Janet had given us conceptual definitions during her presentation. We were still at diverse levels. Many of us were used to teaching topics and could not see the difference between teaching topics and concepts. Janet had given us conceptual definitions but the practices were not yet in the classroom. Our reform efforts were slow in progress.

Perhaps, the most significant event of this first year was the network that began to form with the science staff. Our meetings began to take on a very casual atmosphere with the sharing of ideas among the teachers. We were also well-informed of outside science resources since many of us were affiliated with different science organizations. A new group was also forming at the University of Southern California called PRAXIS which we were able to join as a school.

Another significant event was the grant money acquired to support our efforts. Although the grant was written by one person, due to a lack of time and interest by most staff members, it proved to be an important asset to our meetings. All refreshments and minor supplies were made available through the grant money which eliminated any hassles from the administration.

In terms of achieving our first year goals, we were able to complete a three-year PEM, complete the life science strand of our Content Matrix, plan a Family Science Evening and Science Fair, invite two outside resources for staff development, and secure the $2000 grant from Target Science. Many of us were pleased with our first year accomplishments.

The Second Year, 1992-93
In September, I met with Mrs. Van Zant to schedule our science department meeting dates for the year. I was discovering the importance of administrative support which I would need for a successful year of planning. Mrs. Van Zant also became supportive by attending the USC PRAXIS summer program with our team of three teachers. By encouraging us to become a part of PRAXIS, we felt that she was working with us. PRAXIS also allowed us to write another grant for the amount of $3000.

There were some changes made in our meeting agendas during the second year. Instead of leading our meetings, I began to facilitate them by asking other staff members to give short reports and announcements. I tried to give ownership and empowerment to other teachers since many them now felt comfortable in leading short sections of our agendas. By encouraging other teachers to lead, our network was becoming a collaborative effort.

Again, we scheduled our first meeting in October and noticed that we had lost and gained two new science teachers who needed to be updated on our work so far. By reviewing our PEM, we also realized that we had a challenging year ahead of us. In addition to completing our Content Matrix, we also had the task of reviewing and adopting new science materials. This created a problem for us. In order for us to adopt new materials, we had to first complete the Earth and Physical Science strands of our Content Matrix. Again, with administrative support we were able to schedule and meet with publisher representatives at our convenience.

Most of our second year meetings were focused on becoming familiar with the new state-adopted materials and completing the two remaining strands of our Content Matrix. We had also begun an inventory of our current science materials. By the end of June, we had completed our Content Matrix, submitted orders by grade levels for state-adopted materials, and had PRAXIS grant money made available.

The Third Year, 1993-94
To many of us, the third year was considered the most challenging and frustrating. We had just received a 10% pay cut from the district and did not feel like working on third year PEM goals. Also, our second year PRAXIS grant needed to be written and submitted. Probably, our biggest challenge of the year was in trying to spend the PRAXIS grant money received from the previous year and the year to come. As mentioned earlier, we had submitted our science material orders in June and were expecting delivery by September. Because it was now November, we resubmitted the same orders. When our orders were not delivered by January of the next year, we began to suspect that our administration was not supporting us in securing our orders. We were advised to call the publishers' offices and the district's purchasing office. So, we resubmitted our orders for the third time to the district's purchasing office and were eventually told that these orders were also misplaced. Finally, our administration was able to determine that the purchasing office had misplaced a substantial amount of our school's funds during their process of restructuring the district's computer system. By June, we had received most of the materials we had ordered a year ago.

Because we were now familiar with our developed Content Matrix, we also realized that we needed to articulate science concepts by grade level to discuss specific grade level concepts. With grant money funds, we secured the needed substitute days for articulation. This was viewed as a milestone for our network. In the past, I usually suggested the direction of our agendas. Finally, after two years of planning, the science staff requested an innovative idea of their own. Clearly, by requesting a schedule to meet by grade levels was a collaborative strategy that did work.

During the third year, we decided to add an aerospace strand to our Content Matrix. Again, we invited Janet Thornber to help us with our conceptual writing. She was now familiar with our science staff since many of us were now affiliated with the UCLA Science Project and programs. At our planning meeting, Janet supported us by donating trade books on flight and aerospace to our science resources. By the end of the year, we were also able to redefine our school-wide science fair. As a collaborative team, teachers were volunteering to take on the task of reorganizing the fair.

Another challenge emerged in the third year. In July of 1994, Mrs. Van Zant informed us that the district had transferred her to another school. We would lose the administrative support we had secured over the past three years and would have to begin the process of working with a new administrator.

Conclusion of the Three-Year Study
In the first year at Windsor Hills Magnet, there were definite elements of a successful network emerging. While the group did not set out to become a network, the network formed naturally through a common purpose or goal which was to reform their science curriculum using the Science Framework as a guide in writing their PEM and Content Matrix. Although meetings were mandatory, emphasis was placed on having informal gatherings with refreshments at the beginning of all meetings. These informal gatherings helped in building trusting relationships between the staff members who began to share information and communicate effectively. The first year also saw the support of the administrator who let the group form their own agendas and offered suggestions when problems arose. Outside resources were utilized in the form of content expertise from Janet Thornber who used her outside knowledge to help the network with conceptual teaching. Grant funding was also secured from two outside resources, LAEP Target Science and USC PRAXIS. In the second year, administrative support was important in problem solving the situation of reviewing and ordering new state-adopted materials when the Content Matrix had not been completed. Leadership roles were also shifting to other members who began to diffuse responsibility.

Information sharing was more evident as teachers found out about practice and knowledge through outside resources such as attending the UCLA Science Project with Janet Thornber. Even though the third year proved to be challenging and frustrating, all of the network elements were present in this last year. Two elements that were highly evident were in compelling activities that supported the central purpose and work initiated because of the staff's own needs. After the staff developed their Content Matrix, they saw the need to meet by grade levels to develop their own grade level science concepts. This was an idea suggested by the group's members which showed flexibility to adapt and revise activities to meet their own needs. A high degree of trust was evident by the third year because the group had worked together for a considerable amount of time to develop their science program.

In conclusion, the science network established at Windsor Hills Magnet in three years contained many of the elements of a successful network as listed by Cushman (1996). The following is a personal study of the problems that began to emerge in sustaining the network in the last three years.

The years, 1994-to the Present
When we were told that a new principal would take Mrs. Van Zant's place, many of us were skeptical and wondered how the change would affect our established networks (A math network was also forming.). As it turned out, our new principal supported our efforts and allowed our group to continue meeting as previously planned. Because other school activities were taking precedent over our meetings, we were not able to meet as frequently as before. We were also witnessing new staff changes since our six grade students moved to middle school and we opened up more grade level classes. Less teaming was taking place which affected communication and caused some classroom isolations. New teachers were not clear in attending departmentalized science or math meetings since no directive was established from the administration even after questions were asked. The loss of some of the original network science teachers affected the use of the Content Matrix since the new staff were not familiar with it. Content Matrix reviews became a part of future meetings. Other elements were becoming lost such as the common trust that was built over time and the sharing of information. The loss of meeting time hindered the process of goal setting for the year. There wasn't enough time to establish and work towards accomplishing any new goals. There was barely enough time to review and plan established activities such as the school-wide science fair. In reviewing the number of agendas, there were only five meetings scheduled the first year with our new administrator. Even so, it was felt that the administration was trying to support the efforts of the network. Unfortunately, there were just too many things that were taking precedent over the science program since it was generally believed that the science program was well established and didn't need any immediate changes. This belief would later have a negative effect on the network process as described below.

I felt that in order to sustain our network, we had to meet on a continual basis that was informal and consistent in nature even at the expense of efficiency or uniformity. By meeting, we were establishing the nine elements that Cushman described. Unfortunately, there is the saying that "if something isn't broken, why fit it?" In this case, "if the science program is working, why change it or why meet?" The whole point of having our network meetings were lost to the traditional school definition of a staff meeting which is to dispense information. I felt that the new administration did not have a clear understanding of the new practices and policies in professional development. Even so, by becoming a LEARN school, I had hoped that reform models in professional development would become more established at our school through LEARN training.

There are still some elements that are supporting the network structure at Windsor Hills. After the PRAXIS program ended, the school applied for the Los Angeles Systemic Initiative group to continue receiving funding for its science program. The grant funds were used for substitute days so that the science staff could articulate by grade level because of the additional new staff members. There is still collegiality among the staff members even with fewer monthly meetings. Teachers continue to share their knowledge and resources but on a limited basis because of the lack of opportunities to network. There are still planned school-wide science activities which have remained the same despite the need for review and revision. (An opportunity to plan a Family Science Evening was lost this year because the staff realized they had little time to organize it.) Even though goal setting continues to be limited, the staff is considering revisiting their Content Matrix next year to match it with the new state science standards.

Sustaining Networks

The purpose of this study was to identify the factors and processes necessary to sustain a network. The following questions were asked: What factors and processes are necessary to sustain networks? How can networks, which are non-hierarchical by definition, be introduced and sustained within the given structure? Can teacher networks be formalized as a professional development process?

By studying the network processes at Windsor Hills Magnet, it can be concluded that certain elements need to be present in order for a network to sustain itself. Cushman (1996) listed these elements and described how successful networks were formed. She states that "most successful networks have grown organically from the needs of individuals to explore problems together, share resources, and learn from each other." While this originally did occur at Windsor Hills, the problems of sustaining the network began to emerge three years later when some of the elements became lacking. In order for the science network to continue, emphasis will have to take place in reestablishing rapport with the administration. This was one of the most important elements in the first three years of the network. The first administrator encouraged the work of the staff and helped in problem-solving when issues were confronted. She also worked with the facilitator in scheduling meetings dates for the year ahead of time since the scheduling of regular meetings allowed the other elements to continue. Hopefully, increasing the number of meeting dates will have an effect on the motivation of the staff. For if teachers have the opportunities to talk together, understand each others' practices, and move as a community to visions of practice that represent the site's conceptions of best practice, then changes in teaching and learning will take place (McLaughlin, 1996). Emphasis will also need to be placed on rebuilding trusting relationships between staff members since many new members have joined the group and any attempt to establish norms of reflective practice and shared decision making will depend upon the collegiality of the group. By focusing on the key elements of a successful network, it is felt that the science network at Windsor Hills can continue as a viable group.

References
Cushman, Kathleen. (1996). Networks and Essential Schools: How Trust Advances Learning. Horace, The Coalition of Essential Schools, (September, 1996).

Hixson, J. and Tinzmann, M.B. (1990). What Changes Are Generating New Needs for Professional Development? NCREL, Oak Brook.

Lieberman, Ann and McLaughlin, Milbrey W. (1992). Networks for Educational Change: Powerful and Problematic, Phi Delta Kappan, May 1992.

McLaughlin, Milbrey W. (1996). Listening and Learning from the Field: Tales of Policy Implementationa and Situated Practice, The Roots of Educational Change. Netherlands, Kluwer Press.

Novick, Rebecca (1997). Actual Schools, Possible Practices: New Directions in Professional Development, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, (4)14.

Science Curriculum Framework and Criteria Committee. (1990). Science Framework for California Public Schools. California Department of Education. Sacramento, California.

 

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