Academic journal article The Future of Children

The Importance of Infrastructure Development to High-Quality Literacy Instruction

Academic journal article The Future of Children

The Importance of Infrastructure Development to High-Quality Literacy Instruction

Article excerpt

Ongoing efforts to design and disseminate interventions to improve literacy outcomes for U.S. schoolchildren have been something of a success story, but the nation's schools have been less successful in their implementation and use of these interventions. Despite the availability of best practices, the quality of literacy instruction in the United States is quite variable, and the variations contribute to unequal achievement for students. We attribute this incongruence to the unusual organization of the U.S. education system. In this article we tackle two questions. What organizational characteristics of the education system have hindered the development of consistently strong literacy instructional programs? What changes in school organization could help to develop and sustain consistently high-quality literacy instruction?

Beginning with the first question, we argue that the key organizational features that have shaped the quality of teaching in all subjects, including literacy, are the lack of educational infrastructure, a decentralized governance system, and the organization of teaching as an occupation. Each of these features impedes efforts to improve literacy instruction, yet they are seldom the target of reforms.

To begin to answer the second question we consider several reforms that have recently been at the forefront of organizational change: accountability, comprehensive school reforms, knowledge diffusion, improvement of human capital, market-based reforms, and the development of the Common Core State Standards. We discuss the potential each has to improve literacy instruction as well as its limitations, and we evaluate which might be most likely to improve literacy instruction.

How Organization Influences School Quality

When inspectors visit a construction site to assess the quality of work, they do so against a building code; this code typically is written out in detail and is used to guide work and teach apprentices. (1) When hospital head residents supervise interns as they take patients' histories or check blood pressures, they compare the interns' work with established procedures, many of which are written down and used to guide work and teach novices. In these cases and many others, the quality of workers' performance is measured in light of occupational standards.

That has not been the case for teaching in U.S. public schools. No common standards exist against which teachers' performance can be judged, and thus no inspection of their performance is conducted in light of such standards. There have been standards of a sort, but they have either not focused on performance or not focused on it in sufficient detail to discriminate acceptable from unacceptable work. Yet teaching is by far the largest school influence on learning, so teaching quality is central to academic achievement. To understand the quality of literacy and other academic work in U.S. schools, one must first understand why the United States has no framework--no educational infrastructure--that could inform teaching and teacher education and support valid judgments about the quality of teaching.

Defining Educational Infrastructure

The elements of educational infrastructure include examinations, curricula or curriculum frameworks, teacher education, inspection systems or other means to observe and improve instruction, and a teaching force whose members succeeded in those curricula and exams as students. Some national school systems have all of these elements while others have different subsets; a few U.S. subsystems have a few of the elements. In some cases the elements are deliberately aligned, while in others they appear to be somewhat independent. Teachers who work with such infrastructure have instruments they can use to set academic tasks that are tied to curriculum and assessment. The framework can help them to define quality in students' work and provide valid evidence of instructional quality. …

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