Theories of Change in Education

Theories of Change in Education

Change Theories in Education

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By Merrilee Henk, WTWL Writer

Merrilee3Merrilee Henk is a teacher and life long learner. She has a background in psychology and emotional and behavioral disabilities. Merrilee currently teaches elementary special education and is working on her doctorate in education. She has written numerous articles on parenting, discipline, behavior modification, and other child related topics. Merrilee gives presentations for the Wisconsin Public Library Summer Reading Program for Children and recently began writing for eHow. Follow these links to view non-teaching related articles by this author: How to Attack the “After Christmas Naughty” and How to Change Your Life. . .Pick Your Vice.

Public education has been evolving with society since its conception, and reform efforts continue to drive that evolution. Reform efforts that do not address reform from a systemic perspective have overwhelmed public education institutions (Gabriele, 2000). Ravitch (2004) described the existing failure of many reform efforts as, “… forgotten innovations [that] continue to live in schools where they were introduced with great fanfare . . . schools are like archeological sites; digging would reveal layer after layer of fossilized school reforms and obsolete programs” (as cited in Jones, 2007, p. 189).

Different theories approach systemic educational change from varying philosophies, strategies, models, and methods (Gabriele, 2000), searching for the theory that will create conditions necessary for systemic change. Gabriele declared these conditions to include an “ideal-based, holistic, continuing, participatory, user-friendly, easy to adjust/improve, and emancipatory” for effective change to occur. Three theories of change utilized by school districts are institutional theory, free market theory, and round table theory.

Institutional Change Theory

John Meyer and colleagues developed the institutional change theory in the 1970’s (Huerta & Zuckerman, 2009). Institutional change theory is a framework based on the relationship between schools and their cultural environments. Society’s cultural norms shape organizational structure by encouraging schools to conform to the accepted rules and rituals of an institution. Scott (2003) described institutional theory as “[emphasizing] the influence that an organization’s cultural environment has on organizational structure and behavior, and it seeks to understand the ways in which cultural rules from the environment shape or constrain organizational action” (as cited in Huerta and Zuckerman, p. 415).

Established institutions, operating with rules and rituals that have come to represent legitimate schooling, become role models for other institutions seeking legitimacy. But not all institutions want to maintain the status quo and are constrained by societal and institutional norms. Huerta and Zuckerman (2009) cited the example of charter schools seeking to break away from the “long-standing institutionalized patterns of teaching and learning…” (p. 416). The institutionalization of the public school system has provided direction and limitations concurrently.

Free market theory

The free market theory proposes that educational change occurs as schools compete for excellence (Marion, 2002). The assumption that all schools begin with an equal opportunity to achieve excellence is attractive to proponents of school choice because it justifies the removal of their children from a failing school to one of greater success. According to the free market theory, the blame for failure lies with the school district.

Adnett and Davies (2000) and Lubienski (2006) proclaimed that federal regulations make it impossible for educational institutions to be genuine free markets, resulting in the failure of the free market theory in educational change (as cited in Eyal, 2008). Eyal deduced that a free market system, if possible to create in the public school system, would fail to produce significant change because the characteristics of the free market system would not create an environment conducive to change.

Roundtable Theory

The roundtable theory (RT) is a shared leadership theory for school change. Gabriele (2002) explained RT as distributing leadership and learning equally across participants. Involving stakeholders in the decision-making process through shared leadership can lead to higher levels of commitment. Gabriele described the ideal RT practice as being run according to a Leader’s Guide developed by consensus and periodically reviewed. The RT sessions would include a reading and review of literature on a topic during a 60 minute session, a time for participants to respond individually and uninterrupted by other members, and all participants would have an equal voice.

A change theory positively focused on strengths, rather than problems would be an ideal choice for school change. Gabriele described the RT model as based on achieving an ideal state, including all stakeholders, and being conducted within the regular school day. RT is an on-going process allowing schools to progress toward excellence. Gabriele noted that RT is a research-based model proven to lead organizations toward the “self-transformation of participants and goal attainment.

Change will affect staff regardless of the change theory chosen or the changes proposed. Bueker (2005) stated, “One of the most difficult aspects of implementing a whole school reform is striking a balance between proper program implementation and individual teacher flexibility” (p. 411). Bueker noted that empowering teachers, treating teachers with professional respect, and providing structured and continuing support for staff, could minimize the negative effects of school change.

National trends, such as the accountability movement and federal mandates like the No Child Left Behind Act, can prescribe change. H. K. Meyer and Rowan (2006) described the affect that trends can have on education when they stated, “we might apply new institutional constructs that can account for both an evolving theory and its application to changing policy contexts, including the “tightening control of government over the core technology of schooling” linked to standards and accountability reforms” (as cited in Huerta and Zuckerman, (2009), p. 417). The choice for school reform can be beyond the control of the school district, the administration, and the teachers it will affect.


School change is constant. Eyal (2008) suggested, “despite the prevalent image of public institutions as highly conservative and stagnant, it might be interesting to investigate their potential as sources of innovations that are no less radical than the alternatives proposed by free-market ideologues” (p. 487). School reform creates stress on all stakeholders and requires careful consideration of theoretical framework. Vernez, et al. (2004) reported that there is little evidence to support the validity and effectiveness of many school reform initiative policies, which makes research of the different strategies essential.

An analysis of change theory models prior to setting a course is critical. The RT model described by Gabriele is research-based and proven to be an effective school change theory. The effectiveness of the RT model in practice, during the call for reform to meet the skills of the 21st Century, warrants further research on the applicability of RT in meeting the educational needs of the future. School structure will continue to evolve, and the reform theories proven effective by research will continue to be refined.


Bueker, C. (2005). Teachers’ reports of the effects of a whole-school literacy reform model on teacher turnover. Elementary School Journal, 105(4), 395-416.

Eyal, O. (2009). Degeneracy, resilience and free markets in educational innovation. Systems Research & Behavioral Science, 26(4), 487-491., doi:10.1002/sres.940

Huerta, L. & Zuckerman, A. (2009). An institutional theory analysis of charter schools: Addressing institutional challenges to scale. PJE. Peabody Journal of Education, 84(3), 414-431., doi:10.1080/01619560902973621

Gabriele, S. F. (2002). The “roundtable” for school learning and planning groups: Planting a seed for systemic renewal. Kybernetes: Special Double Issue: Systems and Cybernetics: New…, 31(9/10), 1361-1368. Retrieved October 10, 2009, from Research Library. (Document ID: 277870851).

Marion, R. (2002). Leadership in education: Organizational theory for the practitioner. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Jones, B. A. (2007). “Table top theory” as a policy framework for gauging the confluence of teaching and private sector interests. Teacher Education Quarterly, 34(2), 185-204.

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