Infrastructure Matters

Towards the end of the summer of 2022, citing a recently-published article, Chester Finn wondered whether we have seen the end or a new beginning for standards-based reform. The theorized mechanism behind standards-based reform is that alignment across three key areas: academic standards, curriculum, and student assessments will drive student achievement. A hallmark of the accountability policy era, standards-based reform links assessment and materials, while paying less attention to the role of leadership to frame and implement the adoption of standards and curricular materials, the role of curriculum in organizing and sequencing instruction, or the role of professional development in ensuring access to information and support for enacting standards-based instruction. Many standards-based reforms presuppose that schools are equally primed for change and that change will be meaningful if accomplished. The gains from 30 years of implementing standards-based reforms have been lackluster. Many wonder whether standards-based reform is not only a failed experiment, but one we could have predicted would fail.

Peter Greene argues that the Common Core State Standards “ is a shredded shadow of its ambitious former self,” because "Top-down education reform, dictated from above and pushed down to the education professionals who do the work (and, notably, without consulting those professionals for their insight or expertise) is a recipe for failure…”

An infrastructural approach to reform considers the pillars of instruction that support change, reform, or improvement efforts. Curriculum can shift or be replaced to reflect reform priorities, professional development can shift or change format and focus, and leadership can frame changes, direct resources, and motivate change in instruction. Alignment and coherence across these three pillars is central to their stability in upholding efforts at improvement. These pillars, when they are robust and aligned—support schools to respond, adjust, and adapt to instructional reform efforts. Conversely, weaknesses within or mismatches across pillars can stymie progress.

An infrastructural approach to improvement acknowledges that changes can be mandated, but the depth or success of an improvement effort is mediated by the alignment, coherence, and strength of infrastructure associated with the improvement initiative. That is, an infrastructural approach pays careful attention to the conditions for change. By responding to local and shifting contexts, roles, and responsibilities, infrastructure can animate change in dynamic ways.

Similar to systemic reform, the concept of infrastructure draws on systems theory to acknowledge the multifaceted and multidimensional nature of educational organizations. Yet the infrastructural approach acknowledges that, at the school level, the implementation of any instructional change requires alignment and coherence of these pillars. It is not enough to deliver new materials that may sit in boxes in a closet without strong leadership for their integration. It is not enough to press teachers to use new tools, without providing high-quality opportunities to learn, integrate, and innovate using these tools in context. As Loveless (2021) wrote “The illusion of a coherent, well-coordinated system is gained at the expense of teachers’ flexibility in tailoring instruction to serve their students.” We encourage continuing to value teachers’ expertise and assets while continuously improving instructional programs and supports.

A school’s infrastructure for instructional improvement goes beyond the principles of systemic reform to consider the mechanisms for change within a school, in addition to the structures that govern accountability and strategic priorities across the larger system. We argue that infrastructure represents the internal systems within educational organizations that allow people to reflect, respond to, and/or mediate the distance between local circumstance/context and the new reform idea. In the case of standards-based reforms, standardized content and assessment may be layered on top of a school’s existing infrastructure to support change or improvement, and if the infrastructure is weak or misaligned, the change cannot be carried out. The standards may have the potential to promote rigor, coherence, and shared focus, but cannot do so unless curriculum, PD, and leadership align to enact them.