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Shaping the organization of classrooms: Cross-national studies of policy, institutions, and pedagogical complexity

  • Author(s): Kim, Yoonjeon
  • Advisor(s): Fuller, Bruce
  • et al.
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With globalization, models of educational systems, school organizations, and teaching practices are increasingly being compared internationally. Heightened global competition and visibility of nations’ student achievement by international assessment has pushed nation-states to take the lead to enhance student achievement and improve formal schooling. Complex problem-solving skills and critical thinking are emphasized as necessary for the work, life, and citizenship in the 21st century. Ideas on how to equip the students with such skills in schools and classrooms travel around the world. Within this context, the present three-paper thesis uses an international comparative framework to study how classroom teaching and learning is interrelated with different macro-level factors, such as global institutional pressures, regional cultural factors, and national educational policies.

In each of the three papers, I attend to different macro-level factors and examine how they impact social organization of classrooms, especially complex and procedural tasks, and student- and teacher-centered structure, and student achievement. In the first paper, I take an ongoing theoretical debate on global convergence/divergence and use them as a lens to examine the change of classroom practices over time. It tests the explanatory power of macro-level factors such as global institutional pressures and nation-specific factors for classroom practice and finds that convergence pattern vary by classroom practice dimensions. The second paper attends to East Asian countries, a world region that is renowned for their high achievement, but also notorious for their didactic instructional practice. The paper takes a step back and examines whether and how countries within the East Asian region are different from and similar to other countries in the world in terms of their classroom practices and student achievement. In it, I show that association patterns of instructional practices and student achievement at the between-country and within-country levels are distinct, reflecting different causal mechanisms that warrant further investigation at each level. The third paper focuses on yet another macro-level factor, standards-based educational policies. I take apart three key components of standards-based educational policy and examine how each of the elements affects complex teaching and student achievement. The findings show that each of the policy tools has distinct direct and moderating effects on classroom practice and student achievement.

Data and methods

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data is used in all three of the papers. For research on classroom instructional practice, an essential advantage of TIMSS over other international surveys (such as PISA) is that it includes measures of classroom practices comparable across countries and years. In order to address the research questions, I compile the rich micro-level data on students, classrooms, and schools in TIMSS with macro-level information drawn from various sources. Information on nations’ educational policy was derived from the TIMSS Mathematics Curriculum Questionnaire. Other country-level information such as economic development, linkage to world society, and regional location are derived from the Yearbook of International Organizations (Union of International Associations 2000), and World Development Indicators (World Bank 1999, 2007).

Paper 1

The first paper contrasts two theoretical arguments on globalization of educational phenomena and examines how classroom instructional practices are explained by the contrasting frameworks. World Culture scholars argue that global institutional pressures shape educational structures around the world. These scholars have found mass schooling, curricular structure, and textbooks converge around a global model in countries with tighter link to the world society. Another line of scholars argues that nation-specific factors are more powerful in shaping educational practice, and thus national and local variation persists. But little is known about how classroom instructional practice fits into the trend and which of the macro-level factors—globalizing institutional forces or nation-specific factors—are more influential in shaping instructional practices inside classrooms. This paper examines changes in the extent to which classrooms demonstrate complex instruction or student-centered pedagogies across twenty-three nations, from 1999 to 2007, drawing on the TIMSS data. It shows that over time countries converged towards more student-centered and less didactic form of pedagogy and classroom organization. However, factors that explain convergence were not limited to the countries’ linkage to world society, as argued by world culture scholars. Distinct regional patterns persisted. Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries were most active in moving toward global models of instructional practice, while Asian countries were least susceptible to the global shift toward a more student-centered model. And countries with stronger central control of the curriculum tend to have smaller within-country variation.

Paper 2

The second paper builds on one of the findings of the first paper. It focuses on one world region, East Asia, and further unpacks the association between classroom instructional practice and student achievement. East Asian countries have received much attention from other countries for their high performance in international assessments. Thoughtful small scale qualitative case studies with selective samples of schools and classrooms have introduced and revealed classroom practices and the social and cultural nuances of classroom organization in East Asian countries. These study findings are sometimes exaggerated and sometimes distorted to feed the discourses of domestic educational reforms. This paper examines these circulating beliefs about East Asian classrooms: teacher-centered and procedural instruction (the so-called East Asian educational paradox) and within-country homogeneity of practices, including equitable distribution of practices. TIMSS 2007 data is used to assess these beliefs. The findings show that while East Asian classrooms tend to be higher in teacher-centered instruction and lower in complex instruction on average, classrooms within each country vary considerably in the degree to which they adopt certain practices. Within each country, classrooms with more complex and student-centered instruction tend to show higher achievement; an opposite association was found when these phenomena are compared between countries. But when schools, classrooms, and student characteristics such as social class are taken into account, these positive effects of classroom instruction diminish or disappear.

These findings suggest a need to rethink the assumption of homogeneity of schooling within East Asian nations and to be cautious in generalizing about East Asian classrooms based on national average features. Often, classroom practices prevalent in East Asian countries are celebrated as best practices to emulate, criticized for their rigidity, or simply regarded as non-importable due to the peculiarity of East Asian culture. But as this paper shows, East Asian countries face educational challenges similar to those observed in the U.S. and elsewhere. Once we acknowledge the commonality, a variety of research questions arise, which may guide future research.

Paper 3

The third paper attends to another macro-level factor, national educational policy, and extends one of the results in the first paper. One major international movement in education policy is the push toward increasing standards-based reforms, especially ones that emphasize complex instruction, such as Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the U.S. These national endeavors provoke some positive and negative reaction from historically decentralized nations. But little is known whether the national endeavors can increase complex teaching and learning in classrooms, a stated goal of many standards-based reforms. Standards-based educational policies tend to differ in their use of three levers – national curricular standards, prescribed instructional guides, and test-based controls. The third paper takes apart these three key components of standards-based educational policy and examines how each of the elements affects complex teaching and student achievement. I use data from 48 nations and 9,154 classrooms that participated in the 2007 TIMSS. Using national variation of the three policy components, and classroom practices and achievement, I show that nations that pressed uniform instructional guides tended to host classrooms with less complex instruction, and those with greater emphasis on national testing manifest lower achievement. Most importantly, the positive effects of complex instruction on student achievement were stronger when national curriculum standards and more specified instructional guides were in place.

The findings of this study have broader implication for our understanding of theory of action of standards-based policies. It suggests that a broad caricature of standards-based policy—either as strong or weak—may be misleading; in fact each component of the policy differentially affects the level and the effectiveness of complex instruction. The findings have several implications for the U.S. debate on CCSS. First, they temper the willingness to use existing cross-state studies in the U.S. as direct evidence of the potential impact of a national scale policy at play. Second, they provide insights into how different arrangements and doses of the policy components—national curricular standards, instructional guides, and test-based control—may cause different responses from classrooms around the world, including the U.S. Third, the results encourage research on the link between components of standards-based policies and social organization of classrooms.

Broader implications

How can we encourage more complex and student-centered instructions over procedural and didactic instructions? How can educational policy systematically enhance the desired practices within classrooms? The three thesis papers shed light on perennial questions in education by taking a cross-national comparative framework. The first paper shows that some dimensions of classroom practice rooted in the societies’ cultural or social conventions (e.g., student- and teacher-centered instructions) tend to be immune to interventions, while other dimensions are more malleable. In the third paper, the impact of standards-based accountability policy is examined through three distinct policy components and their underlying theory of actions. By moving toward a more theoretically based view of policy and classroom practice, as done in the papers, we will be able to develop an improved theory about how policy levers and implementation work and obtain a deeper understanding of the dimensions and quality of policy and practice that are linked to improved student learning.

The international and comparative approach helps disentangle the different components of policy and practice. Moreover, studying national educational policy making inherently requires an awareness of education policy abroad as the world is increasingly globalized. The increasing standardization of educational curriculum and growing emphasis on complex and student-centered instruction are just two examples of educational phenomena becoming more common in the course of globalization. Nations are also faced with similar educational challenges, including unequal distribution of practices and achievement as shown in the second paper.

Beyond the specific issues it addresses, I hope that this dissertation will help convince scholars of education of the relevance and importance of comparative and international research in education. The comparative perspective is essential to refine and extend existing theories of education and policy; a necessary step if we are to devise educational policies that can make a meaningful difference on the ground.

Main Content

This item is under embargo until April 4, 2020.