Policy, Administration, and Instructional Practice: "Loose Coupling" Revisited (WP-03-04)


James P. Spillane and Patricia Burch

The notion of “loose coupling” has held considerable sway in education research, frequently invoked to account for the rather weak ties between policy and administration, on the one hand, and classroom work, on the other hand. Spillane and Burch argue that coupling—a potent construct—has been misused. Treating instruction as a monolithic or unitary practice, scholars too easily and readily conclude that instruction is loosely coupled from policy and administration. The authors argue that analyses of relations between institutional environments and instruction be predicated on at least two ways of thinking about instruction. They argue first that instruction is about subject matter. Institutional environments are formed around and shape instruction in particular subjects. Second, even within a given subject area, instruction is not a single-dimensional activity. Instruction involves numerous elements including content, the academic tasks students work on, teaching strategies, ways of representing ideas to students, student-grouping practices, and student- work assignments. Institutional environments can affect some dimensions of instructional practice, but not others.

James P. Spillane, Human Development and Social Policy and Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University
Patricia Burch, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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