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Organizational Effects on Learning: A Conceptual Model and Research Review (WP-02-20)

James E. Rosenbaum

Although learning is usually seen as determined by teachers and students, learning may be strongly affected by organizational context. Policymakers’ neglect of powerful influences outside the classroom may explain why many classroom reforms have been ineffective, and why analysts are caught in the trap of blaming two actors — students or teachers — while failing to notice larger outside influences. This paper suggests various organizational influences that may affect learning, identifies relevant studies, and proposes a general framework for a social science research agenda on these issues.

The paper considers four levels of organizational failures that may potentially affect learning — (1) within schools (classroom atomism), (2) between schools and other schools over time and space (organizational gaps), (3) between schools and surrounding institutions (contextual conflicts), and (4) between schools and later institutions (incentive failures). Since American schools are particularly ineffective in educating disadvantaged students, this paper focuses particularly on the harmful effects on children from disadvantaged families. It suggests conceptual approaches and research questions that are fundamental to understanding educational outcomes and to improving the effectiveness of school reforms, which educators themselves sometimes derisively term “Christmas ornaments.” If this model is correct, policy can have a constructive impact, but not if it is done in the customary reforms that increase fragmentation. Research on these issues can improve understanding of organizational influences on learning and reduce organizational barriers to disadvantaged students.

James E. Rosenbaum, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University

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