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Organizational Routines as a Vehicle for Instructional Decision Making in School Systems

Sat, April 6, 4:10 to 6:10pm, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, 200 Level, Room 201B


Purpose. Central office decision-making aims to improve teaching and learning opportunities for teachers and students. However, little is known about how features of the central office organization, such as organizational routines, can influence decisions about teaching and learning. This paper examines how organizational routines influence central office leaders’ decision-making processes across four US school systems.

Framework. Organizational routines are repetitive, recognizable interactions among organizational members (Argote, 1999; March & Simon, 1958; Nelson & Winter, 1982). Routines structure day-to-day practice in organizations like school districts by framing and focusing who interacts with whom, about what, and using what tools. They also store organizational knowledge about how to get things done. Thus, routines shape what the decision-making process looks like. In this paper, we examine organizational routines in four large, urban school districts in order to elucidate how organizational context can shape instructional decision-making within central offices.

Methods and data sources. The analysis conducted for this paper is part of a larger study on research use in instructional decision-making. Using a longitudinal, mixed method, multiple case study design (Yin, 2017), we collected data in four large, urban US school systems in four states. This paper analyzes data from 178 interviews with 77 central office leaders on their work in elementary literacy instruction.

Results. While the four school systems in our study embodied different organizational types (Mintzberg, 1980; Peurach & Yurkofsky, 2018), they leveraged common organizational routines as key vehicles for making instructional decisions. These routines structured important instructional decision-making processes, such as providing professional development, managing external partnerships, and evaluating programs. While similar routines existed in each district, differences in a few key factors, including who was involved and what institutional logics were present, contributed to cross-district differences in central office leaders’ decision-making around literacy instruction. For example, in a district where participants drew regularly on a logic of accountability, achievement data for the standards assessed on the annual state exam guided decision-making about professional development. Consequently, central office leaders provided little professional development on foundational reading skills.

Scholarly significance of this study. Our analysis develops the research community’s understanding of instructional decision-making by documenting how organizational context, in particular organizational routines, structure decision-making in school systems. At the same time, we document variability in the performance of organizational routines, including who participates and on which institutional logics they draw. Variance in these key factors contribute to fundamental differences among district leaders’ decision-making processes, including what information is invoked during deliberations. These findings can inform district leaders’ efforts to improve instruction by considering, for instance, who participates in routines and which logics are privileged. The findings also guide policymakers, funders, and researchers as they support educators’ instructional improvement efforts by supporting and highlighting areas of leverage.


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