February 1997, Vol.3, No.3

A Series of Brief Reports


How Teachers Deal With Secondary School Change
By Andy Hargreaves, Shawn Moore, Sonia James-Wilson


Last year, the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training proposed changes to the province's secondary school program that include reducing secondary education to four years, curriculum redesign with an increase in compulsory course requirements, re-introducing provincial testing for all grade 12 students, integration of cooperative education, and reconsideration of streaming. As a result of this latest restructuring plan - coming fast on the heels of The Common Curriculum - secondary school teachers are facing intense emotional and intellectual challenges that will have profound implications for their classroom practice, professional identities and relationships with students, colleagues and parents. For example, under the proposed reforms, teachers will assume the role of 'teacher-advisors', working closely with each of their students and parents to develop an annual educational plan. At the same time, the redesigned curriculum and increased partnerships will challenge traditional departmental structures in which secondary teachers work. The call for 'high standards and consistency,' though vaguely stated, may encourage teachers to develop shared goals and expectations for students across as well as within departments and to talk about the ways of improving teaching and learning together (rather than just about course planning in their departments, which is where teachers' collaborative energies mainly focus at present).

As secondary school teachers confront a new wave of reforms, some of the best insights from research that we can offer come from our previous investigations of the impact of destreaming. Though destreaming in grade 9 may be under review, the whole process by which the change was managed and implemented in different schools carries important lessons for other secondary school reforms of similar scope that affect most secondary school teachers' classroom practice and relationships with their students. The remainder of this article sets out the main findings of our research in this issue (Hargreaves, 1992; Hargreaves et al, 1993).

Secondary School Work Cultures and Educational Change

This study looked at how teachers in eight varied secondary schools anticipated and responded to the prospect of destreaming that loomed ahead of them and with which some schools were already experimenting. The main findings of our study were as follows:

The structure of a secondary school, and the context in which it is located, affects how teachers interpret and implement changes like destreaming.

Schools where teachers seemed most resistant to destreaming had 'balkanized' structures (Hargreaves, 1994) of subject departmentalization and were located in middle class communities. Therefore, although teachers often see destreaming as a pedagogical and organizational problem, it clearly also has profound implications for educational and social equity.

Resistance to destreaming appeared greatest among teachers who had least recent contact with students in 'general' level (i.e. lower stream) or mixed ability classes. Teachers are most wary of what they have had least experience with previously.

Schools most resistant to destreaming also offered teachers the least contact with the ideas and practices of destreaming through professional development and opportunities to visit the classes of teachers already practicing destreaming elsewhere. Scepticism, and even anger about change, is greatest where teachers have had the least opportunity to observe, talk about or have training in the reforms they are required to adopt.

When they had no direct knowledge or experience of destreamed classes, teachers searched for traces in their own previous practical experience to give it meaning (e.g., from when they taught in elementary schools, or even in one-room schoolhouses). This is understandable, but these experiences alone were often insufficient or inappropriate for helping teachers come to terms with the complex changes that now faced them. School leaders can do more to broaden the practical knowledge and experience of their staff that is relevant to changes like destreaming, such as dispersing contact with students in lower stream classes.

Balkanized secondary school structures restrict opportunities for teachers to learn such things as the skills of mixed ability teaching from each other across subject boundaries.

Smaller schools tend to have tiny departments and require many of their teachers to work in two or more departments by necessity Ñ leading to considerable coordination and cooperation across subject boundaries. What these schools have to do by necessity other schools might do well to adopt by design.

Sudden, substantial structural change - without prior and parallel attention to building relationships of trust and collaboration in teachers' and students' culture - is unlikely to succeed.

Creating cultures and structures together establishes more positive contexts for implementing complex changes like destreaming (Hargreaves, Earl, & Ryan, 1996).

Collaborative work cultures cannot be imposed - but principals can attend to various aspects of the context, like timetabling or decision making processes, to facilitate their development.

Collaborative work cultures create and sustain trust, risk, openness, opportunities to learn, shared language, and common experience that make educational changes less abstract and less threatening to teachers.

Professional learning grounded in experience and action (and not just planning and talk) is essential for effective implementation of changes like destreaming. Without proper professional learning and the time for it in the school day and outside it, school-wide changes at the secondary level are likely to fail. It is likely that reduced preparation time will sufficiently undermine the government's own efforts to bring about educational reform (Hargreaves, 1994).

Teachers' sense of moral purpose, connected to children's learning and welfare, enables and motivates them to overcome many structural constraints. Really putting students first helps teachers to see how structures should serve students rather than just being efficient for teachers or staying as they are because of inertia.

The purpose of destreaming - like the purpose of many imposed changes - was obscure to many teachers who worked in contexts where the issues and problems it addressed were not vivid, visible, or pervasive. Policymakers should be clearer about the purposes of reform as it applies to all schools and all students. At the same time, teachers and schools need to talk about and review their own purposes, inquire how these purposes mesh with (or need to be modified in light of) students' and parents' purposes, and use their own sense of purpose to motivate their own change efforts to improve teaching and learning rather than waiting for other people to force changes upon them.

The Transition Years reforms in Ontario, of which destreaming has been just one component, have been controversial because of their legislated nature and because they penetrate to the heart of what teachers teach, how they teach it, and to whom it will be taught. Our findings point to the complex structural and cultural issues that need to be addressed by policy makers, principals and teachers themselves if a wide-ranging change on the scale of Transition Years reforms is to be managed and supported effectively.

Years of Transition Times for Change

Between 1991 and 1993, we surveyed over 1300 teachers and about 3500 students, as well as school administrators who were involved in a range of Ministry funded pilot projects that were implementing the Transition Years initiatives (Hargreaves et al, 1993). We also undertook intensive case studies in pilot project schools. In terms of the substance of Transition Years reforms (rather than the process of their implementation on which our previous study focused), the following findings were particularly enlightening:

Destreamed classes, like other major instructional changes, can be taught effectively but without changes to traditional formats of timetabling and how teachers are assigned to work alone as subject specialists with a series of separate classes, the costs to teachers' stress, time and energy may be unacceptably high.

Although teachers liked core groupings where groups of 80 or so students were taught by small teams of teachers in an attempt to build strong, caring relationships between and among teachers and students, students sometimes felt condemned to repeating a Grade 8-like experience. They felt they were denied opportunities for greater challenge, wider choices and the general rite de passage which they expected secondary schools to provide. This is not an argument against core groupings. But, in trying to create a stronger 'community', if secondary schools over do it, they may condemn students to 'monotony' instead.

Curriculum integration gives rise to immense anxiety among secondary school teachers. Even in secondary schools most inclined towards integration, the gravitational pull towards departmentalization and subject-based teaching remained strong. Curriculum integration works best when it brings together skilled specialists who can work flexibly with colleagues, not when it asks teachers to abandon their subject attachments altogether.

In efforts to undertake changes in assessment, students were treated as objects of increasingly complex, comprehensive grid-like systems of judgment and evaluation, rather than being treated as participants in the process of evaluation itself, through self-assessment, peer assessment, being told the learning outcomes, etc.


Educational change is important. But, not all educational change is good, and our studies have revealed that at provincial, school, board and individual levels, it is often appallingly managed. Teachers cannot change their classroom practices in ways that will benefit students unless they receive training in how to develop them, have opportunities to observe them elsewhere and have time - lots of time - to talk about them and think their way through new practices with their colleagues. Successful classroom change requires strong cultural collaboration and support from other teachers who share knowledge and ideas and give moral support (rather than "I told you so" condemnation, or sheer indifference) when change efforts falter and spirits are low. And more flexible classroom practices need more flexible structures to accommodate them, otherwise even the most committed teachers who try to be innovators, lesson after lesson, class after class, will crumple under the strain of shouldering the burden of change with too many students all by themselves.

But if we need better structures to care for students and support teachers, improving them by administrative mandate is not the best way to go about it. Educational reforms never work when teachers do not understand them, care for them, or have commitment to them. And even where teachers do support educational change, successful implementation is unlikely if teachers are given little or no time to talk to colleagues, think the changes through and experiment with them alongside other teachers within school time. Secondary school reform is important and it is also difficult. What matters is that teachers themselves commit to reforming the structures and cultures of their schools and the practices of their classrooms to make them better for students. And what is essential is that teachers are given the time and leadership to do this. Imposing reforms that are capriciously conceived with no time and understanding to implement them properly, offers an educationally ineffective and professionally unacceptable alternative.


Hargreaves, A., Davis, J., Fullan, M., Stager, M, and Macmillan, R. (1992). Secondary school work cultures and educational change. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education.

Hargreaves, A., Leithwood, K., Gorin-Lajoie, D., Cousin, B. and Thiessen, D. (1993). Years of transition: Times for change. A study in four volumes. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

The Ontario Ministry of Education and Training (1996). Ontario Secondary Schools: 1997. Toronto: Ministry of Education.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teachers' work and culture in the postmodern age. Toronto: OISE Press.

Hargreaves, A., Earl, L. & Ryan, J. (1996). Schooling for change. Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Hargreaves, A. (1997). Rethinking educational change: Going deeper and wider in the quest for success. In A. Hargreaves (Ed.), Positive Change for School Success: The 1997 ASCD Yearbook, Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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Andy Hargreaves is professor in the Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education at OISE/UT and Director of the International Centre for Educational Change.

Shawn Moore
is a senior research officer in the Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education and working in the International Centre for Educational Change.

Sonia James-Wilson is a doctoral candidate at OISE/UT in the Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education.

The preceeding summary is an excerpt from a much longer report which is available from the Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education. An administration fee may apply.

For more information about these research reports and other activities of the Trent Valley Centre contact:

OISE/UT Trent Valley Centre
Box 719, 1994 Fisher Drive,
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada K9J 7A1

Tel: (705) 742-9773, Ext. 2293
Fax: (705) 742-5104


Return to Index of Research in Ontario Secondary Schools: Series of Brief Reports