Learning community on a "tight ship": Issues and dilemmas of control and change in restructuring an urban high school

Dina Hannah Portnoy, University of Pennsylvania


This study documents the process of restructuring a large urban high school into small learning communities (SLCs). The expectation was that such changes, though difficult and often uncomfortable, would enable teachers and other adults in the school to transform their beliefs and practices and create a sense of community. Through the lenses of teacher, researcher, and school reformer, I collected data through observations, interviews, focus groups, and the study of school documents. There is a long history and tradition of hierarchical, authoritarian organization for secondary schools in the United States. Embedded in the business and industrial ideology of the nation, the assumptions behind these schools led inevitably to the sorting and tracking of students, the division of knowledge and teachers into strict discipline departments, and the standardization of rules, procedures, and relationships. Along with a body of literature on organizations, the historical development of bureaucratic organization in schools, and school reform, this study is also informed by an understanding of schools as a mode of social control over working class students. The prevailing metaphor of this school was that of a "tight ship," reflected in the strict controls and bureaucratic management of its organization. The dominant images of the school were those of law and order. Restructuring into SLCs, rather than maintaining the dominance of the "whole school," introduced a new image, that of "community." Examining the interactions and images of the participants in this process--teachers, staff, and students--this study explores the ways in which traditional, bureaucratic control in an urban high school shifts in the context of new community models, while at the same time, the old images of the "tight ship" persevere. The study explains how and why the teachers and staff struggled to find their identities, develop new relationships among staff and students, and grapple with new teacher leadership, roles, and relationships. The study found that the language of teachers reveals their underlying assumptions about students and schooling and that language can both enable and constrain the process of reform. This study also found that students offer an important perspective on school reform and an analysis of the importance of building community within schools. Finally, this study shows the complexity of control in this urban high school; the development of learning communities within the school is linked to the necessity of finding new images and metaphors of control.

Subject Area

School administration|Educational sociology|Secondary education

Recommended Citation

Portnoy, Dina Hannah, "Learning community on a "tight ship": Issues and dilemmas of control and change in restructuring an urban high school" (1998). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9908049.