Educational Ecology of Pittsburgh

LPC Faculty: Kevin Crowley, Principal Investigator
Jennifer Russell, Principal Investigator
Funding Agency: Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC)

Educational Ecology of Pittsburgh is an exploratory study to examine how connections between the formal educational system and non-system actors, such as informal education programs offered by museums and nonprofit organizations, shape educational priorities and practices in the region. Prior work has looked at the formal and informal worlds as separate educational systems. This project proposes that important linkages exist between them and that a more useful view would be to see them as inter-related parts of a regional education ecology. There are issue, resource, and stakeholder inter-dependencies. K-12 policy has ripple effects throughout the system. Charter schools, home schooling, and the school improvement industry have begun to challenge our notions of what is a legitimate part of the K-12 system. Foundations play an important, though often invisible role, in shaping regional educational priorities. Other studies suggest they are important boundary spanners connecting actors in disconnected sectors.

Research in education policy increasingly draws on concepts from neoinstitutional theories of organizations which emphasize how school structure and practices are shaped by their broader social and cultural environments. Neoinstitutional theory employs the organizational field as its primary unit of analysis, which points to the network of relationships among organizations engaged in a common enterprise. In K-12 education, the organizational field consists of schools, the formal governance system such as school boards, school districts and state legislatures, and a host of “non-system actors” such as professional associations, reform organizations, textbook publishers, and professional development providers. While prior research has examined the importance of nonsystem actors in policymaking, policy implementation, and the school improvement enterprise, little prior work has mapped the network of relationships between formal and informal educational programs in a region and the way these two sectors interact and are mutually constitutive.

Through a set of strategically selected case studies of the relationship between the formal K-12 system and informal education organizations, we will examine the following research questions:

  • What connections between informal and formal education organizations currently exist and what are the opportunities for and barriers to robust collaboration?
  • To what extent and how do the organizational structures and policies associated with the K-12 system shape the mission and practice of non-profits/community based organizations?
  • To what extent and how does the presence of non-profits / informal education organizations shape the policies and practices in K-12 system?

An initial literature review of non-system actors and systems approaches to informal and formal education is underway. Leveraging existing UPCLOSE partnerships, we will develop case studies that illustrate tensions that emerge when formals and informals jostle for their respective niches in the regional educational landscape. Interviews will be conducted with key stakeholders from different parts of each network, with different perspectives on the cases, and we will compare each case to other similar institutional partnerships from other states.