Can schools change?

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

Why haven’t schools changed more? Maybe because they can’t.

In their 2005 Phi Delta Kappan article, Can Schools Improve?, Christensen, Aaron, & Clark laid out the following framework:


[click on the image to see a larger version]

The vertical axis represents ‘the degree to which members of an organization agree on the goals of the organization.’ The horizontal axis reflects ‘the extent to which members of the organization agree on how the world works and on what actions will lead to the desired results.

They went on to say that the tools that a leader needs to use to create a consensus are dependent on the situation. For example, if employees and other stakeholders agree on the goals of the organization but can’t agree on which actions to take (quadrant C), leaders capitalize on the goal agreement by using charisma and strategic planning mechanisms to get everyone to reach consensus on actions. Conversely, if stakeholders agree on how the world works and which actions lead to results but can’t agree on organizational goals (quadrant B), training and standardization of operating procedures leads to people individually doing what needs to be done despite the lack of overall consensus. If everyone agrees on both the organizational goals and how to get there (quadrant D), leaders use tools such as reliance on tradition and democratic decision-making to reinforce existing practices.

Unfortunately, public schools in America are in quadrant A. In most schools, there is minimal consensus, at best, about what the overall goals of schooling should be: academic learning, socialization, life skills, character education, civic engagement, nutrition, physical fitness, exposure to the fine arts, job training, and so on. Moreover, there is no consensus about how the world works and what actions should be employed to reach desired results. In this situation, creating a crisis, clearly defining roles, and using financial incentives and/or threats are the only tools that leaders can use to implement change.

Leadership tools must be matched to existing circumstances. For instance, if stakeholders can’t agree on what the goals of the organization should be, ‘leadership tools such as vision statements are dismissed as irrelevant.’ Likewise, training programs will be ineffective if there is widespread disagreement about which actions will lead to desired results. As the authors note, ‘When a leader has access only to tools that do not match his circumstances, he simply cannot succeed. This is a fundamental problem facing public education.

Administrators and other school change agents thus are in a bind. They operate in an environment that is stacked against them and have few viable tools to enable desired change. The authoritarian tools that they do have only can be employed to a certain extent before parents, students, and teachers begin to push back.

So the authors conclude with a question: ‘If schools are incapable of reinventing themselves because they can’t create new capabilities and because school leaders can’t use the tools they need to bring about change, then how can we possibly improve education?’ Their answer is as follows:

Our current system is . . . incapable of changing itself. Most people know – even if they are loath to admit it – that it’s easier to start from scratch than to try to salvage what’s already there. We may wish otherwise, but we ought not to be wishful thinkers. Systemic, transformational change in public education can only happen if we are willing to start from scratch.

The world is changing in significant, transformational ways. Is there hope for enacting the changes needed in schools on a widespread basis (as opposed to isolated examples)? Does the existing paradigm of K-12 schooling need to be torn down and replaced with something new? I’ll leave those questions for you to discuss. But at least recognize that the current situation is stacked heavily against change agents.

4 Responses to “Can schools change?”

  1. This sums up very nicely what I’ve learned over the past several years as a School Improvement Facilitator (campus-based “change agent”), although I haven’t articulated it in such a structured way.

    Thanks for sharing this information. It supports what others (like Tony Wagner) are saying about complete reinvention.

    I’m really beginning to believe that this reinvention can only occur outside of the system (by creating new systems) rather than from within the system.


  2. If a picture is worth a thousand words then this diagram is worth one million!

    The invisible forces that often impede schools and education are often attributted to “how change was managed” however I have never believed this to be true. People make things happen when they want them to and create barriers when they don’t. If your critical mass happens to be the latter then no matter how much of a “change manager” you are your are doomed from the start.

    Lots to think about here.

  3. If I was a Superintendent focused on leading school improvement, I could see myself using this model to help develop and communicate my strategy, even if it was more about continuous improvement and not about transformational change.

    I think there is a case to make that the current system may be optimized. That doesn’t mean it’s adequate, but for what it is, it may be good. If that’s the case, it would provide support for the “start from scratch” approach.

    The odds very well may be stacked against the “start from scratch” approach as much or more than a “transformational change” approach from within.

    I’m thinking that home schooling might be a good example of the start from scratch approach. Technology often plays a very important role in making home schooling accessible to families.

  4. I love this post. I have been musing on this kind of problem myself.

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