School superintendent on educational reform

JULIE LANE FILE PHOTO | Shelter Island School Superintendent Michael Hynes.

As I was re-reading some of my books about educational leadership over the past few weeks, I stumbled upon one of my favorite authors, Michael Fullan. Mr. Fullan has written several books about education over the past 25 years.

The following excerpt was taken from one of his best, “The New Meaning of Educational Change” (2001, 3rd Edition).

The reason I am sharing this piece with you is due to the timeliness of what is happening within our school and what he wrote in his best-selling book.

Below you will find the essence of “Chapter 1: A Brief History of Educational Change.” Some parts were left out due to the fact it is a relatively long chapter, but amazing nonetheless. I hope you enjoy it and will welcome any comments you may have to share.

One person claims that schools are being bombarded by change; another observes that there is nothing new under the sun. A policy-maker charges that teachers are resistant to change; a teacher complains that administrators introduce change for their own self-aggrandizement and that they neither know what is needed nor understand the classroom. A parent is bewildered by the new practice in reading and by the relevance of education in future jobs. Some argue that restructuring schools is the only answer, while others decry that this too is just a pipe dream diverting our attention from the core curriculum changes that are desperately needed. One university professor is convinced that schools are only a reflection of society and cannot be expected to bring change; another professor is equally convinced that schools would be all right if only superintendents and principals had more “vision” as educational leaders, and teachers were more motivated to learn new approaches to improving curriculum. A governor works hard to get major new legislation passed to reform education, a principal thinks, “this too shall pass.” Charter schools are hailed simultaneously as saving the day and destroying the public education system. Commercial entities take over school districts and claim that they can do a better job. States pass dramatic legislation to serve notice to “failing schools” and “failing school districts” with corresponding invasive interventions intended to make things right. Standards-based reform is held up as the answer to our woes.

Amidst all the turmoil, agents at all levels wonder how to get more and more programs institutionalized, while teachers think it is these same promoters of change who should be institutionalized, not the programs. Students are too distracted by a host of other matters to pay much attention to all the uproar. Today it is abundantly clear that one of the keys to successful change is improvement of relationships (Fullan, 2001) — precisely the focus of group development.

We have learned over the past decade that the process of educational reform is much more complex than we anticipated. Even the apparent successes have fundamental flaws. For example, in our development work we have been interested in how long it takes to turn around a poor performing school or district to become a good or better performing system. Our current conclusion is that you can turn around an elementary school in about three years, a high school in about six years, and a school district (depending on the size) in about eight years (Fullan, 1999, 2000b).

As valid as these general conclusions are, there are three problems. First, the time lines are too long. Given the sense of urgency, people rightly ask: Can these time lines be accelerated? Say reduced by half? The answer is yes, which we will see does not solve the problem.

Second, the number of examples of turnaround is small. There is only a minority of elementary schools, and fewer high schools and school districts, that are engaged in this manner. In other words, we have not nearly gone to scale where the majority of schools improve. It is not enough to have a handful of successful cases. 

Third, and most revealing, it takes three, six, eight years of hard work to produce improvement, but the results are fragile. One or two key people leave and the success can be undone almost overnight. Thus, from the point of view of “sustaining change,” even in those small numbers of cases, there are serious problems.

The main reason change fails to occur in the first place on any scale, and does not get sustained when it does, is that the infrastructure is weak, unhelpful, or working at cross purposes. By infrastructure I mean the next layers above whatever unit we are focusing on. In terms of successive levels, for example, a teacher cannot sustain change if he or she is working in a negative school culture; similarly, a school can initiate and implement successful change, but cannot sustain it if operating in a less than helpful district; a district cannot keep going if it works in a state which is not helping to sustain reform. 

In other words we have our work cut out. This is not a race to see who can become the most innovative. The key words are meaning, coherence, connectedness, synergy, alignment, and capacity for continuous improvement. Paradoxically, if meaning is easy to come by it is less likely to be powerful. Simple systems are more meaningful but less deep. Complex systems generate overload and confusion, but also contain more power and energy. Our task is to realize that finding meaning in complex systems is a difficult as it is rewarding. 

In closing, I believe Mr. Fullan clearly articulates what is presently taking place at our school. I believe we now have meaning, coherence, connectedness, synergy, alignment and the capacity for continuous improvement. As I have said before, our school won’t get to Point B overnight, but we will get there and our children will be all the better for it.


Fullan, M. (1999) “Change Forces. The Sequel,” Philadelphia: Falmer Press/Taylor & Francis Inc.

Fullan, M. (June 23, 2000), “Infrastructure Is All,” London Times Education Supplement, 19, p.15

Fullan, M. (2001) “Leading in a Culture of Change,” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass