Putting Systems Thinking Into Action
What makes school improvement last? Our recent work is based on two interacting assumptions. One is that, for education reform to be sustainable, the focus must be on what we call “tri-level development”—what has to happen at the school and community level, at the district level, and at the state level. The second assumption is that we need initiatives that deliberately set out to cause improvement at the three levels—and in their interrelationships.
Both assumptions represent a “systems” perspective. Many have called for “systems thinking” in education. But we see little evidence that systems thinking has led to systems action. Our call is for systems action that is strategic, powerful, and pursued in practice. State-level examples of this are few and far between at the moment. Most federal-state policies focus primarily on accountability. They need instead to integrate accountability and capacity-building, and do it systemically. This means changes in the way system leaders conceptualize problems, formulate corresponding policies and strategies, and allocate resources. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, by the way, is a classic example of an accountability scheme that as yet has no grounding in the reality of capacity-building.
We are calling for live experiments where policymakers commit to tri-level development, learn from it, and go deeper. We are associated with five such examples: England, Ontario, New South Wales, South Australia, and the state of Washington. There, system leaders are deliberately and self-consciously pursuing tri-level development—and learning from and contributing to others elsewhere. Ontario, for example, recently launched a major, systemwide reform. Its policies and strategies were influenced by lessons learned from England and the Blair government’s experiences since 1997 in improving literacy and numeracy there.
Our early work in this domain has generated eight guidelines for system leaders committed to sustainability.
Moral purpose. In education, moral purpose has a long tradition at the level of the individual teacher or principal. Now it’s time to make it a system quality. Moral purpose is the link between systems thinking and sustainability. You cannot move substantially toward sustainability in the absence of widely shared moral purpose.
The central moral purpose consists of constantly improving student achievement and ensuring that achievement gaps, wherever they exist, are narrowed. In short, it’s about raising the bar and narrowing the gap. It also involves treating people with demanding respect, and contributing to the larger social environment (other schools, for example). We need governments that are serious about moral purpose, that constantly espouse its importance in the day-to-day reality of working with school systems, and that draw it out and reward it until a critical mass of leaders is in place to put it into practice.
Get the basics right. The basics are literacy and numeracy in elementary and high schools. Despite a variety of reforms over many years, England’s literacy performance remained stable for almost 50 years. One published report in 1996 reached the startling conclusion that the average levels of performance remained much the same as they were in 1948. The first thing that governments need to do is focus intensely on the basics to overcome the awful inertia of past decades.
This will bring rewards across the system, not just in the basics. We know that improvements in literacy and numeracy flow to other cognitive areas, such as science. With a little effort, they bring benefit to the arts and drama. The two-way relationship between cognitive and emotional development is well known. As the work unfolds, one can get more and more ambitious about the connections. Above all, the basics underpin future success in all school subjects. Doing the basics is never-ending; doing them better and deeper is the goal.
The agenda for the immediate future involves raising the floor in literacy and numeracy, especially in those schools, districts, states, and countries where performance is unacceptably low. High standards must be as close to a universal reality as possible. If we don’t get the basics right, there is little foundation for doing all the other things that matter.
Communicate the big picture while providing opportunities to influence it. The advice to system leaders is: Communicate, communicate, communicate. Written words are not enough. Lots of interaction will be required. Leaders who do this learn to sharpen and refine the message, as they are pushed to become clearer and to take into account objections and suggestions from the field. If they are connected with practice, they also discover examples of local success that connect to the bigger picture.
It’s not just a question of explaining the big picture; it’s a matter of actively and constantly seeking feedback, refining the strategy where necessary, and making the big picture come alive on the ground. As system leaders communicate, they are being influenced by the responses they receive. The idea is that, as frontline practitioners understand and identify with the big picture, they increase their system-thinking capacity and can therefore contribute more.
This involves: (1) putting the underlying principles and strategies out there for public consumption; (2) establishing learning opportunities around these plans, so that people understand their deeper meaning (it is especially important that people see their roles in the context of a larger agenda); and (3) providing periodic opportunities to review progress in order to generate recommendations for revising policies and strategies.
Intelligent accountability. This is a phrase used by David Miliband, the former minister of state for school standards in England, and now the minister for the Cabinet office. Intelligent accountability recognizes that there are two aspects to accountability and despite a degree of tension between them, both have to be accomplished. One involves transparent, external accountability to the public, and to government as the public’s agency (sometimes called assessment of learning, or summative assessment). The other concerns the use of data on student learning as a strategy for directly improving teaching and learning (called assessment for learning, or formative assessment).
Governments typically overemphasize assessment of learning at the expense of assessment for learning. Teachers’ unions often do the opposite. Surely it’s time to agree that both are necessary. After all, assessment for learning is a vital high-yield approach. And the methodology for developing this capacity is increasingly specific. There are now scores of teacher leaders, principals, and district staff members who are proficient at using data collaboratively to improve results.
At the same time, governments do have a moral obligation to provide evidence to taxpayers and the users of public services that they are delivering the results expected. They also need to be able to intervene across a system when results in priority areas are not good enough. Our view is that direct intervention in classroom practice should be rare, well done, should actively involve expert practitioners, and should draw powerfully on the evidence base. The dual goal is to increase capacity while assuring and informing the public. This is the way to both focus on results and get them.
Incentivize collaboration and lateral capacity-building. You can’t develop systems directly. Again, we have a high-yield strategy. Invest a little to help leaders lead beyond their schools, and reap the benefit. Some forms of lateral capacity-building occur within the school or within the district. System leaders can establish explicit expectations that these kinds of intra-organization professional-learning communities are deep and valuable. The evidence suggests that lateral capacity-building works best when it has a clear purpose, a means of measuring whether progress is being made in achieving the purpose, and a clear, evidence-based definition of best practice to inform action. The key is not to enforce collaboration but to offer incentives that reward it.
Beyond this, system leaders have a special responsibility to foster and support cross-system networks through which people across a region, state, or country can learn from one another. When done well, this kind of collaboration has significant payoffs for sustainability. People are able to learn directly from other practitioners, and they begin to identify with larger parts of the system beyond their narrow interest group.
The long lever of leadership. The longest lever we have at our disposal is leadership at all levels—leaders who deliver results and leave behind a legacy of new leaders who can go even further. Leadership standards can help orient leaders in the right direction and give them individual experiences and development. But too often these suffer from an individualistic bias. The assumption is that if we produce enough people at the top with the desired characteristics, the system will change. Not so. Systems quickly blunt or socialize new members. This is why we need to work simultaneously on individual development and system change.
In addition to strengthening qualifications frameworks, systems should ensure that leaders and potential leaders have intensive opportunities to learn in context, or on the job, with the help of a mentor or coach. Promote good leadership in all quarters of the system and everyone will be better off.
Design every policy, whatever the purpose, to also build capacity. There is a major trap that system leaders fall into: They assume that the capacity to implement given policies automatically follows the introduction of supposedly good practice. Here the lesson is: Don’t invest a lot of money upfront if the capacity to use it effectively is missing.
The more positive version is to ask critical questions before introducing new policies: What capacities would it take to implement this policy? To what extent do these capacities exist in the system? And how can we promote greater capacity in the course of implementation? The natural bias of policymakers is toward short-term accountability rather than mid- or long-term capacity-building.
Every new policy, then, is an occasion to question current capacity and promote greater capacity in the system. So our proposal is to constantly assess capacity and promote it on every occasion. As citizens become more demanding in what they expect government to deliver with their money, it becomes more important for governments to maximize the productivity of every dollar or pound they spend. If each investment is designed simultaneously to deliver a specified short- or medium-term objective and greater capacity, then the productivity gain is immense. System leaders must focus simultaneously on short-term and long-term results.
Accountability and capacity go hand in hand, and you have to invest consistently in both.
Grow the financial investment in education. Some new investment is needed upfront, but after that, this year’s success is next year’s new money. The public is naturally inclined to invest more in education because, intuitively, people know that better education means more prosperity and well-being for everyone. But all too often, people are not confident that their investment will yield results. The new system thinkers are pleased to enter the quid-pro-quo world of delivering results to secure more resources. They are willing to take the risks, and to make the extra effort, on the promise that success breeds success.
The culmination of these lessons in action is greater investment toward sustainability. It may not represent largess in the short run, but the direction will be unmistakable. It is about working smarter, not just harder; but it is also about accruing well-deserved resources that enable us to go deeper and further.
There you have it. Politicians and policymakers need to create the conditions for others around them to succeed. The good news is that we now have a small number of examples where tri-level development is being purposefully pursued. Progress is always made through the crucible of purposeful action in which people learn from their own experience and from each other.
Vol. 24, Issue 25, Pages 32,34-35