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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Can Michael Fullan Save California From NCLB?

By Peter DeWitt — May 07, 2013 4 min read
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At least one state in the U.S. is making an effort to move in a more effective direction. After a decade of NCLB and a few years of RTTT’s increased accountability and mandates, California is beginning to look in a brighter direction. That direction is toward Dr. Michael Fullan.

In a recent article, John Fensterwaldwrote, “The man credited with transforming the Canadian province of Ontario into one of the world’s most effective school systems is ready to help California do the same. Fullan, though, would lead the state in a sharply different direction from the forced march that federal officials in Washington, D.C., have led over the past decade.”

That forced march has been toward a more punitive system; one that stifles creativity and creates fear in order to drive educators to change. Fullan has long held the belief that educational reform is led by “Drivers.” “‘Whole system reform’ is the name of the game and ‘drivers’ are those policy and strategy levers that have the least and best chance of driving successful reform.” Fullan has long believed that the public education system in the U.S. is being steered in the wrong direction, through the use of the wrong drivers.

“A ‘wrong driver’ is a deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result, while a ‘right driver’ is one that ends up achieving better measurable results for students. Whole system reform is just that - 100 per cent of the system - a whole state, province, region or entire country.”

What Drives Us to Change?
Does positive change happen because of rules and accountability? Rules and accountability are getting educators to change their practices. Unfortunately those practices do not seem to foster any real sense of creativity. Or, does change happen when people are intrinsically motivated to do so? People who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to find their own professional development and take risks which will benefit their students.

Fullan writes, “As an advance organizer, I suggest four criteria - all of which must be met in concert
- which should be used for judging the likely effectiveness of a driver or set of drivers.
Specifically, do the drivers, sooner than later,
• Foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students;
• Engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning;
• Inspire collective or team work; and
• Affect all teachers and students - 100 per cent?”

To many educators this may seem like common sense. However, if you’ve been paying attention over the past decade you have noticed that the change in public education has not been driven by common sense practices in most states. The changes have been driven by accountability.

Accountability was probably once an appropriate word used in conversations. Unfortunately, accountability means something very different in our present system. It is less about inspiring teachers to engage in high quality teaching and learning, and more about blaming teachers and administrators for not doing their jobs.

Fullan agrees that public education has been driven by the wrong drivers for far too long. The wrong drivers that Fullan believes are pushing our system in the wrong direction are: “The culprits are
• Accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs. capacity building;
• Individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual vs group solutions;
• Technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry the day vs. instruction;
• Fragmented strategies vs. integrated or systemic strategies

What is unfortunate is that through all of this “reform” three of the four wrong drivers have gone from being a part of positive change to being the culprits of negative change. In most cases, accountability, teacher and leader quality, as well as technology would have been viewed as common sense elements to improve in our present system.

Fullan writes, “Although the four ‘wrong’ components have a place in the reform constellation, they can never be successful drivers. It is, in other words, a mistake to lead with them.” He continues by writing, “The four ‘wrong drivers’ are not forever wrong. They are just badly placed as lead drivers. The four ‘right drivers’ - capacity building, group work, pedagogy, and ‘systemness’ - are the anchors of whole system reform.”

Can Dr. Fullan Save California?
Fullan’s work can help move education in a more positive direction. In a previous interview for Finding Common Ground (Impressive Empathy) Dr. Fullan said, “

NCLB has had a negative impact on education. It has had minimal value on putting the spotlight on those who are disadvantaged, which we all knew beforehand. It has been helpful to open the door a little on that issue. However, it has been a dysfunctional policy because it is too narrow.

In addition, there has really been no successful strategy to implement it. The standards set by NCLB are all over the place and most of us believe that NCLB has been a failure when you add it all up. Now, in addition to NCLB we have initiatives like Race to The Top (RTTT) and it’s time to rectify the failure it has helped create.”

Time will tell if Califorina will listen to his ideas. Fensterwald writes, “State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said that “Fullan has momentum here” because so many of those who went to Ontario returned, to a person, enthusiastic that the changes in Ontario would be a good fit with California. But at this point, he said, “it’s too general to say where we are with this.” Someone has to turn Fullan’s broad ideas into specifics, an operational plan for California.”

We should all hope that California, and many other states, should appreciate the broad ideas, because the specific ones educators have been living with over the past decade have not been working.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.