Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Can Schools Really Change?

By Lew Smith — February 07, 2001 9 min read
What do we mean by significant school change, and how would we know when it has taken place?

Peter Senge, the systems-theory guru and leading advocate of “learning organizations” in business, tells the story of a session he conducted with educators. He asked those present whether significant change occurs only as a result of a crisis. In the business groups he speaks to, Mr. Senge reports, typically three-quarters of those present will respond affirmatively. This group of educators responded differently. Very few raised their hands.

Puzzled, Mr. Senge went on to ask, “Does that mean you believe significant innovation can occur without crises?” No one raised a hand. Now exasperated, Mr. Senge asked, “Well, if change doesn’t occur in response to a crisis, and if it doesn’t occur in the absence of a crisis, what other possibilities are there?” A soft voice from the audience responded, “I guess we don’t believe significant change can occur under any circumstances.”

The implications of this anecdote are awesome, but not surprising.

With each scathing review of American education comes an attack on what schools currently do. Depending on the timing, the setting, the speaker, and the audience, the problem shifts. It could be poor test scores, inadequate preparation for college or work, inferior performance compared with that of students from other nations, poor quality of teaching, or a general lack of public confidence in schools. Along with each outcry, comes a demand, once again, for reform, restructuring, renewal. Something must be done! And this implies change: moving schools from what they are now to something better.

Therefore, there are two sets of critical issues. First, what do we mean by significant school change, and how would we know when it has taken place? Second, why are there so few examples of schools that significantly change? What does it take to move a school from below-par to acceptable and even exceptional levels of performance?


Based on considerable field experience and research, I would offer the following framework for measuring significant change in schools, change that is substantial, systemic, student-centered, and solution-oriented. Here are the four dimensions to consider:

  • How meaningful is the change? In dozens of workshops nationwide, this opening exercise was used: Parents, teachers, and school administrators were asked to list their associations with “superficial change” and “substantial change.” The responses came quickly. Superficial change was seen as illusory, temporary, cosmetic, “a passing fad,” mandated or top-down, surface, not meaningful. Substantial change, on the other hand, was linked to having an impact, affecting teaching and learning, changing what people actually do, led by practitioners, involving a sense of ownership, leading to definite outcomes.

Why are there so few examples of schools that significantly change?

The frustration with superficial change, which participants almost always declared to be the dominant variety (in their view, substantial change infrequently took place), reminds us of the tale of the elementary school principal in the Midwest who worked in a large district that gave much autonomy to each school. This principal followed the “three-year rule.” If a new initiative was still around for a third year, then she seriously considered it for her school. In effect, this principal was tired of the “reform du jour” syndrome.

The Stanford University education historian Larry Cuban talks about superficial vs. substantial change by labeling the two “first order” and “second order” changes. First-order changes only seek to make current practices more effective or efficient. No new ground is broken; no new practices are adopted. The way adults and children perform their roles is not altered. Second-order changes, on the other hand, entail a shift in values, beliefs, and practices. Underlying assumptions are challenged.

The first dimension of measuring significant change, then, raises questions about the lasting power of the effort. Is the change attempt just another top-down whim of the moment? Or, is it something that challenges the actual rhythm of a school; something that asks people to seriously look at what they believe, what they value, what they hold dear—and, in the end, what they do?

  • How deep and broad is the change? The Yale University scholar Seymour Sarason, a decade ago, predicted the failure of education reform because of its timidity. For Mr. Sarason, it was time to stop “tinkering around the edges.” Isolated and narrow efforts would simply not matter. Change had to be broader and deeper.

This philosophy grounded an extensive school restructuring endeavor in Paterson, N.J., in the early 1990s. Four K-8 schools, declared to be ineffective, went through a process that involved the staffs and parents of each school examining four critical design elements: instruction, organization, governance, and accountability. The idea was that significant school change was impossible unless one looked at all four domains: how children learned; how the school deployed its resources (time, teachers, student groupings, facilities, and so forth); how decisions were made and by whom; and how the school would measure its success. In the late 1990s, this same prism became known as “whole-school reform.”

Our second dimension, then, asks whether the change attempt is limited to an isolated case of an ambitious teacher doing creative things in his classroom. When significant changes unfold in many classrooms, important decisions are happening with instruction and organization and governance and accountability. The change is deep and broad.

When significant changes unfold in many classrooms, important decisions are happening with instruction and organization and governance and accountability.
  • How is the change focused? Theodore R. Sizer’s work with the Coalition of Essential Schools echoes the previous dimensions: Attend all at once to the consequential parts of school and, in doing so, re-examine assumptions. The decisions, Mr. Sizer adds, are centered around how students learn. As Trinity University professor Thomas Sergiovanni puts it, schools should become “centers of inquiry.” The quest is to find and create organizational structures, teaching environments, and working conditions that encourage teachers to become researchers of their practice and reflective practitioners.

According to Harvard University’s Richard Elmore, much of what passes for change in U.S. schools is not change at all because the focus of the effort has been wrong. It needs, he says, to be explicitly “connected to fundamental changes in the way knowledge is constructed and to the way students and teachers interact with each other around knowledge.”

Thus, our third dimension asks whether the change endeavor is focused on what and how students are learning; on how teachers are teaching; and on how both students and teachers are engaged in an ongoing growth process.

  • How is it measured? When we turn to change agents in the corporate world, we see an emphasis on outcomes. What solutions have been generated? What outcomes have been achieved? What is the “value added”? What can be said about the “quality” of the product?

People seem to understand that companies go out of business if the quality of their products or service declines. Now, schools are being held accountable in the same way, for their outcomes, the quality of their products. The emphasis is on student achievement, as measured by both in-school and external assessments.

For schools, the question has become, “What do we want students to know and be able to do?” The 1994 report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning advanced a radical idea: Students ought to be measured on what they have learned, not on the amount of time spent in school. The message of the standards movement is based on this premise: Students do not graduate until they demonstrate mastery and skills that correspond to prearranged standards.

In the fourth dimension, the inquiry is aimed at results, results, results. What are the measurable outcomes?


As a means of testing out this framework for looking at change, let’s look at some actual sites of efforts at school change.

At first blush, the three elementary schools, in Citrus Heights, Calif., Charlotte, N.C., and Chicago, would seem to have little in common with one another or with the three secondary schools, a high school in Niles, Mich., and middle schools in Waco, Texas, and Norfolk, Va. Yet all six of these schools, winners of the First Annual Chase School Awards, given last July, dramatically moved from below-par performance to exemplary practices. All six proved that significant school change could happen.

People seem to understand that companies go out of business if the quality of their products declines. Now, schools are being held accountable in the same way.

The Fordham University graduate school of education undertook a research project aimed at finding out what secrets the change agents at these six schools had in their leadership kits. The preliminary findings challenge the Peter Senge anecdote, though echoing some of its underlying sentiments. Indeed, fear and disbelief had once gripped these six schools. Inertia, low expectations, and stifling routines had taken strong hold. In many cases, the need for change had been ignored or rejected. Yet, significant change did unfold.

Here are some of the factors that made the difference:

  • Strong leadership by an experienced principal newly assigned to the school;
  • An understanding about change by those who were serving as change agents: its incremental nature, its need for “ownership” by those most affected, its sensitivity to “comfort zones,” its dependency on a sense of trust;
  • Internal school dissonance reverberating with outside pressure, frequently creating a new “felt need for change";
  • Internal collaborative relationships, which included the empowerment of school-based teams;
  • External collaborative relationships. The principals had great support from their superintendents, and external partners (universities, consultants, and grant-awarding agencies) also played a critical role;
  • A sharp focus on how students were learning, with a commitment to effective school-based professional development; and
  • A shift from top-down mandates to teachers’ making decisions about curriculum and teaching methodologies.

Can schools significantly change? Yes, they can, and for the same reasons that Spencer Johnson’s parable about change, Who Moved My Cheese?, has sat atop the nonfiction best-seller lists for months. While change is often dreaded and avoided, it is inevitable that the cheese will move. And as adaptive human beings, we, too, shall move. Perhaps the more appropriate questions might be “Can we move quickly enough? Can we grow with life’s lessons? Can we muster the will to make change happen?”


Lew Smith is an associate professor at the Fordham University graduate school of education in New York City, where he is the director of the National Principals Leadership Institute and the Fordham Center for Educational Research and Leadership. A former middle school and high school principal and executive director of a social service agency, he is currently studying significant school change efforts nationwide. He can be reached at lewsmith@fordham.edu.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Can Schools Really Change?

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