Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Changing Educational Change

By Thomas J. Sergiovanni — February 16, 2000 7 min read
Something is amiss with the discipline and practice of educational change.

Few topics are of greater interest to policymakers, to policy scientists, and to educational consultants than is educational change. Most of these elites assume that somewhere within the depths of this discipline lie the secrets that, once understood, can lead a school, state, or nation on the path to school improvement. The stakes are high. Finding the right change strategy promises victory in the national and even international brain race.

But something is amiss with the discipline and practice of educational change. If it is to fulfill its promise, it must evolve from a policy science concerned with instrumentalities to a science and art of design, concerned with substance. Too much of the theorizing, researching, and policymaking on change in education is driven by the flat-out assumption that change is good and resistance to change is bad. Too often, leaders are thought to be successful if change succeeds and unsuccessful if change does not succeed. Little heed is given to what the substance of this change is.

Consider the now-popular use of standards as a school improvement strategy. Increasingly, schools are considered to be successful if they adopt state-mandated standards, invent clever strategies for aligning the curriculum with these standards, figure out how to teach this curriculum, and get good scores on state-provided standards-based assessments. The better schools are at implementing this chain of events, the more successful they are thought to be at improving. Speaking to the American context, Paul Barton, a former president of the Educational Testing Service, explains that any discussion of how well students are educated and how to “reform” education, turns quickly to testing. He notes that “among political leaders, testing is turning into a means of reform, rather than just a way of finding out whether reforms have been effective.” The situation is similar in many other countries.

Yet if a new regime were in place, the contents of these standards and aligned tests would be likely to change, creating a new order. This has happened with math and science standards and with reading standards in California. No matter, the same chain of events determines which schools are thought to be most successful, regardless of the content of standards and the substance of teaching and learning. States, in turn, are rated in terms of their ability to get the schools under their jurisdiction to improve. But what if the standards that are used do not fit all students? What if the standards are the wrong ones? What if the assessments become the curriculum? What if students learn a lot about what is tested but little else? What if schools that are winners with one set of standards become losers when another set of standards is substituted? What if other things go wrong?

Instead of worrying about substantive issues, policy scientists interested in change find themselves absorbed in struggling to figure out the best methods to get teachers and schools to change. Is whole-school change better than changing only part of the school? Is it better for teachers to be convinced that a change is good before they try it? Or will their attitudes change once they are required to use the proposed changes in their practice?

Leaders are thought to be successful if change succeeds and unsuccessful if change does not succeed.

How do “change agents” provide the ways and means needed for teachers to be successful once they do try a proposed change? Will incentives motivate teachers to change? Should incentives be individually based or school-based? If a school adopts restructuring model A, will it be better in getting student test scores up than if it had adopted model B? What about the role of leadership? What approach, style, or strategy of leadership is most effective in getting teachers and schools to change in the way it is thought they should? How do you “reculture” a school? Do you start with a vision or discover your vision a little later? Does school size make it easier to succeed at change? What about teacher learning? Is it better to concentrate on teacher learning than to concentrate on changing organizational structures? How do the findings that lower class size seems to be related to higher test scores fit into the picture? What schools have been able to put several features of successful change into practice at the same time? What do these schools look like? Can we transplant these findings to other schools? How can these findings about change become policies? What are the best ways to implement these policies so that schools and leaders within them will do what they are supposed to?

Instead of worrying about substantive issues, policy scientists interested in change find themselves absorbed in struggling to figure out the best methods to get teachers and schools to change.

But thinking about change in this way is vacuous because it places process over substance. What seems to be important is not what the change is, but how do you change; not what teachers have learned, but that they have learned what elites require; not leadership that blocks poorly conceived and potentially harmful change, but leadership that “turns things around.”

It is taken for granted that schools and school programs are effective when changed, without struggling with the adequacy of the definition of effectiveness used. What works is the focus. Few seem interested in what would happen if the definition of effectiveness were to change from A to B. Let’s face it: Some ideas are not worth advancing. We would be better off if certain change attempts failed rather than succeeded. We would be better off if some school principals knew less about the change process than they do. When ideas are not worth advancing, less effective leadership may be a virtue, and teachers who resist change may be heroes.

Consider some further examples. Is a school that commits itself to teacher learning as the focus of its change strategy successful if it changes from a “let’s help our students learn to use their minds well” kind of place to a “let’s go for the high test scores by narrowing the curriculum, learning how to implement alignment strategies, and emphasizing test-taking skills” kind of place? Is a school successful in change if it restructures by requiring all teachers to adopt a particular school design, even though 20 percent of the teachers oppose the change, and parents and students have had no say in the decision?

Let’s face it: Some ideas are not worth advancing.

Is a school that motivates teachers with cash incentives or coerces them by posting the scores of the children they teach in the local newspaper successful if teachers are now involved in their work for calculated reasons rather than professional or moral reasons? Is a school that changes from a thinking curriculum to a basic-skills curriculum in math and science successful because students achieve higher scores on aligned assessments, even if they understand less?

If one listens carefully to the conversations of policymakers as they propose changes, it would be hard not to conclude that the answer to these questions is yes. Further, the change strategies used to reach a particular goal (for example, a thinking curriculum) may be the same ones used to reach a rival goal (a basic-skills curriculum), providing further evidence of the vacuousness of a process approach to change. In both cases, if the change is successfully implemented, victory is declared.

One way to bring process and substance together is by thinking about change as a design field. Design fields, notes the Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon, are concerned with devising courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Key in the calculus of design is to define and delineate what is preferred and why it is preferred.

Once preferences are established, then one designs backwards to develop implementing and validating strategies. And once a strategy is validated, designers make it clear that this validation is for a specific preference, rather than for a general notion of effectiveness.

This process results in the deflation of effectiveness claims and in helping consumers of innovations be better school improvement shoppers.

Both accuracy and precision are important in design fields. When the two are brought together, we are more likely to find that change strategies focus on important things; are concerned with what is good; and are careful to include competent processes of measurement, discovery, and implementation.

As another Nobel laureate, P.B. Medawar, reminds us: “It has been shrewdly observed that an experiment not worth doing is not worth doing well.” Neither is a change initiative.


Thomas J. Sergiovanni is the Lillian Radford professor of education and administration and a senior fellow in the Center for Educational Leadership at Trinity University in San Antonio. His books include Leadership for the Schoolhouse and The Lifeworld of Leadership, both published by Jossey-Bass. This Commentary is drawn from an article that will appear this year in the first issue of the new Journal of Educational Change.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as Changing Educational Change

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