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Major School Improvement Requires the Collective Capacity of Systems at All Levels

June 13, 2012 | Tags: michael fullan, authors, books, district-wide reform
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Over the past two months, I've been writing about Michael Fullan's theories on what drives systemic school reform. And what doesn't. You can read my introduction here, and also Driver 1 (capacity building), Driver 2 (group focus), and Driver 3 (effective instruction). In this look at Fullan's final driver, systemic solutions, I'm going to shift my focus from his 2011 seminar paper to his recent book All Systems Go.
 
Michael Fullan looks back to one of the seminal thinkers about learning systems, Peter Senge, when he reminds us that real change is possible, but only when a district — or a state — takes a truly systemic approach.

In his forward to Fullan’s book All Systems Go, Senge says, “No single quick fixes. No good guy/bad guy politicizing to mobilize political anger. No fear mongering about America’s declining competitiveness in the world. Just clear strategy, broad engagement (especially including educators themselves), and a consistent message that this can only be done by all of us working together across all levels of the educational system.” (p. xviii).
 
Fullan says this kind of change comes through “collective capacity.” And he contends that schools, districts, states, and nation get better “conjointly.” In other words, schools, districts, and states should work in concert to build collective, collaborative capacity. Fullan explains the title of his book All Systems Go as meaning that “every vital part of the whole system--school, community, district, and government--contributes individually and in concert to forward movement and success.” (p. 3)
 
The 7 Big Ideas
 
Fullan offers his reasons why collective capacity “enables ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.”
 
One is that knowledge about effective practice becomes more widely available and accessible on a daily basis. The second reason is more powerful still—working together generates commitment. Moral purpose, when it stares you in the face through students and your peers working together to make lives and society better, is palpable, indeed virtually irresistible. The collective motivational well seems bottomless. The speed of effective change increases exponentially. Collective capacity, quite simply, gets more and deeper things done in shorter periods of time (p. 72).
 
All Systems Go features even BIG ideas for Whole-System Reform:
 
1. All children can learn
2. [focus on] A small number of key priorities
3. Resolute leadership/stay on message
4. Collective capacity
5. Strategies with precision
6. Intelligent accountability
7. All means all
 
Big idea #7, “all means all,” applies not only to schools, districts, and states, but also to ALL children. Fullan contends that almost ALL children can learn at "a high level of critical reasoning and problem solving.” (p. 4) He excludes only 5% of students who make up the most seriously disadvantaged, but argues that even those “can lead effective lives through inclusionary developmentally based programs typical of all-systems-go reforms.”
 
A place where "All Means All"
 
As I was thinking about Driver 4, I was reminded of George Hall Elementary in Mobile. Thanks go to Instructional Partner Alyson Carpenter of Columbia Elementary School in Madison City, who created this video during the recent Instructional Round conducted at George Hall. The teachers, principal, and students at George Hall show us how ALL means ALL!
 
When one visits George Hall, they immediately feel the sense of urgency possessed by Principal Terri Tomlinson and her faculty. They KNOW that every minute counts and they make sure that every child is served well every day. They also believe that every one of their students can learn at very high levels. These high expectations are exhibited in their actions, the students’ work, and the school’s sense of moral purpose.

At GHES, you also see what Fullan calls “collective efficacy,” which he describes as people having confidence in each other. “Principals trust, value, and depend on their peers. School leaders and district leaders similarly believe in each other’s capacity, individually and jointly, to solve problems and make progress.” (p. 45)
 
Fullan also reminds us that consistently high performing schools and districts – including George Hall – have several other things in common: “clarify of purpose, collaborative cultures, collective inquiry, action orientation, commitment to continuous improvement, a focus on results, strong leaders who empower others, willingness to face adversity, conflict, and anxiety, and perserverance in the face of obstacles” (DuFour et al., 2010), p. 54.
 
Intelligent accountability

Fullan believes that “the failure to get accountability right plagues all reform efforts” (p. 5). In advocating for intelligent accountability, Fullan quotes Andy Hargreaves who observed that “accountability is the remainder that is left when . . . responsibility has been subtracted” (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009, p. 102). Fullan states that “intelligent accountability
 
...involves a set of policies and practices that actually increases individual, and especially collective, capacity to the transparent point that shared responsibility carries most of the freight of effective accountability; that makes internal and external accountability almost seamless; and that leaves external accountability to do its remaining, more-manageable task of necessary intervention” (p. 5).
 
Here is a summary of Fullan’s thinking about intelligent accountability.
 
1. It relies on incentives more than on punishment.
2. It invests in capacity building so that people are able to meet the goals.
3. It invests in collective (peer) responsibility -- what is called “internal accountability.”
4.  It intervenes initially in a nonjudgmental manner.
5. It embraces transparent data about practice and results.
6. It intervenes more decisively along the way when required.
 
Like the other key concepts associated with All Systems Go, intelligent accountability begins and ends with a partnership approach. In Fullan’s view, this collaborative approach to accountability promotes both long-term sustainability as well as a culture committed to ongoing improvement.
 
That agrees with everything I've learned about significant positive change in schools. How about you?   
 
 
 
 
 
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