Book on school reform disappoints
Use of abstract language makes it hard for readers to know what the author means by "reform"
Michael Fullan, the former dean of education at the University of Toronto and special adviser on education to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, characterizes the best successes in educational reform that have been achieved to date as "incremental." He should know - he has been an adviser to some of those efforts.
In his latest book, Leadership and Sustainability: System Thinkers in Action, Dr. Fullan's central treatise is that education - and for that matter health, social services, and corporations - would be better served by leaders who can use "systems thinking" to overcome the inertia that prevents needed changes.
Often sought as a consultant, Dr. Fullan advised Tony Blair's government in Britain on its National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies for public education, from 1997 to 2002. The initiative (described by Dr. Fullan as a "living laboratory of educational reform on a grand scale") mobilized leadership for literacy and numeracy improvement by using some, but not all, of the elements of sustainability that this book enumerates. Despite the considerable progress British schools achieved with the strategies, Dr. Fullan does not believe the effort and results can be maintained. His primary concern is sustainability, which he defines as "the capacity of a system to engage in the complexities of continuous improvement consistent with deep values of human purpose."
Dr. Fullan does two things that might mislead Canadian readers (and leaders) to think that all educational systems require massive interventions because of chronic poor performance. First, the word reform has many meanings and he never says which meaning he prefers. Second, his examples of reform are the Blair government's efforts in the U.K. and the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" reform policy in the U.S. For him, the U.K. efforts are a positive but incomplete instance of reform, while the Bush scheme is "heavy-handed" and his bête noire. But Canada's schools, although they can benefit from improvement, don't suffer from the same problems as schools in the U.S. and U.K., nor are the problems as large.
We in Canada are especially vulnerable to being misled because we're so close to the U.S. Flowing easily across the border, the rhetoric of school failure has characterized the American public school ever since it was alleged to have been responsible for the failure of the U.S. to beat the Soviet Union into space. In reality, the common ground for improvement in Canada, Britain and the U.S. is the need to realize the promise of education for children from all economic backgrounds.
The author does little to dispel the idea that wholesale system change is necessary when he asks, "how does one achieve large-scale [note the modifier] reform anyway; reform that is characterized by serious accountability and ownership?" He advocates "that governments and schools set aspirational targets, take action to obtain early results, and intervene in situations of terrible performance, all the while investing in the eight sustainability capacity-building elements" that he sets out in the book.
Dr. Fullan walks a delicate line, advocating both "pressure" and "support" for systemic changes (what he now calls "accountability and capacity building"). Invoking No Child Left Behind allows him to advocate pressure while expressing disapproval of creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust as a means of promoting change.
Leadership and Sustainability is written conversationally, even informally. In fact, the book reads like a transcript of the presentations he is often asked to make and includes lists of numbered and bulleted points like the ones that might complement a spoken text.
I must confess to impatience with the leadership literature that relies heavily on the use of abstractions without definite or empirical referents. I had hoped that Dr. Fullan would give a more precise account of his terminology and ideas. He forthrightly acknowledges this shortcoming. He uses terms such as complexity and systems theory, systems thinking and systems thinkers, but treats them in a superficial and vague way, leaving it to the reader to assign the meaning.
More an exhortation from the coach than a closely reasoned argument, the book combines metaphor, repetition and idealism in proportions attractive to many leaders who no doubt find Dr. Fullan's affirmation of leadership a welcome message. But, as the author himself points out, systems-thinking leadership is more elusive and difficult to implement than one might expect.
Leadership and Sustainability: System Thinkers in Action, by Michael Fullan, Corwin Press, 2005, 130 pages, $24.95 US.
Charles Ungerleider is a professor of the sociology of education at the University of British Columbia and author of Failing Our Kids: How we are ruining our public schools (2003) in which he addresses leadership and other issues affecting public schooling in Canada.