How to get systemic changes
How to get systemic changes
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The Bottom Line Fixing Education Requires Systemic Change


School reform has been tried and doesn’t work. What is needed is systemic change.  An article on EducationNext highlights key components of select schools that implemented systemic changes in order to transform their schools. Much of which are in line with senior fellow Don Nielsen’s policy propositions in his book Every School: One Citizens Guide to Transforming Education.

Authors Karen Hawley Miles and Karen Baroody recognize eight school systems that “focus less on specific interventions and more on the systemic conditions that lead to results.” They continue, “to address these challenges, [deplorable graduation rates and low-performing schools] they had chosen from a small set of clear strategic priorities such as getting the right people in the right roles, differentiating and expanding student time and attention, organizing resources for job-embedded, curriculum-connected professional learning, and leveraging the community to support students and families.”

So why aren’t more schools adopting these policy proposals? Because hardly anyone is talking about the system itself. Much like the two authors above, Nielsen argues for systemic change. He pushes for “a new system must be different than the ‘one size fits all’ system we have now.” Examples of these ideas, in a broad manner, similar to those highlighted in the eight school systems, are, “Change an adult-focused system to a student-focused system; Change an input-focused system to an output-focused system; Change a teaching-focused system to a learning-focused system; Change a group-focused system to an individual-focused system; and Change a time-focused system to a competency-focused system.”

These policy proposals need not occur immediately. In fact, they should be rolled out over time in order to address change appropriately.  We also need to recognize that changing our school system will also require significant change in the American culture. That cannot happen overnight.  Nielsen has a proposed “game plan” that involves two phases. The first is concerned with legislation regarding right-to-work,  school-choice, innovation schools and districts , and leadership institutes.” Phase 1, which includes short-term, incremental goals, is designed to begin the creation of a “movement” for change and needs 1-3 years to take hold. The second phase, given the results are positive in Phase 1, would take 4-10 years, perhaps longer.  In this phase, the goal is to “uncuff” the restraints on the current system to allow innovation to flourish and to enhance stability of leadership and governance.  The policy suggestions include legislation regarding appointed school boards, certification requirements, school funding, and graduation requirements.

Paramount to this “game plan” is the process begins with a state legislature. As Nielsen notes, “If we want sustainable change, it must occur at the state level, with passage of new laws and codes.” He explains,  “the state controls most of the money, who can and cannot teach, who can and cannot lead…as in any other organization if you control the money and the people, then you control the operation.”

Changing the system can be a daunting challenge, but if one state begins this process it can transform our entire nation. As Nielsen proclaims, “Our children and our country are counting on us.”  

Bailey Takacs

Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs serves as program coordinator at Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education. With a passion and drive for reforming education, Bailey’s experience includes managing campaigns for elected officials as well administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.