I don't know as much about Michael Fullan as I'd like to. Fullan is an educational expert-professor-consultant from Canada who has been brought to California multiple times to share his ideas about how to revitalize the education system, and is often credited/blamed for what has happened in Ontario. It's a thorny mess, and clearly many folks have wildly different impressions of what has happened and who's to blame or credit-- you can get a feel for the issues by reading this article, including the entire comment section.
All of which is a way of allowing that Fullan's ideas, while intriguing and thought-provoking, have not necessarily been field-tested, and there is some question about whether or not they can survive the transition from theory to reality. And he occasionally makes troubling friends (most notably, the McKinsey Group).
But Fullan does a good "What's wrong with NCLB and RttT" from a non-US perspective. This morning I want to take a look at a paper of his from 2011 that returns to one of his favorite ideas-- choosing the right drivers for system change.
The basic concept makes sense-- if you want to redirect a system, you have to do it by installing the right drivers. The wrong drivers get you the wrong results, like pushing a bulldozer up against the side of your car in an attempt to help drive forward out of the mud. And in "Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform," Fullan lays out the wrong drivers that US reformsters have bet the house on, and tells which ones should be used instead.
Accountability (not capacity building)
You manage a widget factory. You want to ramp up widget production to 1000 widgets a week. Which of the following is your first step?
1) Make sure that you have sufficient workers with sufficient training and sufficient materials and sufficient tools to meet that production goal.
2) Gather your workers together and tell them they'd better try harder and meet that production goal, or they were going to be fired.
That's the difference between driving by capacity building and driving by accountability. And since we're in a sector that provides a human service and not a widget factory, the difference between the two becomes even more complicated and troublesome.
Fullan does not call to throw out standards and assessment. The problem, he says is the attitude toward them and their dominance in the system. If that dominance is based "on the assumption that massive external pressure will generate intrinsic motivation it is patently false."
Higher, clearer standards, combined with correlated assessments are essential along the way, but they are not going to drive the system forward. Whole system success requires the commitment that comes from intrinsic motivation and improved technical competencies of groups of educators working together purposefully and relentlessly.
His stance raises a question for me-- is it possible to have those standards and correlated assessments without having them take over the system? I'm not sure I think it is, and in general Fullan still likes accountability as a tool more than I do-- but I do agree that trying to redirect the system by simply demanding that teachers Do It Or Else pushes us into the weeds. The assumption that teachers and schools have the capacity to make all students awesome but are, for some mysterious reason, just refusing to use it is both insulting and destructive. Its ultimate expression is Arne Duncan's repeated assertion that all low-achieving students and students with learning disabilities need is just expectations.
Why do we choose accountability over capacity building? Imagine if the feds and states had said, "We will spend whatever it takes to make sure that every child in this country is sitting in a classroom with no more than fourteen other students" or "We will spend whatever it takes to get every teacher three solid years of higher-level teacher training." It would be expensive.
But accountability feels cheap. It doesn't cost anything to tell teachers they'll be fired if they don't shape up. It doesn't cost anything to tell teachers, "You don't need any more resources. Just use some grit and make it happen." Spending billions on testing doesn't feel or look like a big expense, and accountability hawks keep telling themselves that testing will pay huge dividends.
Fullan says that testing should be done less, with an eye toward figuring out how to improve, not punish. He's also a big fan of transparency of results as well. But he asserts that "no system in the world has ever achieved whole system reform by leading with accountability."
Individual Quality (not group quality)
Fullan says that the land of rugged individuals is particularly susceptible to the idea of individual hero teachers striving away in their individual classrooms, but he says that's not where the magic happens.
He refers to a study by Carrie Leana at the University of Pittsburg which looked at the different effects of human capital (the awesome powers of the hero teacher) and social capital (the interactions between staff and administration). Both are necessary, Fullan says, but it's the social capital that really "is the more powerful."
Fullan suggests that this particularly powerful in combination with an emphasis on capacity-- that social capital creates its own intrinsic motivation, while accountability-style drivers actually break down the social capital. Think of how a ranking system where your pay or even your job rest on "beating" other members of the staff-- this is an approach that actively destroys the social capital in a school.
Fullan acknowledges several large challenges in pushing group quality. In particular, he notes that you have to involve all the teachers. Getting buy-in from a few hand-picked staff members doesn't cut it. And I get a bit nervous myself when he starts talking about how "teacher quality" is just another proxy for student learning-- that the metric is how well students are learning. But in no point in this paper (or in the admittedly small amount of Fullan I've read) does he address the question of how we decide whether a student has learned anything or not.
Fullan often emphasizes the importance of teacher morale and intrinsic motivation to a school system, and he is equally clear here-- school leaders who don't get this part right will not get anything right. Top down, carrot and stick attempts to punish and fire individual teachers to excellence will fail every time.
Technology (not instruction)
I hate to sound like a broken twitter but no other successful country became good through using technology at the front end. Without pedagogy in the driver’s seat there is growing evidence that technology is better at driving us to distraction, and that the digital world of the child is detached from the world of the school.
Fullan is short but sweet on this point. "There is no evidence," he writes, "that technology is a particularly good entry point for whole system reform." In other words, the fact that you're making students take their Big Standardized Test on a computer does not revolutionize anything.
Fragmented (not systemic)
Fullan is a systems guy, and I think they are prone to their own set of blind spots. But he believes that countries who have mastered this start from the idea that teachers are crucial and must be supported. They look to improve the quality of the profession, but they do it through methods of support rather than through threats and punishment-- recruit the best, improve working conditions, differentiated roles, support particularly through the early years of work.
In the absence of a system mindset individual pieces, each of which contains half-truths, are pitted against each other as vested interests bash each other with proverbial baseball bats. No one wins; the system loses every time.
He puts particular emphasis on how the system must come to trust teachers, and that this is a particular issue in the US (and Australia). His advice-- to create a cycle of trust, you have to respect people before you think they've earned it, and then "do the things that build competencies and trust over time." This is not bad advice-- as soon as I read it, I recognized it as what I do in my classroom-- but perhaps because he is primarily addressing policymakers and leaders, he fails to take into account the power differential. I can extend respect to education leaders and policymakers in this country (I really can-- I swear) but I can't "build competencies" because I'm just the help, and I have no real contact with them. In fact, now that I think about it, that may be one of the problems in education, just as it's a major problem in the private sector-- the actual physical gulf between management and the work. If policymakers started respecting me, I would see it indirectly in the policies they created-- but they have no idea whether I respect them or not because they've never met me, seen me, seen my work, talked to me. Absent any sort of communication loop between policymakers and people who actually work in schools, I'm not sure Fullan's trust-building model can take root.I'm going to have to think about this some more.
So what have we learned
I don't think Fullan's told us anything we don't know. Bits and pieces of his ideas have clearly taken hold-- the social capital construct of teacher communities is pretty much the entire guiding idea behind PLCs, and reformsters have cherry-picked tiny pieces here and there.
But Fullan's writing gives us other language to use when discussing what's wrong with US ed policy, and that may be helpful, just as it's always useful to have another model by which we can understand what's happening. I'm going to mull some of his ideas over some more. Meanwhile, readers can use the comments section to debate whether or not Fullan sent Canadian education straight to hell in a handbasket or not.