A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Systemic Reform: Perspectives on Personalizing Education - September 1994

Creating A New System

The systemic reform agenda of the 1990s takes on all these pieces. It is directed at changing every part of the system to support the creation of challenging learning environments in all schools. To the extent that systemic reforms make progress in changing the goals, structure, and supports of the system, efforts to introduce powerful uses of technology such as those referenced above will have a much easier time. They will be working towards the same goals instead of fighting an uphill battle.

Changing the goals, structure, and supports of the education system is a longterm undertaking. It requires sustained leadership and patience. It also requires a very different approach towards policy making. Policies designed to stimulate systemic reform cannot be in the familiar form of a new program, a new set of requirements, or a new set of goals and policies superimposed on the existing system.

Systemic reform essentially requires turning the education system on its head. Instead of a system in which the top (whether district, state or federal) prescribes, regulates, and monitors schools, reformers envision a system in which the top sets goals and provides the flexibility, time, know-how, and assistance to schools to achieve them. Schools assume responsibility for reaching the goals and also accept the consequences of failure to do so.

Creating such a system recapitulates the same patterns and principles at each level-- classrooms, schools, districts, and state agencies. Each level faces the need to balance direction and control from the top with professional autonomy and responsibility at the bottom--a balance totally out of kilter under the present top-down bureaucratic organization of schools, districts, and state education agencies.

At each level of the system, people are asked to take on more authority and responsibility--students for their learning; teachers for their effectiveness and professional growth; administrators for providing the necessary conditions for teachers; and policymakers to provide the direction, standards, and resources to guide and assist.

Translating these grand ideas into practice requires major changes in roles and responsibilities--changes which for many challenge beliefs about teaching and learning as well as beliefs about management. To do so, administrators, teachers, and students need on-the-job access to role models and expertise. They need the flexibility to create schedules and learning opportunities based on the particular context of a particular school and the needs of the individuals, teams, and faculties. Forty-two minute class periods in secondary schools do not provide enough time to undertake meaningful learning activities for students or for teachers.

These learning opportunities for teachers, like those for students, need to be authentic and collaborative tasks, like curriculum development, not traditional menu-driven workshops and packaged training programs (Little 1992). Only under a system with opportunities to learn new ways of leading and teaching, and the flexibility to put them into action, is it possible to imagine the process of school transformation unfolding (Ray 1992).

In a nutshell, policies to transform the education system into one that stimulates local educators to transform their schools need to

Such massive changes do not happen quickly. The barriers are formidable. Following decades of start and stop reforms, educators--especially teachers--are quite wary of new reform efforts. Teachers and administrators--as well as students and their parents--are accustomed to a system packed with demands and signals about what to do, many in conflict with each other. They have developed powerful coping strategies for functioning in this environment. Consequently, systemic reform requires a clear and consistent set of signals over a long period of time to have any chance of piercing this protective cover.

The vision of technology as a powerful tool for teaching and learning will not be realized under the present organization of schools and traditional instructional practices. The combination of the time and adaptability required for provocative exchange among teachers and between teachers and students and the limited resources available to public education requires a dramatically different image. Moving towards an image of schools as community centers and "learning organizations", open throughout the day and year, not only expands support for public education but may be the only way to realize sufficient cost savings to make technology affordable. Redefining staff roles and responsibilities, and drawing on the human resources of the local community, will also be essential elements of reform.
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