Michael Fullan: California schools are potential leaders in “whole system reform”

150 150 Aaron Davis

(Photo Credit: Violeta Vaqueiro)

Originally published in California Schools magazine.

Dr. Michael Fullan is a worldwide authority on educational reform, and the former Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. He has published more than two dozen books, such as “The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact” and “Motion Leadership in Action.” Although Dr. Fullan advises policymakers and local leaders around the world, he also focuses extensively on education issues in California, and views the state as a potential leader in “whole system reform.”

In this Q&A segment, Dr. Fullan offers his thoughts on the current state of education in California, as well as his advice for school governance teams on topics such as relationships with school site management teams and incorporation of technology in the classroom:

Although your extensive work in education reform is very much a call to education leaders internationally, you’ve spent a great deal of time specifically examining California’s schools — there is even a section of your website (www.michaelfullan.ca) devoted just to California. What piqued your interest in California’s schools?

I am always on the lookout for “whole systems” that might be on the move. In California, I saw a great potential for alignment at all three levels (the school/community level, the regional level and the state level).

You have the state, with a governor and a State Board wanting to do something different through local capacity, and through new approaches to accountability at the local level (with the LCAPs), and state levels with the help of Linda Darling-Hammond. You also have a state superintendent and CDE who are interested in moving from compliance to capacity

Then there is the CTA, which has endorsed the Professional Capital agenda. You have CSBA, ACSA, county offices and others who want to be forces for improvement, along with several foundations and other groups, such as California Forward, who are active in analyzing and recommending new ideas, and the newly established California Collaborative for Educational Excellence that is setting off in a positive direction.

Numerous school districts, including several that we work with, are also pushing in new directions.

All of this represents remarkable alignment. No one is endorsing what I have called the “wrong drivers” (punitive accountability, individualism, technology without pedagogy, and ad hoc policies). So, the big question is, how to move forward. This is going to be complex, but the commitment is strong, and our team wants to be part of shaping it. We all will learn a lot in doing this.

Another reason is that the Federal government and most of the states in the country have not been able to make any headway. I would like to see California lead the way, and start a larger movement in the country. This is going to be enormously challenging, and exciting. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

In January, along with one of CSBA’s partners, California Forward, you released a paper entitled “A Golden Opportunity: The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence as a Force for Positive Change.” The paper proposes potential actions for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and emphasizes system-wide change. What is your personal assessment of how California schools are performing, and how does your own theory of change apply to California schools?

My assessment is that with more than 1,000 districts, there is a lot of uneven capacity. People are willing but they are asking “how?” We all need to mobilize support for capacity building — within districts, in consortia of districts, with CCEE, and so on. Also, there is a hiatus in assessing progress with the suspension of statewide tests. This is a good move on the part of the governor, but it also represents a vacuum. We really don’t know how districts are doing. In short, we need capacity building, and its link to outcomes for students. We need to help this happen, and assess its progress. This is the work of the next three years.

The paper also addresses the concept of “systemness,” a sense of collective realization that a period of major of transformation is indeed underway. Certainly, LCFF is a big piece of that transformation. What role should governing school board members play in embracing and encouraging the idea of systemness in times of monumental change?

Systemness is both the realization that transformation of the system is necessary, but it is also the stance that it is everyone’s role to contribute beyond their own role, and to benefit from system development. In other words, people do their own part, but they realize that they are part of something bigger. This can be tremendously uplifting as people realize that they are part of a social movement to address the moral imperative of serving all students as they raise the bar and close the gap.

You can read the rest of the interview with Dr. Fullan at the California Schools magazine.

Aaron Davis is a staff writer for California Schools.


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