Improving education is at the top of many governments'
agendas. Recent large-scale efforts yield useful lessons for relatively quick
October 2012 | by Michael Fullan
The deliberate attempt to use “change knowledge” to bring
about whole-system reform in schools is barely 15 years old. By change
knowledge, I mean ideas and strategies that cause the system to move forward in
performance, especially when it comes to raising the bar and closing the gap for
all students. By whole-system reform, I mean all schools in the state, province,
or country, and all levels from local to intermediate and state.
My colleagues and I began to get some clear ideas of the do’s and don’ts of
large scale reform when a group of us evaluated the literacy-numeracy reform
that was launched by the United Kingdom in 1997—large scale to be sure, as it
addressed the performance of the over 20,000 primary schools in England. We drew
four lessons from this partially successful reform effort, two negative and two
First, on the negative side, we found that depending too heavily on targets
turns out to be a distraction. England had set as targets 80 percent for
literacy and 75 percent for numeracy from a starting base of some 60 percent.
They did progress to about 75 percent, but then for various reasons leveled off
and declined in subsequent years. Overreliance on quantitative targets turns out
to be a temporary boost at best. Second, a negative approach to
accountability—name, shame, and improve—also turns out to be of questionable use
in the mid to long term.
On the positive side of the equation, two components did turn out to have
strong value. One was focus and the other was capacity
building. Focus meant selecting core educational-improvement goals and
staying with them relentlessly. Capacity building consisted of strategies that
systematically developed the skills, resources, and motivation of individuals
and groups to put in the effort to get results, as well as to sustain that
During this same period, stimulated in part by the introduction of the
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) from the Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), governments around the world
developed an interest in the state of school-system performance and how to
improve it. Biannually since the year 2000, PISA has been assessing the
performance of 15-year-olds in literacy, math, and science starting with the
30-plus OECD countries and then rapidly expanding to the current number of close
to 70 countries. The question is now front and center: how do you improve all
systems in reasonably short periods of time, such as 6 to 10 years?
In this short article, I do not attempt to answer this question in detail.
Rather, my goal is to give some directional advice and illustrate what that
advice looks like in practice. There are at least four dilemmas that must be
The accountability dilemma
The policy-overload dilemma
The capacity-building dilemma
The sustainability dilemma
The key to understanding accountability is to realize that no system that
relies primarily on external control can be sustained. Therefore policy makers
must design, monitor, and improve systems that ensure built-in accountability on
the part of the implementers. The idea is to achieve forms of accountability
that are based on both internal commitments to the users of the system and on
commitments to the public. We have found that effective accountability is first
a function of good data used primarily as a strategy for improvement, second a
degree of “nonjudgmentalism” that reduces the culture of blame, third widespread
transparency about results and about what’s working and not working, and last a
drive to intervene in order to build capacity for progress.
Policy overload happens when governments fall into the trap of developing
plans that are too complex, too vague, and contain too many priorities. Policy
overload results in a lack of focus, fragmented priorities, and a sense of an
endless stream of ad hoc initiatives. Successful reform plans are designed as
much for the implementers—that is, the teachers and school and district
leaders—as they are for the planners themselves. The overall plan must be
actionable, reasonably clear, and lead to widespread ownership.
The centerpiece of all successful whole system reform cases is capacity
building—the development of individual and group efficacy when it comes to new
skills, resources, and motivation. Put another way, all the failures we observed
had a weak capacity-building core. In fact, governments tend to underestimate
the need for capacity building or try to address it in weak, individualistic
ways. The bottom line for those engaged in whole-system reform is that the core
strategy must focus on thorough and widespread capacity building, especially the
collective capacity of groups.
The fourth issue is sustainability. If a transformation program addresses the
first three dilemmas successfully, it is most likely well on its way to greater
sustainability. Focus, integrating accountability and capacity building, and
developing widespread leadership relative to the agenda all contribute to
greater sustainability. Widespread leadership includes leaders developing other
leaders to carry out the core agenda.
There is no single model for addressing whole-system reform. Particular
models will vary according to the starting point and context. For example, if a
system has extremely low capacity and is very large in size, as is the case for
many developing countries, it will call for certain approaches that are more
direct at the early stages. Below I address the core attributes of the
whole-system reform model we developed in Ontario, which has achieved widespread
success since 2004. The value of this model has been documented by several
external case studies, and the model is based on a good deal of research and
evidence from around the world.
The Ontario case
Ontario is Canada’s largest province, home to over 13 million people and a
public education system with roughly 2 million students, 120,000 educators, and
5,000 schools. As recently as 2002, this system was stagnant by virtually any
measure of performance. In October 2003, a new provincial government (Canada has
no federal agency or jurisdiction in education) was elected with a mandate and
commitment to transform it.
Improvements began within a year, and some eight years later, the province’s
900 high schools have shown an increase in graduation rates from 68 percent
(2003–04) to 82 percent (2010–11), while reading, writing, and math results have
gone up 15 percentage points across its 4,000 elementary schools since 2003.
Fewer teachers and principals leave the profession in the first few years, and
achievement gaps have been substantially narrowed for low-income students, the
children of recent immigrants, and special-education students. In short, the
entire system has dramatically improved.
In brief, the strategy consisted of assertive goals and high expectations
from the government, combined with a commitment to partner with the education
sector in order to develop capacity and ownership in the service of student
achievement. The key factors were:
Relentless and focused leadership at the center (in this case, the Ontario
A small number of ambitious goals, specifically higher levels of literacy
and numeracy and improved high-school graduation rates
A positive stance toward the schools, districts, and teachers
A core strategy of capacity building to improve the quality of instruction
Transparency of results and use of data for improvement purposes
A nonpunitive approach to accountability
Learning from implementation, by disseminating best practices both
vertically and across schools and districts
Fostering leadership at all levels to drive and support items 1-7
The conclusion to be drawn is that systems will be successful if they focus
on a small number of key strategic elements, deploy them in concert, build
capacity on the part of the implementers, persist with the process over time,
and monitor and learn as they go in relation to actual results and effective
About the author
Michael Fullan is professor emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. He is currently special adviser to the premier and minister of education in Ontario. Fullan has published widely on educational change and leadership. His most recent book is Change Leader: Learning to Do What Matters Most.