ERIC Identifier: ED370178 Publication Date: 1994-05-00
Author: Thompson, James Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Systemic Education Reform. ERIC Digest, Number 90.
After more than a decade of marginally effective reform, diverse stakeholders
are coming to the same conclusion: Demanding more from our schools is not
enough--the system itself (at local, district, and state levels) must be
fundamentally changed. Piecemeal reform efforts of the past, some suggest, have
been tantamount to applying a bandaid to assuage schools' ills when what is
needed is major surgery.
Systemic reform is proposed as an alternative to tinkering and add-on
programs that, critics say, will not meet the demands of business, parents,
communities, and students for fundamental change and significant improvement in
Although support for systemic reform has been growing, change is never easy.
Many superintendents, school boards, and principals harbor concerns about how
the roles that are familiar to them will be affected by systemic reform.
WHY IS SYSTEMIC REFORM NECESSARY?
Much of the push for
systemic reform stems from a recognition that the nation's social and economic
structure has changed.
The changes in traditional family structure, an increase in child poverty,
the inadequacy of social-welfare and social-service programs, and a decreased
sense of civic responsibility are among the factors that are directly or
indirectly placing new expectations on educators (Conley 1993). Economic forces
and educational equity issues have combined to heighten calls for improved
education for all students.
Although society's needs have changed radically since public schools were
first instituted in America, many outdated and ineffectual purposes and methods
have been retained by schools.
Recent societal changes have made education "essential to livelihood"
(Schlechty 1990). As workers are increasingly expected to weather multiple
career changes, it is imperative for schools to emphasize the importance of
lifelong learning, strengthen students' thinking and problem-solving skills, and
increase their adaptability. Reformers hope that by "totally rethinking the very
structure of the education system," schools will be better prepared to meet the
needs of all children and the communities in which they live (Education
Commission of the States 1991).
While raising student achievement is a central goal of systemic reform, it is
also crucial for a reconfigured educational system to ensure that students are
taught how to apply what they learn in education and in life.
WHAT ARE THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF SYSTEMIC REFORM?
important to keep in mind that systemic reform is not so much a detailed
prescription for improving education as a philosophy advocating reflecting,
rethinking, and restructuring. Unlike reform efforts that are more limited in
scope, systemic reform pervades almost every aspect of schooling. It calls for
education to be reconceptualized from the ground up, beginning with the nature
of teaching and learning, educational relationships, and school-community
According to David Florio of the National Science Foundation, common themes
in systemic reform include a greater emphasis on depth of knowledge, new
relationships between people, more flexible physical arrangements in schools,
and restructured time schedules (Lewis 1989).
Conley's conceptualization of educational restructuring dovetails with the
goals of systemic reform. He sets forth a framework of twelve dimensions of
educational restructuring that are grouped into three subsets: central,
enabling, and supporting variables. LEARNER OUTCOMES, CURRICULUM, INSTRUCTION,
and ASSESSMENT make up the central variables, labeled as such because they have
a powerful direct effect on student learning. Enabling variables, also closely
related to instruction, consist of LEARNING ENVIRONMENT, TECHNOLOGY,
SCHOOL-COMMUNITY RELATIONS, and TIME. Supporting variables, those further
removed from the classroom, consist of GOVERNANCE, TEACHER LEADERSHIP, PERSONNEL
STRUCTURES, and WORKING RELATIONSHIPS.
Many definitions of systemic reform make reference to school-based
decision-making, which grants those closest to the learning process more say in
how learning takes place. In a school-based management structure, the emphasis
is on empowering and fostering creativity in others rather than trying to
control them (Barrett 1991).
Above all, schools must reinvigorate programs and services for children,
expand the roles of all education stakeholders, free themselves from oversight
that stifles innovation, and reconceptualize traditional accountability as
quality assurance (Bamberger 1991).
HOW DOES SYSTEMIC REFORM AFFECT SCHOOLS?
requires change on many levels, but change at the school site often is deemed
the most important. Conley notes school-level changes are the most difficult to
achieve because they influence what and how subjects are taught as well as how
progress is measured and evaluated.
O'Day and Smith (1993) suggest that the greatest promise of systemic
education reform may be its potential to overcome educational and, to a lesser
degree, societal inequalities. They contend that a systemic state approach
coupled with greater local-professional responsibility can provide the structure
that is needed to improve education for all children. Two assumptions made by
O'Day and Smith are that a thorough understanding of academic content, complex
thinking, and problem-solving is necessary for students to become responsible
citizens, and that all students are capable of learning challenging content and
complex problem-solving skills.
WHAT ARE THE ROLES OF THE SUPERINTENDENT AND PRINCIPAL?
systemic reform is to succeed, leadership must be present. It is important for
individuals in the upper levels of an organization to demonstrate support for
and understanding of the need for change (Barkley and Castle 1993).
Characteristics of true leadership include personal vision, realism,
willingness to change and take risks, and ability to build community support for
To prepare superintendents to be leaders in fundamental education reform,
Murphy (1991) asserts that three changes must occur: Administrator preparation
programs must be revitalized, the working conditions of superintendents must be
improved and the superintendent-school board relationship clarified, and "our
images of bold leadership and the people who exercise it" must be altered.
Some of the new duties superintendents face under systemic reform include
helping to establish organizational vision and mission, planning and
coordination, facilitating change, spanning institutional gaps, communicating,
resolving conflicts, and improving organizational efficiency (Conley).
Increased responsibility and shifting roles among teachers, students, and
administrators are things principals must contend with under systemic reform.
Because they are in touch with all members of the school community, principals
are more aware of the complex relationships in schools, which enables them to
help others in the school understand their unique role in systemic change.
HOW DO SCHOOL BOARDS FIT INTO SYSTEMIC REFORM?
boards can help provide vision for the school system, support change, arrange
collaborative relationships with other agencies to ensure integrated services,
and work toward shared decision-making. However, a board's ability to
successfully promote change is related to its stability, unity, and knowledge
base (Bacharach 1990).
Conley notes that although some school boards are becoming increasingly mired
in politics and micromanagement, others are backing off and focusing on the
strategic direction of the school. These boards function much like a "board of
directors." They concern themselves with education and educational outcomes
rather than managerial responsibilities.
Systemic reform is a broad and often ambiguous concept. However, if it is
viewed not as a fast-acting formula to cure all of education's ills but as a
philosophy that advocates reflecting, rethinking, and restructuring, it has
great potential to improve education.
Bacharach, Samuel B., Editor. EDUCATION REFORM:
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1990. 440 pages.
Bamberger, Richard, Editor. DEVELOPING LEADERS FOR RESTRUCTURING SCHOOLS: NEW
HABITS OF MIND AND HEART. Arlington, Virginia: American Association of School
Administrators, 1991. 72 pages.
Barkley, Jr., Robert, and Shari Castle. "Principles and Actions: A Framework
for Systemic Change." National Education Association, National Center for
Innovation. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational
Research Association, Atlanta, April 1993. 53 pages. ED 361 851.
Barrett, Peter A., Editor. DOUBTS AND CERTAINTIES: WORKING TOGETHER TO
RESTRUCTURE SCHOOLS. Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1991. 191
pages. ED 336 867.
Conley, David T. ROADMAP TO RESTRUCTURING: POLICIES, PRACTICES AND THE
EMERGING VISIONS OF SCHOOLING. Eugene, Oregon: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational
Management, University of Oregon, 1993. 432 pages. ED 359 593.
Education Commission of the States. EXPLORING POLICY OPTIONS TO RESTRUCTURE
EDUCATION. Denver, Colorado: Author, 1991. 95 pages. ED 332 323.
Lewis, Anne. RESTRUCTURING AMERICA'S SCHOOLS. Arlington, Virginia: American
Association of School Administrators, 1989. 250 pages. ED 314 820.
Murphy, Jerome T. "Superintendents as Saviors: From the Terminator to Pogo."
PHI DELTA KAPPAN 72, 7 (March 1991): 507-13. EJ 422 810.
O'Day, Jennifer A., and Marshall S. Smith. "Systemic Reform Educational
Opportunity." In DESIGNING COHERENT EDUCATION POLICY: IMPROVING THE SYSTEM,
edited by Susan H. Fuhrman. 250-312. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers,
1993. ED 359 626.
Schlechty, Phillip C. SCHOOLS FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY: LEADERSHIP
IMPERATIVES FOR EDUCATIONAL REFORM. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990. 164 pages.
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