• Allan J. Mucerino


Updated: Mar 22, 2018

If you are not familiar with Michael Fullan and his work, consider yourself uninformed when it comes to school reform. He is a worldwide authority on education reform with a mandate of helping to achieve the moral purpose of all children learning.

What makes him unique and an absolute must-read for students of education leadership is his approach to studying and solving problems: first-hand and from practice to theory, not the other way around.

Fullan has boldly stated in print and personally to me that programs are not a solution for failing schools (define a failing school or district as either one whose students are annually ranked among the lowest performers when compared to similar schools or districts, or as a school or district abandoned by choice resulting in perpetual declining enrollment).

He contends that the solution is a small set of common principles and practices, relentlessly pursued [e.g. Professional Learning Communities (PLC)]. Fullan's promise: “Focused practitioners, not programs, drives success.” His words have rung absolutely true throughout my long career. A school or district is only as good as the ability of district leaders to provide teachers and site leadership teams with a framework for success. A child’s education should not be subjected to an education lottery, where only a lucky few are taught by a superstar in a wildly successful school while others are taught by a wide range of lower achieving teachers in lesser schools. Or even worse, subjected to luck, where only children lucky enough to be born into families that have the human or financial resources to mitigate the impact of the education lottery. It’s another type of an achievement or opportunity gap. This one is between the highest and lowest achieving teachers and school leaders. We can do no greater work than provide the support, incentives, and motivation that teachers and principals need to be the best they can be.

Fullan helps school districts complete three primary tasks: 1. Create better leaders; 2. Stop boring students to death with traditional schooling; and 3. Bring about change from the middle outward.

“Change from the middle” refers to the place school districts reserve in the system of schooling, situated between their state and their schools. He has found that top down doesn’t work. And at the school level it’s too piecemeal. The strategy that has proven to accelerate the system as a whole is districts working together and learning from each other. In the case of one of his example schools, Central Peel Secondary School, formerly a 1,300-student 9-12 high school that had been abandoned in recent years and declined to 950 students, the turn-around was created by a leader and his team who brought a culture of “yes” and encouraged staff and students to start trying new things. Watch a video featuring the principal, teachers, and students talking about the school here.

For the purpose of igniting or at the least fueling a movement to dispel the myth that the system is too top heavy and weighted down by complex and illogical characteristics that can best be defined as Kafkaesque, consider Fullan’s findings as central to my thesis that it’s not only doable, but it’s replicable too. Consider the first mistake education leaders make: not understanding the difference between restructuring and reculturing. Or, more specifically, assuming that if you build it (restructure) they (reculture) will come. I have found that most restructuring efforts fail to change the prevailing culture, which is among the primary reasons to restructure. This unintended outcome breeds been-there-done-that, this-too-will-pass syndrome that has thwarted many well intentioned reform efforts.

According to Fullan, restructuring is a change in structure, roles, and related elements of a school or district. For me, fundamental changes in the way schools are organized constitute restructuring. Levers for change include governance, decision-making, timetabling and programs. For example, at the elementary level it might include theme/magnet schools, grade-level centers, school choice, and full-day v. ½ day K; at the secondary level, block scheduling, late-start or early dismissal for teacher collaboration, and small learning communities are common examples. Less common and more dramatic examples of restructuring include changing a school's governing authority from the principal to a local school council, having teachers perform functions formerly delegated to administrators or counselors, or closing schools. During the No Child Left Behind Era, failing schools were restructured either by state takeover, charter school takeover[1], outside entity takeover, or replacing all or most staff.

Reculturing, on the other hand, is a far more complex, sophisticated, and difficult-to-accomplish undertaking. An organization's culture is hidden beneath the veneer of its outward appearance. Culture is the heart of an organization. Its lifeblood. What makes it tick. Its beliefs, its human attitudes, its foundation. Its behaviors. Culture holds an organization together and alone can move an organization forward, or prevent it from moving at all. For example, if a true Professional Learning Community (PLC) is to flourish, everyone must share the belief that all students can learn at high levels. It's a fundamental assumption of PLCs. Most school districts have a set of beliefs, but those beliefs are not always reflected in the way the organization behaves. In fact, in much of my strategic planning work, it becomes clear early on in the process that visions, missions, and belief statements are often feel-good bromides that are not reflected in the organization's behaviors.

For example, teachers who have historically taught in isolation in relatively successful schools may be protective of the way it is and always has been and resist what they perceive as reform du jour measures such as block schedules, collaboration time, study hall/intervention/advisory class, etc...because of the erosion of instructional minutes. It is often very difficult to shift that culture if most students are "doing OK" because most teacher contracts require a majority and sometimes 2/3’s vote to change a bell schedule. There has to be a compelling reason such as poor student outcomes, a shifting student demographic, or declining enrollment to convince 1/2 or 2/3's of teachers to support such change. Institutionalizing a collaborative environment where motivated adult educators are collectively committed to building technical capacity and a high level of competence in their respective roles is difficult to accomplish in a culture of isolation. Schools and districts that have adopted DuFour’s PLC model as their fundamental theoretical framework and practice it with fidelity have enjoyed great success in reframing conversations about teaching and learning and subsequently transforming their cultures. In most cases the only structural change needed to implement PLCs was building collaborative time into the bell schedule for staff to discuss student data. What often emerges is a paradox, a clash of contradictory cultures. To get a 1/2 or 2/3's vote to restructure the bell schedule, a school needs to have a culture of collaboration, not isolation. But in order to build a culture of collaboration, a structure that supports it needs to be in place. How a leader orchestrates this process is usually the difference between success and failure.

Now consider the Michelle Rhee experiment. She was thrust into the position of Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools by one-term Mayor Adrian Fenty when she was 37 years old with no experience running a school much less a large school district. The mayor had introduced legislation on his first day in office to vest control of the failing public school system in himself, rather than the elected school board.

His second act was to appoint Rhee as Chancellor. Rhee’s journey has been well documented and is a case study in how restructuring alone is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. She famously took on teachers’ unions, tenure, and even due process in the name of system-wide reform. Her three-year reign came to an abrupt end amid fierce opposition (and after Mayor Fenty lost his reelection bid), though her restructuring efforts have been credited with some improvements. Among the structural changes she instituted were reducing the district’s central administrative staff and closing 23 schools with low enrollments. Her most ardent critics believe she was a self-promoter who supported the privatization of public education and used the kids in D.C. to prove a point. Regardless of her intentions or motivation, her restructuring efforts failed to change the culture of the district and consequently served only to get her and the District attention, not long term sustainable change. A cautionary tale for certain.

[1] California’s public education system has morphed into a competitive environment. 11.2% of its 10,393 schools of all configurations are charter schools. About 9% of its 6.2M students attend charter schools. 18% of all public charters are some configuration other than tradition elementary, middle, or high schools, while only 2% of non-charter public schools are. There are 838 K-8 schools in the state. There are 862 6-8 schools and 332 7-8 schools.