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Q&A With Michael Fullan

This interview was conducted by Helen Janc Malone. 

What global trends do you see unfolding in educational change?


In Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform (Centre for Strategic Education, 2010), I argued that countries like the U.S. and Australia are concentrating on four 'wrong' policy drivers: negative accountability, individualistic strategies, technology, and ad hoc policies versus policies and strategies that were based on capacity building, social capital, deep pedagogy, and systemic development. I now see a trend away from the wrong drivers and toward the right ones.

We are seeing less massive testing, more selective testing; more use of data for development than for compliance; more capacity building such as decentralization with corresponding capacity building; more collaborative networks across schools and districts, and so on. There is also a major awakening of large-scale reform in Latin America based on grass-roots strategies orchestrated by system leaders. We are cultivating the 'new pedagogies' that involve a new learning partnership between and among students and teachers, helped by technology and focused on deep learning goals (see Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge, Pearson School Canada, 2013).

What is one key factor to effective whole-system reform?

The key to effective whole-system reform is to center the effort on capacity building--the development of skills, competencies, and motivation of individuals and groups, at all levels of the system. This means taking a 'development stance' compared to an accountability stance. When you combine non-judgmental capacity building with transparency of results and practices, you get the best of both support and pressure. There is a sense of urgency about the student achievement agenda but it plays itself out through action and implementation and the spread of good practice. Internal accountability grows (where the group holds itself accountable) and external accountability gets ramped up to focus on the smaller percentage of schools that are not moving forward. Quality capacity building replaces a preoccupation with compliance.

How is education leadership evolving?

Education leadership is evolving in two main respects. First, leaders will focus on recruiting people who can work together on the capacity building agenda--developing others, who in turn help develop still others focused on the student achievement agenda. They will need to cultivate human capital (recruiting and monitoring the development of individuals) and social capital (helping groups work together on the agenda on a daily basis).

Second, they will need to lead differently combining what Andy Hargreaves and I call 'push and pull' factors (see Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Teachers College Press, 2013). Push factors are about establishing a sense of urgency and focus; pull factors relate to drawing people in to a common vision and a common strategy. Leaders will have to be responsive and initiative-oriented. Leaders will have to make it easy for people to access good work (see The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Jossey-Bass, 2014). There is a balancing act whereby the leader needs to be non-judgmental as people are learning new things and dealing with innovations, coupled with helping the group evaluate the impact of what they are doing.

This new theory of change is connected to the human condition centered on two core values:

    • the desire to engage in intrinsically meaningful activities; and,
    • the fundamental human propensity to work with others to accomplish things together.

I believe this new theory of leadership will make change happen more quickly and significantly.

How will the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) shape education reform?

CCSS is simultaneously promising and fragile. On the problematic side, it seems to be that the whole apparatus of standards and assessment is so mammoth that it is in danger of collapsing under its own weight. It is very difficult to mobilize a whole state let alone a whole country with such complexity. Second, there is a major vulnerability in a three-legged stool--standards, corresponding assessments, and instruction or pedagogy. The last one is crucial, the most difficult to develop, and the most neglected. CCSS will fail without a major focus on pedagogy. Third, assessment can easily go awry if people get bogged down on figuring out the technical side of accessing data (as distinct from using data to change instruction). The interest of states might wane over the next two years as these complexities take their toll.

On the positive side, there is a lot of excitement at the school level and beyond about the quality of the standards. If states can put a moratorium on the existing tests (which are not aligned with CCSS), focus on standards and instruction, and treat assessment, such as the Smarter Balance assessment, as a learning proposition, there could be a good chance that capacity development will come to the fore and have a major influence on large scale improvement.

You are helping the state of California undergo significant educational change. What conditions on the ground indicate that positive educational change is possible?

California is engaged in a whole-system change, which is a complex process given the state has a population larger than all of Canada (38 million versus 35 million) and over 1,000 school districts. In the 1960s and 70s California was perhaps the most innovative state in the country. Over the last 30 years it has been in a steady decline. The conditions are now changing. There is:

    • an ad hoc capacity ready to be mobilized;
    • a powerful governor committed to local development, having just passed a Local Funding Formula that redirects resources to the local level;
    • a State Superintendent of Public Instruction (an elected position) publicly committed to capacity building over compliance;
    • leadership at the district level engaged in widespread capacity building--a group of 10 districts, the CORE (California Office to Reform Education), which represents 20% of the state's student population, and the leadership of ACSA (Association of California School Administrators), committed to establishing focused collaboratives;
    • the California Teachers Association, attracted to the professional capital agenda;
    • new money at the state level, including $4.5 billion allocated for the CCSS, and philanthropic investment committed to funding capacity building on the state level; and,
    • capacity building on a district level.

The system is large and complex, with a 30-year history of its parts not working together. It is going to take a good deal of dedication and persistence on the part of many leaders to build on the current fragile relationships to the point where they have some stability. Personally, I find the California challenge the most exciting proposition around.


Michael Fullan is professor emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Follow him @MichaelFullan1.

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