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Leading Educational Change: International Perspectives

This post is by Helen Janc Malone.

Change of any kind is difficult and more so within complex systems such as education, where a myriad of elements must move in a synchronized manner in order to lead to meaningful outcomes.

Leading educational change is a multifaceted endeavor that takes focus, drive, and persistence. How nations approach educational change is deeply rooted in their cultural, social, and economic contexts, and is often a reflection of a society itself. Some nations struggle with equity, prioritizing educational justice as the key driver of change in order to overcome decades of institutional oppression and segregation. Other nations focus on holistic education in order to move away from a competitive culture that has stifled creativity and access to diverse career paths. Others yet struggle for data transparency and focus on quality after years of inputs-driven reforms and prescriptive schooling practices. What all these systems have in common is their pursuit to define and redefine the purposes of education; their struggle for educational justice, progress, and meaning.

Leading educational change, particularly on a national or a state level, is inevitably a highly political and at times, polarizing process that oscillates between incremental adjustments to the status quo and short-lived attempts at discontinuous change that last until the next election. Policymakers, and some educators, often rush to find the "silver bullet," favoring reforms that promise immediate results confined within a narrow intervention over more comprehensive, long-term solutions that take time to realize. Thus, issues that rise to the top are often those with the most powerful special interests and savvy policy entrepreneurs who have the political capital to shape the education agenda and direct it toward a narrow set of foci (often coupled with a cumbersome and at times, ineffective implementation). As a result, many nations face unfulfilled mandates, a barrage of [failed] reforms, and a constant search for the "next best thing."

Yet, what the top performing nations have illustrated is that change on a systemic level cannot occur unless we have a national conversation about what our purposes of education are, what we are trying to achieve through the schooling process, and, to publicly recognize the existing, underlying reasons for our current educational state and systemic conditions. We then must create a vision and a set of goals that will propel and guide us toward positive change; a shared understanding of the value education plays in our society and what the future might hold if we collectively make a positive difference in the lives of all students.

We must create alignment across our systems and empower all levels to create meaningful change, leading from the top, middle, and bottom. Leading educational change is not something that only happens at the very top of the national education structure. Teachers lead educational change every day when they step inside their classrooms. Principals lead educational change on a daily basis, working with their staff, families, and students to reshape their internal school culture and climate. Families lead educational change around the clock as they engage in their child's learning. Community partners lead educational change year-round by linking and aligning with child and youth developmental needs. District lead educational change by listening to the needs of their schools and by building partnerships and creating opportunities for schools to improve and succeed.

We must trust our educators to engage in professional accountability, to innovate and create from within their classrooms and schools (vs. to be told from the disconnected top). We must empower families, students, and community partners to be the key voices in shaping positive educational change in their communities and their schools. We must design policies that are deeply connected to quality learning and teaching. And, we must be prepared to approach education in all its complexity versus piecemeal.

International benchmarking has become a favorite activity for many American education reformers. However, what is often lost in the cherry peaking of interventions is that many high performers have invested years into their educational visions, shared goals, and comprehensive structures that address student learning and development in and out of school, invest in the teaching profession, and implement accountability structures that meet the needs and expectations of the society. It is not one thing that has created the top performing systems; rather, it is a comprehensive approach over a sustained period of time, openness to course correction, innovation, and system learning that has and continues to propel leading educational performers forward.

What that means for us in the U.S. is that we have to move away from the bifurcated debates that narrow the discourse to focus on one group or one intervention and instead to broaden our conversation to address all the critical elements that could move the needle toward meaningful educational change, one not merely measured by a standardized score, but by the college and career readiness of students, their preparations to be engaged, prepared citizens and contributing members to our rapidly evolving society. All of us in education have a leadership role to play, no matter what our platform is (a home, a classroom, a school building, a community organization, a school board, a school district, or the state or federal agency). Leading educational change is about all of us working together to change the learning conditions, to provide opportunities for growth and positive development for all our children and youth.

I hope this Blog allowed you to pause and think about what leading educational change means to you, what are the guiding questions we ought to be asking and unpacking, and how do we lead collectively toward an improved, sustained education system that will provide all students with an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed in the 21st century.

Thank you to the Education Week for this wonderful opportunity and thank you to all of you, our readers, for your support. Please follow the work of our contributors as they continue to shape education both in their respective nations and globally.

Helen Janc Malone is the Director of Institutional Advancement at the Institute for Educational Leadership and the editor of the book Leading Educational Change.
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