The Power to Transform
The Power to Transform
“The Power to Transform” is the bold theme of AdvancED’s 2011 International Summit, a theme designed to push our thinking about school system change from the notion of “tinkering around the edges” to implementing full-scale transformation on behalf of improved outcomes for students. In choosing this theme, AdvancED adds its voice to a growing chorus of demands for not just “change” or “reform” of schooling, but for “fundamental transformation” of education to a new, more robust system aligned with our hopes and dreams for the future.
The More Things Change
Calls for changes to the modern American public education system date back at least to the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk,” in which the National Commission on Excellence in Education scolded the educational establishment for the mediocrity of its product and warned of grave dangers to our national security and international competitiveness if significant change did not occur. Reactions to results from the OECD Programme for International Assessment (PISA), showing low scores and wide variation among students in the world’s developed countries on achievement tests in mathematics, science, and literacy, have raised additional concerns about the need for change. And yet, though the clarion call for change continues, all over the world the way schools are organized, teachers are prepared, students are taught, and learning is assessed remain stubbornly similar to the past. Indeed, as educators and policymakers have attempted to respond to the demand for reform from stakeholders throughout society, they have often been met with simultaneous demands to protect the status quo. How, reformers ask, can we “fundamentally transform” the educational enterprise in our schools and school systems while still preserving so many of its features that various stakeholders value (e.g., the buildings, the calendar, the teacher contract, the governance structure)? What do “transformed” schools look like and how do we get there?
Caterpillars and Butterflies
Transformation, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a major change in form, function, or nature. Often used to describe biological processes like metamorphosis, the term implies movement from one condition or form to another, followed by consequent changes in function and nature. Think of the awkward, mousy-colored caterpillar clinging desperately to the branch until it transforms into the colorful butterfly free to fly away. Watching this process at work, we are reassured by the knowledge we gained as schoolchildren that the outcome will be splendid and that the butterfly – vibrant and free – is in a far more satisfactory form now than before the transformation began.
The Only Thing We Know for Sure
The aspiration for educational transformation is similar – to change schooling from its current awkward caterpillar-like state, in which achievement lags, bureaucracy stifles, and resources are scarce, into something as beautiful and inspirational as the butterfly. As we embark upon the transformational process in our schools and school systems, however, we lack the reassurance that, as in biological metamorphosis, the outcome will be an improvement over the current state. Indeed, as we contemplate transforming schooling into a new, better, more effective endeavor, few of us have a clear image in our minds of what that will look like. In a transformed system, are there school buildings, age-based classrooms, summer vacations? Or, is education offered 24/7 online, facilitated by content experts available to enhance learning year-round? Or, might individual students direct their own learning, at times attending “schools” and at other times apprenticing in the community, volunteering overseas, and mastering content of their own choosing and in their own way?
We can hypothesize about the future but we cannot predict it. The lack of certainty about what lies ahead contributes to the familiar resistance to change. Similar to the old saying, “the devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t know,” change efforts in education are often stymied by the need for certainty, even if we know that what we are doing today is not working for far too many students.
Not All Changes are the Same
How can we better understand and engage with transformation? Organizational development experts Linda Ackerman Anderson and Dean Anderson, in articles and books such as "Beyond Change Management: Advanced Strategies for Today's Transformational Leaders" (2001), explain transformation through a helpful taxonomy differentiating among three types of change: developmental, transitional, and transformational. Although designed for the business world, these terms and definitions can be applied to educational organizations as well.
“Developmental change,” as defined by these authors, is intended to improve the current condition. All organizations need to change if they are to survive and, in many cases, developmental change that improves existing processes without altering the fundamental structure of the organization is sufficient to ward off the entropy that can cause an organization to become obsolete. Implementation of comprehensive professional development plans for teachers or enhancements to instructional materials are examples of developmental changes in education. Developmental change may require us to alter our habits and behaviors, but rarely does it require us to change our values and beliefs. Because of this, developmental change is far easier to implement than the other types of change described below.
The second type of change is “transitional.” Here the organization is deliberately moving from one condition to another and the new condition is well-defined in advance of the change. Transitional change is intended to fix a clearly-identified problem, and within the current system, criteria exist against which the effectiveness of the transition can be measured. Examples in education might include the downsizing of central administration, the redrawing of school attendance boundaries, or even implementation of comprehensive technology systems in place of traditional analog approaches.