In Chapter 2 of Excellence Through Equity, the eagerly-anticipated, new work by Alan Blankstein and Pedro Noguera, contributor Michael Fullan steps back from the “cacophony of education reform” by focusing on the key factors that, in combination, can help whole systems achieve the moral imperative that all children learn.
In our work in a number of large systems in North America, and in a careful reading of the research, it is possible to identify a small number of key factors that in combination make a difference. Before discussing the particular components of success there are three overriding orientations that stand out. First, strangely enough, if you want to change the system you have to declare that it is the whole system that is implicated in getting better—not the bottom 5% or 20% but all of schools. In a kind of rising tide lifts all boats, every school must be held accountable for improvement. Only if the whole system—district, state, province—is on the move will there be any chance of sustainable gains. Furthermore, no matter how well a given school or district is performing there are always subpockets of failure and upcoming changes in the environment that will challenge even the best systems.
Second, you can’t make the solution overly complicated. There is a big difference between complicatedness and complexity. The former is when you add layers of coordination, and you increase the number of initiatives underway. These responses only add to confusion and overload. By contrast, complexity involves enabling key factors to converge and cohere. We use the term simplexity for this process, which is identifying the smallest number of key factors that will make a difference (typically 6 to 8)—this is the simple part; and then orchestrating these factors to work in interaction—this is the complex part.
Third, you have to integrate what Andy Hargreaves and I have come to call the push and pull forces (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012). You can’t force (push) change or people will rebel; but you can’t just leave it to chance or nothing will happen. Leadership then that combines push and pull forces is of utmost importance. The difficulty with the concept of change is that you need to end up with new ideas and ownership of these ideas by large numbers of people in the system. Here is my definition of this phenomenon: an effective change process shapes and reshapes good ideas while it builds capacity and ownership among members in the group. The sophistication of leadership is that it must manage such a process with all the issues therein.
In sum, a whole system perspective (everyone is implicated), simplexity (a small number of factors that everyone can grasp), and the dynamics of push and pull (innovation and ownership) are necessary for fundamentally addressing equity-driven performance.
Alan Blankstein served for 25 years as President of the HOPE Foundation, which he founded and whose honorary chair is Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He worked for Phi Delta Kappa, March of Dimes, and Solution Tree, which he founded in 1987 and directed for 12 years while launching Professional Learning Communities beginning in the late 1980s. He is the author of the best-selling book Failure Is Not an Option®: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools, which received the Book of the Year award from Learning Forward. Alan is Senior Editor, lead contributor, and/or author of 18 books, including Excellence Through Equity with Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He holds tenured faculty appointments in the departments of Teaching and Learning and Humanities and Social Sciences at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development and in the Department of Sociology at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and the co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings (IGEMS).