Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Political Support for Whole-System Change in School Districts

While writing my newest book, Power, politics and ethics: Dynamic leadership for systemic school improvement (which is in press by Rowman & Littlefield Education), I exchanged several E-mail notes with Peter Block. Peter is an internationally famous writer and thought-leader in the field of leadership and organization development.

In one note, Peter questioned my proposition that whole-system change must be explicitly supported by a superintendent of schools and a majority of his or her school board members prior to beginning that kind of change process. Peter said (which I paraphrase here), “I disagree. There is great change under the radar of the top leaders. What are educators supposed to do if they don’t have that kind of support; give up the idea of change?”

In reply I said,

“Yes, there is great change under the radar of the top; however, in many cases in school districts the great changes are rather frequent, piecemeal, disconnected efforts to make incremental improvements in individual schools and programs within a district. And when all is said and done, not much really changes--there's just a lot of activity in the name of change. Whole-system change requires a different approach to change; one that is systemic, systematic, and strategic.

Systemic, systematic and strategic change aimed at transforming an entire school system must have support from key school board members. In the absence of board support educators should not give up a change effort; however, nor should they charge full speed ahead without having support from key board members (not necessarily from all of them). Instead, change leaders need to spend time developing a critical mass of support among key internal and external stakeholders, including key school board members.”

The methodology I've created for transforming whole school systems, Step-Up-To-Excellence, begins with a "pre-launch preparation" phase. That phase is primarily focused on building political support (both inside and outside of a school district). During this phase change leaders engage community members, faculty, staff and school board members in structured large-group processes that are based on Harrison Owen's Open Space Technology and Marvin Weisbord's Future Search. The purpose of these engagements is to build political support for whole-system change. If the political support is not there, the change effort will almost certainly fail.

What change leaders will be left with after a failed whole-system change effort is anger, frustration and a hardened resolve to resist change in the future.

Bottom-line: Whole-system change requires political support from key internal and external stakeholders, including key school board members. In the absence of that support, change leaders need to spend time building it.

If they can't build a sufficient amount of political support, then they shouldn't try to engage their school districts in large-scale, whole-system change. Of course they can continue to engage in small, incremental changes (e.g., improving a curriculum, developing a new teacher evaluation plan, and so on); but large-scale system-wide change will fail in the absence of political support and if it is bound to fail it shouldn't be tried because the emotional, physical and financial costs of whole-system change are significant.”

Peter wrote back and said that he agreed with my assessment. It was quite a relief and an honor to have someone like Peter agree with my beliefs about political support for whole-system change.

What do you think? I invite you to post your opinions on this.

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