I was reminded of a question I have addressed repeatedly since I started writing, teaching, and speaking about systemic change back in 1984: "When is systemic change not systemic"?
There are many often conflicting definitions of systemic change. The definitional confusion still confuses practitioners and policymakers today and I see this confusion appearing in publications on school improvement; for example,
- When I read articles about examples of systemic change and the articles are about high school reform, I cringe.
- When I read articles about systemic change and they are all about building-level change, I cringe.
- When I read articles that claim that curriculum improvement, introducing new instructional technology, or creating a new management information system are examples of systemic change, I cringe.
All of the above changes can be part of a systemic change initiative, but, by themselves, they are not examples of systemic change.
The "system" is the intact school district. In fact, a school district is one of the few organizations in the world that is actually often called a system (as in, "school system"). The school system is all the programs, buildings, activities, people, etc. that must be aligned and coordinated to deliver educational services to students. If you draw a circle around all those elements everything inside the circle is the system to be improved and everything outside the circle, including state departments of education, comprises the system's external environment (this notion comes from Fred and Merrelyn Emery, early pioneers of the systems approach to improving organizations as systems).
Russell Ackoff (another early pioneer of systemic change) tells us that it is pure folly to try to improve parts of a system (as in focusing improvement only on a school building or a level of schooling like high school reform). He says that not only won't the entire system improve by focusing on the parts, but it is likely that the piecemeal focus will actually cause the system's performance to deterioriate.
Systemic change must also follow three paths: Path 1--improve the system's relationship with its external environment; Path 2--improve the system's core and supporting work; and Path 3--improve the system's internal social infrastructure. If efforts labeled systemic change do not follow those three paths, those changes are not systemic.
So, to answer my opening question, "When is systemic change not systemic"?, the answer is