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Changing The System Vs. Systemic Change

Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, and Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter High School, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.


Thanks so much for your letter. In your last post, you write:

I would like to ask you for a moment to pretend that we had the advantage of knowing all we know right now about the school systems we work in and we were starting from scratch to set-up the best infrastructure to support a system of great schools.

You ask eight specific, intelligent, and important questions. And your post ends with:

So, I am tossing this ball to you. You now have the ability to build a school system from scratch knowing all you know now. What would you do?

In answering your questions I would explain my ideas on how to change the system. I certainly have lot of ideas about this. But when I read your letter I couldn’t help but think about the difference between focusing on changing the system versus the idea of systemic change. In my professional life, I am all about changing the system, and I spend a lot of time and energy on it. But in my intellectual life I think about systemic change.

Earlier this month I attended the 20th Anniversary Summit for Teach for America. Speakers talked of the potential for “real change” in education and the need for “revolution.” As with so much in education, these terms have very different meanings to different people. To me there is an irony here; many segments of the education community view Teach For America and affiliated groups as significantly outside the norm, yet the “change” and “revolution” TFA and aligned groups support actually are not very significant when considering what systemic change would look like.

For another blog I wrote a post titled “Education Reform or Revolution.” Below is a long quote from it in which I discuss piecemeal change vs. paradigm change. In this context piecemeal change is equivalent to changing the system and paradigm change is equivalent to systemic change.

There are two major types of change – piecemeal and paradigm change. Alvin Toffler posits that there have been three great waves of change: from hunter/gatherer to agrarian, then to the industrial revolution, and now to the information revolution. When there are great changes in society there are paradigm changes in societal systems (family, business, etc. including education).

The change to an industrial society led to the industrialization of schools that mirrored many of its underpinnings; bureaucratic organization, autocratic leadership, centralized control, adversarial relationships, compliance, conformity, compartmentalization, etc.

The needs of an information age society are much different; team organization, shared leadership, autonomy with accountability, cooperative relationships, initiative, diversity, networking, holism, etc. If these are indeed the emerging societal needs, and they are clearly different than those of an “industrial” society, then we need a new educational system — a new paradigm — that aligns with those needs. … The types of reform we are currently focused on today really only fit the “piecemeal” definition of change. And it all fits within the current box —let’s call it the industrial model of education box. If we believe there is major societal change occurring, then nothing less than paradigm change is necessary.

Additionally, there is another idea that supports the need for systemic change. Over the past 50 years our society (specifically American society) has become increasingly apathetic; it’s trending to more inequality, not less; it does less to help those within it who need help the most; it has become increasingly focused on the “winners” at the expense of the many; it favors assimilation over diversity.

Piecemeal changes to an educational system supporting this societal trend will at best leave us with the status quo and, at worst, reinforce the increasing divisions within our society. On the other hand, paradigm change in education can be part of a co-evolution with society, supporting it and being supported by it, by moving from a system designed for sorting students to one designed for helping all children reach their potential.

I strongly believe that we need more than piecemeal change — we need systemic change; we need paradigmatic change. And, this change will only happen once we have some difficult, but important, conversations about the purpose of education in our society. A new system starts with this question: “What is the purpose of education?” and goes from there.

Stacey — I often think about how we as school leaders within the system work to change the system in the short term while also working towards real revolution, to paradigm change. What do you think?


About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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