Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ask Michael Fullan

If I were a minister of education, or a vice-minister, or an advisor to either, I would recommend that they hire Michael Fullan. I do not know him, but I have read some of his books and I think that if someone wants to lead a ministry of education, make real changes in the way students learn, taking all factors into account, few are better qualified than Fullan.

Fullan is not just an intellectual and education professional, sitting in a library from where he enlightens us with his learned opinions. Instead, he has personally worked in the reform processes in several countries and school districts. He knows the complexities and difficulties that are involved.

In his latest book, All Systems Go, Fullan proposes that educational reforms abandon the traditional paradigm of standards-evaluation-penalties. He also warns of two common failings in reform processes. The first is the failure to account for the complexity of educational systems and, as a result, oversimplify the measures to be taken. The second is to propose partial approaches that attack one problem at a time, or worse, involve too few schools, teachers, and students, instead of the system as a whole (hence the title of the book).

In contrast, Fullan says that reform processes should simultaneously consider the different actors involved and levels where they operate. Given the difficulties of maneuvering in such a complex arena, he proposes five key measures that, in his experience, are necessary for carrying out the reform process. They are:

1. Moral purpose: The objectives of the reform must be described with clarity, transparency, straightforwardness, and simplicity. These measures will constitute the fundamental principles that make it possible to put the four reform measures that follow in their proper relationship. In addition, high expectations must be established for ALL students (not just some of them). This moral purpose of reform, which is known to every actor in the educational system, should aim high, close gaps in educational performance, and above all, include all students. Every action, strategy, and policy should be designed and carried out in a way that automatically and constantly reminds people that education has a moral purpose of the utmost importance, for each individual and for society as a whole.
2. Decisive leadership. It will not be easy to carry out the reform process at any of its levels, whether in the ministry, at the local level, or in the schools themselves. The process must be driven by leadership built on the following six elements: strong enthusiasm, personal commitment on the part of the leaders, the support of the teachers, a focus on teaching, maintaining pressure for achieving goals, and showing results that justify further investment.

3. Intelligent accountability: Everyone talks about accountability and everyone assumes that accountability measures are carried out intelligently. But this is not always so. Fullan says that achieving intelligent accountability requires putting more emphasis on incentives rather than penalties, investing in strengthening the abilities of all involved to carry out each task, building institutional capacity (internal accountability), particularly at the beginning of the process, refraining from making judgments and carrying out punishments, ensuring the transparency of data on the measures being carried out and on the results, and intervening where necessary.

4. Creating collective capabilities: The purpose of reforms is to strengthen the capacities of each teacher and director on the assumption that the sum of their individual efforts contributes to improved outcomes. Fullan proposes putting more emphasis on building collective capacity in schools, at the local level, and in ministries of education, as a basis for strengthening collaboration.

5. Strengthening the capabilities of individuals: Once collective capabilities have been strengthened, many of the actors need to improve their skills for carrying out their tasks in the context of the reform measures. This support is very important, especially when it is directed at improving teaching and learning.

If one considers separately each measure that Fullan proposes, you will see that none is very original or innovative. The issue here is their integration. Fullan says that these measures must be carried out within the context of a single reform initiative, which centers on the process of learning.

I remember that some years ago José Joaquín Brunner presented tables that attempted to identify common elements in the most successful education systems. The interesting thing was that the systems were all very different. Some were centralized, others not; some were almost entirely public, others mostly private; some were multicultural and multilingual, others were homogenous. There was no common thread among them, except that each had a rigorous internal consistency in which all policies were in alignment, and where new measures and actions were not simply carried out ad hoc.

I think that Fullan is proposing something similar. Education reforms, which are indispensable in Latin America, must adopt the essential elements used in successful countries and districts throughout the world: focus and consistency. If you still have doubts, ask Fullan.

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