reviewed by Steve Markbreiter - November 13, 2006
Whenever I begin a book about school reform, I approach the process by thinking: What can this volume add to a rapidly growing library of works on the subject? Will this really make a difference?
In Turnaround Leadership, Michael Fullan shares his latest thinking on school reform. While the book raises many familiar issues in this area, it benefits from two positive attributes: big thinking and conciseness. In this small volume (97 pages), Fullan has set out ambitious goals, which he calls the real reform agenda.
Fullans agenda is raising the income bar while closing the gap between the richest and the poorest (p. 7). He draws on Richard Wilkinsons (2005) research on the income of social inequality, which found that low material living conditions has less impact on the public than low social status, which has corrosive social consequences (p. 3). For Fullan, this leads to a double whammy (p. 14) for schools in highly unequal education systems. In addition to the direct negative consequence of being in a low performing school, Wilkinsons research leads to the conclusion that these schools will also face indirect psychological consequences due to their situation relative to others.
This leads Fullan to outline an agenda that is both specific and ambitious; he is concerned with educations role in closing the income gap. As he points out, closing such a gap requires more than current turnaround strategies, which are too little and too late, work on only a small part of the problem, and unwittingly establish conditions that actually guarantee unsustainability (p. 20). Turnaround leadership is about change, on a grander scale than most education reform books dare to tackle.
Fullan asserts that even the best of current turnaround strategies simply move schools from awful to adequate (p. 20). The first step is usually new external leadership, but these strategies usually fail to establish a series of successive leaders that represent continuity of the new good direction (p. 30). Moreover, current reform strategies rely heavily on external control and offer only temporary help to a situation, thus violating just about every change rule we know as to how to go down the path of deeper sustainable reform (p. 20). Strategies based on external control do achieve results, but only for a limited time and degree (No Child Left Behind being one example).
So how can school reform strategies get around this dilemma? How can schools turn around in a long-term and meaningful way?
To Fullan, the answer lies in school turnaround being based in a social movement. [T]o move from adequate to good with a continuous press for sustainable, great performance indeed requires a million change agents at work (p. 44). This, then, begs the next question. What strategies are likely to produce and sustain these multitudes of change agents?
Fullan lays out 10 elements of successful change, some of which are familiar (tap into peoples dignity and sense of respect, evolve positive pressure, build public confidence); still, some arguments are new and did seem to jump off of the page. Among those that resonated the clearest are these:
Fullan notes that there is a great difference for a students learning and achievement based on whether the student receives an effective or ineffective teacher. Large class-to-class variations in teacher effectiveness exist within schools, and because these variations occur unless something is done to change them, Fullan concludes that all effective change strategies are socially based (p. 56).
Develop professional learning communities within schools in which teachers observe each others teaching, and work with school leadership to make ongoing improvements, leading to greater consistency and quality of teaching across the whole school. The idea of professional learning communities is not new, but here it is seen as part of Fullans social movement. The teachers themselves are the change agents. What, then, motivates teachers to be part of this movement?
Fullans answer is that schools and districts need to build capacity while reining in judgment. Early in the change process, judgment is not a good motivator and is not perceived as fair (p. 60). The focus on capacity building is consistent, Fullan states, with what we know about how people change.
Money by itself is not the answer. Even major efforts with serious additional dollars (from foundations, for example) have difficulty penetrating classroom practice.
Going back to my original question, to what extent will this book make a difference? Whether it does or not says less about the quality of Fullans argument than about the daunting task at hand, as he himself recognizes. Fullan highlights several cases of urban school reform to show that, despite best efforts, improvement was limited, largely because they failed to address what needs to change in instructional practice. Furthermore, Fullan readily admits that his 10 elements are not a blueprint for school reform, but rather, generic concepts that will be applied differently in each local setting.
For Fullan, then, there is no single model for turning around schools. Instead, the main measure of an overall strategy is whether it is motivational, mobilizing a large number of people to put in their energy and otherwise invest in what will be required to reap and sustain major improvements (p. 80). In addition, citing the research of Kanter (2004), Fullan notes that winning streaks early on attract further investment over time, which also leads to systemic improvement.
What is clear is that centralized, high-stakes accountability schemes and decentralized site-based management have both failed to produce ownership to turn around schools. Fullans solution is what he calls permeable connectivity, in which all three levelsschool, community and district, and state . . . interact regularly across and within levels (p. 96).
The bottom line is that this book can make a difference, depending on who reads it and how it is read. Since Fullans change concepts require connections among different governance levels, and since a million change agents need to be mobilized, the best audiences for the book are leaders with the capacity to make such connections and reach a range of people. Moreover, such readers need to have the desire to change and the capacity to understand the ideas Fullan lays out in this book. In addition, it would be a mistake to read this book in isolation. The idea of working across networks and mobilizing change agents is too comprehensive for leaders to rely on one book. Combining this book with others on subjects such as learning organizations (Senge, 2006), new ways of thinking (Pink, 2006), and engaging communities (Marshall, 2006) will begin a range of perspectives that might address the difficult work of turning schools around.
Kanter, R.M. (2004). Confidence: How winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end. New York: Crown Business.
Pink, D.H. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York: Penguin Group.
Senge, P. M. (1994). The fifth discipline. New York: Currency Doubleday.
Marshall, S.P. (2006). The power to transform: Leadership that brings learning and schooling to life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Wilkinson, R.G. (2005). The impact of inequality: How to make sick societies healthier. Oxford, United Kingdom: Routledge.