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The New Meaning of Educational Change

reviewed by Paul E. Heckman March 27, 2017

coverTitle: The New Meaning of Educational Change
Author(s): Michael Fullan
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756806, Pages: 297, Year: 2015
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In 1983, Michael Fullan originally authored The Meaning of Educational Change and this printing was the first edition of the book. Subsequent editions have followed and it is now titled The New Meaning of Educational Change. The fifth edition is currently available with research updates and new examples. The fact that there are five editions of the text is a tribute to educators’ interests in the meanings that the author brings them through this volume.


Fullan’s insights concerning change and improvement are arranged across three sections. The section titles have remained the same across all of the editions. They include “Understanding Educational Change,” “Educational Change at the Local Level,” and “Educational Change at the Regional and National Levels.” Many of the chapters within these sections have different titles compared to the previous editions. They consist of updated explanations of the research and its implications for the implementation of improvements in schooling. The changes to the chapter titles likely reflect Fullan's understanding of the current literature about improvement, implementation, and his experiences with them in the schools and districts where he has consulted.


For example, Fullan describes his recent experiences with various large educational change efforts and improvement efforts in Canada. In particular, he speaks about his experiences in the province of Ontario and large districts in the U.S. like North Carolina and California. The author explores improvements undertaken by individual teachers and principals in individual schools. He also discusses changes being implemented by teachers and principals in multiple schools located within a specific district. Fullan emphasizes the importance of educators working collaboratively to improve instruction and learning in their schools. According to the author, the system for improving schooling involves more than just teachers, principals, and their schools. Instead, system improvement also requires the efforts of districts, district personnel, state leaders, federal government educational agencies, and those working in the education profession. According to Fullan, these organizations and individuals advance system improvement together when they collaborate. He urges that they should work together all of the time and start on the first day.


Fullan also provides specifics for whole system improvement in The New Meaning of Educational Change. He discusses the components of successful cases of teachers implementing “specific instructional practices linked to measurable impact on student learning and achievement” (p. 46). In the book’s sections concerning change at the local level, the author elaborates aspects of the process for this type of change to involve clear goals. He suggests including just a few goals and connecting instruction to student achievement. He further suggests emphasizing the importance of social capital development and adhering to practices that yield results. Despite these many suggestions, Fullan also cautions against heavy-handed accountability.


To fully realize these components, Fullan calls attention to being action-oriented, rather than having to be detailed and planning-focused. For him, building capacity, leveraging leadership, and promoting internal and external accountability all play a big part in system reform. To encourage these developments, the author strongly urges positive pressure. This includes drivers for motivating “the vast majority of teachers . . . to invest in success” (p. 52). This type of success involves implementing specific instructional practices that positively impact student learning and achievement.


In general, Fullan argues for classroom improvement practices that will move students from disengagement to engagement. Five components for moving from boring to engaging instruction include deciding desired learning outcomes, implementing new pedagogies that will focus on producing these outcomes, building favorable school cultures or conditions, developing good cluster leadership, and having supportive policies or infrastructure.


For example, in North Carolina, Fullan describes the details of required gateway projects in Grades 3, 5, 8, and 12. In these examples, the students have become “agents of their own learning, wrapped in an environment of stimulation, support, and accountability” (p. 155). He also discusses middle school students in Toronto who seek local improvements six times a year by making parks or subways better places for their community by working with their teachers.


Leadership beyond the classroom is necessary for supporting these projects and the argument for collaboration among teachers and students. Principals, parents, district administrators, and board members in partnership with teachers and students collectively encourage these reforms. Fullan would say that achieving this kind of whole system reform to encourage these types of improvements should start at day one.


Fullan summarizes the journey provided in the thirteen chapters of his book in this way,


The analyses in the various chapters—whether role specific as in Part [Two], or examining cut across issues in Parts [One] and [Three]—are essentially about developing the individual and collaborative capacity of the profession to form deep learning partnerships with students, parents, and communities. (p. 256)


In The New Meaning of Educational Change, Fullan makes clear his meanings for collaboration, partnership, deep learning, educational changes, and the changes necessary for whole system improvements. Each area, separately and together, is critical for vibrant schooling improvement arrangements. However, his new meanings of these guides for practice need to be seen in the context of the enduring predictable regularities and grammar of schooling. These factors together advance a mental model of schooling (Halpern, Heckman, & Larson, 2014; Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002) that has long provided guidelines for present and past core structures or activities of schooling. Fullan and other school improvement advocates do not appear to recognize the power of these regularities as they undertake school and system improvements. For example, within a school, there are issues like the graded school, the curriculum, its grade level content, the dominance of teacher-directed questioning, teacher control of classrooms, and the notion of rational bias (March, 1972). These factors are built into the practices of schooling.

The elementary, middle, and high schools in urban, suburban, and rural settings involved in A Study of Schooling demonstrate the impact of grammar when it was published in 1984. Goodlad discussed this grammar and these predictable regularities during this time. He noted that,

[s]chools differ; schooling is everywhere very much the same. Schools differ in the way they conduct their business and in the way the people in them relate to one another in conducting that business. But the business of schooling is very much the same. (Goodlad, 1984, p. 264)


Sirotnik discusses these same regularities discussed in A Study of Schooling (Goodlad, 1983) by noting that, “it is but a short inferential leap to suggest that we are implicitly teaching dependence upon authority, linear thinking, social apathy, passive involvement, and hands-off learning. This so-called ‘hidden’ curriculum is disturbingly apparent” (Sirotnik, 1983, p. 29).


There is no reason to believe that these regularities and grammar no longer exist in today’s schools. Any improvements that may have occurred over the past 40 years in the predictable structures and practices of schooling (e.g., the curriculum, student tests, the related lists of content and skills to be taught for each grade of students, etc.) have not altered the grammar of schooling. In the afterword of the twentieth edition of A Place Called School published in 2004, Goodlad lamented that, “I am convinced that, were we to conduct the Study of Schooling today, the findings, conclusions, and recommendations would be much the same as they were before” (2004, p. 179, emphasis in original).


A Nation at Risk hit the press early in the 1980s (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). During this same time, the publication of the first edition of The Meaning of Educational Change and A Place Called School also occurred. A Nation at Risk urged national and state education policy making to shine a bright light on raising standards and student achievement. In essence, this focus on school reform and change has subsequently intensified attention to the rational ends-means model. Tests and test results, whether they be Common Core State Standards, Smarter Balance or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), or other norm-referenced assessments have become central to schooling and learning. As a result, students have focused on acquiring the details of the content and standards specified by authorities far removed from local school sites. Teachers have always sought ways to teach particular details of the required content. The hope is that students would eventually have these details memorized. Learners would retrieve them as educators engaged them in teaching practices designed to improve their memory of these same details. In the end, students would use these memories and perform well on tests. As Sirotnik suggests, the hidden curriculum of schooling influences students in unintended ways. At worst, it distorts the learning and development of these teachers and children. As a result, students and teachers become passive learners or citizens. Test score results may provide evidence about whole system reforms or improvements. However, schooling’s underlying regularities remain fundamentally unchanged. As a result, formal curricula and hidden curricula do not encourage the young or even more mature citizens to democratically and actively alter school learning conditions or the physical, economic, or political environments outside of their school or their communities (Fenstermacher & Richardson, 2010). They should.



Fenstermacher, G. D., & Richardson, V. (2010). What’s wrong with accountability? Teachers College Record. Retrieved from http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=15996

Goodlad, J. I. (1983). A study of schooling: Some implications for school improvement. The Phi Delta Kappan, 64(8), 552–558.

Goodlad, J. I. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Goodlad, J. I. (2004). A place called school: Special 20th-anniversary edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Halpern, R., Heckman, P., & Larson, R. (2014). Realizing the potential of learning in middle adolescence. Pasadena, CA: The Dick and Sally Roberts Coyote Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.howyouthlearn.org/pdf/Realizing%20the%20Poential%20of%20Learning%20in%20Middle%20Adolescence.pdf

March, J. G. (1972). Model bias in social action. Review of Educational Research, 42(4), 413–429.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: Author.

Sirotnik, K. (1983). What you see is what you get: Consistency, persistency, and mediocrity in classrooms. Harvard Educational Review, 53(1), 16-31.

Spillane, J. P., Reiser, B. J., & Reimer, T. (2002). Policy implementation and cognition: Reframing and refocusing implementation research. Review of Educational Research, 72(3), 387–431.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 27, 2017
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21889, Date Accessed: 4/29/2017 5:29:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul E. Heckman
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    PAUL E. HECKMAN is Professor, School of Education, University of California, Davis. His research interests examine issues of change and invention in curriculum and organizational structures in urban settings. Lessons learned in an elementary school experience in Tucson, Az. appear in a book, The Courage to Change: Stories From Successful School Reform. He has also focused on curriculum matters regarding Algebra with Jane Liang and Jamal Abedi (What Do the California State Standards Test Results Reveal about the Movement toward Eighth Grade Algebra for All? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1, 2, 3.), He is now completing a book with Brian Donnelly about a study of Project Based Learning at High Tech High School in Point Loma, California.
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