What Is Systemic Change? - ASCD
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September 1, 1993

What Is Systemic Change?

Does systemic change mean changing district policies? Improving individual schools? Creating new systems? Here are five ways of understanding the term.

School Culture

Many observers have called for systemic reform of the schools, but what does systemic mean? Following are five ways the word is currently being used.

Systemic means working with school systems—district bureaucracies or state departments of education—to effect change. This use of the term assumes that change must be vertical, beginning with existing bureaucratic structures. People interested in this approach focus effort on district finance, board of education policies and relationships, and lines of authority in the central office. Under this model, failure of school-based management reforms are attributed to the lack of a systemic approach: the failure to include all areas of the system in decentralized behavior. A centralized personnel management system, for example, can reverse a move to school-based management through its control of school-site administrator career patterns or teacher staffing.

Systemic means working with every school in a system. When used in a horizontal sense, systemic implies working with all the schools in a district or state to effect change. This usage has come to the foreground in the debates about school choice. Those in favor of public school choice plans argue that if parents have the right to choose which schools their children attend, they will choose the best schools, leaving those schools that are less good unattended. Those who doubt this argument say that unless all the schools in a given area are as good as they can be, some students will receive less than optimal educations. Unless change includes every school in a system, it is not real change at all.

Systemic means working with every aspect of the school system. This “systems theory” use of the term assumes that educational improvement must consider the whole range of school issues, from student assessment to boards of education to school finance.

In this model, a school might begin with improvements in curriculum, but then realize that curriculum depends on staff development programs, which require budget considerations, which leads to the question of who decides the budget. The school quickly finds itself at the policy level. Parents will also wish to be informed about changes in curriculum, and they may want to have a say in curricular decisions. Before long, what had seemed a simple matter—Should we add two days of ecology to the 5th grade curriculum?—has involved the entire system.

Systemic means systematic. To the extent that education in the United States is a system, efforts to improve it must be consciously systematic, say those who use the term this way. Both horizontal and vertical structures must be considered. Anything less than a systematic approach will find the fabric of change unraveling at one end even as it is being woven at the other.

Systemic means fundamental change. This usage implies that improvements needed in education are so extensive that they cannot be done within the limits of the present system; thus, people should seek to change the nature of that system. Examples of this approach include the use of vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools and the charter school movement, in which teachers form their own educational institutions outside of school district supervision.

Each of these usages is rooted in a belief that after more than a century of development, the school systems themselves are at issue when we think about improving education in this country. These systems are highly complex, surprisingly similar across the country, and very resistant to change. Where once they were the solution to a problem—“inefficiency”—some observers now see them as the problem: antiquated bureaucratic and technical structures that make it difficult to focus on the paradigmatic learning situation, the relationship between an individual teacher and an individual student.

If teaching and learning are to improve for all students, we need change: fundamental change, affecting every aspect of our schools and every school in our school systems, change from the statehouse to the classroom. In a word, we need systemic change.

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