Samantha Rodgers' blog

Michael Fullan’s Choosing the wrong drivers for system wide reform

This article by Fullan was sent to me by my foundation’s Education Adviser and it is a great- yet short- explanation of ‘drivers’ that don’t work in creating lasting change in schools against those that do. He uses current US and Australian policy to illustrate his points and the article is blunt in its message. Great reading material for educators leading change!


Choosing the wrong drivers for system wide reform

Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series Paper No. 204, May 2011

Introducing the drivers for whole system reform

‘Drivers’ are those policy and strategy levers that have the least and best chance of driving successful reform. A ‘wrong driver’ then is a deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result, while a ‘right driver’ is one that ends up achieving better measurable results for students. Whole system reform is just that – 100 per cent of the system – a whole state, province, region or entire country. This paper examines those drivers typically chosen by leaders to accomplish reform, critiques their inadequacy, and offers an alternative set of drivers that have been proven to be more effective at accomplishing the desired goal. (p3)


This paper focuses on both the wrong drivers used, why they seem so compelling on paper but ultimately fail, and the ‘right’ drivers – which are effective because ‘they work directly on changing the culture’ (4). More explicitly, ‘an effective driver is a policy (and related strategies) that actually produces better results across the system. An effective driver is not something that sounds plausible; it is not something that can be justified by a cavalier (as distinct from a carefully considered) reference to research. Nor is it an urgent goal (such as moral purpose); rather, drivers that are effective generate a concerted and accelerating force for progress toward the goals of reform. An effective driver is one that achieves better measurable results with students.’ (4)


Fullan believes that evidence of the wrong drivers is increasingly clear, that there are positive alternative solutions and that users will eventually come to the ‘right’ drivers because they are used to solving complex problems.


The wrong drivers are:

1. ‘accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs capacity building;

2. individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual vs group solutions;

3. technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry the day vs instruction;

4. fragmented strategies vs integrated or systemic strategies.’ (5)

These drivers do have a place in reform, but they can never be successful drivers and it is a mistake to lead from them.


‘The right drivers – capacity building, group work, instruction, and systemic solutions – are effective because they work directly on changing the culture of school systems (values, norms, skills, practices, relationships); by contrast the wrong drivers alter structure, procedures and other formal attributes of the system without reaching the internal substance of reform – and that is why they fail.’ (5)


‘The glue that binds the effective drivers together is the underlying attitude, philosophy, and theory of action. The mindset that works for whole system reform is the one that inevitably generates individual and collective motivation and corresponding skills to transform the system.’ (5)


The US and Australia are used as examples because both have launched ambitious national education reform initiatives for compelling reasons, but both will fail because historically, no successful change has been led with the drivers chosen by either. ‘They cannot generate on a large scale the kind of intrinsic motivational energy that will be required to transform these massive systems.’(8)


The wrong drivers:


Focusing on accountability (vs capacity building) : this focuses on standards, assessment, rewards and punishment as core drivers assumes that educators will respond to these prods by putting in the effort to make the necessary changes. It assumes that educators have the capacity or will be motivated to develop the skills and competencies to get better results. (9) Intrinsic motivation and competency development is what is needed and accountability is not going to drive the change, nor build widespread capacity.


Individual Quality (vs Group Quality): It seems obvious that teacher and leader quality are the two most critical factors, however giving incentives for those at the top and tough measures for the bottom just compounds the differences between the two. Better performing countries did not set out to have a very good teacher here and another good one there. They were successful because they developed the entire teaching profession. (10)


Teacher appraisal and feedback seems a good idea, but only if there is a school culture of learning and ‘where teachers are motivated to learn from feedback’ (10). The issue is more about culture than individual and no nations have become better by focusing on individual teachers, but by developing the entire teaching profession and raising the bar for all. It is better to focus on ‘social’ capital – patterns of interaction among teachers and between teachers and administrators when focused on student learning- than individual ‘human’ capital- teacher’s cumulative abilities, knowledge, and skills developed through formal education and on-the-job experience. To test this theory Carrie Leana (2011) and her team followed over 1000 primary school teachers. ‘The human capital measures included teacher qualifications, experience and ability in the classroom. Social capital was measured in terms of the frequency and focus of conversations with peers that centered on instruction, and that was based on feelings of trust and closeness between teachers. She studied the impact on mathematics achievement over a one-year period.’ (11) Leana reports that teachers who were both more able (high human capital), and had stronger ties with their peers (high social capital) had the biggest gains in… achievement [in their students]’ (11). Therefore both high capital and social capital should be used together, but the latter is more important.


The good news is that the right drivers in combination – capacity building and group development – generate greater success and greater accountability.

Dylan Wiliam (2011) captures this phenomenon in his book Embedded Formative Assessment. He shows how five key strategies of formative assessment strengthen both instruction and achievement. These strategies (12)

  • clarify learning intentions and criteria for success;
  • provide feedback to learners; the day-to-day pressure and support is built into
  • establish active learners as instructional resources for each other; and
  • develop learners as the owners of their own learning.


This also shows the causal sequence of such action: achieve more instructional improvement and you get more accountability. By adding social capital –based strategies you get multiple benefits, eg focusing on collaborative practices mobilise and customize knowledge in the system, enabling teachers to know what each other is doing and learning from it. In addition, purposeful collaboration, when combined with transparency of results leads to greater ownership and accountability (12). Individual incentives do not motivate the masses- it is building capacity in all that reaps the most rewards with accelerated performance and squeezing out poorer performance as teaching becomes less private and more collaborative. Therefore, social capital is a powerful force- the ‘the judicious mixture of high expectations, relentless but supportive leadership, good standards and assessment, investments in capacity building, transparency of results and practice is what produces better results, and better accountability. (12)’


There are also developmental progress as well. ‘If the teaching force has low capacity more directive support will be required at the beginning; not heavy-handed accountability but direct development of teachers through professional learning of effective instructional practices. As teacher and leader capacity become stronger, peers become the greater driving force, as the McKinsey study found. (12)’


‘Many leadership-driven solutions suffer from the same individualistic flaw. It is expected that attracting and developing new leaders will help change the system. (12)’ A new principal, or even a leadership team will not real the best benefits without the factors discussed above. The focus must be the group (all staff and capacity building) than changing small pockets (the principal or leadership team) alone. Two studies that illustrate the points made here are :


Allan Odden’s Human Capital in Education … which gets most of it right but underplays the key factor of social capital (Odden, 2011) as well as a lack of focus in student outcomes from all teachers, all of the time (13), and ‘ECD for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, hosted by Arne Duncan and other state leaders in New York in March, 2011. The report is entitled, Building a High-quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from Around the World (OECD, 2011). As with Odden, the right lessons are there, but a new crucial one is added. With respect to the former there are solid chapters on ‘recruitment and initial preparation of teachers’; ‘teacher development, support, careers and employment conditions’; and ‘teacher evaluation and compensation’. The new lesson is ‘teacher engagement in education reform’ which essentially concludes that you cannot get there without widespread teacher ownership. (13)’ If we can figure out how to have a critical mass who ‘own’ educational reform, we will have the ingredients for better student outcomes.

In moving beyond consultation to involvement the reform process becomes oriented towards transforming schools into learning organizations with teachers in the lead.

(OECD, 2011, p 52) (13)


‘If you want the instructional practices-student engagement/achievement nexus to be the centre of attention do two things: name it as the focus, and use the group to get more of it. The holy grail of teacher quality is only a proxy for effective instruction. Once you dwell on instruction the whole system can be mobilised to that end.’ (14)


Technology (vs instruction):  over the past 40 years technology had been getting better and instruction hasn’t. The notion of having a 1:1 program to make students more knowledgable is ‘pedagogical vapid’. (14) Often digital learning overpromises but it won’t be able to deliver without smart pedagogy. Technology is not the answer, it is merely a tool to help better pedagogical practices.


Melinda and Bill Gates focus on ‘Measuring Effective Teaching’ program won’t bring better outcomes, but ‘but their more fundamental work of fuelling the next generation of learners by co-designing, with teachers and students, high- quality digitally based material that will furnish dynamic learning experiences – complete with access to data and to flexible but high quality instructional practices that will, for example, enable the learning of literacy and mathematics at a deep and efficient level.’ (15) ‘The good news (mostly) is that the further development of technology has a life of its own. It will get more and more powerful, cheaper and more available. In the latest work, learning and instruction become the driving forces, so that we will ride the technology wave instead of being at the mercy of a powerful but intrinsically aimless phenomenon.’ (16)


Fragmented (vs systemic): Along with the focus in individualism is the tendency to single rather than systematical solutions, which is aggravated if they are not the right things to focus on in the first place. ‘systemic strategies both require and support on-the-ground improvement efforts in every school and every district. This is why the ‘right’ sides of drivers one, two and three are the winners. Capacity building, group work and deep pedagogy, accelerated by technology, are in effect processes that support, indeed require, all schools to engage in the improvement of practice. The natural definition of systemic means that all elements of the system are unavoidably interconnected and involved, day after day.’ (16) ‘Without a systemic mindset, countries fail to focus on the right combination with the right mindset. In the successful countries it is clear that there is an absolute belief that quality education for all is crucial to their future (OECD, 2011). These countries then approach the task with the knowledge that everyone must be part of the solution. They know that teachers are key to improvement and can only work effectively when they are supported. They make major, coordinated efforts to improve the quality of teachers through various forms of support: from recruitment to the profession at initial teacher education through the early years of teaching, continuous learning on the job, good working conditions including team development, and differentiated roles of leadership as the career evolves.’ (16)


Effective leaders engage and foster high trust relationships because they show their respect and trust in others first (17).



The main purpose of this paper is to shift thinking away from the wrong drivers that are counterproductive, by showing how this is so, and by offering the ‘right’ drivers in response, to lead change and development of whole school/ district systems. ‘These [right] drivers work because they directly change the culture of teaching and learning. It is time for a different mindset and associated set of policies and strategies.’ (17)


The heart of the matter

The ‘heart of the matter’ consists of focusing on four systemically related big drivers that work.

1. The learning-instruction-assessment nexus: making sure the centerpiece of action is based on learning and instruction

2. Social capital to build the profession
: use the ‘group’ to create a new culture through social capital.

3. Pedagogy matches technology: go all out to power new pedagogical innovations with technology.

4. Systemic synergy: the set of good drivers must be conceived and pursued as a coherent whole. (7)


References in notes: * for other references see the original article.

Fullan, M (2010a) All Systems Go, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA; Ontario Principals Council, Toronto.

Fullan, M (2010b) Motion Leadership: The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA; Ontario Principals Council, Toronto.

Fullan, M (2011) The Moral Imperative Realized, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA; Ontario Principals Council, Toronto.

Gates Foundation (2010) Learning About Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, Gates Foundation, Redmond, Washington.


Leana, C (2011) ‘An open letter to Bill and Melinda Gates on the value of social capital in school reform’, Stanford Social Innovation Review (Draft, 28 February 2011).

Odden, A (2011) Strategic Management of Human Capital in Education, Routledge, New York.

OECD (2011) Building a High-quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from Around the World, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris.

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