All Systems Go: The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform


Michael Fullan

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    Are we Ready to Get Serious?

    America has been trying to turn around its schools for a quarter century, with tragic results. One simplistic quick-fix nostrum after another has seized the political limelight and been “driven” through the system as if it was all that was needed: decentralized site accountability, small high schools, high-stakes testing. While all these efforts embodied ideas with merit, the belief in one-size-fits-all fixes might itself be the real problem.

    Michael Fullan has built an international reputation over the past decade for his work in England, Canada, and many other countries for helping educators, communities, and business and political leaders cooperate for systemic change in education. He has shown that unless you align school, district, state, and national agendas, innovation within schools cannot be sustained. He has shown that teachers and principals are more than ready to lead the innovation, but they must be part of larger learning communities aimed at building collective capacity across schools and school systems, rather than heroes and heroines fighting a dysfunctional system. He has shown that a few well thought out strategic priorities that encapsulate what we believe collectively about the fundamental aims for education are vital to establish a direction toward which everyone can work together. He has shown that accountability matters but only in the context of nurturing the overall esprit de corps within a school and community and tapping the huge reservoir of latent responsibility that exists with a nation's educators, parents, and community leaders. Put in the negative, beating educators with the you-need-to-be-more-accountable stick accomplishes little and may actually lead to less real accountability rather than more.

    In short, Fullan has shown that real change is possible but only by taking a truly systemic approach. No single quick fixes. No good guy–bad guy politicizing to mobilize public anger. No fear mongering about America's declining competitiveness in the world. Just clear strategy, broad engagement (especially including educators themselves), and a consistent message that this can only be done by all of us working together across all levels of the educational system.

    Where a whole-system approach has been taken seriously over the past decade, there have been significant improvements in student achievement. In the UK, with focused leadership starting with Tony Blair and Michael Barber, former director of the prime minister's educational reform effort, literacy and numeracy achievement rose from about 62% to 75% (as measured by proficiency of 11-year-olds) from 1997–2001, an improvement that Fullan himself was asked to evaluate.

    Building on the experience in England, Fullan became special advisor to Premier Dalton McGuinty in Ontario and helped to design and guide a whole-system strategy for the Ontario school system. Focusing on a small set of core priorities and using capacity building and partnership as a core strategy (specifically avoiding punitive accountability), literacy and numeracy have increased 13% at the elementary level since 2003, students passing mandated secondary literacy has risen from 65% to 81%, and high school graduation rates in a diverse province have gone from 68% to 77%. Ontario has recently added early learning (full-day integrated schooling) for all four- and five-year-olds.

    Results like these in England and Canada, and in other countries like Finland, Singapore, and Korea, have become recognized around the world, and today many other countries are following similar paths. Huge challenges remain in all these settings but for many the journey is well underway.

    Can this be done in America? Fullan describes the current work in a few U.S. school districts, but the examples are isolated. Indeed one of the primary features of the U.S. is wide disparities in educational attainment against a backdrop of steady decline overall. While we have many outstanding schools and districts, our overall performance as a nation in public education has fallen from the top in world rankings a half century ago (highest high school qualification in the world in 1960). Today, America consistently ranks in the bottom half of advanced (OECD) countries in educational achievement. The decline has continued unabated through the past decade: the U.S. was still number one in post-secondary graduation rates in 1995; it was number 14 by 2005. All of this has occurred despite a quadrupling of total funds spent on education since 1980 and spending more per pupil than any other school system.

    In essence, we have thrown more money at more ineffective reform agendas than any nation. In so doing, we have shown a virtually inexhaustible penchant for using supposed educational reform to feather political nests and, as with other crucial national issues, a tragic inability to subordinate special interests to common good.

    Beyond statistical comparisons to other countries, the consequences have been devastating at human and societal levels. For over a decade it has been more likely that a young African American boy growing up in an American city will go to prison than to any form of post-secondary education. A recent study found that only 35% of Boston's high school graduates who had enrolled in college in 2000 had actually completed either a two- or four-year college program seven years later. A recent McKinsey study estimates that the enormous educational disparities in America impose the “equivalent of a permanent national recession.”

    Thus, there is no shortage of evidence of the cost to America of how our present educational system operates. Yet, it was precisely evidence and statistics like these that motivated past quick-fix reforms. So, they are not likely to suffice to mobilize the sort of cooperative whole-system effort Fullan proposes.

    What could? I believe two things.

    First, we must believe that real change is possible. My own experience is that public school educators in America are among the most beleaguered professionals. For years, I have asked diverse audiences whether or not they think a crisis is needed for systemic change. My point has been to get people thinking about their implicit models of change, and specifically whether they believe they can cultivate the aspiration and co-inspiration needed, in my opinion, to sustain change beyond simply reacting to a crisis. My experience in diverse audiences, however, is that the majority express the belief that, indeed, a crisis is needed, that no real change occurs without a crisis. I have always viewed this as an unfortunate commentary on our limited understanding of systemic change, of our reliance on desperation rather than aspiration. But the most unfortunate of all have been the groups of educators who often fail to raise their hands to either option. When I first encountered this, I asked the group in surprise, “Help me understand. I thought I asked an ‘either-or’ question: is a crisis needed for change, yes or no. How come most of you have not raised your hands for either option?” A quiet voice from the middle of the audience responded, “We don't believe that change is possible under any condition.”

    This is where work like Fullan's could be pivotal.

    As you read the many examples here of engaging the variety of actors needed to truly rethink and recreate our schools, of fostering collaboration among teachers and students to build collective capacity, of people achieving significantly higher performance and real innovation, it is hard not to start to believe there are viable paths forward. Fullan's stories remind us that no one wants to be part of a low-performing system, including educators and students. Transforming the fatalism that currently afflicts far too many starts with a conviction that change is possible with a clear framework and practical tools for engagement and moving forward. It will then take politically savvy strategies to mobilize the diverse blocks of power that need to work better together, which is exactly what Fullan shows can be done.

    But I believe there is a second factor that goes beyond change strategy. At no time in history has there been a more powerful need for a new vision of the purpose of education. Today's schools were born in the early stages of the industrial era. That is why they were organized like an assembly line (Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, etc.). That is why they were based on standardized timetables governing each part of the day (complete with bells and whistles on the walls), and fixed, rigid curricula delivered by teachers whose job was first and foremost to maintain control, much like an assembly-line foreman. The Industrial Age school arose as part and parcel of an industrial-age economy based on exploiting natural (and many would argue social) capital to create productive and financial capital. The Industrial Age is ending. Despite the fact that we burn more coal and produce more steel than ever before in human history, we also use one and one-third Earths today to support the consumer-driven global industrial machine—and the side effects of industrial growth, like climate change and the destruction of the oceans, are getting harder to ignore. The challenge of our time is not economic competitiveness. The challenge is to build not only “sustainable” but regenerative societies—ones that enhance natural and social capital.

    This is a challenge that young people everywhere increasingly recognize, as indicated by the global movement among the young to reverse climate change, stop the destruction of species and ecosystems, and face honestly the widening gaps between rich and poor. The wheels are coming off the train of the global economic growth machine and young people sense this. But they have real questions whether or not their adult “leaders” do, as reflected in large numbers of young people who are pessimistic about the ongoing and largely unmet challenges like climate change, water, and the destruction of ecosystems. And they have real questions regarding what they can do, if anything.

    No institution has a more crucial role to play in the historic changes coming than school because no institution has greater potential to impact how a society changes over the long term. How we educate our children shapes the future, because they in turn will be the ones who create that future. The growing gap between what they need to be able to understand (such as alternative cultures and social-technological-ecological systems) and to do (such as work collaboratively to solve complex interdependent problems) and what we have traditionally taught is the primary reason so many young people find school less and less relevant for their lives. And they are right.

    This past spring, in a gathering organized by the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce as part of their “Sustainable St. Louis” campaign, a series of presentations were made by middle school and high school students. Many of the adults were shocked. Expecting to hear stories about what they were studying in their environment or civics classes, instead they heard stories of how the young people were busy transforming their communities. One 12-year-old girl told the story of how she and four classmates decided that their school needed to stop using fossil fuels and how they got a wind turbine installed. As she retold their saga of working with their science teacher to develop the initial analysis, with parents developing the engineering and financial details, and of then presenting their plan to their principal and eventually the mayor (twice!), the room of several hundred adults fell silent. She then showed a photograph of the operating wind turbine outside her school. As she stood calmly in front of the audience she posed a question. “We kids always hear that, ‘You are the future.’ We don't agree. We don't have 20 or 30 years to make the changes needed. We are ready now. Are you?”

    In short, we must imagine a vision for school that is far more compelling than fixing a broken system. As it has been for all of human history (not just in the Industrial Age), education is how a society shapes its future. It needs to be where we reflect on and develop the sorts of capabilities that the society, the young people, will need in the future. Only when we recognize this need for real innovation will we tap the aspiration needed to give life to the sorts of strategies that Michael Fullan so ably illustrates can succeed.

    The real question is, Are we serious enough to work together in favor of the schools our future is asking for? I have no doubt that the young people are.


    If there is one thing that you should remember from page one and all the way through this book it is the concept of collective capacity. It is the key to All Systems Go and the component most likely to be neglected by policymakers. Collective capacity is when groups get better—school cultures, district cultures, and government cultures. The big collective capacity and the one that ultimately counts is when they get better conjointly—collective, collaborative capacity, if you like. Collective capacity generates the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching.

    Prior to the 1997 election in Britain, when Tony Blair asked Michael Barber to join him in crafting a comprehensive strategy for improving literacy and numeracy in all primary schools in the country, they started down the path of all systems go. For a while, upon being elected they had the knack of whole-system reform. From 1997 to 2001, literacy and numeracy achievement rose substantially from about 62% to 75% (as measured by proficiency of 11-year-olds). Quite an accomplishment, as we are talking about over 20,000 primary schools. In his second term, 2001 to 2005, with a large majority, Blair got distracted with other matters and lost the plot in educational reform, although his government did go on to do interesting things in public sector reform as described in Sir Michael's fascinating account, Instruction to Deliver (2008).

    Along came Dalton McGuinty in 2002 as if on cue. Leader of the opposition in Ontario, he aspired to be the education premier, not just in name but in a deep “all systems go” manner. He studied Britain's reform strategy, asked me to join him, and got elected as premier in Ontario in October, 2003. Over the past six years (including a large majority reelection in 2007), Dalton did not lose the plot. He thickened it to the point that Ontario now has one of the most explicit whole-system models around. McGuinty remains, for me, the best self-conscious, deliberate, whole-system education reform leader in government anywhere in the world. I am biased, of course, but his strategy and its results are there for anyone to see—and we will take these up in the course of this book.

    At the same time, we have the international benchmark stars as assessed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) with its highly regarded testing of the performance of 15-year-olds in literacy science, and math—the top performers are Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Canada (Ontario and Alberta; PISA includes all Canadian provinces and reports results separately for each—there is no federal presence in education government in Canada). The first three are smallish (5 million people or so) and not diverse in the same way as the United States and Canada. Korea is large, but again not diverse; and because of its culture, it is able to pursue reform with a degree of resoluteness and top-downness.

    We have something to learn from these high performers as I will identify in the book, but they are (except for Canada) too different to serve as models for whole-system reform in North America as a whole. Canada, for example, is more instructive for the United States, although it differs in some important respects. Alberta has led the way for many years with its collaborative alliances among the trustees association, superintendents, unions, and the government, although I don't feature their strategies in this book. Ben Levin, Ken Leithwood, and I are currently working with the College of Alberta School Superintendents and the Alberta Department of Education on their next wave of reform through, among other things, a major initiative on “Moving and Improving” school districts. It is Ontario that I feature in this book because it has a more explicit whole-system-reform approach that we will see reflected in the course of the various chapters.

    And now, we have the new Obama administration with its highly touted Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and state governors around the United States who are trying to figure out how they slipped from number one in the world in high school and university attainment. For most of the 20th century (until about 1980) the United States led the world only to have its fortunes reversed with a steady decline in PISA parlance to about 24th. They are badly in need of making all systems go in the other direction.

    There is quite a lot of focus in this book on improving education in the United States. This is partly because it represents such a large, egregious example of failed reform. In 1980, it had one of the most accomplished public education systems in the world. Over the past 30 years, it has slipped while other countries have steadily passed it. All this while quadrupling its education expenditure (see Grubb, 2009; Hanushek & Lindseth, 2009). How fascinating! (A phrase I borrowed from Michael Barber [2008] who used it for a different situation.)

    The reason for paying attention now to the United States is that there appears to be a growing awareness in that country about the need to really do something about its slipping performance. Another fascination—when the first cracks were already in evidence, a national commission report dramatically concluded in 1983, “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). As things got worse, from there on in it seemed the giant could not waken itself. External forces in the form of at least 20 countries evidently and transparently outperforming the United States in a globally interdependent world might be the wake up call that works. The emphasis on the United States notwithstanding, this book also draws on policies and strategies of other successful countries, including Canada, Asia, and Scandinavian jurisdictions.

    This book tackles whole-system reform in a practical way based on our experience and the evidence. I boil it down to a small number of critical components while advising that the “distractors”—strategies that waste time and resources and clutter the problem—be stripped away. I have written equally for politicians and professionals, whatever level they are at—local, intermediate, or system—teachers, principals, community leaders, superintendents, board members, state department officials, state commissioners, governors, premiers, presidents. All systems go must encompass all leaders. In a companion book to this one (Fullan, 2010, and forthcoming), I have captured the solution as a motion-leadership proposition. Motion Leadership: The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy addresses what leaders do to get positive movement forward by using the smallest number of powerful, high-leverage strategies that any leader with effort can master. All Systems Go is the skinny on getting whole-system reform—any politician can do this with focus and effort.

    In Part I, I take an overview look at the system as a whole. In Chapter 1, the basic idea of whole-system reform is addressed, including what it looks like and why it is critical to the success of any country, indeed the world. In Chapter 2, I show why most current strategies are bound to fail. They look good from a distance; but upon closer inspection, they are a gross waste of political, human, and fiscal resources. They badly fail the collective-capacity test.

    The three chapters in Part II take up the details of whole-system reform at the school, district, and state levels—what it really looks like and ideas for getting there. It is in these chapters that I make the critical distinction between collective capacity (which is exponentially powerful) and individual capacity (which is necessary but not sufficient).

    In Part III, Chapter 6, I focus on the most difficult and decidedly essential part of the solution—how politicians and professionals must unite, maintaining their respective roles and responsibilities for their own good and for the good of society as a whole. If we can get this right, we will enter a new era in which whole-system reform will become a continuous reality.

    We now know enough to make all systems go. It will be difficult but is definitely doable. If there is one domain in society where everyone wins, it is by increasing the educational attainment of all students. It is time to raise the bar and reduce the gap for all citizens. We have never come as close to knowing how to do this as we are now. It is complex work but, as we shall see, not the least bit mysterious.


    When it comes to thinking about and doing whole-system reform, I have three heroes whom I will introduce chronologically, according to the time I encountered them. I first worked with Sir Michael Barber in 1997, his first year as chief architect of Tony Blair's nationwide literacy and numeracy strategy (LNS) in England. We bid on and won the contract to evaluate LNS, which we did from 1998 to 2002. Sir Michael has been a close friend and colleague ever since, as he helped us in the Ontario reform, and in his current work as global-education-system transformer. No one knows about system reform in as many countries around the world as Michael. His book, Instruction to Deliver (2008), is one of the finest and most engaging accounts concerning inside the government politics and action.

    Ben Levin came along shortly after as a member of our education team on LNS, but it was when we intercepted him on his way to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)/University of Toronto in 2004 that I really got to know him as Deputy Minister appointed to lead the civil service in our new Ontario reform (a job that he took a second time in 2009, when we needed him). No one moves in and out from government to academia with such consummate ease as Ben (except that his blood pressure goes up and down—guess which job is more taxing). Ben's book, How to Change 5000 Schools (2008) is also a gem.

    The third wise man from whom I have learned a great deal is Premier Dalton McGuinty. In 2002, when he was leader of the opposition in Ontario with an eye to the 2003 election, he visited England to see what he could learn from their education-reform strategy. He knew that Tony Blair had made “education, education, education” his mantra and he wanted to do him one better. Michael Barber and his colleagues advised McGuinty to come and see me; my office was a few blocks from his back in Toronto, although we had never met. We got together along with his chief adviser, Gerald Butts, and I gave them a copy of my book, The New Meaning of Educational Change (now in its 4th edition, 2007). Three days later, they called me and said, “This is the agenda we want.” Dalton and his crew, with my help, created Ontario's reform strategy. When he got elected in October, 2003, he appointed me as his special adviser in education. We then proceeded to formulate and implement a whole-system-reform strategy that we have been pursuing ever since, including building on a renewed mandate from the public via a large majority second term in 2007. No one combines politics, heart, and change savvy like Dalton. He too would write a great book if he had the time. No one knows how to make whole systems go like Premier McGuinty. Beyond the Premier, Ministers of Education Gerard Kennedy and Kathleen Wynne have been fabulous forces for rapport with teachers, parents, and communities. Rarely does one get to work with politicians who have both the moral commitment and the strategic know how to enact widespread successful reform.

    Thus, I have learned and continue to learn so much from these leaders of system reform. Quite literally, this book could not have been written without their wise and sustained “thinking and doing.”

    The next set of heroes consists of the scores of teachers, principals, superintendents, state officials, and other officials whom I have worked with, especially since 1997 when the whole-system-reform agenda started in earnest. When I began my career as a know-nothing assistant professor in 1968, I brought theory to the table. Broadly, it helped me to at least fix on implementation and the meaning of educational change. Growingly, and in the past 10 years exponentially, the tables have been reversed. Nowadays, I learn from practice. Practice to theory improves theory because it operationalizes it in specific causal terms. With this tight nexus between practice and theory, you can be more precise and clear using fewer words to capture complex phenomena, something I call “motion leadership: the skinny on becoming change savvy” (Fullan, 2010).

    My sincere thanks to Peter Senge for doing the foreword. If anyone has been the voice for system thinking and system reform for the past quarter of a century it has been Peter. It is an honor to have him associated with this book.

    My publisher, Corwin, and its senior editor, Arnis Burvikovs; production editor, Cassandra Seibel; and copy editor, Adam Dunham, are godsends to work with—flexible, creative, contributing, high quality input from start to finish. I thank them for their commitment to quality. As always, deep thanks to Claudia Cuttress for her initiative and management of the variety of endeavors we always seem to have underway, including this one. It's great to have a manager that combines creativity, quality, and speed. And to Wendy for making all systems go, all the time on the home front. Overall, I am blessed with the incredible opportunity to do meaningful work supported by a myriad of others.

    About the Author

    Michael Fullan is professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and is special adviser on education to Dalton McGuinty, the premier of Ontario. He holds honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and from Nipissing University in Canada.

    Fullan served as dean of the faculty of education at the University of Toronto from 1988 to 2003, leading two major organizational transformations, including a merger of two large schools of education. He is currently working as adviser and consultant on several major education reform initiatives around the world.

    He bases his work on research and practice on both the public and private sectors, finding an increasing convergence in this literature. He has written several bestsellers on leadership and change that have been translated into several languages. Four of his books have won book-of-the-year awards. His latest books are The Six Secrets of Change, Realization (with Lyn Sharratt), and Motion Leadership: The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy.


    To Vince, wise beyond his schooling

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    Yarrow, A. (2009). State of mind: America's teaching corps. Education Week, (29)8, 21–23.

    The Corwin Logo

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

    The Ontario Principals' Council (OPC) is a voluntary professional association for principals and vice-principals in Ontario's public school system. We believe that exemplary leadership results in outstanding schools and improved student achievement. To this end, we foster quality leadership through world-class professional services and supports. As an ISO 9001 registered organization, we are committed to our statement that “quality leadership is our principal product.”

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