Realization: The Change Imperative for Deepening District-Wide Reform


Lyn Sharratt & Michael Fullan

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  • Front Matter
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  • Dedication

    Dedicated to: Jim, Nana, and 4 girls and 5 boys … who are most important in my life! Lyn

    Dedicated to: Mom, 7 boys, and 91 years later, Michael


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    List of Figures

    • Figure 2.1 The 13 Parameters 15
    • Figure 4.1 York Region District School Board Trend Data in Provincial Assessments 45
    • Figure 4.2 Guided Versus Interdependent Practice 47
    • Figure 4.3 Leadership Capacity Building That Leads to Leadership Realization 58
    • Figure 4.4 Sample Guided Reading Folder (Outside) 60
    • Figure 4.5 Sample Guided Reading Folder (Inside) 62
    • Figure 5.1 Increase in Crosby Heights Students Achieving Level 3 or 4, 2004–2007 70
    • Figure 5.2 Matrix of Scaffolded Learning 76
    • Figure 6.1 Summary of Armadale Students Identified as At Risk in Reading 89
    • Figure 6.2 Capacity Building to Realization 93


    Realization: The Change Imperative for Deepening District-Wide Reform is one of those books that gives me great encouragement that large-scale reform is indeed possible. Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan show how ordinary people, using what we know and applying it with insight and persistence, can accomplish great things. This book furnishes a clear and compelling account of how whole-system reform can be achieved.

    Public schooling is a mass production enterprise. I do not intend by this phrase anything mechanical, linear, or industrial—quite the contrary. I mean only that it is large scale in almost all political jurisdictions, involving millions of students, thousands of staff, billions of dollars, and a great deal of real estate. Such a mass production enterprise cannot depend for most of its success on a small proportion of exceptionally talented or exceptionally committed people. Although these people, able to accomplish great things against all odds, should always be supported and will often make important differences.

    But the enterprise, day to day, needs to function acceptably well when it is staffed by a relatively normal distribution of the adult population. The work they are expected to do needs to be achievable—and achievable with realistic amounts of effort and talent. The odds need to be stacked in favor, not against, their success. Indeed, the achievements of our current schools probably represent what can reasonably be achieved under the circumstances in which they find themselves.

    Contrary to the views of many, the prevailing model for “doing school” is an enormously adaptive response to the mass production demands placed on it. Few social organizations can match the durability of schools. They are sensitively aligned to the terms and conditions of the social contract that exists between them and the publics they serve. It is the sensitivity of that alignment that accounts for the durability (some would say inertia) of schooling, as we know it, in the face of considerable criticism and persistent efforts to reform.

    The terms of that social contract are many, extending far beyond helping children learn what is outlined in the official curriculum. While such learning is clearly the centerpiece, the contract also includes, for example, child care, community building, and surrogate parenting. In addition, the contract stipulates the resources available for the work, places constraints on how those resources are to be used, and prescribes most of the institutional arrangements within which schooling will take place. It is these more comprehensive terms of the social contract that account for much of what reformers would like to change.

    But it is rare indeed for reformers to significantly challenge or change most terms of the social contract in order to realize their preferred goals. Their efforts, rather, are best described as tinkering around the edges of the contract, tweaking the standard model of schooling, or, quite frequently, creating aspirational goals for student learning with little or no realistic consideration of how the other terms of the social contact would need to change for schools to actually realize such goals. As bizarre as it seems, on those occasions when the terms of the social contract are significantly changed, the changes are as likely to make it harder rather than easier for those in schools to hold up their end of the bargain—providing less rather than more discretion to get the job done, less rather than more time to thoughtfully prepare for the learning of one's students, fewer rather than more resources, and the like.

    On a recent visit to Naples, Florida, I ran across two articles on education in the same edition of the local paper.1 The article on page 9B, headlined “Fla. High School Graduation Standards May Increase,” described a bill expected to be passed by the state legislature (and strongly backed by Florida's business community) that would “increase math and science requirements and raise the passing grade for the 10th grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test [FCAT].” The article on page 3B carried the headline “Lee Board Urges Parents to Speak Loudly Against Drastic Budget Cuts.”2 It described the difficulties about to be faced by one of the local school districts because of the roughly $60 to $80 million anticipated shortfall in state allocations to the district for the 2009–2010 budget year. According to this article, such cuts could only be accommodated by eliminating 578 positions, cancelling all art and music programs, and making many other across-the-board cuts.

    One need not have scored level 2 on the FCAT3 to see how these two sets of events are related; “misaligned” would be putting it mildly, and “dreaming in technicolor” might be a good description of the legislators' state of mind. But as obvious as this misalignment would seem to be, other cases are depressingly easy to find. So this book by Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan comes as a great relief to people like me who believe that most public schools do a remarkable job of education within the constraints imposed by their social contracts, as they are typically constructed, and could do a much better job if some of the terms of that social contract were significantly altered.

    The work described in this book provides compelling evidence that when schools are provided with opportunities to significantly increase their resources—in this case, primarily the skills and knowledge of teachers, administrators, and parents—their students are the big winners. This is the case, at least, when considerable effort is made to ensure that other terms of the social contract are modified and aligned in light of this increased capacity and the effort that it requires. But the district-wide (and eventually province-wide) project described in this book goes far beyond justifying these important claims. It illustrates, in ways that seem largely portable to other district contexts, what it takes beyond increasing the district's capacities to realize the changes in practice made possible by those new capacities.

    These lessons about realization go the heart of school improvement; they also help explain why so many well-intentioned large-scale reform efforts produce disappointing results. These are lessons about the importance of uncommon amounts of persistence in the face of competing priorities, unfailing attention to the details of implementation, hard-nosed decisions about how best to allocate scarce resources, ego-free leadership, and ongoing attention to evidence about what is working and what needs to be modified. Realization, this book shows us quite convincingly, is not for the faint of heart or the impatient. This book has critical messages for those aiming to actually help schools do a better job for their students and should be required reading for anyone with that goal in mind.


    1. Kaczor, B., “Fla. High School Graduation Standards May Increase,” Associated Press, March 25, 2009.

    2. Williams, L., “Lee Board Urges Parents to Speak Loudly Against Drastic Budget Cuts,” Naples Daily News, March 25, 2009.

    3. To pass, students need to score at or above level 2 on the five-level FCAT.


    We have been working on district-wide reform for over 30 years, and on whole-system reform (province, state, country) since 1997. In the course of this work, capacity building has come to play a central role—strategies that develop individual and collective knowledge, competencies, and dispositions essential for improvement of student learning.

    In this book we delve more specifically and comprehensively into what capacity building looks like and how to achieve more of it—what we call the nitty-gritty of doing it. This is important in its own right because the term capacity building can easily become superficial and vague in its use.

    But we have a deeper interest and purpose, which is how to institutionalize and sustain capacity building for every teacher and every student—what we call realization—the 14th parameter that crystallizes the environment created by satisfying the demands of the other 13 parameters that formed the basis of our original model. Thus having worked with capacity building for two decades, the next strategy question is how to embed it in large systems.

    In Chapter 1 we set the frame by reviewing the main core elements of capacity building and its relationship to realization. Chapter 2 talks about the nitty-gritty of capacity building, and Chapter 3 is about the day-to-day modeling, sharing, and guiding of effective practice.

    In Chapter 4 we consolidate system-wide capacity building as interdependent practice, or realization. It is here that we introduce the system as a whole, including the role of the state or province. In Chapter 5 we worry about the barriers to going deeper, and in Chapter 6 we take up the question of whole-system reform involving the school, district, and state levels as a means of sustaining realization.

    This book melds theory and practice. We have always had a strong knowledge base, but theory is advanced best through purposeful action. We can no longer tell where theory begins and practice ends or vice versa. When the system has achieved realization, theory and practice become seamless.


    We are grateful to the many literacy leaders who have worked continuously to make sustainable improvements for our students in the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). All this would not be possible except for the inspiring, knowledgeable, participatory leadership of Bill Hogarth, director of education/CEO of YRDSB. With the support of trustees, Bill weathered tough times, always staying the course of increasing students' literacy achievement by modeling true commitment and shared beliefs and understandings at every turn.

    We thank the staff members of Curriculum and Instructional Services, YRDSB, the front-line literacy experts who continue to work with an urgent moral imperative that models knowledge, tireless support, and availability to all staff. Beate Planche and her staff continue to work as a unified, highly competent team across the system alongside field superintendents, administrators, and literacy coaches to demonstrate what the 13 parameters look like in classrooms when fully implemented so that all students are achieving.

    Principals, vice principals, literacy coaches, and classroom teachers—elementary and secondary—in YRDSB are extraordinary! They take risks and continuously refine high-yield assessment and instructional strategies to ensure that learning happens for our students. They are caring and respectful, and they continue to define what is possible as a community of learners.

    Superintendents in YRDSB continue to take our work more deeply into classrooms to reach all 8,800 teachers and their 130,000 students. They actively show that their first priority is to increase students' literacy achievement. Field superintendents are truly and rightfully proud of their schools' teams, especially when they hear the improvement articulated at the annual Literacy Learning Fair. Divisional superintendents are equally proud to be on focus by annually presenting their department improvement plans that focus on students' achievement to the elected board.

    Kenneth Leithwood has worked with both of us at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto for many years. We value his wisdom and his scholarly and thought-provoking research. His ongoing research in YRDSB in the areas of transformational and distributed leadership continues to set a high and clearly defined standard for us. He always has time to reflect on our journey as a true mentor to us and to our colleagues in the district.

    The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat staff of the Ontario Ministry of Education has been supportive of the focused work in YRDSB for many years. They have provided insights and funding that have helped us do what we knew had to be done in order to reach each stage of our strategic implementation.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contribution of the following individuals:

    • Toni Callahan
    • Retired Social Studies Teacher, Westmont Hilltop School District. Johnstown, PA
    • Sheila Gragg
    • Technology Integration Coach, Professional Developer, Ashbury College, Nepean, ON, Canada
    • Patti Grammens
    • Department Chair, 8th Grade Science Teacher, Science Olympiad Coach, South Forsyth Middle School, Cumming, GA
    • Kathy J. Grover
    • Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum & Instruction, Clever R-V Public Schools, Clever, MO
    • Joe Ann Hinrichs
    • Associate Dean for Doctoral Programs, Walden University, Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership, Thomasville, GA
    • Dan Kortvelesy
    • Curriculum Supervisor, Math, Technology, Business Education, Media, Mainland Regional High School, Linwood, NJ
    • Patricia Long Tucker
    • Regional Superintendent, District of Columbia Public Schools, Washington, DC
    • Monica Uphoff
    • Director of Assessment, Coppell Independent School District, Coppell, TX
    • Shawn White
    • Social Science Chair, Weston McEwen High School, Athena, OR

    About the Authors

    Lyn Sharratt taught elementary-and secondary-aged students in regular and special needs classrooms for 22 years in three jurisdictions in Ontario before beginning her career in educational administration. She became administrator and associate professor at York University' s Faculty of Education, was an executive assistant responsible for professional development at a provincial (state) teachers' union, and from 1992 to 1995 was director of curriculum and program for the provincial association, OPSBA, representing 1,100 publicly elected trustees.

    Lyn then became a field superintendent for York Region District School Board (YRDSB) in 1995 and in 1996 earned a doctorate from Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). Following seven years in the field, she was named superintendent of curriculum and instructional services. Currently, Lyn is senior advisor of system and school improvement in YRDSB, coordinating external research focused on increasing student achievement. She is also an associate at OISE/UT, supervising doctoral students in the Department of Theory and Policy Studies. Visit her website at

    Michael Fullan is professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Recognized as an international authority on large-scale reform, he is engaged in training, advising, and evaluating large projects around the world. His work is driven by the moral purpose of raising the bar and closing the gap for all children.

    Michael is the author of many bestselling books, most recently The Six Secrets of Change, Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education, and The Challenge of Change. Visit his website at

  • Resource A: A Tool for Assessing Implementation of the 14 Parameters: Selected Examples

    Resource B: 10 District Supports That Evolved to Ensure Realization of All Parameters

    • Reading Recovery (fully implemented in every school that has a primary division)
    • Literacy Content Sessions (focused on assessment, instruction, and balanced literacy in all classrooms)
    • District Change Management Sessions (led by curriculum department with external research partners)
    • Networked Learning Sessions (led by field superintendents and curriculum staff, with the goal of reaching all teachers)
    • Action Research (training to establish whole-school collaborative inquiry using data to develop a focusing question)
    • Intensive Support Schools (identified by data, supported by curriculum consultant staff, and provided with additional resources focused on needs)
    • Demonstration Classrooms (Literacy@School: open for visitors to see how literacy and technology are integrated seamlessly during the school day)
    • Literacy Walks and Coaching Conversations (district training sessions led by district principal responsible for literacy and a curriculum consultant)
    • Afterschool Professional Learning Sessions (for classroom teachers and supply teachers who are unable to attend sessions during the day)
    • Literacy Learning Fairs (hosted by the district and schools)


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