Executive Perspective

Advancing System Leadership

by Paul D. Houston

One challenge we face in our business is that every time we figure out the game, they change the rules. Sometimes they even change the game itself.

Education serves our nation and as our nation is challenged, it is expected schools will address the challenges. That is why our curriculum is often more crowded than the highways at quitting time. It is also why our schools seem to weave and veer from one new program to another.

Over the past decade schools have seen a major shift in what they are being asked to deliver to our society. Since the beginning of public education in America, schools were asked to provide access to an education by our children. The idea behind that was as simple as getting a child to the dinner table. The feeling was that if we got enough children to the table, they would have the opportunity to be fed. In fact, most of the landmark decisions affecting education have been about access and opportunity. Our goal, in essence, was universal access — a place at the table for everyone.

An Outgrown Goal As we neared the millenium, we met that goal. School was made available for every child, regardless of race, social class, learning ability or citizenship status. Exclusion was no longer accepted. Everyone had a seat at the table.


The public education system is built around this goal and virtually every aspect of the current system supports it. Our focus has been on providing enough classrooms and teachers. Even our school calendar was designed to meet the needs of farm children who could be educated and still help on the farms during the growing season. We have been superintendents of schools — leaders of spaces and places. And we can proudly say we met the goal the nation laid out for us.

But a funny thing happened on our way to the victory party. The goal changed. Meeting the goal of universal access was no longer enough. Not everyone had the same opportunity to succeed. Everyone had a seat, but not all the meals being served had the same nutritional value. We had great gaps in performance for poor children.

Further, our society had changed so that a basic education was no longer enough to ensure economic success. The information economy calls for a much higher proficiency than was previously required. This shift to universal proficiency requires a different kind of education, a different kind of educational system and a different kind of system leader.

The challenge currently facing us is that the goal has changed, but the system has not. Our school systems are perfectly designed to yield the results they are getting. The current system was designed and engineered for access. It also was designed to sort workers out for the industrial economy — managers over here, workers over there. Those working in the system were trained to provide that result. The system is funded for that purpose.

System Overhaul Reform efforts such as the standards and accountability movement have not adequately addressed the underlying issue. Even when you change the expected results and the systems for tracking those results, you still have not changed the system itself.


As the economy shifted and businesses faced a similar need for restructuring they came to realize they could not get the desired results simply by setting higher production goals and different rewards systems. They had to fundamentally change the way they were doing their work. They changed their system — top to bottom, side to side.

If we are to succeed in moving education to a new paradigm of high performance by all children, we will need a similar massive overhaul of the system itself. The standards and accountability imperative is important but inadequate. You can’t simply change one part of the system such as its assessment programs and expect the rest of it to change.

The “market-driven” reforms are even less useful. You can’t create a more intense competitive environment and expect the system to change without addressing issues of capacity. All that will do is make the strong stronger and the weak more vulnerable. If we truly expect public education to yield a different result, we will need to change our most basic assumptions and practices. It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Public education must be remade to have that different result.

New Toolbox That starts with leadership. We need to develop a new generation of leaders who come to the task with a different understanding of the job and with a different skill set than previously required. Being masters of space and place must yield to proficiency with connection, communication and collaboration. Superintendents of schools must become superintendents of learning. We need to retool our current leaders to remake the system top to bottom.


When business made its transition, it didn’t throw away all its current managers — it retrained them, as it simultaneously prepared the next generation with a different set of skills. Educational leadership needs that same dual effort — the creation of a new generation of leaders and the remaking of the current leaders into superintendents of education and learning.

School system leaders need to learn a new set of tools to change the system to a new way of working. For that reason, AASA has embarked on creating a Center for System Leadership that will focus on strengthening our current leaders and building the next generation. We will work in conjunction with universities and the private sector to create standards and training that provide the skills needed to build new systems of learning.

The center also will create programs and support systems for the current generation of leaders to help them guide school systems through the transition to highly performing systems for highly performing children. To get a different result will require us to behave in different ways. That starts at the top.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.