Transform, Not Reform


Francis M. Duffy
Dream! Create! Sustain!
School reform is once again on the national agenda put there by a new documentary called “Waiting for Superman.” Given what is being offered by President Obama, the U.S. Department of Education, education pundits, and critics as solutions to the problems our school systems are facing I felt a need to respond.


So, here we go again! One more time politicians, pundits, and critics calling out school systems for failing to provide America’s children with the education they need and then offering their worn, tired, and failed recommendations for education reform: a longer school year, fire incompetent teachers, create charter schools, dump more money into failing schools, practice school-based continuous improvement, and others.

None of these “fixes” can do what needs to be done to provide America’s children with the education they need to succeed in our 21st Century knowledge economy. We need to transform our school systems, not reform them.

Education reform is a failed strategy because it focuses on fixing the broken parts of America’s more than 14,000 school systems (which is pejoratively referred to as piecemeal change) while sustaining the underlying paradigm that drives teaching and learning in those systems. Fixing the broken parts of any school system is a failed change strategy because the underlying paradigm has outlived its usefulness and effectiveness and nothing can be done to fix it—it has to be replaced.

A paradigm is a set of theories, models, beliefs, and so on that influence the performance of an entire profession. The dominant paradigm influencing the performance of school systems is one that emerged at the beginning of the Industrial Age in the late 1700s-early 1800s. This Industrial Age paradigm created a factory model for educating groups of students by requiring them to learn a fixed amount of knowledge in a fixed amount of time. That paradigm continues to control the performance of school systems throughout the United States.

There is no place in the controlling paradigm for providing each child with an educational experience that is tailored to his or her needs, interests, and abilities. Because of this significant feature, that paradigm always has and always will leave children behind. Leaving children behind is an unavoidable consequence of the Industrial Age design of America’s school systems. The systems are perfectly designed to get the results they are getting.

Providing America’s children with an education that satisfies the requirements of our 21st Century Knowledge Age society requires a paradigm-shifting revolution that drives out the dominant Industrial Age paradigm by making four inter-connected transformations:

· Transform the way teachers teach and how children learn by replacing group-based, teacher-centered instruction with personalized, learner-centered instruction (if a child receives a personalized learning experience that is customized to respond to his or her needs, interests, and abilities and if that child is given the time he or she needs to master the required content, how can that child ever be left behind?);

· Transform the quality of work life for teachers, administrators, and support staff by transforming a school system’s organization culture, its reward system, job descriptions, and so on, to align with the requirements of the new teaching and learning processes (if teachers and staff are de-motivated and dissatisfied, they will not use the new teaching and learning paradigm effectively. The quality of work life has a direct and significant impact on motivation and satisfaction);

· Transform the way school systems interact with external stakeholders by moving away from a crisis-oriented, reactive approach to an opportunity-seeking, proactive approach (if a school system wants to transform as many of us change-minded advocates believe they should they will need political support and financial resources from their communities); and,

· Transform the way in which educators’ create change by replacing piecemeal change strategies with whole-system change strategies (piecemeal change cannot create transformational change).

Our society cannot afford to carry its old education paradigm forward. It does no good to dream of an idealized future for education if that future is just a projection and continuation of the past. Instead, change-minded educators should imagine that the dominant paradigm controlling the design and performance of school systems was destroyed last night and now they must invent brand new school systems. To align with the requirements of our society’s 21st Century Knowledge Age those new systems must be designed in response to the learning needs of individual children if we truly never want to leave any child behind.

The time is now. The need is great. The past before us is not the future. We need to create a brand new future for America’s school systems—a future created through transformation not reformation. The education reform recommendations we are hearing and reading about—one more time—cannot and never will be able to achieve this vision for the future of education in the United States.

 Francis M. Duffy, Ph.D. is the author of Dream! Create! Sustain!: Mastering the Art & Science of Transforming School Systems published by Rowman & Littlefield Education. He is also the co-director of FutureMinds: Transforming American School Systems—a nationwide initiative sponsored by the Association for Educational Communications and Technology to transform school systems for success in the 21st Century. He can be reached at


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