Re-Imagining Educational Reform in the United States



If the United States is to live up to its promise of a better life for all its citizens, improving school performance is a necessity . Education is understood to be society’s primary means of furthering individual and collective well-being; it is the basis for wealth.   If we continue to accept declining education performance we also accept its consequences:  continued decline in economic and political power.

Previously, in the largest ever global school rankings to date Asian school systems took the top 5 places; the United States (US) was 28th.

It isn’t for want of trying.  Trombly (2014) characterizes his experiences with school improvement initiatives this way:

“Anyone who has spent any appreciable time in American schools during the last two decades, whether as a classroom teacher, a parent volunteer, a central office administrator, a paraprofessional, or – like this writer – a school counselor and a school principal, can attest to schools’ long history of changing “routinely and promiscuously,” to borrow Elmore’s (2004) colorful phrase. (p. 219).” (p.40)

As global educational systems came under pressure to produce citizens capable of participating in the new global economy, the so-called knowledge workers, traditional education was believed to be insufficient to meet students’ and society’s needs.  In sharp contrast to the US results, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai and Ontario, Canada, successfully reformed their educational systems.



Noting that the performance of its students had plateaued, in 2003 Ontario initiated a system-wide reform program where it identified key nodes in the education system by soliciting feedback from all stakeholders at all levels through a variety of forums and panels.
Additional actions, taken together, created an interconnected network of educators, providing feedback loops between and across sectors and levels, hoping to address goals not by introducing a single new curriculum or program, but by aligning all levels of the system and providing what the actors had identified as lacking – professional development. Results were impressive:

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows the rapid and sustained rise in Ontario students’ reading and math scores following initiation of their reform program.

Hong Kong

One of the best examples of successful implementation of whole system reform is Hong Kong. Jensen et al. (2012) 

An intensive and extensive analysis that included government officials, academics, school teachers and administrators in a 20 month long process that involved over 10,000 people at 34 different seminars and forums learned that learning was too exam-driven and lacked room for creativity and exploration.

To be competitive in the newly ascendant knowledge-based economy requires life-long learning with strong critical thinking and communication skills.  Two key nodes in the Hong Kong education system were addressed to create these student outcomes:

1. Improve teaching
2. Reduction in high-stakes testing in favor of more formative approaches.

Overall, Jensen et al.’s (2012) study of the transformation of Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai consistently found several network-based (complex) approaches present.
The success of these five system-wide transformations suggests that the path to successful educational reform lies through complexity science; in order to be successful, reform initiatives must incorporate complexity science into the reform process.


About Freedom to...

Consultant helping people and employers in health care, education and government to see and understand how their organization works and how to change them to improve performance.
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