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Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform

November 17 2011

The following is a short excerpt from a paper which accompanied a recent presentation by Prof Michael Fullan to Department of Education and Training staff. The complete paper 'Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform' by Michael Fullan, CSE Seminar Series Paper No.204 May 2011, is available online for DET staff on OnePortal (DET employees only), or for purchase from the Centre for Strategic Education website.

Introducing the drivers for whole system reform

'Whole system reform' is the name of the game and 'drivers' are policy and strategy levers that have the least and best chance of driving successful reform. A 'wrong driver' is a deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result, while a 'right driver' is one that achieves better measurable results for students. This paper examines drivers typically chosen to accomplish reform, critiques their inadequacy, and offers and alternative set that have been proven to me more effective.

Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform

Professor Michael Fullan.

I suggest four criteria to judge a driver's effectiveness. Does it:

1. foster motivation of teachers and students;
2. engage educators and students in continuous improvement;
3. inspire team work; and
4. affect all teachers and students?

Intrinsic motivation, instructional improvement, teamwork and 'allness' are the crucial elements for whole system reform.

The key to system-wide success is to place educators and students at the centre. This means aligning the goals of reform and the intrinsic motivation of participants. So policies that foster strong intrinsic motivation across the whole system are required, as are strategies that develop increased capability. Both strong motivation and enhanced skills on a large scale are required.

Two recent analyses of comparative international performance, the PISA results (OECD, 2010a), and the McKinsey report (Mourshed et al, 2010), have provided evidence on this matter. In both the PISA and McKinsey reports the top five countries in literacy, science and mathematics are Korea, Finland, Hon Kong, Singapore and Canada.

In this paper I use the Unites States and Australia as examples of recent ambitious national education reform initiatives. Both have acknowledged a strong sense of urgency for reform and their political leaders desire better whole system reform results as quickly as possible. Policy makers are desperate for 'drivers that work' - those that produce better results across the system.

The four 'wrong' drivers I discuss have face-value appeal for people with urgent problems. They look like plausible solutions but are 'silver bullets'. However, we will soon see breakthroughs in collective recognition of their shortcomings, for several reasons:

  • evidence that the wrong drivers don't work is increasingly clear and compelling;
  • there are alternative solutions that work which are also clear and compelling; and
  • those most committed to reform, and most perplexed by the lack of progress, will realise why.

Effective drivers are those

  • that cause whole system improvements;
  • that are measurable in practice and results; and
  • for which a case can be made that strategy X produces result Y.

An ineffective driver, however, is one that

  • actually does not produce the results it seeks;
  • may make matters worse; and
  • can never have the impact it purports to produce.

There are four main 'wrong drivers' that have more effective matched alternatives. The pairs of alternatives are:

1. accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs capacity building;
2.individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual vs group solutions;
3. technology: investing in and assuming that the digital world will carry the day vs instruction; and
4. fragmented strategies vs integrated or systematic strategies.

Although the four 'wrong' components have a place in reform, it is a mistake to lead with them. Countries that do will not achieve whole system reform but may move backwards relative to counties using the right drivers. Note that none of the top-performing countries let their reforms with these four current favourites. The four 'wrong drivers' are not forever wrong; they just should not be lead drivers. The four 'right drivers' are the anchors of whole system reform. Judicious use of the four right drivers will accomplish better the sought-for goals more powerfully and sustainably because they work directly on changing the culture of school systems; by contrast, the wrong drivers alter formal attributes of the system without reaching the internal substance of reform.

What binds the effective drivers together is the underlying attitude, philosophy, and theory of action. It is okay to use all eight drivers provided the right four are dominant over the less effective four.

The evidence is clear: the wrong four as drivers de-motivate those people required for success; the right four do the opposite. All systems need to adopt the right drivers because this will give them success, and will result in global advances.


OECD (2010) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris. Accessed 18 april 2011 at the OECD website.

Mourshed, M, Chinezi, C and Barber, M (2010) How the Word's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, McKinsey and Company, London.

Professor Michael Fullan is Professor Emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Recognised as a worldwide authority on educational reform, he is engaged in advising policymakers and local leaders around the world in helping to achieve the moral purpose of all children learning.