Dispelling the Fog of Education with Systems Thinking

The rise and fall of fads within K-12 education is currently at an all time high with increasingly shortened life spans of up to one or two months.  I had the good fortune of reviewing the idea of systems thinking while reading the book Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge recently.  The education field borrowed the idea of Systems Thinking from business where it became the latest education fad in the late 1980’s and early 2000’s.  Big Picture systems thinking was the mental model behind the Standards movement that emerged during this time.  While the systems thinking fad has long run its course in education world, I argue that it is time to resurrect it to dispel some of the current suffocation from the fog of education.

K-12 Education is in a perpetual state of chaos because it fails to adhere to the basic tenets of a system.  The ability of K-12 education to focus on a few well-conceived goals is still well beyond its grasp. We focus on a myriad of goals from supporting students to supporting parents and the community. One of the main mission of K-12 education is to make sure that students achieve academic success as they prepare for college and career.  In order to achieve this very achievable goal, we must identify the key elements that include well-defined standards and learning target, curriculum, professional practices, and assessments.

K-12 education is in a perpetual state of chaos due to its inability to systematically and continuously improve professional practices within school districts.  It is simple. Just look at the student outcomes at almost every level within the overall “system!”  In previous articles, I described how American student performance on the NAEP and PISA far below proficiency consistently over the years.  State test data at the District level is not much better.  Having the opportunity to work with the East Ramapo School District in New York, I visualized performance on ELA state test performance for 3 years using out of every 20 values as well as a heat map. We generated this report and similar reports for subgroups as well as Mathematics in hopes of generating an emotional response that would inspire system changes to improve professional practices and that would improve student outcomes. But no luck was to be had as the School District continues to produce dismal results for its students and families.



Similarly, in my home district of San Jose Unified I visualized 3 years of State Math and ELA performance on state tests only to be rudely pushed out of the Board room with no recognition of the abysmal overall performance of students or a commitment to improve the system of professional practices to accelerate student academic achievement. Only a little more than one third of 11th graders meet or exceed Math standards and sadly only 3% of English Learners.


You reap what you sow.  So why don’t school districts like the East Ramapo School District or San Jose Unified take their dismal results as a clarion call to address the mission of teaching mathematics well?  For the most part, school districts are not really oriented toward a systems approach to achieving success. They are easily distracted with a multiplicity of goals, programs, and initiatives.  According to Jim Smith in his book, Good to Great, he claimed that highly successful organizations take a hedgehog approach to success in which they focus on one or two key important goals and get really good at achieving them.

For school districts, their hedgehog should be to ensure academic achievement by all students. Toward that end, they should organize their system to achieve this goal by making sure that there are high quality curricula, well defined professional practices, and aligned formative and summative assessments.  The system should develop implementation plans to ensure that all elements of the system are implemented in every classroom with a high degree of quality. The implementation plan should not only ensure professional development but also ongoing coaching and support to make sure that the system is effectively implemented.  Finally, the implementation process needs to be monitored and held accountable through regular summative evaluations.

What do we find in most school districts?  We find a culture where teachers have autonomy in what they teach, how the teach it, and how they assess it.  They are protected in their independent contractor work by the School Boards, administration and Teachers’ Unions.  And of course, within this milieu of varied teaching practices, there are examples of excellence that should be emulated throughout the system but not because of the isolated nature of teaching practice.

School districts will engage in strategic planning where they adopt a wide array of goals that are often means instead of ends.  They seek to address the perceived needs of the parents in addition to their primary responsibility of supporting the academic achievement of all students.  They often identify technology goals that are really means to the ultimate end of student academic achievement.  These plans will include general actions that never translate into specific accountable implementation plans.  They will often then purchase programs and hire consultants to conduct minimal and superficial professional development aligned to the general strategies without the necessary ongoing coaching and ongoing support. Importantly, there is really no expectation that teachers will fully implement the programs and/or practices and that teachers have the ability to make adaptations freely as they choose.

Even though chaotic, the K-12 Education system does exhibit islands of excellence in a systems approach that includes detailed and specific implementation plans along with evaluations.  I have previously described the work of Community Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine Illinois that maintained a system-wide focus on academic achievement with comprehensive curriculum, common professional practices, and formative and summative assessments. This system included detailed implementation plans a long with evaluation.  CCSD 15 won the first ever coveted Baldrige Award for Excellence.

The emergence of quality curriculum can sometimes occur within the chaotic K-12 education systems.  The Math My Way movement was a compilation of math curriculum and instructional practices that aligned very well with cognitive learning theory as well as researched-based instructional practices.  It emerged from the work of individual teachers in classrooms. However, these eclectic practices, while well-conceived, were not incorporated into an overall system of curriculum and instructional practice.

Zalman Usiskin from the University of Chicago took these random acts of excellence and built them into a comprehensive and developmentally appropriate curriculum called Everyday Mathematics.  The system includes developmental elements that include: use of concrete and real-world examples, repeated exposure to mathematical concepts and skills, frequent practice of basic computation skills, and the use of multiple methods and problem-solving strategies. Schools and Districts who adopt this well-conceived math curriculum and implement it well will achieve improved student math outcomes.

Yet even after the acquisition of well researched curriculum, our wayward K-12 system will probably not implement the curriculum completely and with fidelity.  A key sacred cow of American education is the belief that teachers should have a great deal of autonomy with regard to what they teach, how they teach, and how they assess.  This belief results in the very uneven implementation of quality curricula and instructional practices within school systems.  Yet there is a science of implementation that is being ignored by K-12 education.  Dean Fixsen from the National Implementation Network produced a quality system for implementation that defines and describes the key stages of implementation a long with the drivers that support it. Adherence to the essential elements of a quality implementation a long with evaluation will go a long way to ensure the improvement of student outcomes.

Time and again, I have experienced implementation that is so far from what would be expected from the tenets of the science of implementation as to be in another universe.  Implementation is usually an afterthought for District Administrators after the acquisition of a program or initiative.  District Administrators usually do not have the expertise required to professionally develop the program themselves and usually broker the work to professional development providers who may at best provide several days of professional development and then leave the implementation up to the teachers. Sound familiar?  I have visited classrooms where teachers had not even unwrapped essential elements of the Every Day Mathematics program saying that they thought that the project elements of the system were extra.  After a few years of spotty implementation, school districts will often jettison quality programs saying that these programs did not work well within our system. In reality though the program was not sufficiently implemented or evaluated.

While the implementation of key programs and initiatives is a major issue, the problem is exacerbated when school districts do not even select quality programs or initiatives but take on the responsibility of building the heart lung machine to do surgery themselves!   This phenomenon is especially true for supporting the acquisition of English Language and academic achievement for our English Learners.  SJUSD for example adopted the idea of Dual Immersion programs where non-English speaking children are placed in classrooms with English speaking students.  This program begins by teaching in the native language at least 80% of the time and slowly decreases over 6-8 years.  This means that it will take 6-8 years to ensure that our EL students acquire the English necessary to access the academic standards well.

Within this weak program, there are no specific English Language Acquisition or Academic Achievement goals. There is no specific day to day curriculum or explicitly identified instructional practices. Finally, there is no description of formative or summative assessments.  Teachers are provided with a pot pourri of curriculum and instructional practices that they can use as they choose while speaking to the students 80% of the time in their first language.  There is no detailed plan for implementation or evaluation. The District does not produce growth data on academic achievement or the acquisition of English.  Looking at the overall ELA performance of EL students gives you an insight into the effectiveness of the Dual Language Program. Only 9% of 3rd grade Els meet or exceed State Standards in 2017!


What happens when a lack of systems thinking, adherence to educational fads, failure to recognize research, assessment illiteracy, and poor implementation and evaluation meet the early reading needs of students?  Of course, we have the perfect storm of educational chaos and dysfunction.  In the late 1990’s a renowned team of experts in early reading did exhaustive research on how best to teach young children how to read.  Based upon their research, they identified 5 key ingredients to successful early reading that included phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Roland Good and researchers from the University of Oregon developed simple screening and monitoring assessments of the 5 essential early reading elements. These simple assessments would help educators keep all students on track to read by the end of third grade.  This work spawned the educational fad to support early reading through the use of the Dynamic Indicators of Early Literacy or DIBELS.  Unfortunately, the requisite professional development and coaching required for successful implementation of this excellent assessment system combined with tremendous assessment illiteracy eventually drove the screening and monitoring of early reading into an ad hoc reading record phenomenon carried out by individual teachers within their classrooms.

Sadly, when asked why a school district with a tremendous need to improve early reading performance of students, does not use valid and reliable screening and monitoring assessment systems, the pathetic answer is always: “We tried the DIBELS approach way back when and it just didn’t work. And besides it is so very old.”   When only one half of students in San Jose Unified School District are reading by the end of 3rd grade without having been carefully monitored and supported in Kindergarten through grade 3 in the five essential reading elements in a systematic fashion, we cannot be surprised.

So how does a school district get away with operating in such chaotic ways with hardly the hint of systems thinking?  One of the key reasons is the use of the idea of special case as a way to support “success” and protect against real accountability for system performance.  Special case is a self-similar phenomenon within the school system.  Teachers use it in their classroom when they only call on students who they know can answer their questions correctly.  Principals use it as they evaluate teachers and give high evaluation ratings based on one or two exceptional performances rather than the overall teacher performance over time.  District Administrators use special case to bamboozle Boards of Education with one off exceptional student performance that supposedly represent the whole system. Unfortunately, the Boards often buy these wonderful special case presentations.

What can we do to address the inability of school districts to think and act using a systems framework?  First of all, we need to demand that our school districts identify a vision and mission that puts student academic achievement at the forefront.  Secondly, we need to demand that school districts develop and use a very clear model for achieving this fundamental mission. This model should include the following key elements:

  • Identify clear and measurable student academic achievement goals with the expectation that all students will achieve these goals.
  • Acquire well defined curricula with day to day curriculum maps that are communicated to all stakeholders with the expectation that teachers use the curriculum maps.
  • Identify several key research-based and articulated professional practices at the district administrator, principal, and teacher levels.
  • Acquire valid and reliable formative and summative assessments to diagnose, screen, and monitor achievement of academic goals and learning targets for students.
  • Expect personal mastery of the curriculum and professional practices by all staff.
  • Foster regular opportunities for teacher collaboration and dialogue that focuses on review of student work and instructional interventions that will continuously improve student performance.
  • Follow a scientific method for the implementation of all educational programs and initiatives.
  • Evaluate both formally and informally all programs and initiatives on a regular basis and communicate findings and recommendations to all stakeholders,

What should the School Board do to support systems thinking? First of all, they should not succumb to the allure of special case extravaganza presentations made by District Administrators to cover for obvious deficiencies in system performance.  Every meeting should include a review and analysis of system-wide overall and subgroup student outcome data as well as a system wide data-informed review of the implementation and improvement of a few key professional practices.  They should expect and demand regular evaluation reports on both the implementation of key programs and initiatives.  They should make sure that the District Administration publishes easy to understand data supporting student outcomes and professional practices.  They should insist that evaluation results are accessible to all stakeholders in an easily understandable interpretable manner. The Board should also insist that detailed curriculum maps and assessment tool are available online for stakeholder to review. It would also be a great idea to engage the system in the opportunity to apply for a national award like the Baldrige Award.

What should District Administrators do to support systems thinking?  First of all, they should maintain a laser focus on academic achievement and not become distracted by the latest educational fad.  This means that they have clearly defined student academic outcomes. They need to acquire and use detailed curricula for all academic subjects and ensure that they are implemented in a complete and consistent manner.  They also need to acquire and scientifically implement formative assessments that inform both student outcomes as well as professional practices. They must support and coach principals in helping teachers collaborate and dialogue regularly using actual student work and assessment data to diagnose learning needs and intervene to support continuous improvement in student outcomes.  District Administrators should be master teachers themselves and regularly model lessons that include key teaching practices using an Explicit Learning model.  They should prepare and make regular student outcome and professional practices presentations to the school board that focus on system performance and not special case.

What should the School Principal do to support systems thinking?  The principal should ensure that his teachers understand the student academic goals. He should make sure that they have all of the curriculum resources and assessments needed to teach the academic subjects well.  He should organize and lead regular collaborations and dialogue where teachers review student work aligned with the learning targets and using both formative and summative quality rubrics.  He should support the teachers in using the assessment and the resultant data to develop appropriate instructional interventions to ensure that all students achieve the learning targets. He should use an explicit teaching practice to model high quality teaching practices for teachers. He should informally and formally evaluate teachers using a fair evaluations system that aligns with both student outcomes and key professional practices. He should regularly meet with parents and community members to communicate the academic focus, curricula, assessments, and professional practices.

What should teachers do to support systems thinking?  Teachers should clearly understand the student academic goals for all of their students.  They should teach the curricula as defined within their curriculum guides. They should administer both formative and summative assessments to generate data and student work that can be used in their regularly planned collaborations and dialog with fellow teachers to analyze student performance, design interventions, and monitor interventions to ensure that all students achieve the standards-aligned learning targets.  Teachers should engage in regular opportunities to reflect upon their professional practices in order to continuously improve and achieve mastery at high performance levels. They should regularly communicate with parents about both individual student performance, academic goals, curriculum requirements, as well as the results of both formative and summative assessments.

What should parents and guardians do to support systems thinking?  Parents should review the academic goals for their students. They should also monitor the assessment results for their children. They should make sure that their children get plenty of rest, eat well, have a private well-lit place to study and do homework, and get to school on time.  Parents should also meet regularly with the school principal to better understand and support the Big Picture for the work of the school

What should community members do to support systems thinking?  Community members should form school and district advisory committees that meet regularly to review systems data for both student outcomes and professional practices in order to hold the district accountable for outstanding performance in helping all students prepare for college, career and citizenship. The Community should also develop symbols such as awards and celebrations to honor and foster ongoing continuous improvement in professional practices and student outcomes.  Community members should work to support the school and district in applying for and winning national awards to recognize both stellar system professional practice as well as student outcomes.

It is beyond time to resurrect the educational idea of Systems Thinking.  It is the path forward in helping all school districts and schools stay on track for the continuous improvement of professional practices and student outcomes.  As Jim Smith once told us, we need to face the brutal facts of poor systems performance and avoid the allure of using special case performance as a proxy for overall and subgroup academic performance of all students. We need to stay focused on our main mission and avoid the myriad of educational distractions that accost us every day in education. Our main job as educators is to assure the academic achievement of all students so that they will be successful in college and career as well as become knowledgeable and active citizens. We can do this through a system-wide focus on student academic goals, curricula, professional practices, and formative and summative assessments.  The Systems Approach is the way to lead all of us to a better future.


Baldrige Excellence Performance Program.   https://www.nist.gov/baldrige

Collins, John. Good to Great. 2001. Harper Collins Publishers.

Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy (DIBELS). https://dibels.uoregon.edu/

Everyday Mathematics. http://everydaymath.uchicago.edu/

Fixsen, Dean. National Implementation Network. https://nirn.fpg.unc.edu/

New York State Education at a Glance. https://data.nysed.gov/

School Improvement Big Picture Web site. http://sipbigpicture.com

Senge, Peter.  The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practices of the Learning Organization. 1990. Doubleday.




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