Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 7|April|2002

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in a Culture
of Change

by Michael Fullan

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Reviewed by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

Fullan's latest book is a thin volume meant to highlight the key elements required to lead any organization through a healthy, innovative and productive change process.

Its thinness is both an asset and a failing. One can glean the bold stroke ideas from this volume with just a few hours' reading, but the attempt to establish connections between the worlds of corporate change and schools seems a bit strained.

For school leaders (and followers) who might value reading a primer on leading healthy change, Leading in a Culture of Change is a provocative and often illuminating volume.

Fullan outlines the elements of effectiveness clearly . . .

"The conclusion, then, is that leaders will increase their effectiveness if they continually work on the fine components of leadership - if they pursue moral purpose, understand the change process, develop relationships, foster knowledge building, and strive for coherence - with energy, enthusiasm and hopefulness."

P. 11

"Drucker is reported to have said that people refer to gurus because they don't know how to spell charlatan!"

pp. 31-32

The next to final sentence of Leading is quite telling . . .

"Ultimately, your leadership in a culture of change will be judged effective or ineffective not by who you are as a leader but by what leadership you produce in others."

p. 137

Fullan discusses six leadership styles identified by Goleman (2000, pp. 82-83) and argues that good leaders must be able to act in different styles at different stages of a project.

  • Coercive
  • Authoritative
  • Affiliative
  • Democratic
  • Pacesetting
  • Coaching

Goleman reported that the pacesetting and coercive styles often caused problems but found the other four to be generally positive.

Goleman, D. (2000, March-April). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review, pp. 78-90.)

Fullan's advice is often especially appropriate for those considering innovations in the domain of educational technology. Without taking away his thunder, I will simply list some provocative section headings from his chapter on understanding change . . .

Understanding the Change Process
  • The goal is not to innovate the most.
  • It is not enough to have the best ideas.
  • Appreciate the implementation dip.
  • Redefine resistance.
  • Reculturing is the name of the game.
  • Never a checklist, always complexity.

Leadership in a Culture of Change
p. 34

The price of the book is more than justified by the reading of this single chapter. The advice given is sound, practical and grounded in years of experience with change in schools.

Points of Contention

While the book is filled with many solid ideas, suggestions and quotations, the author's fondness for living on the edge of chaos is a bit troubling. In one chapter devoted to coherence-making, Fullan might have stressed the importance of leaders sheltering an organization from excessive change, but coherence in this chapter is almost painted in terms of retreat.

It seems at times that Fullan's wish for imaginative and creative new ways of working leads to an attraction to turbulence. This seems inconsistent with his criticism of educators' fondness for trends and innovations.

In schools, for example, the main problem is not the absence of innovations but the presence of too many disconnected, episodic, piecemeal, superficially adorned projects. (p. 109)

Strangely, he devotes much of this chapter to the notion of "disturbance making" and tries to show how it can be managed to produce excellent results for students and classrooms.

Is Bigger Better?

Throughout the book, Fullan's examples of good change in education are mostly huge projects. While much of his previous writing has paid particular attention to change at the school level, this book veers toward huge systems with leaders who implement dramatic system-wide programs for literacy. His endorsement of such programs minimizes the disruption and mentions little of the fear, anxiety and distrust reported by other observers.

Fullan applauds one literacy project required of all schools in the U.K., and also applauds literacy and mathematics initiatives both in District 2 of New York City and in San Diego City. I found these examples to be surprising because of their imposition from above and not especially well matched to his own change elements and advice.

In one page he says, "I have to say that top-down, blueprinted strategies or reengineering or relentless innovativeness all turn out to be more reckless than the disturbances we are talking about in the examples in this book." Yet, there is some evidence that change was imposed top-down in San Diego. Fullan reveals little of the turmoil and difficulty that resulted from the reform efforts.

A major research report by Amy Hightower of Stanford University, while positive in its portrayal of educational strategies, mentions considerably more about the top down aspects of this effort than Fullan:

San Diego City Schools:
Comprehensive Reform Strategies at Work

. . . the study found that, after three years, discussion about instructional change was the norm among principals, teachers, and administrators. Practice was changing, and the evidence indicates that the focus on professional development was affecting student performance. In addition to rising SAT-9 scores (along with student averages across the state), more schools scored above the state average. Students in the Genre Studies classes made above-average gains in literacy.

Such swift, comprehensive changes, however, can create problems. Principals appreciated the professional development designed for them and its equalizing effect across the district. But it was time consuming, and the reforms had not given them extra help with the non-instructional demands on their work. They felt pressured to produce results (indeed, 15 site administrators were reassigned to the classroom after the first year of reform because they had not shown sufficient instructional leadership).

(Section on teachers omitted)

In San Diego, the reform leaders used strategies grounded in research on teaching and learning to align the organizational structure of the district with instructional improvement. They sought to balance top-down direction with quality support for teachers across the district, acting swiftly but sometimes without involving those affected by the reforms. Their actions often created fear and resentment, especially in the teachers’ union, and led to a split school board. The instruction was sound; the politics were unstable.

One San Diego teacher complains in a letter to Education Week:
"New Teacher Roles Are Often Stifled"
Our district is following the vision of Anthony Alvarado, the chancellor of instruction for the 143,000-student San Diego schools, who seems to see literacy as simply reading, and for whom the needs of elementary students and their teachers are no different from those of secondary students and their teachers.

I was a coach for Mr. Alvarado's literacy department. As a secondary teacher with advanced degrees in linguistics (with an emphasis in second-language reading theory) and as one who is also an avid reader of professional publications such as The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, I was astonished to find that the entire goal of the multimillion-dollar program was to raise test scores by teaching teachers to use a set of techniques similar to the balanced-literacy approach.

Grace Stell
San Diego, Calif.

In a July 8, 2001 editorial, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported plenty of controversy and mentioned many leadership traits for both top district leaders that seem very much in conflict with Fullan's portrayal of the change process . . .

End the bickering | City schools' animosity taking a toll
A not-so-civil war between San Diego Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin and the teachers union has caught the district's 143,000 students in the cross-fire. That alone should prompt both sides to stop their bickering.

Bersin was hired three summers ago to change the lethargic culture of the nation's eighth-largest urban school district. The former U.S. attorney promised to close the chronic achievement gap between white and minority students by providing a quality education for everyone.

Bersin's lack of educational experience has been a constant source of frustration to the teachers union and other critics who view him as arrogant, authoritarian and unable to relate to the concerns of classroom teachers. The controversial Anthony Alvarado, who was brought in from New York City by Bersin to direct the instructional program, has a bedside manner widely considered to be even more abrasive than the superintendent's.

It is not the intention of this book review to take sides on the complex issue of how to make change in large urban districts, but the discussion of the San Diego strategies in Fullan's book left out much of the controversy and gave little attention to important leadership style issues. After citing research by Goleman arguing against use of pacesetting and coercive leadership styles, Fullan points to an educational example where pacesetting seems alive and well.

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