Whole System Change

by: Joey Freeman

In his essay The Path to Equity: Whole System Change, Michael Fullan (2015) postulates that a whole system approach is necessary to make equitable and sustainable system-wide changes. He provides compelling research on the impact of these efforts on raising test scores and improving graduation rates in under-resourced K-12 school systems.  Fullan (2015) identifies several key factors essential to achieving greater equity in educational systems:

  • Viewing change through a systems lens:  Educators must buy into the idea that all parts of the system need to work collaboratively for positive change. This collective attitude of working together to make all units better is in contrast to educators who choose to focus solely on areas of the system where the need for improvement is most pronounced. When educators across a district or university have a common goal of system-wide improvement, then best practices shared can be used in all areas of the system regardless of their overall performance status. 
  • Simplexity: “Identifying the smallest number of key factors that will make a difference (the simple part), then orchestrating these factors to work in interaction (the complex part)” (Fullan, 2015, p. 46).  The goal is to seek the greatest impact with the least amount of changes and implement them in an inter-related fashion vs. in isolation.
  • Push and pull forces, which work together to create change. The push forces of leadership (i.e. directing) are sought to be equalized with the pull forces of leadership (i.e. coaching and collaboration) which together can build capacity and ownership of a group and lead to system-wide change.
  • Cultivating district-wide engagement to build a collaborative culture while producing a framework of coherence, as opposed to fragmentation across the system. Collaborative cultures are successful because they are motivated to share best practices within the system, and have developed reciprocal partnerships between buildings and central administration. Coherence is important for consistency in implementing quality instructional practices across the system.
  • Using transparent data to improve practice: schools or departments across the system identifying positive outcomes in achievement data must be willing to share their data as well as curricular approaches that may be linked with optimal outcomes. This is opposed to a territorial mindset where instructional methods are not made available to benefit other teachers and administrators within the system.

It is vitally important to initiate whole system change to have the greatest impact on increasing equity in any educational system.  As often occurs in higher education, instructors must resist working in silos, and instead focus on department- and university-wide engagement. These efforts will enable faculty to work towards common goals to improve equity for students. 

Sharing best practices in a deliberate, university-wide effort ensures that equitable learning experiences are provided for students, such as when implementing remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Best practices should include the following: ensuring students have access to all technological requirements; designing learning management systems for easy navigation and utilization; offering flexibility in class meeting schedules, exams, and assignment due dates; and making necessary adjustments to support students with documented disabilities, including extra test time, lecture scripts, and frequent breaks during class sessions. 

Additionally, implementing a systems-wide task force should be considered to ensure that high-impact student experiences are equitable amongst students of color and other under-represented groups. These experiences including undergraduate research, internships, and study abroad experiences (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 

In conclusion, whole system change as a path to equity is a compelling argument, as this approach will likely result in a system of fairness and inclusion, two critical components of educational equity. “Equity in education requires putting systems in place to ensure that every student has an equal chance for success” (Thinking Maps).  A whole system approach to change can lead to greater equity amongst students due to its emphasis on leadership at all levels of the system, a developmental culture, sharing of best practices, system-wide collaboration, and continuous improvement.


Thinking Maps. Equity in education. What it is and why it matters. https://www.thinkingmaps.com/equity-education-matters/

Fullan, M. (2015). The path to equity: Whole system change. In A. Blankstein, P. Noguera, & L. Kelly, Excellence through equity: Five principles of courageous leadership to guide achievement for every student (pp. 45-54). Corwin.  

Association of American Colleges and Universities. Step up and lead for equity: What higher education can do to reverse our deepening divides. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/StepUpLeadEquity.pdf