AdvancED adds its voice to a growing chorus of demands for not just “change” or “reform” of schooling, but for “fundamental transformation” of education to a new, more robust system aligned with our hopes and dreams for the future.

"The Power to Transform” is the bold theme of AdvancED’s 2011 International Summit, a theme designed to push our thinking about school system change from the notion of “tinkering around the edges” to implementing full-scale transformation on behalf of improved outcomes for students. In choosing this theme, AdvancED adds its voice to a growing chorus of demands for not just “change” or “reform” of schooling, but for “fundamental transformation” of education to a new, more robust system aligned with our hopes and dreams for the future.

The More Things Change

Calls for changes to the modern American public education system date back at least to the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk,” in which the National Commission on Excellence in Education scolded the educational establishment for the mediocrity of its product and warned of grave dangers to our national security and international competitiveness if significant change did not occur. Reactions to results from the OECD Programme for International Assessment (PISA), showing low scores and wide variation among students in the world’s developed countries on achievement tests in mathematics, science, and literacy, have raised additional concerns about the need for change.

And yet, though the clarion call for change continues, all over the world the way schools are organized, teachers are prepared, students are taught, and learning is assessed remain stubbornly similar to the past. Indeed, as educators and policymakers have attempted to respond to the demand for reform from stakeholders throughout society, they have often been met with simultaneous demands to protect the status quo. How, reformers ask, can we “fundamentally transform” the educational enterprise in our schools and school systems while still preserving so many of its features that various stakeholders value (e.g., the buildings, the calendar, the teacher contract, the governance structure)? What do “transformed” schools look like and how do we get there?

Caterpillars and Butterflies

Transformation, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a major change in form, function, or nature. Often used to describe biological processes like metamorphosis, the term implies movement from one condition or form to another, followed by consequent changes in function and nature. Think of the awkward, mousy-colored caterpillar clinging desperately to the branch until it transforms into the colorful butterfly free to fly away. Watching this process at work, we are reassured by the knowledge we gained as schoolchildren that the outcome will be splendid and that the butterfly – vibrant and free – is in a far more satisfactory form now than before the transformation began.

The Only Thing We Know for Sure

The aspiration for educational transformation is similar – to change schooling from its current awkward caterpillar-like state, in which achievement lags, bureaucracy stifles, and resources are scarce, into something as beautiful and inspirational as the butterfly. As we embark upon the transformational process in our schools and school systems, however, we lack the reassurance that, as in biological metamorphosis, the outcome will be an improvement over the current state.

Indeed, as we contemplate transforming schooling into a new, better, more effective endeavor, few of us have a clear image in our minds of what that will look like. In a transformed system, are there school buildings, age-based classrooms, summer vacations? Or, is education offered 24/7 online, facilitated by content experts available to enhance learning year-round? Or, might individual students direct their own learning, at times attending “schools” and at other times apprenticing in the community, volunteering overseas, and mastering content of their own choosing and in their own way?

We can hypothesize about the future but we cannot predict it. The lack of certainty about what lies ahead contributes to the familiar resistance to change. Similar to the old saying, “the devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t know,” change efforts in education are often stymied by the need for certainty, even if we know that what we are doing today is not working for far too many students.

Not All Changes are the Same

How can we better understand and engage with transformation? Organizational development experts Linda Ackerman Anderson and Dean Anderson, in articles and books such as "Beyond Change Management: Advanced Strategies for Today's Transformational Leaders" (2001), explain transformation through a helpful taxonomy differentiating among three types of change: developmental, transitional, and transformational. Although designed for the business world, these terms and definitions can be applied to educational organizations as well.

Developmental Change

“Developmental change,” as defined by these authors, is intended to improve the current condition. All organizations need to change if they are to survive and, in many cases, developmental change that improves existing processes without altering the fundamental structure of the organization is sufficient to ward off the entropy that can cause an organization to become obsolete. Implementation of comprehensive professional development plans for teachers or enhancements to instructional materials are examples of developmental changes in education. Developmental change may require us to alter our habits and behaviors, but rarely does it require us to change our values and beliefs. Because of this, developmental change is far easier to implement than the other types of change described below.

Transitional Change

The second type of change is “transitional.” Here the organization is deliberately moving from one condition to another and the new condition is well-defined in advance of the change. Transitional change is intended to fix a clearly-identified problem, and within the current system, criteria exist against which the effectiveness of the transition can be measured. Examples in education might include the downsizing of central administration, the redrawing of school attendance boundaries, or even implementation of comprehensive technology systems in place of traditional analog approaches.

Transitional change may affect the entire organization or may impact only certain parts. The change is significant and demanding but it is usually seen in a favorable light by stakeholders, because the problem it seeks to solve is clear and the desired outcome is known. This does not mean there will be no resistance to the change. Individuals impacted by the redefinition of roles, new school assignments, or even the requirement to move from a Mac to a PC do not always change quietly but, eventually, the benefits of the new condition outweigh the stress of change and most people adapt.

Transformational Change

“Transformational” change is the most demanding of the three types of change. Transformation involves a radical shift from one state of being to another and, adding to the challenge, the new state is, as yet, undefined. Rather than transitioning to a new state that can be described and understood before the change takes place, transformational change is required when it is determined that the current system simply no longer works and must be abandoned, even if its replacement has yet to be developed.

Transformation occurs in response to a “wake-up” call that reveals the mismatch between the demands and needs of the current and future reality and the capacity and character of the organization as it exists today. One such wake-up call for educators, of course, is found within the plethora of reports documenting the high dropout rates and low standardized test scores of our students. Another wake-up call is the inability of government budgets to provide the resources needed to keep the current system operating. Other wake-up calls include the looming teacher shortage and the expectations of “digital native” students regarding access to and use of technology.

Reactive and Conscious Transformation

Our organizational development experts provide a further helpful distinction between reactive and conscious transformation. Reactive transformation occurs when leaders of an organization are forced to change. In this case, leaders resist or deny the wake-up call believing that, like the snooze button on the alarm, if they just roll over and wait, it will stop. But, it doesn’t stop and change occurs to the organization without its consent. Leaders have no say over how the change takes place or what the end result will be.

Conscious transformation, on the other hand, occurs when the leaders of the organization recognize and proactively respond to the wake-up call by mapping out a route to change. At the start of the process, the route has no defined end but conscious transformational leaders trust that it will conclude successfully. Such leaders embark on the journey with relevant stakeholders as their partners, working collaboratively and transparently to confront the many mountains and valleys on the path. They feel free to fail as well as to succeed, and they expect to face and to learn from multiple challenges along the way. In this type of transformation, the goal is not only to survive, but to thrive.

Among all types of change described by these authors, conscious transformation is the most challenging. The challenge comes from the need for leaders and stakeholders to confront their values and beliefs, to ask the hard questions about whether or not their organizational structure is serving their mission, to accept the reality of changed conditions around them, and to respond creatively to new demands.

Transformation and the Status Quo

As a learning organization dedicated to innovation and improvement, AdvancED constantly asks the “what if” questions. For example, what if, now and in the future, developmental or transitional change alone offer insufficient remedies to the problems that plague our schools? So many reforms have been implemented over the years – from demanding greater accountability to providing more resources to increasing parent involvement to improving teacher quality – but far too many children have been left behind. Certainly there are many great schools and great school systems around the world, but not all children benefit from these pockets of excellence. And so, we ask ourselves, what if we need to do something radically different from what we have tried before? What if we need to risk the status quo on behalf of a future we aspire to but cannot yet describe?

Navigating the Journey

We do not take risk lightly. We understand the need to keep some anchors in the water while navigating the tumultuous (at times, shark-infested) seas of change. To that end, we offer our continuous improvement process, grounded in Standards for Quality Schools and Systems, as a potential pathway to change. Undergirded by meaningful standards for organizational effectiveness, schools and systems that engage in deep self-reflection, gather stakeholder input, and analyze and respond to relevant data are more likely to recognize when they need to introduce a developmental change, a transition, or a full-scale transformation. Although this pathway will not remove all of the stress associated with moving into the unknown, it is likely to ease the rigors of the journey.

Educational leaders must challenge themselves to be open to possibility, collaborate with others within and outside of their own system, and be willing to ask the “what if” questions. Only then, will educational organizations learn when to hold on and when to let go and begin to create a transformed system as splendid as a butterfly.

Discussion Questions


  1. Do you agree that education needs to transform?
  2. What kinds of developmental, transitional, or transformational changes are you willing to make (or must you make) for your school or school system to thrive?
  3. What kind of wake-up call will force you to chart a course to change?
  4. How can education leaders help provide stability while, at the same time, promoting transformation?
  5. Do you believe that the AdvancED accreditation process can be a catalyst for real change in your educational organization?