In education, the terms systemic reform or systemic improvement are widely and commonly used by educators, reformers, and others. While education reforms often target specific elements or components of an education system—such as what students learn or how teachers teach—the concept of systemic reform may be used in reference to (1) reforms that impact multiple levels of the education system, such as elementary, middle, and high school programs; (2) reforms that aspire to make changes throughout a defined system, such as district-wide or statewide reforms; (3) reforms that are intended to influence, in minor or significant ways, every student and staff member in school or system; or (4) reforms that may vary widely in design and purpose, but that nevertheless reflect a consistent educational philosophy or that are aimed at achieving common objectives.
Like the teaching profession, education systems are, by nature, extremely complex and multifaceted, and the challenges entailed in reforming or improving them can be similarly complex and multifaceted. Even reforms that appear to be straightforward, simple, or easily achieved may, in practice, require complicated state-policy changes, union-contract negotiations, school-schedule modifications, or countless other conditions and actions. While it is not possible to describe all the many ways in which reforms may be considered “systemic,” the term is perhaps most commonly applied to proposed reforms that are intended to achieve a specific goal or set of goals. For example, the goal of increasing high school graduation rates may have systemic implications, and states or schools may present a reform package intended to address multiple factors contributing to undesirably low graduation rates. In these cases, the reforms may or may not represent a coherent attempt to improve a complex system, and they may not—in any strict definitional sense—be truly “systemic.” And, of course, proposed reforms may also be more aspirational than feasible, practical, or advisable.
In technical terms, the idea of “systemic improvement” is predicated on the generalizable fact that, in most cases, it is extremely difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to improve one dimension of a school or education system without addressing and modifying other dimensions (the large and ever-growing body of books, experts, and research devoted to “systems change,” in a wide variety fields, provides some evidence of the difficulties entailed). While there are countless complexities involved in systemic reform—far to many to usefully describe here—a simple example may serve to illustrate the general problem:
Say that school leaders want to give teachers more opportunities to collaborate, plan lessons together, and give each other professional feedback aimed at improving their instructional skills (a common school-improvement strategy known as professional learning communities). While a seemingly simple proposition, the process of adding or creating meeting time during the school day could require significant and difficult-to-achieve changes to a school’s schedule—e.g., teaching responsibilities, class times, and room assignments may need to be entirely reshuffled or the school may decide to adopt a new and better-suited scheduling structure. If a new schedule is embraced—for example, one with longer class periods (see block schedule)—teachers may need to modify all their lesson plans and the way they typically teach, which could then require specialized training to help teachers adjust to longer class periods. If administrators decide to start the school day at a later time so that teachers can meet early in the morning, another possible option, it could impact bus-transportation schedules and parents may complain because they will have to find and pay for additional childcare. If the school then creates a new early-morning program for students on those late-start days, to avoid the transportation and childcare issues, the program will need to be staffed and funded—another complicated and complicating issue. And given that teacher contracts typically define how many hours a teacher can be asked to work in a week, and how many hours can be devoted to specific kinds of activities, such as meetings, a proposal to create common meeting time could face resistance from unions or require changes in employment contracts and school policies. And, of course, the list of possible complexities could go on.
It should be noted that systemic reform is something of a buzzword in education, and the appearance or use of the term does not necessarily mean that a school or school system is actually executing, in any practical or authentic way, an improvement process that could be accurately labeled “systemic” in any of the senses described above.