So How Is School Reform Different from School Transformation?

People often ask about the difference between school reform and school transformation.  I have yet to offer an adequately nuanced explanation, but I recently stumbled upon a line by Peter Senge that does a darn good job of hitting some of the most critical aspects of the contrast. He notes, “We keep trying to drive change, when what we need to do is cultivate change.” Peter’s comment reminds me of four major ways that transformation is distinguished from reform.


  • Is based on an organic rather than an industrial model of school;
  • Is driven by culture rather than compliance;
  • nurtures diversity rather than a one-size-fits-all approach;
  • focuses on the learning of the entire organization rather than solely on the learning of students.

Let’s explore each of these briefly.

An Organic Rather Than an Industrial Model

An organic model of schooling focuses on the rich complexity of our humanness, encouraging diversity and offering standardized tests as useful only in painting the broadest of brush strokes…certainly not a portrait.  Reformers love “data,” usually defined in the narrowest of terms—numbers.  Transformers, on the other hand, examine student work, listen as students contemplate their learning, visit classrooms where they can observe students’ learning, consider formative and summative assessments that grow out of rich curriculum…and then check standardized test scores for a broader and more abstract view. An organic model of schooling builds on the belief that those occupying our schools are first and foremost human beings…and should be treated as such.

In contrast, most reform efforts follow closely the factory metaphor of schooling, treating children as widgets to be judged by a single number and teachers as manufacturers who must demonstrate their ability to produce conformity. In my state, New Mexico, teachers who produce the highest standardized test scores get rewarded with fairly significant money. Of course, the culinary arts teacher who does an amazing job of educating her students never has a chance to reap the rewards of this system—her subject is never tested; nor, quite frankly, does the young teacher who has been handed low track Algebra students.  Of course, an AP math teacher I met recently, who did little to engage his students, received over $7,000 this year for the high scores students achieved in his class—results I would more likely attribute to the students’ zip codes.

Our humanity should be a distinguishing factor in determining what happens in our schools. Students continually organized in lines and constantly shushed; teachers subjected to 26 item checklists in a fifteen minute walkthrough; principals defined and hired and fired by their test scores…these practices betray human creativity and possibility.

 Fueled by Culture Rather Than Compliance

 This leads to our second point. Transformational educators begin with two fundamental questions: What do we want to create together?  How do we want to be together? When everyone in the organization has the opportunity to be part of the creation of the school, to build personal allegiance to the work and accept responsibility for the success, then we have collective aspiration. Collective aspiration transcends individual leadership; it offers a more robust and powerful support for the work of changing schools and builds organizations that last longer than any single leader’s tenure.

Transformative work focuses on building capacity to learn, collaborating skillfully in finding and solving problems, cultivating compassion and empathy for those in and outside of the school community, using systems and design thinking to solve the wicked problems that are part of education today, and perhaps most importantly, building the capacity of every member of the organization to lead.

Educators interested in transformation believe that deep change in schools begins with a strong culture that supports children, teachers, and administrators in continuously learning and taking intellectual risks. This contrasts sharply with many reform efforts that focus on compliance, on acquiescence to a set of standards or reform initiatives.

Many reformers believe that a collection of specific strategies often defined as “best practice” will solve a school’s problems; it’s just a matter of finding the right pieces to complete the puzzle successfully. The problem with this approach is well documented in schools across the country–a box of pieces  (even if they are the BEST pieces) doesn’t necessarily make a whole.

Nurtures Diversity  Rather Than a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

This item, of course, grows from the first two.  In nature, the most successful ecosystems are the most diverse.  Mono-cultures are at risk of a single pest or virus or superbug wiping them out.  Transformational environments recognize that diverse approaches to a single problem offer better success in meeting students’ needs, and that no single problem exists out of context. Thus, transformational leaders focus on supporting design thinking embedded throughout the organization.  In truth, students quickly become some of the best designers, and are perfectly equipped, as consumers, to solve the problems that emerge in their classrooms.

In this design environment, failure is expected as part of the process of getting where we need to go. The critical aspect of failure according to Tim Brown, IDEO CEO and a recognized design expert, is that it is done early in the design process and learning results from it. In truth, in most schools, failure is quickly hidden or blame quickly assigned.  Neither of these approaches supports a design environment.

Nurturing diversity means celebrating innovations and innovators, seeking out-of-the-box thinking, and courageously defending those who are willing to leave the herd to explore new territory. All of this is in sharp contrast to much of school reform where one right answer is sought and often imposed on everyone.

Focuses on the Learning of the Entire Organization Rather than Solely the Learning of Students

 Peter Senge’s work over the past forty years has had a profound effect on the way businesses both nationally and internationally have operated, but his ideas have had less presence in schools.  This, of course, is totally ironic since schools are supposed to be about learning. But the idea that everyone—cook, custodian, superintendent, board member, teacher, and student–should be continuously learning remains a foreign concept in most educational settings.

In a transformational school setting, the energy of learning ignites enthusiasm and a sense of personal power. People find creating and collaborating an exciting part of their work.  Transformers seek to insure continuous learning for the entire organization.  This is critical, of course, because a school can only learn itself to a new place.

These differences between a transformational agenda and one of reform are profoundly important, and each requires a different skill set and ways of doing and being. As leaders, are we consciously seeking to transform our schools?  Are we nurturing the deep change necessary to create passionate and capable learners at every level of our school?  Are we modeling how learners behave, accepting the vulnerability of occasional failure and revealing how we, ourselves, are transforming as we lead the magnificent effort to create the schools that every child deserves? We must be transformers…our children deserve no less.