Systemic Approach


Systemic Renewal is “about continuous, critical inquiry into current practices, identifying innovations that might improve education, removing organizational barriers to that improvement, and providing a system structure that supports change” (Duttweiler, 2004, p. 56). It is very difficult to effect change in the educational system because of traditional methods of doing things and also vested interests. There is a commonly held belief that accountability strategies will magically transform low-performing schools into high-performing ones. There are no panaceas for the multitude of problems facing schools today. Expecting students to meet higher standards while continuing in the same educational rut is not realistic.

Whole-school reform is an example of systemic renewal. Whole-school reform is a result of the expansion of Title I funds to improve low-performing schools to raise student achievement. In 1997, Congress focused on research-based, schoolwide approaches to reform through their Comprehensive School Reform Program (CSRP). Identifying successful models proved difficult because of a limited research base. The American Institutes for Research (AIR) could name only three models that met the criteria: Direct Instruction, High Schools That Work, and Success for All. Four other models were considered promising—Community for Learning, Core Knowledge, Different Ways of Knowing, and Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound (Educational Research Service, 1999). Over 1,800 schools in all 50 states participated in the original 1998 cohort of CSRP. An additional 1,000 received funding in 2000.

A successful private sector program is the New American Schools (NAS) initiative. NAS funded teams to develop innovative school designs and to provide support to schools that implemented the designs. Ten school districts participated in this program. Schools adapted the design to local conditions and over time the designs became almost unrecognizable, making the results difficult to quantify. A RAND study found that 50% of the schools made gains in mathematics and 47% of them made gains in reading relative to the district (RAND, 2002).

Systemic Renewal Is Needed

There is an achievement gap between economically disadvantaged, minority students and affluent, white students. Davidson and Toomer-Cook (1998) found that 95% of eighth graders in high poverty schools were deficient in math skills. Massachusetts (Hart, 1998) and Maryland (Maryland State Department of Education, 1998) have also reported on the achievement gap.

The Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) looked at low-performing schools in San Francisco and Chicago and found that these schools stressed control and order and had low expectations for student learning (Fuhrman, 1999). Teachers and administrators often overlook their impact on student learning. Teachers identified the main cause of poor academic performance as family background. The least powerful cause they identified was the condition of teaching and learning in the classroom. Many teachers and administrators believe that economically disadvantaged students cannot excel (Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, 2000). This belief soon becomes self-fulfilling in many schools that attempt reform. Mizell’s study (2000) found that reform cannot succeed in a hostile or indifferent environment which is often the case in schools which are implementing change.

Expected Benefits

Success is possible when systemic forces are addressed. One success story is Brazosport Independent School District (BISD) in Texas. In 1991-92 half of the district’s schools were low performing schools, according to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). The gap between non-Hispanic white and African-American students was 32% in 1993-94, while the gap between non-Hispanic white and Hispanic students was 20%. By 1998-99, the decrease in the gap was remarkable. The gap between non-Hispanic white and African-American students had decreased to 7%, and the gap between non-Hispanic white and Hispanic students was 3%. All groups were scoring above the 90% level on the TAAS (Anderson, 2000).

A meta-analysis of studies of comprehensive school reform models (Borman, Hewes, & Brown, 2002) found that robust models of reform can be expected to improve students’ test scores. Improvement does not occur rapidly, and the strongest effects were seen in the fifth year of implementation. Research shows that the overall effects of reform are statistically significant and meaningful.

Key Elements of Successful Systemic Renewal

There are several elements necessary to implement reform successfully:

  • Consensus that change is needed;
  • Capacity to plan and implement reform;
  • Change occurs from within;
  • Change must occur at the district level as well as at the school level;
  • Stable, broad-based leadership; and
  • Sufficient time and resources (Schargel & Smink, 2004).

Systemic renewal can create an academic environment that ensures “no child is left behind.”


Anderson, G. (2000). Brazosport ISD: Implementation of the quality agenda to ensure excellence and equity for ALL students. Paper presented at the Improving Achievement Outcomes in the Middle Grades Conference sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers: Project to Improve Achievement in High Poverty Schools, Long Beach, CA, April 9-12, 2000.

Borman, G. D., Hewes, G.M., & Brown. S. (2002). Comprehensive school reform and student achievement. (Technical Report Number 59). Retrieved January 8, 2004, from:

Davidson, L., & Toomer-Cook, J. (1998, December 4). Utah Students Rank Poorly. Desert News.

Duttweiler, P. C. (2004). Systemic renewal: What works? In F. P. Schargel & J. Smink (Eds), Helping students graduate: A strategic approach to dropout prevention (pp. 55-63). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Educational Research Service. (1999). An educators’ guide to schoolwide reform. Arlington, VA: Author.

Fuhrman, S. H. (1999). The new accountability. CPRE Policy Brief No. RB-27. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Goodbye, yellow brick road. (2000, Spring). Changing Schools in Louisville, 8(1), 2-15. Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

Hart, J. (1998, December 10). Test scores spell out education weaknesses. The Boston Globe.

Maryland State Department of Education. (1998, December 8). 1998 MSPAP results show across-the-board gains. Retrieved June 10, 2002, from: December/1998-1208.html (No longer available).

Mizell, H. (2000, April 5). Educators: Reform thyselves. Education Week, 56:40. Quality counts. (2000). Education Week, XIX (18).

The RAND Corporation. (2002). A decade of whole-school reform: The New American Schools experience. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from: .