It is estimated that world governments spend more than two trillion dollars on education each year, developing extensive initiatives such as ‘Raising the bar and closing the gap’ in the UK and ‘No child left behind’ in the US. Almost every country in the world has education reform high on its agenda. Yet, many argue that education reform has not made significant improvement in decades and that assessment practices remain remarkably similarly to those prevalent a century ago. In response to the dramatically changing needs of students in the 21st century there has been a surge of research calling for system wide reform and the promotion of assessment as a tool for learning. Leading system wide change in assessment practice is a critical challenge for educational leaders across the world.
A concept common to recent literature on leading system change is ‘system leadership’ (Fullan, 2002, 2005, 2011; Fullan, Hill & Crevola, 2005; Hopkins, 2007; Hopkins & Higham, 2007). While there is no one consistent definition of system leadership there appears to be general consensus that system leadership is a concept which includes harnessing the effect of leadership across the system and working together for the common good of all students and all schools. Ballantyne, Jackson, Temperley, Jopling and Lieberman (2006) in a paper for the National College of School Leadership (NCSL) describe system leadership as follows.
…system leaders are leaders who build leadership capacity within their own schools at the same time as working beyond their schools on behalf of all children in their locality… They are moved to make a difference – and to do so across a local system and in partnership with others. p.2
In Leadership and Sustainability: System Thinking in Action (2005) Michael Fullan argues that system leadership is characterised by ‘system thinking’ where leaders, while focusing intensely in their own area, are connected to and supportive of the bigger picture. The key to future success is the increase of system thinking in action. System leaders have a dual role: To make system coherence more and more evident and accessible, and to foster interactions-horizontally and vertically- that promote system thinking in others. p. 84
In agreement with Fullan, Hopkins (2006, 2007) and Hopkins and Higham (2007) see system leadership as a critical variable in successful transformation of schools. However, where Fullan concentrates on the concept of ‘system thinkers’, Hopkins focuses on the role of ‘school heads’ as system leaders. In his ‘Seven Strong Claims About School Leadership’, Hopkins (2006) suggests that school leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning and that school leaders improve student learning through their influence and interaction with staff. For Hopkins (2009), reform models have to include a focus on leading change at the classroom level. At the centre, leaders driven by a moral purpose related to the enhancement of student learning, seek to empower teachers and others to make schools and children’s centres a critical force for improving communities and the conditions in which their children live. p.6
The importance of change at the classroom level is at the heart of School Reform from the Inside Out: Policy, Practice, and Performance, Richard Elmore’s (2004) collection of essays, highlighting the need for policy and practice to work together to bring about improvement in student learning. Improvement…means engagement in learning new practices that work, based on external evidence and benchmarks of success, across multiple schools and classrooms… Improvement is not random innovation in a few classrooms or schools. It does not focus on changing processes or structures, disconnected from content and pedagogy. And it is not a single-shot episode. Improvement is a discipline, a practice that requires focus, knowledge, persistence, and consistency...
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