After thirty years, the Canadian grand wizard of “school change,” Dr. Michael Fullan, is still on top and controlling the public agenda. His seminal work, The New Meaning of Educational Change, first appeared in 1983 and today Michael Fullan Enterprises, Inc., is promoting its latest variation, billed as Motion Leadership, while selling over 20 different school change manuals and videos, including the International Handbook of Educational Change. As a “Senior Advisor” to the Ontario Premier and Minister of Education since April 2004, and a former Dean of Education at University of Toronto (1988-2003), he exerts a powerful but largely hidden influence over the school reform agenda in Ontario, Britain, and far beyond. http://www.michaelfullan.ca/
“Motion leadership,” Dr. Fullan now proclaims, is the latest wave. In his new series of instructional videos, he provides “The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpZMj9hbLhE He appears, looking much as he has for three decades, as the rather dour eminence gris of “school change” pontificating on how to translate change theory into practice in public school systems. His latest project, involving six North American school districts and 17 schools, has exported his brand of “motion leadership” from York Region in Toronto’s GTA to Fresno, CA, Sugar Land, Texas, and Honalulu, Hawaii.
While governments come and go, and public education lurches radically in one direction, then another, Fullan continues to hold sway in Ontario, across Canada, and increasingly in the United States. Public education, it seems, is perpetually in crisis, but the architect of many previous change initiatives remains unsinkable. Thousands of superintendents, principals, and leadership consultants now spout his theoretical principles, ranging from “pressure and support” to “ready-fire-aim” to my personal favourite “simplexity.” Vocal critics on the education left now accuse him of the “global privatization” of educational policy-making. http://dailycensored.com/2009/11/06/the-global-privatization-of-education-policy-lorna-earl-conflict-of-interest-is-the-tip-of-the-iceberg/
Fullan is the undisputed dean of Canadian educational consultants. He has parlayed his former public roles and professional contacts to build a mini-empire and promote himself as a private consultant working in the public interest. He somehow manages to spearhead reform initiatives, such as the multi-year Bachelor of Education degree program and “teacher-driven instructional reform” plans, and then be hired to evaluate the success of his own efforts. The 2010 OECD report on Ontario’s “exemplary” professionally-driven, system-wide school reforms (2004-2009) bore testimony to the Fullanites’ uncanny ability to influence educational “research” outcomes.
Over the past three decades, Fullan has also attracted some formidable allies, known as “Fullan’s army.” Much of his success has been derived from tapping into the practical skills and talents of leading Ontario educators. Among those considered Fullan favourites are OISE education colleagues, Dr. Ben Levin and Dr. Lorna Earl. Most recently, he has championed the remarkable leadership success of the York Region District Board “crowd,” led by former Director Bill Hogarth, former Associate Director Avis Glaze, and YRDSB consultant Lyn Sharratt. It represents the core of ‘motion leadership” and is now branded as the latest iteration of Fullanism.
From the beginning, Dr. Fullan was viewed as an “OISE change theorist” who appeared scary to most classroom teachers. After completing his PhD in Sociology in 1969, he haunted the University of Toronto and was a PD Day “favourite” of principals right across Ontario. In the late 1980s, he joined with the Brit educator Dr. Andy Hargreaves at OISE to form the “British connection.” Together with Hargreaves, he published the What’s Worth Fighting For? pamphlet series. It was aimed at principals and teachers and preached “empowerment” with a blatant teacher union orientation.
In the 1990s, Fullan and Hargreaves promoted the “teacher empowerment” reform agenda. They quickly became darlings of Bob Rae’s NDP government and when Rae went down to defeat, Fullan and Hargraves sought out greener pastures. During the hiatus, Fullan went on to reform Britain’s ailing education system working with Tony Blair’s new Labour government. He also began to morph into a quiet supporter of “school improvement” utilizing standardized testing. After the creation of Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office in 1997, he also turned more and more to OISE colleague Lorna Earl, one of the very few researchers with any interest in student testing and evaluation.
The restoration of the Ontario Liberals in 2004 proved to be a godsend for Fullan. The fresh-faced Premier, Dalton McGuinty, proclaimed himself an “Education Premier” and named the veteran educator Fullan as his “Special Advisor” or de-facto education czar. In his new incarnation, Fullan teamed up with Ben Levin and began trumpeting “building leadership capacity” and “teacher-driven” system-wide reform.
The rejuvenated Michael Fullan has gone international. Since founding his private consulting practice, he has devoted much of his energy to exporting Ontario reform initiatives and establishing “a growing presence on the national and international scene.”
Surveying Fullan’s writings and line of products, it is next to impossible to identify where he actually stands on the goals and purpose of school reform. Ten years ago, he lauded George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind agenda, while expressing reservations about the “too narrow tests, short time lines, little capacity building, and punitive strategy.” Since then, he has been serving on the Advisory Board of Microsoft’s Partners in Learning and advocating large-scale system change that produces “real results.”
Conservative school reformers remain as skeptical as teacher unionists about Fullan’s real motives, strategies, and objectives. Michael Fullan Enterprises Inc. rides the sharp edge of the North American school reform divide. “ A big feature of our work,” he now says, “is to play down accountability in favour of capacity building, and then re-enter accountability later.”
Spooking educators and parents with his “school change” theory, systems analysis, and models is no longer his mode of operations. Thirty years on, he has discovered what American educator Robert Evans once called the vital “human side” of school change. “If you lead with accountability,” he now acknowledges, “people are immediately on the defensive and it doesn’t work so well.” In all of his ventures, “building capacity” takes so much time that one wonders if that promised “accountability” ever arrives.
Three decades after he burst on the scene, Dr. Fullan is not only still standing, but controlling the school change agenda. What motivates Fullan and his army of disciples? And what’s the secret of his longevity and saying power? Most importantly, why has no one come forward to effectively challenge his hegemony over educational change?