To Transform Education, All Stakeholders Must Transform First

We are inundated daily with blogs, podcasts, tweets, books, keynotes, white papers, practitioners and pundits all touting the need for change in education. I would love nothing more than to see our entire educational system evolve into real 21st century models relevant to today’s students, the economy, and the world.

The common current rationale is that we are now in the perfect storm—educationally, politically, economically, culturally, technologically—for real change to occur. However, by now, I would expect change to be happening at a more rapid and dynamic pace.

After 30 years as an educator, my shoulder angel and devil are battling it out. My shoulder angel wants to believe, but my shoulder devil is struggling to find the confidence. It’s the old optimism vs. pessimism.

I agree that we are in unprecedented times, and it seems the time is riper than ever for real change. However, I think there are still too many barriers in the hearts, minds, and souls of all the stakeholders that may derail, or at least continue to delay change. Why is it taking so long for our schools to become what most of us agree they should be, as well as need to be? Education might be the most valiant of human endeavors.

But since it is also designed and implemented by those same humans, it may take all of us humans to change first in order to see systemic change.

Here is my take on the transformation that needs to take place within all of us in order to see external change.

Our Collective Need To Redefine School and Learning

As a culture, we tend to define school as something other than a place of learning. Ask most parents and students about what their expectations of school. You’ll get more responses about co-curricular and extracurricular activities than you will about learning. Don’t get me wrong. Those things have value. But why can’t our learning have equal or even more value? Why can’t the learning be so compelling and transformational that it’s all we talk about? Since it’s often not, we use the other things to do that for us. We cannot continue to design and base our schools on the extra. We have to make the learning the best part. We somehow need to establish with all stakeholders what our primary purpose is and what will take priority.


We have been asking our site leaders to be instructional leaders for years. Some have embraced, but some still have not. It seems to me that too many focus on everything but instruction. Some are not even interested in curriculum and instruction. Some were not teachers for very long. Some were not distinguished as a teacher at all. Some are also disconnected from professional development, technology, lifelong learning, and professional learning networks. Some need to practice and preach openness, accessibility, flexibility, bottom up approaches, democratization, and so much more. Site leaders need to be the living examples of fearlessness, risk taking, innovation, experimentation, early adopters, pioneers, and cage rattlers. Not enough of them embody this type of leadership.

School Boards

Local control of our schools is a grand idea in theory. Our communities should have the right to create the best and most unique schools. Ironically, too many of our schools don’t differ very much from one another. Some are just clones or duplicates of schools in their neighboring district. It seems some school board members may be there for the wrong reasons. Some are their for their own political career advancement, agendas, and pet projects. School board candidates need to be truly unselfish individuals who care about the kids in their community and want to work collectively to have something better, more innovative, and more relevant than ever before. Status quo people can run for church fundraising chair or local lodge leadership, but not for the people who have the fate of our future in their hands.

The Colleges & Universities

K-12 education, especially at the secondary level, takes its marching orders from the colleges and universities. Even though our college graduation, completion, and success rates are dismal, they dictate the requirements, expectations, and compliance items to our high schools. Less than half, in most cases far less, of our high school graduates go straight to a university. So why do we have the university dictate our curriculum? Ironically, a large percentage of our higher ed instructions are further behind than K-12. Their dominant instructional model is still lecture and note taking—truly the lowest form of learning for students. Since a K-12 education is the expected standard for all, then that should be the priority and be used to design a better system from within. Higher ed needs to listen, collaborate, and follow a whole lot more.


Teachers are obviously integral. There are many things that have worked against teachers that have been out of their control—class sizes, bureaucracy, weak leadership, funding, and initiative fatigue to name a few. However, there are things that are in their control, at least partially, that they need to lead. I don’t want to argue for or against teachers’ unions. That being said, it seems that weak, or even criminally negligent teachers, have been allowed to survive. Almost every school in America has a teacher or two that the entire staff knows is bad for kids. But somehow, we have learned to accept this. Instead, we need to collectively address those teachers. They need to get on board or get out. They give the profession a bad name, and we can’t afford that any longer. We need to redefine the role of a teacher and celebrate how wonderful it can be. If we do, maybe more will go into the profession and our change will actually transpire.


Some parents are aware that schools needs to change. They are aware that the world is rapidly changing and school should reflect that. However, too many parents want school to be like what they know and experienced. Saying things like ‘it worked for me’ in regards to homework, discipline, lack of student voice and choice, outdated pedagogy, etc. are not an answer to what our students need to be successful today and especially tomorrow. Parents need to also put learning, real learning, at their top of their school/education agendas. Parents need to become more informed about the new economy and globalized world in which our students are entering. Parents like to be involved and should be. But some need to become a lot more informed about why and how we can change.

Industry Professionals (Outside of Education)

I think it’s great that we have seen a resurgence in the connection and collaboration between private industry and education. It’s not only necessary, but very powerful. Industries have spoken out about the skills their current and future needs demand. And they are more involved than ever before in terms of advisory groups, grants, funding, collaboration, and partnerships. However, some are still both disconnected from the realities of school and from young people in general. They will often criticize youth publicly rather than defend them. Just like parents, they often will simultaneously speak about change while referencing which of the outdated practices in school worked for them. Those industry professionals who are dedicating their time, money, resources, and personnel to help support education need to be recognized and appreciated. Those who are not engaged are part of our larger problem.


It would be so easy to leave students off of this list. Indeed, they are really victims of a system that has not evolved as much as they have or even the world has. However, the potential for them to have an impact is incredible. Many students are dissatisfied with their school and educational experiences. However, like most of us, they need to turn complaining into advocacy. Remember the impact the students at Stoneman Douglas had across the country on the gun issue? Well, what if students organized and activated in the same way about their education? Students need to learn to intellectually demand what they want or need from their schools. And they need to do this to parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, community leaders, and anyone who may listen willingly or not. I think when the majority of students truly demand something better, the tipping point will occur. Indeed, students do have more educational options than ever before. They are also more savvy, connected, and capable than ever before. Apathy needs to be converted to advocacy.

Let’s Do This

I truly want my shoulder angel to win. I see lots of signs and reasons to be optimistic. But my experience with, as well as awareness of the challenges, often give my shoulder devil much to smile about. We are in this together. We all have roles. We have to transform ourselves and one another in order to transform the entire system. See you on the other side … of education that is.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is a Getting Smart Columnist. He is a teacher, leader, blogger, and student advocate.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.