Addressing a Common Misapplication of Systems Thinking


Katherine Curry

School reform efforts and the emphasis of school and district performance assessment based primarily on student performance data on standardized tests have led to a trend in education that is of concern to researchers and practitioners alike. This trend, a trend recognized as a mechanistic approach to assessing teacher, school, and district performance, promotes a tightly controlled and overly simplistic approach to enhancing educational outcomes. Specifically, the result of the NCLB accountability era has commonly led to tightly controlled and standardized teacher instructional strategies and assessment programs where instructional leadership has been reduced to hierarchical, heavy handed oversight through high stakes accountability measures such as teacher evaluations that base teacher performance decisions primarily on student outcome scores. Pre-packaged curriculum and standardized evaluation protocols have bought into this narrow line of thinking by promoting the implementation of tightly aligned curriculum, student assessment, and teacher evaluation measures.

This heavy-handed approach, although misunderstood as a systems approach, greatly limits the autonomy and application of professional expertise of teachers and administrators by prescribing exact instructional strategies in an attempt to meet outcome goals. At the same time, this approach presumes a direct and linear correlation between student performance and teacher effectiveness, as displayed on teacher evaluations. Research has shown, however, that school reform is anything but linear and is not dependent solely on one contributing element.  While we do not discount the importance of teacher quality in reaching student performance goals, we also recognize that there are a myriad of factors that influence student learning. Our application of systems approach takes into account those factors that can either hinder or promote student success, and it promotes utilization of educator expertise in meeting learning goals.

While the importance of aligning what is taught in the classroom with learning goals and assessment measures is clearly important, this approach alone cannot be viewed as “systems thinking.” Instead, this overly simplistic, mechanical approach can actually be de-motivating to teachers and educational leaders.  At the Edupreneur Academy, our promotion of a “systems” approach recognizes the work of Fullan (2011), Hargraves & Shirley (2011), Levin (2010), and DuFour and Marzano (2011) that emphasizes a systems perspective as an opportunity to gather valuable feedback from a variety of sources for systems improvement. Using systems thinking in this way can actually serve to empower and liberate educators to lean upon their professional expertise for systems improvement. Understanding inputs into a system, activities utilized to implement the goals of a system, the resulting outputs and outcomes, and opportunities for feedback can provide a more “holistic” interpretation of system performance. We believe that this process can actually capitalize on and enhance the professionalism of teachers and administrators. For example, as principals and teachers reflect upon their actions and the resulting outcomes, they engage in self-reflective practices that can lead to enhanced skill and ability. Additionally, providing opportunities for autonomy in decision making and the establishment of a professionalized learning community can motivate teachers to reflect upon their practices and can encourage them to work collaboratively to implement new and innovative ideas to meet student needs. This approach to systems thinking, as emphasized in the Edupreneur Academy, is an approach that motivates educators to make informed, professional decisions that lead to enhanced student outcomes and greater motivation for continual and sustainable school improvement. This application of systems thinking can actually motivate teachers and administrators to persist in their efforts as they face the multitude of challenges and take hold of the many opportunities available in 21st Century education.


  • DuFour, R. & Marzano, R.J. (2011). Leaders of learning: How district, school, and classroom leaders improve student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  • Fullan, M. (2011). The six secrets of change: What the best leaders do to help their organizations survive and thrive. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Hargraves, A. & Shirley, D. (2011). The fourth way. In Preedy, M., Bennet, N., & Wise, C. (Eds.),Educational Leadership: Context, Strategy, and Collaboration, 383-389. Los Angeles, CA:  Sage.
  • Levin, B. (2010). Governments and education reform: Some lessons in the last 50 years. Journal of Education Policy, 6, 739-747.
  • Image Source


  1. Sally Cox

    There are so many more ways to assess for learning than standardize tests. It is also unfair to rate teachers or districts based on standardized test. The results of these test have more to do with a students socioeconomic status than the education that they have received. Giving schools and teachers more autonomy over what they teach and how would allow for more creativity and give students more choice and ownership over their learning.

  2. Katie Quillin

    I can see even now in my intern-site the simple mechanical approaches teachers seem to be using in their classrooms. I have often raised the question where is the creativity in each learning environment. Several teachers feel their teaching is so far laid out for them, it allows for no flexibility and that the district is more concerned with the standard outcomes and testing than anything else. As a leader there has to be balance. It is understood that students should reach certain milestones but at what expense do you continue to push teaching staff in a way that they can no longer be effective in the classroom?

  3. Karie Moorehead

    I love that this article refers to “pre-packaged curriculum” as “narrow-minded” and describes this way of thinking as simple.
    Several in our school are pushing for a newly adopted curriculum, while I am not opposed to adopting a new curriculum, I know it is not going to be the end-all to all our student needs. I really like customizing my curriculum resources to meet student needs. One curriculum simply is not enough to meet all the needs of each student.

  4. Nick Powell

    I think schools are easy to get stuck in the “system” of trying to create a picture perfect learning outcome for every single student, it all needs to look good, on paper, for the state, for me to keep my job. All students who attend school will have some form of learning success, just the means by which that is measured, and the standards that need to be met are ever increasingly backing teachers in a corner. More and more schools are presenting their standard curriculum, but detailing out specific competencies that are tracked throughout their course. These could be milestones or checkpoints that may be outside the standard curriculum taught, but are still beneficial in the continuation of buildable learning.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts