A Systems Approach to School Improvement: Program Evaluation and Organizational Learning

By Thornton, Bill; Shepperson, Tara et al. | Education, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

A Systems Approach to School Improvement: Program Evaluation and Organizational Learning


Thornton, Bill, Shepperson, Tara, Canavero, Steven, Education


Educators who understand that schools are complex interdependent social systems can move their organizations forward. Unfortunately, many education leaders fail to understand the interconnectedness of the institutional components. As such, planned changes often address symptoms, not the underlying root causes of the problems, and therefore meaningful improvements do not occur. On the other hand, a number of outstanding education leaders are slowly moving toward approaches that consider schools as "organic organizations" that are capable of learning and continuous improvement. "The idea of a school that can learn has become increasingly prominent during the last few years" (Senge et al., 2000, p. 5).

Significant institutional change requires high levels of communication, coordination, time, money, and continuous organizational reassessment and realignment. As such, methods for managing school change must be considered to ensure district-wide commitment and success; organizations must continuously learn to improve (Argyris, 1992; Galloway, 2004; Senge, 1990). Whether external interventions such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) lead to slow controlled improvements or a revamping of the entire public education system, school leaders and district administrators have accepted the mandates to improve student performance and are working to transform schools.

One driver of school-wide change can be program evaluation. Whether they purport to advocate continuous incremental improvement, revolutionary reform, or reconstruction, educators, policy-makers, and other stakeholders traditionally have attempted to improve schools in a piecemeal manner. Fix the governance structure: elect a new school board or give mayoral oversight. Fix the leadership: hire private enterprise contractors, or bring in new superintendents and principals to run schools. Fix the teachers: demand more training or new licensure requirements. Or fix the curriculum: change the textbooks or add computer-aided instruction. Most often, these programmatic repairs are first-order adjustments within current school structures. Unfortunately, most program evaluations are compartmentalized analyses of performances and outcomes of specific activities within the larger organization. While it can inform regarding strategy and operation, by its character, educational program evaluation alone is rarely comprehensive or transformational.

In this article, we examine how schools can reposition program evaluations from relating to specific programs to enabling organizational learning. Here we lay out an approach which treats organizational learning and program evaluation as a symbiotic relationship - a term used in ecology to describe a relationship in which two different organisms interactively benefit from the other. The ultimate message is that the ubiquitous program evaluations occurring daily in our schools can provide the basis for organizational learning and ultimately continuous improvement.

Program Evaluation

Scriven (1991) defines evaluation as a systematic process to determine the merit, worth, and value of things. Vedung (2000) provides a more comprehensive definition with reference to public policy in which evaluation is a "careful retrospective assessment of the merit, worth, and value of administration, output, and outcomes of government interventions which is intended to play a role in future practical action situations" (p. 3). The passage of NCLB is clearly a government intervention, which has created a demand for "research based" programs, and has increased the focus on program evaluations. These evaluations have been used to identify promising practices, calculate impacts, and establish strategies for improvement of student achievement. In the past, many state level grants required a final report, which provide a summary of grant activities and documentation of expenditures; however, formal program evaluations were not required.

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