The Complexity of School Change

We talk about the education system all the time.  When we do, our mental images can look like organizational flow charts representing school and district structures.  Students answer to teachers, who answer to administrators, who communicate with the central office, and on up the chain of command.  It‘s easy to imagine direct lines of communication, authority, and power.


Figure 1. Organizational flow of a Vermont Supervisory Union (Kolbe & Steele, 2015).

Our dominant mental model, depicted so often in images like the organizational flow chart above, is linear and hierarchical.  And our efforts at school change often assume the system will function in this way.  Of course, anyone who has ever engaged in the work of school change knows this model doesn’t really explain what we see or how things work on the ground.  We need a more realistic way of thinking about school systems.  In the Vermont context, the supervisory union (SU) is a manageable unit of analysis.

Figure 2. A typical Vermont Supervisory Union (Kolbe & Steele, 2015).

The pieces represented in the initial flow chart appear in this second image too.  With a bit more detail, we see this SU has one combined middle and high school and a series of smaller elementary schools.  Each school consists of students, teachers, administrators, a school board, and probably a local chapter of a teacher’s union.  Each school is nested within a community.  Each SU has a central office and a central board.  And above those we see state and federal level organizations.

In some ways, this image isn’t all that different from the flowchart depicted first.  The system is still inherently hierarchical with students answering to teachers who answer to administrators who communicate with school boards, and on up the line to U.S. Department of Education.  And this structure can be convenient in that information from the top (like a law, mandate, or policy incentive) can traverse down through the hierarchy to produce outcomes at the school and student level.


Figure 3. Change in terms of cause and effect (Kolbe & Steele, 2015).

The mental model represented in this image is clear and tidy, but those of us who have worked in schools (or participated in a school change initiative from just about any vantage point) can appreciate that mandates from above don’t typically lead to a pop of uniform outcomes in our schools.

School Systems are Complex Systems

If we want to understand how the education system actually works, we can’t ignore local context.  Our schools are not uniform.  Student populations vary from one community to another, with some schools serving much higher need groups.  Teacher quality is unevenly distributed.  Administrations embody different leadership styles.  Inter- and intra-school communications vary in tone and efficacy.

Within this structure, lines of communication and authority are not only vertical.  Relationships exist between and within nested layers, creating interdependence.  And the picture gets more convoluted as we locate additional lines of connection, additional players and sources of input: parents, school coaches, consultants, and grants.  At the higher levels of the hierarchy, standards, testing, mandates.  The model starts to look messy.

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Figure 4. School systems are complex (Kolbe & Steele, 2015).

The complexity here is not only organizational.  It is also the complexity of competing priorities, needs, and interests.  Each school operates in a different context and has to respond to local student needs.  The SU as a whole has to respond to a broader constituency of needs.  (State legislators and the Agency of Education, broader still.)  And these needs at various levels are often misaligned.  Because our school systems are comprised of organizations and individuals with varying degrees of authority and power, sometimes policies come from the top down; other times they bubble up.  Either way, results can be almost impossible to predict.  That inherent unpredictability is a central characteristic of complex systems (Wessels, 2006).

Even in a little state like Vermont, our education system is inarguably complex.  But what does that actually mean?

Complex Systems Dave Gray

Figure 5. Characteristics of complex systems (Gray, D., Complex Systems, flickrCC)


In our schools, like in the ant colonies, brain, and traffic patterns depicted above, we have many agents interacting (students, teachers, administrators, and others), competition for resources (like technology, funding, and time), feedback (in forms like grades, policies, participation, and planning) and memory (both individual and collective).  These factors all contribute to patterns of behavior that can be hard to change.

When we recognize the education system as a complex system characterized by distributed power, competing goals, and as many perspectives as players, it becomes easier to understand why input from above, like we saw before, is unlikely to translate into uniformly positive outcomes.  Instead we get a variety of outcomes, some better than others, some completely unanticipated.


Figure 6. Real change is rarely linear or predictable (Kolbe & Steele, 2015).

As hard as this image can be to look at, doesn’t it just show us what we already know and feel?  The education system, characterized by the interdependence of many moving parts, the nestedness and interconnections of subsystems, and competition for limited resources, is inherently messy.

In the context of school change efforts, this alternative mental model can help us to understand why the challenges we run up against tend not to be simple or straightforward.  Sometimes changing one element of a system can impact another element in unanticipated ways.  Sometimes solving one problem uncovers others we didn’t know were there.  Change efforts can get messy.

Luckily for us, systems theorists have been working on the problem of change in complex systems for a few decades now, and their insights can inform our work in schools.  In my next post, I’ll share a few highlights from the literature on systems, schools, and change.


One of the great things about UVM’s Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program has been the opportunities it has given me to engage with the education system (in Vermont and beyond) in a variety of ways – supervising student teachers, teaching education courses and seminars, conducting quantitative research with data from the National Center for Education Statistics and qualitative research with local educators and schools.  One of the highlights for me was the opportunity I had to travel to Montpelier with Professor Tammy Kolbe to present to the Education Committee of the Vermont State Legislature on the concept of complexity and education policy.  This blog post is adapted from that presentation.


Gray, D. (2011). Complex systems.  Image retrieved from flickrCC.

Kolbe, T. & Steele, C. (2015). Wicked vs. simple problems: Implications for education policy. Testimony on complexity theory and education policy presented to the Education Committee of the Vermont State Legislature.  January 15, 2015.

Wessels, T.  (2006). The myth of progress: Toward a sustainable future.  Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press.

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About Caitlin S. Steele

Caitlin S. Steele is a graduate teaching fellow, research assistant, and doctoral candidate in the University of Vermont's Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Her research focuses on complex systems as an interdisciplinary lens in K-12 curricula. Through her dissertation, she is exploring the concept of systems literacy and questions around how one becomes systems literate. Before arriving at UVM, Caitlin taught English for twelve years. In 2009, she received a Rowland Foundation Fellowship to support her work collaborating with colleagues across disciplines to develop a sustainability-themed freshman academy. She continues to work closely with the Rowland Foundation, serving as a Rowland Associate organizing professional collaboration among past and current fellows located across the state of Vermont and beyond.

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