“Put a good person in a bad system, and the system will win every time”

Dennis Sparks

School culture and structures exert an incredibly strong and often invisible influence on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

While a few individuals—those who are “tempered radicals” and “positive deviants” come to mind—can rise above the systems in which they work, most cannot.

Two elements of the system that have a profound influence on performance are school culture and structures:

  • Culture: Culture trumps innovation. School cultures determine whether teachers and administrators experiment with new approaches and trust one another in ways that enable meaningful collaboration.
  • Structures: The most important structural feature that affects continuous improvement is whether teachers work in isolation or are members of effective instructional teams. Schools with high-functioning teams provide regularly-scheduled time for collaboration and robust professional development that informs and supports the work of the teams.

Therefore, a primary function of administrators and teacher leaders is to shape the school culture and provide structures that enable rather than interfere with continuous improvement.

Do you agree that “systems” have a strong influence on individual performance? 


5 Responses to ““Put a good person in a bad system, and the system will win every time””

  1. 1 Edna Sackson October 9, 2013 at 5:23 am

    But… Put a ‘bad’ person in a good system and the system doesn’t usually win.

  2. 3 cm9384Carol October 9, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    Agreed…A good leader in a bad system continuously encounters too many obstacles, that derails their spirit and undermine school cultures. It is unfortunate that these leaders endure stress and emotional grief, due to the systematic flaws and inequities.

  3. 4 Angie Tarasoff (@angietarasoff) October 11, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Actually, I think that it’s up to each person to be 100% personally accountable for how they conduct themselves in any situation. Too often, the culture is blamed for poor performance, failure to improve, failure to innovate. I wasn’t successful, because the culture/leader/my colleauges didn’t support me.

    A great leader in any system will continue to lead, because they see that culture starts with them – their decisions, and their behaviours. (And I don’t equate leader to principal or administrator – a leader is not defined by a title.) They see that if the conditions in a school or organization aren’t producing success, then either change the conditions or change organizations.

    • 5 Dennis Sparks October 11, 2013 at 1:12 pm

      I appreciate your comment, Angie, and the opportunity it provided for me to formulate a response.

      I suspect that we probably agree more than disagree about this issue.

      I agree that we are each ultimately responsible for our actions and the quality of our work.

      That “truth,” however, too often allows leaders to ignore their responsibility for creating cultures and systems that enable continuous improvement.

      I have witnessed firsthand schools in which poor leadership undermined both morale and innovation. I have also observed how new, more skillful leaders in those schools – working collaboratively with the same faculty, students, and parents – were able to dramatically improve teaching and learning.

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