SUSTAINABILITY OF EDUCATIONAL CHANGE: THE ROLE OF
ABSTRACT. The paper examines the conceptual and strategic role of social geographies
in contributing to or undermining sustainable school improvement. It develops a four-
fold definition of sustainability as involving improvement over time, within available or
achievable resources that does not impact negatively on the surrounding environment
and that promotes ecological diversity and capacity more widely. A conceptual frame-
work of social geographies is developed along with its implications for sustainability.
This analysis is then applied to a further framework of seven strategic geographies of
educational change which deliberately try to arrange, order or exploit space in particular
ways to secure school change. These are market geographies, network geographies, virtual
geographies, geographies of scaling up, standardized geographies, differential geographies
and geographies of social movements. The paper concludes by reviewing the other contri-
butions to the volume on the theme of social geographies of educational change, and
describes the Spencer Foundation funded conference from which they sprang.
We live in a world of endless and relentless change. Change, the optimists
say, is learning (Fullan, 1993). It challenges us to come to terms with
and master new knowledge, skills and experiences. The developmental
psychologists tell us that change also involves loss (Marris, 1974). Itmeans
letting go of old routines and attachments in order to acquire new ones. In
public education, change is usually less and more than both these things.
Over time, for too many educators, change is a serial killer. Its repeated
actions defeat and destroy improvement instead of developing it.
Educational change often fails because individual change efforts are
poorly designed. The research literature catalogues the reasons why (e.g.,
Hargreaves, Earl & Ryan, 1996; Fullan with Stiegelbauer, 1991; Miles &
Huberman, 1984). The goals of the change may be unrealistic or unclear
so teachers cannot achieve what is expected of them. The perpetrators of
change may have low credibility; their reasons may be politically suspect;
the intentions regarding real improvement for students may be in doubt.
Changes may be too complex and overwhelming, requiring teachers to
work on too many fronts at once. What I have called the tone of change
may also be offensive, as it unsuccessfully tries to shame teachers into
submission (Hargreaves, in press).
Journal of Educational Change 3: 189–214, 2002.
© 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Educational change efforts also regularly fail because they are ineptly
implemented, especially beyond the initial rush of enthusiasm. Limited
resources often mean that ideas fail to translate into action, or that well-
funded pilot projects are followed by weakly resourced efforts to extend
the changes more widely. The frenetic pace of change often exceeds the
flow of resources that can support it. Professional development is often
inadequate and inservice training is rarely directed at the classroom in
combination with the collegial and coaching support that is needed most.
Technological hardware is normally not matched by continuous supplies
of software. The optimism surrounding model or beacon schools typically
fades when staff age, leaders leave and the focus and momentum shift
elsewhere (Fink, 2000).
In educational change and reform, history continually repeats itself.
This repeated failure becomes more than a set of disconnected episodes.
In the minds and the memories of teachers, the failure of change
becomes a cumulative phenomenon. The maturing memory of each failed
change deepens teachers’ cynicism about the prospects of future changes.
Disinvestment and disappointment follow early enthusiasm as surely as
night follows day. Since governments reverse their ideologies every decade
or so, trying to keep up with them is futile. As older teachers are prone to
remark, teach the same way all your career, and you will be in fashion at
least three times (Bailey, 2000). Initiatives may come and go, but the basic
structures, routines or “grammar” of schooling remain the same (Tyack &
It is for these reasons that change over time in education is a predictable
failure (Sarason, 1990), a serial killer of initiative and enthusiasm over
the duration of teachers’ careers. As a result, many writers and reformers
have begun to worry and write about not just how to effect snapshots of
change at any particular point, but how to sustain them, keep them going,
make them last. The sustainability of educational change has, in this sense,
become one of the key priorities in the field.
SUSTAINABILITY OF EDUCATIONAL CHANGE
Educational change theorists and change agents have been concerned for
many years with the problem of how to move beyond the implementa-
tion phase of change when new ideas and practices are tried for the first
time, to the institutionalization phase when new practices are integrated
effortlessly into teachers’ repertoires, and affect many teachers, not just
a few (Anderson & Stiegelbauer, 1994). To a large degree, more recent
discussions of sustainability in educational change repeat these traditional
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL GEOGRAPHIES
preoccupations with how to keep improvement going over time. In doing
so, however, these discussions trivialize the idea of sustainability. They
reduce it to maintainability – to the question of how to make improvement
last – and add little to the traditional analysis of institutionalization.
Sustainability is more than a temporal matter. It concerns more than a
change’s life and death. In line with its origins in the Brundtland Commis-
sion on the environment, sustainability is also a spatial issue. As my
colleague Dean Fink and I have argued elsewhere:
Sustainability does not simply mean whether something can last. It addresses how partic-
ular initiatives can be developed without compromising the development of others in the
surrounding environment, now and in the future (Hargreaves & Fink, 2000: 32).
Specifically, this implies several things. First, sustainable improvement
is enduring, not evanescent. It does not put its investment dollars in the
high profile launch of an initiative, then withdraw them when the glamour
has gone. Sustainable improvement demands committed relationships, not
fleeting infatuations. It is change for keeps, and change for good. Sustain-
able improvement contributes to the growth and the good of everyone,
instead of fostering the fortunes of the few at the expense of the rest. It does
not channel water to prosperous villages while their poorer neighbours
die of thirst. Neither does it promote model schools, magnet schools, or
schools with special emphases that raid scarce resources from the rest.
Second, sustainable improvement develops and draws on resources and
support at a rate than can match the pace of change. It does not let change
outrun its resource base and deplete the reserves that are needed by others.
Sustainable policies do not lavish resources on computer hardware when
long term spending commitments cannot support continuing maintenance
or updates in software. Supporters of sustainability do not make Easter
Islands of educational change where wanton years of plenty and beliefs
that the trees will last forever, suddenly lead to barren plains of famine
and drought. As Nicos Machiavelli warned in The Prince, “it is a common
defect in men not to consider in good weather the possibility of a tempest”
(Machiavelli, 1532). In this respect, sustainable educational policies don’t
squander all the resource on pilot projects, leaving little for everybody
else; or invest improvement funds in coordinators who disappear once
the money has dried up. Sustainable improvement requires investment in
building long term capacity for improvement, such as the development of
teachers’ skills, which will stay with them forever, long after the project
money has gone (Stoll, 1999).
Last, promoters of sustainability cultivate and recreate an educational
environment or ecosystem that possesses the capacity to stimulate ongoing
improvement on a broad front. Just as natural ecosystems need biodiversity
to thrive and progress in evolutionary terms, schools and school systems
need professional diversity if they are to make sustainable improvements
educationally. Professionally diverse environments create learning, adapta-
tion and cross-fertilization in complex, evolving systems (Capra, 1997).
They enable people to adapt to and prosper in their increasingly complex
environment. Rational, standardized scientific efficiency is the enemy of
healthy and creative diversity. It produces overly simple systems that are
too specialized to allow the learning and cross-fertilization that is neces-
sary for healthy development. Excessive specialization also makes species
exceptionally vulnerable to parasites and predators – an attack on one
member of the species eventually becomes an assault against all.
Standardized reform strategies make school systems less like rich,
biodiverse rainforests of cross-fertilizing influence that can achieve
sustainable improvement over time, than like regimented coniferous
plantations, whose super-efficient ugliness is exceeded only by their
limited capacity formutual influence and their lack ofcontribution towider
The evidence of research that we have undertaken with our colleagues
on the long-term impact of educational reform in Ontario and New York
State is that standardized reform is destroying diversity and seriously
endangering the lives and futures of the weakest members of the school
system – the poor, the marginalized, those who are learning through a
new language and those with special educational needs. Standardization
is endangering these students to the point of educational extinction where
failure to meet the regimented standards is denying severely disadvantaged
students the right to graduate. Similarly, high pressure improvement in
test results in the short run are being bought at the expense of a long-
term recruitment and retention crisis in teaching – since teaching driven
by short-term results is not the kind of teaching that teachers want to do
(Hargreaves, in press).
In education, one important addition to this discussion of sustain-
ability is that not anything or everything is worth keeping. In education,
it matters that what is sustained is what, in terms of teaching and learning
is itself sustaining. To sustain is to keep alive in every sense. Susten-
ance is nourishment. Sound education, good teaching and learning are
inherently sustaining processes. Supporting and maintaining those aspects
of teaching and learning that are deep and that endure, that foster soph-
isticated understanding and lifelong learning for all defines the core of
sustainable education. This includes not just knowing what, but knowing
why (deep understanding), knowing how (application) and knowing who
(building social networks and social capital) (OECD, 2001). Merely main-
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL GEOGRAPHIES
taining practices that raise test scores or produce easily measurable results
does not sustain these deeper aspects of teaching and learning.
To sum up, sustainability in educational change comprises five key and
interrelated characteristics. These are
improvement that sustains learning; not merely change that alters
improvement that endures over time
improvement that can be supported by available or achievable
improvement that doesn’t impact negatively on the surrounding
environment of other schools and systems
improvement that promotes ecological diversity and capacity
throughout the educational and community environment.
Clearly, this means that sustainability raises questions not only about
the endurance of educational and organizational change over time, but also
about its arrangement and articulation through space. Sustainable improve-
ment, in other words, is a matter of social geography as well as social
UNDERSTANDING SOCIAL GEOGRAPHIES
Social geographies of educational change encompass the ways that
changes or failures to change are located, distributed and redefined or
reconstituted as they move through space, from one place to another. While
social histories of educational change and other phenomena deal with what
Shields calls “regimes ofsuccession” over time,social geographies address
“regimes of articulation” across space (Shields, 1991: 274–275).
Social geographies of educational change encompass phenomena as
diverse as how initiatives in a classroom or department are influenced by
the surrounding context of the school, the district or the nation (Talbert &
McLaughlin, 1994); how innovation spreads or “diffuses” from one school
to another (Rogers, 1962); how and whether reforms can be “scaled up”
from a few schools to a whole system (Elmore, 1995); how seemingly
standardized reforms affect schools differently depending on where they
are located; how schools influence one another – for instance, innova-
tive schools and their traditional neighbours, beacon schools and those
in their shadows, magnet schools and others around them (Fink, 2000);
how policies spread across and are borrowed by different nations (Ball,
1993); and how the identities of and interrelationships among schools are