Helping Your School District Go Green: It Takes a System

Change in school districts must take root on multiple levels to be sustained. Tim Baird believes a systems approach is critical to this work.

Produce Lesson for Students on Broccoli Team

Every school superintendent that I know cares about the environment. So do most principals, teachers, facility directors, and students — as I learned first-hand over the past decade during my tenure as superintendent at Encinitas Unified School District. Why, then, isn’t it easier for school districts to implement green practices and teach students about environmental principles and concepts?

The answer to this question in my own district was not related to a lack of caring or effort. School districts, like most organizations, do not adapt to change easily, even when the change effort is something that most organizational members support. Change must also take root in different levels of the organization to truly be sustained. This is why change seldom occurs in school districts and, when it does occur, it is often not sustained.

That is not to say that school districts are not making progress on becoming better environmental stewards and environmental teachers. Take solar installations, for example. A 2018 report, “A Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools,” highlights the fact that over 5,500 schools across the country now have solar installations — with the majority of these found in California. California has also incorporated the California Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs) in the state’s science framework (2016), history-social science framework (2016), and health framework (2019). These are impressive benchmarks, and as one educator recently asked me, “So does that mean we are done? Is the job over?” Unfortunately, these are just beginning steps. If districts are making changes such as adding solar panels or teaching environmental principles and concepts in isolation, these changes alone will not be enough.

That is why I believe a systems approach is critical to this work.

In looking at environmental work in school districts, I like to organize around four key systems:

  1. Management  systems
  2. Mechanical systems
  3. Educational systems
  4. Human behavior systems

Management Systems

Management systems use the formal and informal management tools of an organization to support organizational beliefs. This may take the form of codification, such as policies, or it may be the creation of a team or subgroup to focus on a specific task. Management systems signal to the organization those things that are important within the organization. If this is such a powerful tool, why do we need the other systems to bring about sustainable change? Couldn’t we just pass a resolution, change a law, or implement a policy to get things done?

As most organizational leaders will tell you, management system changes seldom create change on their own. Items are put in goals, listed on resolutions, and stressed in mission statements all the time that never affect change. Even when large punishments or rewards are attached to the management system change, it may not be successful. Remember Prohibition? The other problem is that management systems may be frequently contradicting. An organization may state a given belief, but implementing that belief may be in conflict with the existing organizational culture or practice.

This conflict often occurs when beliefs run up against budgets. A great example of this can be found in the food service program of many districts that strongly identify as green districts. Food service programs operate on very tight budgets. Directors of these programs work hard to balance costs while providing a healthy and appetizing meal. Districts that have identified waste reduction as a targeted goal have made the food service director’s job much more difficult. The lunch is often served on disposable and non-recyclable trays. The plasticware is made from single use plastic. There are options to replace these items, but these options will cost more money and may put the department in the red. Unfortunately, budget often wins out in this conflict.

When an organization holds competing values, organizational members soon find out which are the real values held by an organization, depending upon the actions that the organization takes. Management systems can be powerful tools for organizational change, but they seldom work when not complemented with other systems.

Mechanical Systems

Mechanical systems are systems that an organization uses to mechanically assist the change. Organizations trying to save energy may install light sensors that automatically shut off lights when not needed. Installing solar panels or automatic watering sensors are other examples of mechanical changes. While mechanical systems may be powerful tools to achieve cost savings or produce a desired net effect, they are enhanced when coupled with other systems. These systems seldom are put in place without management system changes calling for these efforts and educational system changes helping to sustain them. All change efforts need to be reflected in changes to how we train learners within the organization — e.g., students and staff within a school system — which I call the educational system.

Educational Systems

New policies or practices should be coupled with employee training around the policy or practice. New mechanical tools require education for use; educational systems can go even further, though. Every change that a school district makes toward implementing new green practices is also an opportunity for student learning. Energy-saving tools such as solar panels or solar tubes are wonderful science and math lessons. This learning can also be a springboard for learning applications. Having students help design a waste management or recycling program and then implementing that program teaches more than just the math and science skills embedded in the work. Students become fully immersed in learning through projects such as this, resulting in higher student engagement and positive outcomes. Education alone, though, doesn’t always work.

Students in California schools have been learning about recycling efforts since the 1960s. In many school districts, this teaching was not coupled with organizational action. Until this effort was coupled with management system changes and mechanical system changes that supported recycling, such as having recycling containers available to students, this information was not put into use. Passively receiving information is also not a catalyst for change.

The most powerful educational systems are ones that empower learners to strive for management, mechanical, and human behavior systems changes to support the new learning — and educational systems are usually the driver behind all of the other systems.

In other words, as learners within the system — both adults and youth — learn more about a problem or issue, they are more driven to find solutions to solve that problem or issue. Often, these solutions take the form of management or mechanical system fixes. Ultimately, most change efforts are attempts to change human behavior.

Human Behavior Systems

Human behavior systems are the hardest changes to undertake. However, there are many examples of major human behavior systems that have changed as a result of changes made in management, mechanical, or educational systems. One of the best examples of this is a huge reduction in paper waste in the state of California.

This was a change effort that originally started with education, but was ultimately achieved through a change in law. Prior to California implementing a 10 cents per bag charge on paper or plastic grocery bags in 2016, most Californians did not have or use reusable grocery bags. A recent CalRecycle Study (SB 270 Report to the Legislature: Implementation Update and Policy Considerations for Management of Reusable Grocery Bags in California, CalRecycle, 2019) found that six months after the bag fee was initiated, 86 percent of Californians were bringing their own reusable bags to the grocery store. This significant shift in human behavior in such a short time period is amazing, and is directly attributable to the management system shift (a new law) coupled with an educational system approach (recycling is good for the planet), plus a mechanical system shift (reusable bags increasingly available via giveaway or low-cost purchasing efforts).

A similar example of systemwide change occurred in the Encinitas Union School District. After learning about how much waste the district was generating at lunchtime, a combined team of adults and students set about designing a waste reduction plan that included new policies, new recycling tools, and new composting materials at all school sites. This was coupled with an educational plan — designed by students to teach students about the plan. The net result was an 83 percent reduction in landfill waste in the district. This change took place over a short period of time and was supported by multiple stakeholders.

Human behavior systems are incredibly difficult to change. Recently, our school district made a sizeable investment in energy use reduction by installing solar tubes in all our classrooms. This mechanical system change had repercussions in a number of areas, including — most importantly — cost savings and creating a better learning environment. We did a cursory training with staff on the benefits of the solar tubes and how to open and close them, depending upon need. We also shared the studies and information on student learning with teachers. Five months later, a student-led study on the solar tubes found that many of the teachers were not bothering to open the solar tubes or were still turning on the overhead lights even when the tubes were open. What was happening?

The student energy team came up with a number of recommendations that included more training for teachers, an ad campaign for staff and students, student monitors in the classroom to ensure that the tubes were being used appropriately, and additional mechanical solutions that included automatically opening the tubes every morning or sensors that would turn lights off when the room hit a certain level of brightness. This was a great example of student learners tapping into other systems to help this mechanical system change be successful.

Systems thinking is a way to view a challenging question or problem through multiple lenses.

While individual systems are powerful tools for making changes, they seldom work in isolation. Management systems, mechanical systems, and educational systems benefit from connected, synergistic efforts to impact changes in human behavior systems. When dealing with something as complex as trying to change human behavior, it sometimes takes a village — and villages run on systems.