Case Study: US Public Education


US public education system is characterized by some undesirable performance problems such as low test scores, graduation rates, and readiness for college as well as achievement gaps and low scores in international standardized tests. ANSER analysts used systems thinking to understand the root causes of these problems.


ANSER analysts approached US public education as a complex adaptive system, arguing that its performance problems are not driven by a single factor or issue. Rather, many of the behaviors we observe in the public education domain are deeply rooted in the internal structure of this system, including the associated rules and practices that can be collectively considered as the governance of the system.

The study team identified key actors, factors, processes, and issues that are involved in the public education system and how their causal interactions and dependencies result in various performance problems. A key focus area was identification of governance forces, rules, and practices (e.g., school districts, teacher union constraints, funding practices, school choice, teacher quality, and compensation guidelines) that shape the behaviors of key education stakeholders (parents, students, teachers, and administrators), ultimately contributing to undesirable education outcomes. Identified factors, dynamics, and relationships were mapped and analyzed for additional insights using the causal loop diagramming technique (Figure 1). As part of this analysis, the team also identified and compiled many attributes of complex adaptive systems as well as the suggested governance strategies and practices that have been found to be effective in managing performance in other complex adaptive systems. These strategies have been compared to those employed by US public education for identification of discrepancies and misalignment.

Figure 1: CLD of US Public Education Problem Space (McGee and Edson 2014, p.136)


The CLD characterization of the US public education and its assessment as a complex adaptive system revealed many insights. Some highlights include:

  • US public education is a complex adaptive system but is not governed as such.
  • The very design of the US public education system constrains its governance practices and condition its performance outcomes.
  • Some structural properties of this system (e.g., rules, incentive and hindrance structures, accountability measures) make it artificially uniform, orderly, and predictable. They also fail to motivate stakeholders toward different practices that are likely to improve education outcomes.


The study proposed a number of recommendations to modify rules and practices pertaining to US public education system, concluding: to improve performance of the US public education, policy-makers need to revise its governance structures to encourage more emergence, innovation, dynamic adaptation, and self-organization – qualities that are often found in successful complex adaptive system.

For details of this study, review the following journal article: