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13 Tips for Managing Change

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Change is a byword of education in the 90's. The accelerating pace of societal change has altered both the public expectations for schools and the nature of the students who attend them. Communities are expecting more from schools at the same time schools are being challenged by increasing numbers of the poor and minority students who have been traditionally underserved.

Change is not something that happens only to schools. But it is a force educators must learn to manage effectively if they are to recreate schools to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Fortunately, in the past 15 years, researchers have learned a great deal about the educational-change process that now makes it possible to design schools in which all students will experience success. The following "tips'' should be viewed as a primer that may lead to a more hopeful, empowered view of the school-improvement process:

  • Educate leaders. Successful implementation of change efforts requires that the board of education, district administrators, and teacher leaders learn about the change process. Knowing what is involved leads to better planning, more realistic expectations, and a sense of what to anticipate throughout the multi-year process. School leaders also need opportunities to study cutting-edge research and theory so that improvement plans reflect up-to-date developments in the field.
  • Use a "systems'' approach. As Ted Sizer has said, "Things remain the same because it is impossible to change very much without changing most of everything.'' Fragmented, piecemeal improvement efforts rarely benefit students. Because change in any part of the system affects all other parts, it is critical that the organization be viewed in its entirety as change is being planned.
  • Use a team approach that recognizes that all stakeholders have an essential role to play in the improvement process. No one person knows best how to solve educational problems. School-board members, superintendents, principals, and other administrators have a critical role. But so do school-system consultants and teachers. For that matter, so do parents, students, and community members. The synergy that flows from people with various perspectives produces higher-quality ideas and better solutions to problems.
  • Share power. Critics of previous reform efforts argue that power must be shifted from the central office to schools. Others are adamant that power not only be shared with principals and teachers, but with students as well. Having power without appropriate support, however, may condemn a change effort to failure. For instance, "empowered'' teachers who are not given sufficient training for their new role or time for discussion and reflection may find themselves victims of ill-conceived reform.
  • Plan, but hold your plans loosely. While strategic planning at the district, department, and school levels is essential, not everything that needs to be known can be known early. Adaptability will be required to respond to unforeseen events or to integrate understandings that can only be acquired through involvement in the process. Don't get trapped by trying to solve all problems during the planning phase. At some point, improvement efforts must begin that will provide additional insights that can then be incorporated into the next phase.
  • Recognize the subtle tension between the importance of establishing readiness for change and the need to get people to try out new practices. While participants need to develop the psychological and intellectual readiness that lead to positive attitudes about the proposed change, there is evidence that the successful implementation of new practices that improve student learning will itself create more favorable attitudes.
  • Provide lots of training and other staff-development support. Significant changes require that everyone who affects students' learning acquire new attitudes, knowledge, and skills. Staff-development programs must be well designed and include follow-up activities such as study groups and on-the-job coaching. Recognize that professional growth can occur in various ways, including inquiry into current practice and involvement in an improvement program.
  • Make certain that the innovative practices recommended to teachers are research-based and "classroom friendly.'' While trying out unproven practices is sometimes appropriate, most school systems will need to focus on practices such as cooperative learning that have been demonstrated to enhance various student outcomes.
  • Recognize that change happens to people. The affective side of professional life cannot be ignored if change efforts are to be successful. Because change is a highly personal process, participants typically are concerned about how the change will affect them. Those affected often wonder about whether they are up to the task, if the new practices will require more work, and how they may be seen by their peers. By seeking to understand these concerns and design strategies to address them, school leaders ease tensions and pave the way for successful innovation.
  • Be prepared for the "implementation dip.'' Performance often dips when new skills are first practiced. This may be discouraging to both the program planners and the implementers of the new practice, who may be tempted to return to their old ways. It is vital that participants be informed about this dip and that evaluation of either program or individuals not occur until implementation problems have had a chance to be resolved.
  • Help people develop an intellectual understanding of the new practices. Each educator must have opportunities to deal intellectually with the innovation and to make the change meaningful to himself or herself. Simply being told to do something different because it is desirable is almost always insufficient to help people truly understand the innovation. Participants need a chance to discuss the next practices, observe one another, and try the practices out on the job before they will make them their own both intellectually and behaviorally.
  • Search out "paradigm shifters'' and encourage "paradigm pioneers.'' According to the futurist Joel Barker, paradigm shifters are individuals who create innovative approaches to solving intractable problems long before others see the need for a new set of rules and procedures. Paradigm pioneers are those who get a jump on the change process by being the first (often as an act of faith) to try out the new paradigm.

Continually scan the "fringes'' for paradigm-shifters, and listen carefully and nonjudgmentally to their ideas. Because they are often outsiders, it is easy to dismiss their suggestions. Support paradigm pioneers within the system who want to try out these new approaches. Value intuitive hunches (but don't build systemwide changes solely around them) and encourage risk-taking. Let them experiment free from the burden of immediate program evaluation while they tinker with the innovation.

  • Take the long view. In spite of intense political and economic pressure for reform, change takes time. It is counterproductive to push human beings and the organizations in which they work at a pace faster than the rate at which change can be assimilated. What is most important is that the school system have a clear, compelling vision for its future and that improvement in job performance and student outcomes be significant and continuous. Remember to celebrate successes along the way and recognize contributions so that momentum is maintained.

H.L. Mencken observed that "for every deep and complex problem facing our society there is a simple answer, and it's wrong.'' Examining trends, anticipating new paradigms, and successfully managing change in turbulent times are no simple tasks. But they are exactly the challenges educational leaders face in the 1990's. We must become students of the change process. The youth and the future of our country require no less.

Dennis Sparks is executive director of the National Staff Development Council in Oxford, Ohio.

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