School & District Management

One Way to Avoid ‘Reform Fatigue’? Look at the Broader System, Report Says

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 27, 2018 2 min read
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Call it “reform fatigue” or “solutionitus,” but most teachers and principals understand and dread the constant churn of promising school improvements that sputter out in classrooms or are discarded when district leaders change. A new report looks at how altering the way schools integrate innovation may help sustain effective changes for the long term.

The report is part of an initiative by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to study so-called “systems thinking,” which looks at how different aspects of a district or other system affect each other. It paid for five different projects working with more than a dozen school systems to experiment with the approach through 2019.

“Our habit in the field is to approach improvement and innovation as if it were relatively straightforward,” the authors wrote. “We reach for solutions before we sufficiently investigate the problem, and we fail to test and refine those solutions before taking them to scale.”

It found changes in state and local education agencies were more likely to be sustained if leaders and policymakers look at how a change will affect and be affected by all the moving parts of the system.

The foundation noted three common ways administrators could better integrate their improvement efforts:

  • Deliberately and explicitly build a shared understanding of the purpose and goal of a project.
  • Develop strategies for improvement with people from diverse parts of the system to understand how they will work in day-to-day context.
  • Repeatedly adjust the strategy based on multiple trials and ongoing experience.

Baltimore public schools, for example, found its efforts to keep more novice teachers falling flat. After collecting records of 20 new teachers citywide, it found novice teachers had on average 10 or more different people giving them regular feedback, from principals and teacher mentors to district officials and contractors— and that their advice often conflicted. The district streamlined the way new teachers received supports as a result.

The group’s initiative comes amid growing state and district interest in so-called “continuous improvement,” an umbrella term for frameworks to analyze and solve problems over time.

For more on building systems of continuous improvement, see:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.