Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

If You Can’t Maintain an Initiative, Maybe You Shouldn’t Do It

By Peter DeWitt — January 23, 2022 5 min read
Screen Shot 2022 01 21 at 7.57.56 AM
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“Initiative fatigue” and “implementation dip” are words that leaders and teachers know far too well. When we enter into the field of education as new teachers, the word “initiative” is quickly introduced to our vocabulary. It usually has a negative connotation. Unfortunately, what happens next is the blame game where initiatives are concerned.

“They’re just so resistant” is what we hear about the people who question the need for an initiative. “They just don’t listen to what we need” is what we hear from those who believe the initiative is forced upon them. “We never get the support we need” is yet another response.

Regrettably, instead of slowing down the process; trying to take time to deeply understand the community; or consider the consequences, both positive and negative, that come with the initiative before the process begins; we just keep plugging on and build the plane while flying.

One of the issues with implementation is that leaders often think they know what they need, and teachers are usually involved in the process, but the long-term benefits are never really considered. In preparation for a book I’m writing on de-implementation, which van Bodegom-Vos L et al. (2017) defines as “the process of abandoning existing low value practices,” I found myself deeply involved in studying implementation models. We can’t talk about abandoning practices if we can’t focus on how we engage in those practices in the first place. The model I found most interesting was PRISM.

The PRISM Model

Feldstein and Glasgow (2008. P. 228) write,

A conceptual framework for improving practice is needed to integrate the key features for successful program design, predictors of program implementation success, factors associated with diffusion and maintenance, and appropriate outcome measures

Feldstein and Glasgow (2008. P. 229) also go on to write that their “primary focus is the health care practice, but the model is also applicable to other settings where health interventions may be delivered, such as work sites or school-based settings.

In the image below, I adapted the PRISM model to fit the needs of educators. Where it used to say “medical directors, doctors, and nurses,” I adapted it to say “leaders, teachers, and staff.” Where it says “students,” in the medical field it typically says “patients.” Yes, in a way, students are the patients from this model.

Screen Shot 2022 01 21 at 7.07.03 AM

This is where I usually lose people. After all, they say, “We know how to implement.” Unfortunately, as much as leaders and teachers implement, they often make assumptions that cloud their judgment when it comes to doing so.

What I mean is that they believe they understand their students but may not have done the proper work to understand all their students, parents, and teachers. For example, I remember a few school districts that tried to move from grading to a feedback model on report cards, but there was so much pushback from parents that the district needed to reverse the initiative. They made an assumption parents would want feedback instead of grades because it was more of a holistic and equitable approach, but they did not do the proper work to communicate the need for a feedback model and they underestimated parents who valued grades for their children.

As you can see above in the image, the new initiative is first broken into two main categories: perspective and characteristics. Schools should never move forward with an initiative if they do not understand the perspective and characteristics of their teachers, students, and community. These are then followed by additional elements that need to be taken into consideration.

Perspectives and Characteristics - Understanding the perspectives and characteristics of our stakeholders is important, because if we lack that understanding, our ideas will often fail. Schools are taking time to understand the importance through the use of empathy interviews. An empathy interview is a method used by teachers and leaders to understand how students best learn in the classroom. Yes, this is a novel idea!

Implementation and Sustainability Infrastructure – In the field of education, this would be the school-based leadership team.

External Environment – How much support do schools get from their boards of education or their school community? How will COVID impact implementation?

Adoption – How will this work get adopted? What are the reasons for adopting this particular initiative? How will this initiative help our school community improve? In what ways will our school roll it out?

Implementation – This is where the team takes the actionable steps to implement the initiative.

These pieces of the model all seem standard and understandable, but the next part is often the most difficult. And that is the maintenance.

Can You Maintain Momentum?

During a session with the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) where I share lead adviser duties with my colleague Jenni Donohoo, and we work with Chris Beals, Mike Nelson, and over 180 directors of teaching and learning from across the state over a two-year period to provide professional learning, I shared the PRISM model. The sentiment that came out the loudest was that, in education, we are good at adopting an initiative, but we are not good at maintaining.

What we know is that implementing a new initiative or idea in school is not like posting on social media. You can’t just do it once and hope that people will like it, follow it, or reshare it. It requires maintenance. And that brings us back to what I wrote at the beginning.

Screen Shot 2022 01 21 at 2.02.21 PM

Too often, the blame game begins when an initiative begins to fail because we blame teachers for not implementing it correctly in the classroom. Teachers are most likely not able to implement something in the classroom if they learned about it once at a ½-day workshop that may or may not have been engaging.

What we know is that high-quality professional learning takes three to five years (Timperley), in which teachers are engaged in an inquiry approach to understand how to properly implement and to decide and try out different strategies to do so successfully. These sessions are where leaders and teachers work together to define a common understanding around what support looks like (an often-complicated topic between leaders and teachers). This will help achieve the last part of the PRISM model, which is “Reach and Effectiveness” in which teams collect evidence to understand the impact of their actions.

In the End

If you made it to this point of the blog, thank you. Unfortunately, people begin to fade out after we get to adoption, and that’s part of the reason why implementation of initiatives often fail. We know that schools are experiencing the most challenging times they have most likely ever seen in our history. COVID has brought about unprecedented challenges.

The issue is that, even though people are tired, burned out, and anxious, schools still move forward with implementing new initiatives. If they weren’t doing well when it came to initiative fatigue and the implementation dip prior to COVID, imagine how much more difficult that is for them now.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management How Principals Are Outsourcing Their Busywork to AI
Principals are chipping away at their administrative to-do lists with a little help from AI.
6 min read
Education technology and AI Artificial Intelligence concept, Women use laptops, Learn lessons and online webinars successfully in modern digital learning,  Courses to develop new skills
School & District Management Opinion How to Let Your Values Guide You as a School Leader
Has your “why” become fuzzy? Here are four steps to keep principals motivated and moving forward.
Damia C. Thomas
4 min read
Silhouette of a figure inside of which is reflected public school life, Self-reflection of career in education
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management ‘Be Vocal Without Being Vicious’: Superintendents on Fighting for More Funding
Two superintendents talk about stepping into the political realm to call for more public school funding.
5 min read
Photo of dollar bills frozen in ice.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
School & District Management New Principals Have a Steep Learning Curve. Could Apprenticeships Help?
North Dakota's leaders share what they've learned about creating a principal apprenticeship in a playbook aimed at other states
5 min read
Photo of principals walking in school hallway.