Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

It Takes Capacity To Build Capacity

By Thomas Hatch — February 14, 2001 10 min read
Frustration and anger at the school level have never been higher.

‘We have too much to do and too many scattered ideas,” one principal in a district in the San Francisco Bay area told me recently. “It seems like we have eight major initiatives and 25 subsets of those.” From the perspective of one associate superintendent in the same district, this problem is not unique. As he put it, “Our principals are going crazy.” The result, he explained, is that frustration and anger at the school level have never been higher. When attempting to garner new funds or develop new programs, over and over again he hears this from principals and teachers: “We don’t want anything else. We’re in over our heads.”

In fact, schools and teachers appear to be caught in a double bind: They need the money and resources that come with new programs and initiatives, but they can’t take advantage of them without adding to their workload. Administrators, policymakers, and improvement programs themselves can all contribute to this dilemma by pursuing unrelated projects and making unrealistic demands on schools. But the fragmentation and overload being experienced in many schools today may be a natural consequence of a “system” in which schools, districts, and improvement programs all face conflicting demands from diverse constituencies, constant changes in personnel and policies, and significant limits on the time, resources, and available funding.

In the Bay Area district, for example, schools are struggling to respond to a dizzying set of state and district initiatives. In the areas of curriculum and assessment alone, these include recent state efforts to refine curriculum frameworks in language arts, mathematics, and several other subjects; to establish tutoring and reading academies; and to deal with California’s Public Schools Accountability Act, which provides rewards and sanctions to encourage schools to improve the performances of their students on the Stanford Achievement Test- 9th Edition. At the district level, as one part of a five-year strategic plan, the schools are responding to new graduation requirements in mathematics, science, and foreign languages; exit exams in a number of subjects; and a soon- to-be-implemented requirement for high school students to complete 40 hours of community service before they graduate.

On top of these state and district initiatives, many schools are working with one or more different groups on “whole school” improvement efforts, on initiatives designed to improve student performance in subject areas like language arts, mathematics, or science, or on other collaborative projects. These include nationally known programs like Success for All, Accelerated Schools, and Reading Recovery, as well as regionally or locally based initiatives like the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative (created in response to the Annenberg Challenge) and Joint Venture Silicon Valley (created by local community and business leaders to encourage systemic change in local education).

In fact, a 1998-99 survey of schools in this Bay Area district found that more than half of the responding schools (with 77 percent responding) reported that they were already working with three or more improvement programs. Fifteen percent said they were involved with six or more different groups.


Schools in this particular district may not be alone in facing the challenges of implementing a variety of improvement programs while responding to numerous state and district initiatives. Surveys in three comparison districts in California and Texas showed that, of the responding schools in all districts, 68 percent were engaged with three or more improvement programs, and 23 percent with six or more. In one district, 18 percent of the schools were working with nine or more different programs simultaneously.

Schools have been encouraged to work with such programs in order to meet the new demands of systemic-reform efforts and make the changes in many aspects of schooling that comprehensive reform requires. While many can point to specific benefits that come from their work with these kinds of programs, their adoption also brings new demands, requirements, and costs that schools do not always have the capacity to meet. Indeed, efforts to adopt improvement programs may be particularly taxing, because effective implementation necessitates some knowledge of the programs in order to make a productive selection in the first place. Once a program is selected, schools have to have substantial time, resources, and flexibility to meet requirements. Beyond that, school communities have to have a good understanding of their own beliefs and assumptions to figure out how to coordinate the improvement program with their own initiatives.

As a consequence of these pressures, schools face a basic paradox: While they may need help to develop the capacity to raise standards and change many aspects of their operations, the implementation of improvement programs is difficult precisely because schools lack the capacity to change.

Schools and teachers need the money and resources that come with new programs, but they can’t take advantage of them without adding to their workload.

In order to meet the demands of implementing one or more improvement programs, schools have to go far beyond the conventional wisdom about what’s required for successful reform. For example, it is well-known that schools need to be able to choose programs that match their needs and philosophies. In response, many improvement programs are trying to develop new ways to ensure that schools are ready for implementation. These include exploration processes in which the schools study the philosophy and approach of the improvement program, agree to a “memorandum of understanding,” produce a school portfolio, or provide some other demonstration of their commitment to the program.

Such processes do have the potential to enable schools to develop some of the knowledge and commitment needed for successful implementation, but they can also take considerable time and effort and provide few guarantees of success. As one high school principal pointed out, her faculty has drafted its commitments for a memorandum of understanding with one organization five different times, but it has yet to be accepted. The principal of an elementary school gave up trying to work with another improvement program after her school’s portfolio failed to meet the appropriate criteria twice. “I can’t afford to work on a portfolio that meets all the criteria, and hire someone to do that, when we can’t teach our kids to read,” she explained.

Even if a school acquires sufficient knowledge about the different programs available to it to make an informed choice and begin implementation, it must have the resources and flexibility to make the changes in staffing, scheduling, professional development, or curriculum the programs require. As several principals told me, this often means that they have to be able to “negotiate down” the demands into something doable. At one middle school in the district, for example, the principal had to tell staff members of its school-university partnership that she could not adopt the governance structure central to their approach. “I told them: ‘I can’t do it. I’ve got a governance structure that I have to design for [another improvement program], a governance structure for the school, and a governance structure for the federal magnet program. I’m not going to do that. You want too much blood from us for this reform effort.’ ”

Given the need to deal with conflicting demands and to find or free up the necessary personnel, time, and resources to implement improvement programs, it is not surprising that conventional wisdom also dictates that successful implementation depends on strong leadership from the principal. Yet, paradoxically, the very demands and requirements of the programs themselves can undermine the development of such strong leadership. Thus, many programs may benefit from principals who will find creative ways to deal with limited resources, to get around district regulations, and to eliminate demands from competing initiatives; but the programs also have to insist that those same principals meet the requirements and accept the philosophies that come with their approaches.


Similarly, the introductory materials of many programs relay the conventional wisdom that successful, sustained implementation requires the involvement of parents and other community members. But this creates another paradox: Improvement programs need parents and community members who support their activities and philosophy and have the authority to advocate for the resources and changes that can make the program successful. But if the members of the wider school community truly become involved in the school—debating and shaping the practices and future directions of the school—they may well form ideas and opinions that are in conflict with the requirements and philosophies of the program.

One approach to this problem is to involve some community members in the “buy in” process or in developing or ratifying some set of standards or goals. But such “consensus” on goals and standards—often hard to come by in the first place—is far from sufficient for dealing with the diverse beliefs and assumptions about learning and teaching that people bring to schools. Beyond involvement in school activities, parents, community members, and school employees have to reach the kind of common understanding of the school’s approach to teaching and learning that can enable them to make decisions and set new directions that are in the best interests of their school and students. The true measure of whether a school has the capacity to take advantage of an improvement program, in fact, may be whether the school community has the power to say no and the knowledge, flexibility, and common understandings needed to pursue another approach.


Under the right conditions, improvement programs can help many schools become better in some ways. But we should not assume that their widespread adoption will somehow solve the problems of a system in which far too many schools lack the capacity to change. From this perspective, there is no substitute for making the local investments that will enable schools to explore different approaches to improvement, to get the resources and flexibility to put those approaches into place, or to develop the common understandings and authority to support and sustain them—whether they choose to implement the approaches of improvement programs or devise their own.

In order to meet the demands of implementing one or more improvement programs, schools have to go far beyond the conventional wisdom about what’s required for successful reform.

Of course, fostering such capacity at the school level depends on support from many different sources. In particular, administrators, policymakers, improvement programs, and their funders all have to demonstrate a more realistic understanding of the costs involved and the length of time needed for meaningful change. For their part, districts and states have to allow schools to spend the necessary time to come to an understanding of the different approaches to improvement. States and districts also have to be willing and able to support the many different plans and choices that may emerge, even if these do not match their beliefs about which ones will be successful. That means that states and districts have to focus on encouraging schools to make investments in long-term improvements, instead of creating large rewards and harsh penalties to force schools to make quick improvements on narrow measures of performance.

On the other hand, many improvement programs—and their funders—have to be more explicit about what it really takes to make the programs successful. And they have to recognize that their own success may rest as much on a school’s capacity to select other programs as it does on the number of schools that adopt their particular approaches. If schools don’t understand their options, they are more likely to continue to base their selections on superficial features and factors like availability, accessibility, and ease of use, without developing the knowledge they need to implement the program effectively.

Schools cannot afford to ignore the help and benefits they may be able to receive if they work with improvement programs or attempt to coordinate and integrate work on a variety of initiatives. But neither should they be forced to make a devil’s bargain in which they have to commit to meet a never-ending cycle of new demands in order to get the resources and services they need to improve.


Thomas Hatch is a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Menlo Park, Calif.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as It Takes Capacity To Build Capacity

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