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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Why Schools Struggle With Implementation. And How They Can Do Better

Leaders should develop plans that are both strong and flexible
By Rick Hess — April 15, 2024 8 min read
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I’ve argued many times over the years that there’s no such thing as an “implementation problem.” Rather, the term is a fancy way for policymakers and advocates to avoid saying they didn’t realize how a new policy would actually work in practice. Which, if you think about it, is both widespread in education and a suggestion that we should spend less time dreaming up fanciful proposals and far more focusing on what it takes for them to deliver in real schools. Education Elements is one organization focused on just that. Founded in 2010, and today working with more than 500 schools, the organization has learned a lot over the years about how to help schools manage change. This is an especially timely topic as schools seek to address chronic absenteeism, learning loss, and chaotic classrooms. I recently had the chance to chat with Anthony Kim, the founder of Education Elements, about lessons learned. Kim is the author of books including The New School Rules and Personalized Learning Playbook and has delivered the TED talk “Strong Relationships Start with a Simple Question.” Here’s what he had to say.


Rick: So, Anthony, what exactly is Education Elements? How’d you settle on that name and how’d you come to this work?

Anthony: Education Elements started in 2010 as one of the innovators of blended learning and personalized learning and now has expanded into strategic planning, leadership development, data culture, and instructional systems of support. Our name and brand come from a desire to understand how different “elements” in education create systems of practice.

Rick: What are some of these “elements”? And how do they work in practice?

Anthony: We have a helpful concept called the “art of implementing well,” or AOIW. In that framework are several “elements,” including things like communications and collaborative learning. To give you an example, one of our clients was a mid-sized school district in New York that sought to implement a new curriculum and instructional framework for their high schools. We worked with them to develop a communications plan, including hosting seminars for the community to help them understand why the changes in the curriculum were critical to prepare students to be productive in the community. The district also asked for our help with training their teachers. We set up systems of collaborative learning to facilitate this. In the end, combining these distinct elements made the adoption of the new instructional framework more familiar, and the community and teachers were less resistant to the change.

Rick: You work with a lot of districts on trying to make change happen. What are some of the common challenges you see?

Anthony: Despite schools’ keen improvement efforts, we’ve noticed a recurring issue in our experience with over 300 districts: Leadership teams tend to spend most of their time evaluating which programs to purchase at the expense of considering the actual implementation experience for those involved. In the past year, for example, one large district wrongly assumed that all teachers were equally prepared for the shift to the science of reading. As a result, they didn’t provide the materials to support both the mindset shift and the training necessary for teachers to develop the skills needed. Similarly, another state’s department of education introduced a pilot program so gradually that, over two years, more than half of the trained school leaders and teachers switched schools, left the profession, or moved out of state. The pace of decisionmaking is so slow that often the conditions we assumed were static are no longer met.

Rick: You mentioned “the art of implementing well.” Can you say a bit more about that?

Anthony: AOIW is a culmination of a decade’s worth of firsthand experiences in thousands of schools condensed into a practical mental model for leaders. There are two core parts of this framework: strategies and systems. The first section contains strategies developed by leadership, whereas the second covers systems to help with implementation. It may be useful to apply AOIW to the earlier example of the large district adopting the science of reading. Here, I would utilize three to four elements from AOIW. Strategically, a robust communications plan is essential. This requires tailoring the message for different audiences, including parents with different degrees of understanding about things like the science of reading. For the system, I’d emphasize differentiated support—the number-one request we get from teachers—and collaborative learning. Collaborative learning generates excitement and momentum, while differentiated support ensures every teacher has the tools for success.

Rick: What do schools and school leaders typically get wrong about implementation?

Anthony: A common mistake made by project leaders is assuming perfect conditions for carrying out their plans. This mistake usually stems from two incorrect assumptions. First, in school systems where roles often change, there’s a belief that staff will stay the same. But what really happens is quite different. For example, over three years in a group of schools, we’ve seen up to 75 percent of school leaders leave their positions. This high turnover seriously disrupts the continuity and success of any long-term project. Second, there’s this hopeful but often wrong idea that everyone affected by a new program will be as excited about it as its creators. The reality is, many people impacted by the change are not as involved or informed about the program. This can lead to the initiative being seen as just another passing fad, not a significant improvement. It’s vital to tackle these assumptions head-on for any plan to be realistic and successful in the educational world.

Rick: What’s the key to getting implementation right?

Anthony: As I see it, there are three requirements: mindset, collaboration, and resilient systems. Setting the right mindset is crucial and nonnegotiable. The real challenge is getting a large group of people to be open to change. This isn’t just about sending out messages; it’s about keeping everyone focused on a few key priorities and tackling them in short, manageable bursts. In addition, it’s essential to create an environment where people feel safe to learn and to validate their ideas. A great way to do this is through scenario planning, which helps build confidence turning theory into practical skills—exactly what’s needed before stepping into a real classroom situation. Finally, implementation won’t work without resilient systems. This means establishing systems that can track progress and keep the momentum going. Completing tasks is motivating for everyone, but adding elements of game theory—which recognizes that outcomes depend on how others respond—to your plan can really ramp up its effectiveness. By planning for these responses in advance, we can keep implementing reforms effectively.

Rick: OK, while this all sounds sensible, it also feels a little vague. How do districts establish those systems and how do they communicate effectively if they don’t already?

Anthony: Giving a one-size-fits-all answer is challenging because each district has its unique blend of challenges. That said, I’d advise leaders to start by evaluating whether their team functions as smoothly as they’d like. Here are a few straightforward tools you can use to check how your team handles their workload. One is the talk-time audit. Ask yourself whether everyone gets their fair share of time to speak in meetings. You can actually time each person’s contributions to make sure. Another is the continuum of understanding, in which you figure out how well each team member grasps the initiative. A third place to start is with scenario planning, where you map out different potential situations and discuss how the team would respond to each one. These are just starting points to help diagnose and improve your team’s dynamics. The team is typically a smaller representation of how your organization functions. If your teams are not consistently functioning well, then it permeates the whole system.

Rick: Do the challenges or recommendations relating to implementation look different when they involve technology?

Anthony: The role of technology makes this challenge even more significant. Software is designed to make our daily tasks easier, and we often integrate these tasks into our routines without much thought. However, it’s crucial to recognize that educational technology tools are frequently underused in schools. This isn’t usually because of the technology itself but, rather, because the technology doesn’t align well with the everyday habits of its users. So, a crucial part of successfully implementing technology isn’t just training people on how to use the tools. It’s also about encouraging a flexible mindset and changing established habits to fully take advantage of these new tech solutions. This means creating routines and systems that encourage daily use of the technology.

Rick: If you have one go-to piece of advice for educators or system leaders wrestling with change, what is it?

Anthony: Implementation usually happens in less-than-perfect conditions, so we need plans that are not just strong but also flexible enough to adapt to changes. Think of school systems as incredibly complex networks, not just big, uniform blocks. They’re made up of different groups like communities, students, families, teachers, school leaders, and government agencies. Each group has its own way of communicating, different levels of understanding, and their own set of priorities. One big challenge when making changes in such large systems is understanding how complex and varied these networks are. It’s crucial to recognize and plan for these complexities. Doing this isn’t just helpful—it’s absolutely necessary to make sure the changes you want to implement actually succeed.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.


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