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How to Make Meaningful Change in Our Schools

By Ben Owens — June 07, 2017 5 min read
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“We know what we need to do. So why are we not doing it?”

That phrase, or something akin to it, is a common theme in my conversations with fellow teachers from across the country. Regardless of the location and demographics of the teacher’s school or district—urban or rural, large or small, wealthy or Title I—I hear this same refrain: “Why can’t we break away from what we’ve always done and adopt the practices we know will make real, positive changes for our students?”

As someone who has devoted much of my professional career to learning about and helping to lead or affect organizational change, I have given a lot of thought to this problem. Whether I was helping a private-sector organization better meet customer demands or helping my current school move to a teacher-powered framework, I have seen stalled progress boil down to three primary issues:

1. Trying to implement changes that are not consistent with the organization’s underlying needs or values;

2. Failing to establish a clear, shared vision throughout the organization responsible for driving the change; and

3. Failing to clearly communicate anticipated outcomes of the change to stakeholders to avoid confusion and manage expectations.

Before we break each of these points down further, let’s return to the original premise that we know what works in education. If this is true, first we need to get better at identifying the initiatives that address our specific challenges. Then we need to be more intentional about managing the change, ensuring that we address these challenges in our work.

Regarding the first part of this equation, I would argue that we have a virtual firehose of programs, techniques, methods, technologies, and other changes at our disposal that have been shown to result in positive student outcomes. Whether we follow Edutopia, the What Works Clearinghouse, professional journals such as The Learning Professional, nonfiction books like John Hattie’s Visible Learning, or online publications like the one you are reading now, we are certainly not left wanting for good ideas to address our individual challenges.

And while some will legitimately argue that we need to get better at doing the research needed to identify initiatives that have a statistically significant impact on student outcomes, we have countless case-study examples of how “best practices” like project-based learning, personalized education, peer collaboration, competency-based learning, and adaptive technologies do have a real and lasting impact on student learning—assuming such initiatives have been effectively implemented. This is the hard part.

The three reasons I proposed to explain why initiatives tend to fail are interdependent. For example, unless a school or district tries to implement changes that are truly consistent with their specific needs and culture, the change is doomed from the start and the other two points are moot. We all can think of examples where we have lurched for the next shiny object without a lot of forethought, instead of being more strategic and intentional in deciding what changes to pursue. At my school, we have a policy that before we adopt new initiatives, our entire staff does a “litmus test” of the proposed change, measuring it against our school’s mission and vision. If it doesn’t align, we simply don’t do it, regardless of the potential benefits (excluding mandates beyond our control).

The next point is what I call the “going all in” criteria. Once a school community decides to make a significant change consistent with its needs and values, everyone has to fully commit. The principal can’t be the only one to see the clear benefit of the initiative. In order for an initiative to succeed, everyone in the school has to be invested, and they have to understand their distinct role in making it happen. How many school leaders have bought 3-D printers, for example, under the assumption that they would magically improve instruction in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and then watched their purchase sit underutilized?

In order for an investment like a 3-D printer to make an impact, a school must develop a strategic plan for how each teacher will integrate use of the new tool into routine instruction. As my first point suggests, if you can’t clearly articulate the value of the initiative to everyone involved, then perhaps it’s a misguided effort.

Finally, once all affected parties are fully on board and understand their distinct roles in driving the change, the school must adopt a systematic approach to manage its implementation, in terms of both measuring progress and communicating realistic expectations.

Most major changes involve a “J-Curve,” where moving from the comfortable to the new creates anxiety as people either realize the complexity of the work or see results (for example, test scores) temporarily go in the opposite direction, only to come back stronger in the long term. Schools that successfully manage change not only have measures in place to track real-time results and make quick adjustments; they have anticipated potential headwinds and have the credibility to transparently communicate to stakeholders how challenges will be overcome.

When my school moved from a traditional grading system to a competency-based learning approach, we not only invested the time to fully train all teachers and staff members, but also held early and routine informational meetings with parents and students so they would know what to expect as the shift occurred. This helped maintain consistent implementation across the school and strong support when unexpected problems would arise.

Few would argue that our current education system fully prepares students for an increasingly uncertain future. The fact that you are reading this article means that you have a genuine interest in figuring out how to make school improvements a reality. Perhaps you believe that part of your role as a leader in education is to find ideas and examples of what works for students and translate those ideas into actions for your own classroom, school, or district. But to affect positive changes, you have to know that what you propose will meet the needs of your situation—attract broad support—and, if managed properly, produce credible results.

When we can ensure that the solutions we propose will meet these criteria, we can say with confidence that we know what we need to do to improve our schools—and more importantly, we know how to do it!

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