Helping Schools Overcome Barriers to Change

By — The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Is School Improvement a “Bad Bet”?

In May 2004, two influential philanthropic groups held a briefing for education grant makers to help them decide whether to keep giving large sums of money to support school improvement. A moderator kicked off the event by asking, “Is it possible to get the types of schools that we need... [by] fixing the schools we have?” In other words, “Should foundations and donors continue to write checks to superintendents [for school improvement]?”1 The answer to that question, detailed in a report 2 summarizing the two-day session, was sobering. A clear consensus emerged that grant makers should continue to support school improvement efforts, but at progressively lower levels than in the past. Instead, they should consider putting more of their dollars behind the creation of new “startup” schools to supplement— and perhaps eventually replace—existing schools Why is there such skepticism about the capacity for America’s schools to get better just at the time when federal education policies are putting greater pressure on schools to improve than ever before? As a speaker at the 2004 education funders briefing put it, “We’ve learned a lot in the last two decades. First, we’ve learned that changing schools is extremely difficult. In fact it is almost impossible to change them in fundamental ways... I don’t believe we are likely to get the kinds of schools we need by changing the schools we have.” 3 

Lack of Attention to Implementation

Part of the skepticism has to do with doubt about whether school leaders can gather the courage to deal honestly with the problem of low student achievement. As discussed in the first two policy briefs in this series, schools need to examine school factors that contribute to underachievement and make fundamental changes necessary to improve. They also need help understanding that effective planning doesn’t result in just a good written plan, but also in an ongoing process of collaborative, strategic problem solving. But much of the skepticism also has to do with whether schools can overcome obstacles to implementing aggressive plans for improvement. Unfortunately, educational researchers, policymakers, and leaders have consistently failed to acknowledge and communicate the importance of this crucial implementation stage in the school improvement process. Indeed, given the emphasis on planning—and relative silence about implementation—in many of the guidebooks and tools meant to help with school improvement, school leaders can easily come away with the impression that if a team gets the plan right, successful implementation of that plan must surely follow. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The implementation stage is the most difficult of all. And it is the stage where the majority of serious improvement efforts fail. As thousands of administrators and teachers have discovered too late, implementing an improvement plan—at least any plan worth its salt—really comes down to changing a complex organization in fundamental ways. And, as decades of research and experience in education and other fields have confirmed, that is far from a simple task.

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