Helping Schools Overcome Barriers to Change (page 2)
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.
Confronting Barriers to Change
The hard truth is this: Even a school that has done an excellent job organizing and planning for improvement can fall flat on its face when the time comes to put that plan into action because, like other complex organizations, a school confronts a set of serious barriers whenever it attempts to change in fundamental ways. First, schools face a predictable set of “internal” obstacles to change that are fairly consistent across many kinds of organizations, from corporations to government agencies and even to professional sports teams. 4 These internal barriers include the following:
- Technical challenges—lack of “know- how” about new strategies or sufficient tools and time to put those strategies to use. In schools, this challenge most often rears its head when new approaches are implemented, and teachers need help understanding new processes and tools for performing day-to-day tasks related to curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy.
- Cultural challenges—traditional beliefs, expectations, norms, habits, and ingrained patterns of behavior that run counter to new ideas. In schools, new instructional techniques can suggest ideas about teaching and learning that collide with deeply ingrained—and even unspoken— views about how schools should be run and how teachers should “do their jobs.”
- Political challenges—passive or overt resistance to new strategies and/or conflicts among competing interests. Resistance can have many causes, but it often arises when principals and leadership teams fail to anticipate the cultural challenges described above. Second, schools face a set of “external” obstacles to implementing change that, while similar to challenges imposed by external forces in other sectors, are especially severe in public education:
- Insufficient support. Districts are often organized to manage programs and procedures rather than to provide direct support to—or broker support for—specific school improvement efforts, and district administrators and school boards have not succeeded in helping principals juggle traditional job responsibilities with the demands of leading organizational change.
- Insufficient control over budgets. In most districts, the central office still sends “stuff” to schools based on their perceived needs or automated allocation processes, rather than sending money and allowing schools to reallocate dollars in support of specific instructional reforms.
- Insufficient control over personnel. The rules and procedures of district human resource offices can make it difficult for school principals to hire teachers who fit the school’s needs, including teachers who are a good fit with the instructional changes the school is making as part of its improvement plan. 5
Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal 6 claim “change agents fail when they rely almost entirely on reason and structure and neglect human, political, and symbolic elements.” They urge those who would set about changing an organization to consider the advice of retired Harvard Professor John P. Kotter, whose articles and books on leading organizational change are staples in the business world. Compiled after watching hundreds of corporate transformation attempts, Kotter’s list of the eight biggest errors that cause organizational change efforts to fail 7 includes the following:
- Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency.
- Not creating a powerful enough guiding coalition.
- Lacking a vision.
- Undercommunicating the vision.
- Not removing obstacles to the new vision.
- Not systematically planning for and creating short-term wins.
- Declaring victory too soon.
- Not anchoring changes in the [organization’s] culture.
Note that some of these errors occur long before a plan is implemented and reflect inadequate anticipation of internal implementation obstacles. When schools first begin to organize for reform, a failure to establish a sense of urgency, create a powerful support coalition for change, or establish a compelling vision of the future can reappear as obstacles when it is time to implement a plan for change. Others (such as undercommunicating the vision or not removing obstacles to its taking hold) occur in the implementation phase or later, after an improvement plan already has been determined, and reflect inadequate anticipation of internal implementation obstacles associated with the culture and politics of an organization. Those barriers play out in schools just as surely as they do in other organizations undergoing improvement efforts. A study examining slow- improving schools in Washington found that the problems schools experienced in these areas often took two forms: “distrust and resistance among veteran teachers to principal- led reform initiatives; and minimal commitment to education reform, a mentality that ‘this too shall pass’...” 8 Certain kinds of organizational changes tended to engender greater resistance. For example, “principals often found that collaboration, team planning, and sharing of effective strategies generated considerable resistance from veteran teachers, since they have traditionally worked in isolation and teaching has long been a ‘cottage industry.’” 9 Political challenges can take many forms. Michael Fullan stresses that “even in the most tightly controlled and authority-bound organizations, it is so easy to sabotage new directions during implementation. Even when things appear to be working, the supposed success may be a function of merely superficial compliance.” 10
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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