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Sustaining Improvement Efforts Over the Long Run

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

Maintain: To keep in an existing state; CARRY ON, KEEP UP
Sustain: To give support or supply with sustenance; NOURISH, PROLONG

School personnel often mistakenly believe that sustaining improvement over a long period of time simply requires them to keep up new practices past the implementation year. But that initial maintenance is only the first step of a much longer journey. School leaders and staff members must also learn how to intentionally nourish and prolong improvement initiatives by extending and adapting them over time. In other words, sustaining an improvement effort requires more than simple maintenance. Prolonged, continuous improvement requires continually asking and acting on the answers to several key questions: How can we do even better tomorrow? What’s working and what’s not? What do we need to change next? The first part of this policy brief breaks down the process of sustaining improvement and examines each of its key elements. The second part offers several important strategies for protecting and abetting that process over the long term.

The stakes are huge. Too many school improvement efforts wither and die after a year or two of hard work, often just following the first flush of success. At the same time, research shows that sustaining reforms beyond a few years can create big payoffs for students. One large-scale study of student achievement in schools implementing comprehensive school reform (CSR) models found that “after the fifth year of implementation, CSR effects began to increase substantially.”1

Key Elements:  Three Core Activities to  Sustain Improvement

Sustaining improvement is a long-term process that involves the following three kinds of overlapping activities:

  • Maintaining the improvement effort beyond initial implementation.
  • Extending the improvement effort after its initial success.
  • Adapting the improvement effort so that it survives—and thrives—over the long term.

Step 1. Maintaining Improvement Initiatives Beyond the Implementation Year

The obvious first step in sustaining any school improvement effort must be to maintain new practices beyond a few months or the first year of implementation. However, school leaders and staff members are often surprised to discover that maintaining reforms can require more than simple persistence. Even in schools where implementation goes smoothly and successfully during the first year, many kinds of unforeseen obstacles can arise the following year or the year after.

Unfortunately, there is no formula for predicting the factors that will threaten an improvement effort two or three years into implementation. Schools are complex organizations, and changing major practices in one part of the organization can have unforeseeable effects on other parts of the organization. Therefore, maintaining an improvement effort requires keeping a sharp eye on how the change process is affecting staff members and students; keeping a constant lookout for warning signs of obstacles that might threaten the effort; and keeping a very open mind to how challenges can arise from even the most unlikely places.

Consider the case of Baltimore’s Patterson High School. In the spring of 1994, Patterson was named “reconstitution eligible” by the state of Maryland. Over the next year, a new principal and her staff worked with experts at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR) to create a plan for dramatic restructuring. The plan called for breaking up the high school into smaller academies (including a ninth-grade Success Academy) and reworking the master schedule to allow for extended class periods, interdisciplinary team teaching, and collaborative planning and professional development. By the end of the first year of implementation (1995–96), the plan had generated substantial improvements. Student behavior improved, attendance shot up, ninth-grade retention decreased dramatically, and test scores began to rise.3 The turnaround was so dramatic that other high schools began to approach CRESPAR for assistance in implementing similar reforms.4 By the end of the following year (1996–97), however, tensions between groups of teachers, and between teachers and school administrators, began to mount, putting the improvement effort in jeopardy. By the end of the third year, attendance rates and test scores began to slip. What went wrong? Many factors contributed to the fragmentation and frustration of the staff. However, one of the greatest challenges stemmed from the tremendous success of the reform effort itself: Far more ninth graders were promoted to the 10th grade than ever before. As a consequence, 10th-grade teachers returned to school the following year to face much bigger—and much more heterogeneous— classes than they were used to teaching. Upper grade teachers accused ninth-grade teachers of watering down standards. Ninth-grade teachers fired back with accusations of elitism and even racism.5 No one had envisioned how fundamentally the rest of the school would need to change if the ninth-grade Success Academy succeeded.

Step 2. Extending the Improvement Effort to Capitalize on Early Success

After watching dozens of organizational change efforts, retired Harvard Business School Professor John P. Kotter wrote that one of the most common and most damaging mistakes leaders make following implementation is to declare victory too early. “Instead of declaring victory,” he wrote, “leaders of successful efforts use the credibility afforded by short-term wins to tackle even bigger problems. They go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision and have not been confronted before.”6 In other words, sustaining success over the long term requires fierce, very intentional kind of “opportunism.” That isn’t just a platitude: The research on organizational change has confirmed again and again that the organizations most successful at sustaining improvement over long periods of time learn to enact new, “next generation” improvements even as they work to maintain practices that are already working. For example, in a groundbreaking study of corporations that had sustained success over decades—and in some cases over a century— researchers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found that a key feature of such companies was a deeply ingrained attitude that “good enough never is”: The critical question asked by a visionary company is not “How well are we doing?” [...] For these companies, the critical question is “How can we do better tomorrow than we did today?” They institutionalize this question as way of life—a habit of mind and action. [...] There is no ultimate finish line in a highly visionary company. There is no “having made it.” There is no point where they feel they can coast the rest of the way, living off the fruits of their labor.7 A study of elementary school improvement in Washington echoed that finding: “Schools that sustained improvement made deeper and more consistent changes.” In contrast to schools that plateaued or declined, “Sustaining schools did not let down their guard after making gains. They continued to push beyond a comfortable level and did not become complacent.” Instead, they intensified their use of strategies the researchers had identified as fueling initial success and even extended changes in curriculum and instruction into earlier grades. One principal told the researchers: “[T]here’s a lot of pressure on this school to improve. But there’s also a lot of ‘we’ve shown we can do it, let’s do it better.’ We’re beyond making excuses about our kids.”8 The key point, however, is not simply to “always try to do better” as a virtue in its own right. Rather, it is that organizations must continue to move forward; those that do not keep trying to do better eventually jeopardize their existing
improvement initiatives and can eventually lose ground. As Kotter notes, “critical momentum can be lost and regression may follow.”9

A recent article in the Journal for Education of Students Placed at Risk clearly illustrates the dangers of complacency.10 Teachers Debra Mentzer and Tricia Shaughnessy provide a fascinating case study of a schoolwide improvement effort spanning 15 years at
Hawthorne Academy, an inner-city school in downtown San Antonio. In the early 1990s, Hawthorne’s staff worked with the district, a local university, and a national foundation to implement a challenging new curriculum and related reforms. The results were impressive, and a spate of national news stories about Hawthorne soon followed. “It would not be exaggerating to say that, as teachers, we relished our successes and saw a boundless future for our school, our students, and ourselves,” the two teachers recount.11 By the late 1990s, however, the reforms were in jeopardy. What went wrong? Again, the factors were complex. But Mentzer and Shaughnessy point to one major cause: The staff entered what the authors call an “Era of Coasting”: The new leadership inherited a school that was respected and viewed as “successful.” Visitors came from around the nation and from overseas. The principal chose not to make any changes to the existing program. While this sounded wonderful on the surface, the reality was that no changes at all were made. Continualprogress was abandoned in favor of the status quo. [...] The school was coasting on its reputation and its past. Unfortunately, we were no longer leading, since we had not continued improving. [...] Enthusiasm lagged, test scores plateaued, and the sparks of our vision became dull.12 While it’s important to celebrate early success, schools that successfully sustain reforms do not allow the first flush of success to turn into complacency.

Step 3. Adapting Improvement Initiatives Over Time

Over the long term, maintaining and extending improvement initiatives is not enough. Expectations change, policies change, local and state political environments change, students change, school leaders change, and faculties change. As a result, even the most successful improvement initiatives must eventually “evolve or die.” Indeed, researchers who study successful organizational change efforts that are sustained over long periods of time frequently invoke evolution as a metaphor to describe what they find. For example, Collins and Porras write that companies sustaining success over many decades “mimic the biological evolution of species. We found the concepts in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species to be more helpful for replicating the success of certain visionary companies than any textbook on corporate strategic planning.”13 They emphasize, however, this finding does not simply mean that “change is the only constant.” Such companies all exhibit one very important constant—a clear organizational vision comprised of a well-defined mission and set of core values that seldom, if ever, change. Organizations that sustain growth over long periods of time cling fiercely to their core visions while considering everything else—practices, structures, job definitions, schedules—up for grabs.14 Educationresearchers Jeanne Rose Century and Abigail Justice Levy found something very similar in a study of science education reforms sustained over at least a decade across seven school districts: “Programs that had become ‘sustainable’ [...] had moved beyond maintenance and had developed the ability to evolve.” Indeed, after enough years, the programs often looked much different than they had when they were implemented. The researchers eventually came to define sustainability as “the ability of a program to maintain its core beliefs and values and use them to guide program adaptations to changes and pressures over time.”15 This evolutionary process actually takes two forms. First is a kind of “selective adaptation,” in which organizations constantly try new things, keeping those that work while throwing away those that don’t; the second is the “fine-tuning” of individual reform elements to ensure that they keep working as the environment around them changes.
Selective Adaptation. Collins and Porras write, “In studying the history of visionary companies, we were struck by how often they made some of their best moves not by detailed strategic planning, but rather by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism, and—quite literally— accident.” In other words, companies that are built to last “try a lot of stuff and keep what works.”16 Of course, there are two important caveats to that finding. First, their observation doesn’t mean that successful organizations simply flail around blindly, trying anything that sounds remotely interesting. Instead, the things they try are “smart” in two important ways: They are strongly influenced by and aligned with a clear vision—the organization’s mission and core values. And they are guided by evidence about what has worked elsewhere and what research has proven to be effective. The same is true for high-performing schools. During a panel at the NewSchools Venture Fund’s 2004 summit, Allison Rouse, an official with the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a network of highly successful schools that seek out and serve low-income students, noted, “We pilot a lot of stuff. We simply try everything. And we fail a lot. But we fail trying something great.”17  Second, the unspoken corollary to “keeping what works” is throwing away what doesn’t. Many schools are littered with layer upon layer of past reforms that no longer produce results, if they ever did at all. On the other hand, highly successful schools are unsentimental about jettisoning programs that don’t work—even if students, parents, or teachers like them a lot. As one principal told the author of a recent study comparing California schools that had sustained improvement with schools that had not: “You can’t feel sorry that something doesn’t work; you just have to try something different.”18 Fine-Tuning. Sometimes educators decide that a particular program or practice is worth keeping, but only if it can be adapted so that it aligns with current needs and can continue to deliver results in a changing environment. For example, the Hawthorne Academy staff fought intensely to keep the curriculum they felt had delivered great benefits for students, but eventually realized they would have to work together to align it with evolving state standards and assessments. The entire staff met for a full week during the summer of 2001–02 to pull apart thecurriculum and reconstruct it so that it better aligned with state standards. “This was a laborious task, but one that has provided us with a seamless integration of the Core Knowledge Sequence and the state standards that will, in tandem, lead to student success” Mentzer and Shaughnessy write.19 

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