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Perspective | Unprecedented times? In education, more lie ahead

With all the upheaval experienced in the wake of COVID-19, educators have scrambled to adapt their educational offerings into new formats and spaces. Indeed, nothing prepared us for this and nothing has been more difficult for educators than the challenges presented by this “new normal” — and many schools are shaken, struggling to adjust.

Though no educators are immune to these difficulties, I’ve found it notable that some organizations, like Schools That Lead (STL), have a leg up. The whole modus operandi of STL, a nonprofit education organization that utilizes improvement science, is making ideas work reliably in their particular context. With the cataclysmic changes in our educational context, we need to adapt our ideas so that they work and work well  —  for all our students. STL doesn’t have all the answers, but given its use of improvement science, it does know how to find them.

STL never promises success upon adopting some particular program, curriculum, or initiative. It’s not invested in particular programmatic answers and silver bullets, but only in methods for getting answers — recognizing that schools have various contexts and anticipating that these contexts will change over time. We need a method for adopting our ideas so that they work effectively, reliably, and at scale.  This is what improvement methods do for us.

In light of COVID-19, schools that partnered with STL can pivot and say, “OK, we have a new reality, but we also have tools for making ideas work in context. Let’s apply those tools and see how to accomplish something in this new normal.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but after this pandemic is long gone, new challenges and new contexts will inevitably continue to arise. Are educators prepared to face them? If they make a serious commitment to learn how to solve problems and put good ideas into practice, they will be. And that’s what STL is all about.

No shortage of ideas

The work of STL is predicated on the supposition that a central problem in education is not that we lack good ideas to pursue. Schools do not find problems like early grade literacy, chronic absenteeism, or new teacher support and retention intractable because there’s a shortage of interesting literacy or teacher induction programs. Rather, they lack rigorous tools to put these ideas into practice effectively, even across settings.

This is what has motivated my work over the last decade: most schools don’t know how to make good ideas work effectively, over and over and over again, in different places and with new teachers and different students. What you could say is that in education we do not lack for good ideas, we lack a disciplined means of getting good ideas into practice consistently.  Improvement science represents a set of ideas that helps us do exactly that — put good ideas into practice effectively for every student and in every place.

It means refusing to implement new programs or curricula, saying, “OK, everybody do this now.” In those situations, many teachers have never seen that program or curriculum work — and have no reason to believe it will.

Getting it right

To put good ideas into practice reliably, you must give people the tools — and time — to learn how to do it right. Getting it right requires starting small. Doing small tests of change, you can make tweaks and figure out how to make it work well in your context — tracking the results as you go. Then you can start to push it out to others, figuring out how to make it work well in new places. From this, you can develop improvement knowledge about how to scale ideas effectively. When carried out in an intentionally designed and supported network, you have a social organization ready made for learning fast to implement well.

Getting something right before telling everyone else to do it does a few things. It allows you to share the idea with a lot of knowledge about how they can do it well and allows you to develop the will to engage with the ideas by encouraging people with real data of their success.

Rather than throwing out an idea with a mere hunch that it will work, you can actually say, “Here is a practice that I think has the impact we’re looking for. Here’s the improvement knowledge we developed about how to do it well in our context. You should try it. Test it and get it to work well for you.”

Innovation that lasts

Starting small and building up from there is effective because you allow people to see it work at every stage. By the time you introduce something new on a larger scale, the response is positive because they have already seen its success. Nothing builds confidence more powerfully than that.

While this is responsible and logical, it’s also incredibly rare in schools. More often than not, leaders don’t adopt this approach. Instead, they stake their tenure, reputation, and professional identity on some program, with the goal of rolling it out to every school — and fast.

Perhaps they’ll pilot test it first, saying, “We’ll see how it works with a quarter of the schools and we can always make some improvements before introducing it to the others.” But let me let you in on a secret: In my career, I’ve never seen a pilot program return a result that says some program is a colossally bad idea — even if it is. Because the ego and political (and financial) investment is too high, and others are watching, leaders don’t stop the program after the pilot, but push it out to every school. I’ve never seen us do otherwise.

The lesson here is that if you want to make the type of change that makes noise and is highly visible to others, put in big flashy programs that people can see. However, if you want to make change that’s deep, widespread, and enduring, change the way people think about something. It’s quiet, but it will have a long-lasting impact, changing things in ways you won’t have to anticipate beforehand.

Integrity in improvement

It’s because of STL’s understanding of and commitment to this approach to change that the Carnegie Foundation continues to be interested in its work. STL shows up in schools in ways that are not immediately visible, but that provide real, effective, and long-term impact. As a group of practitioners of improvement science in education, they develop the capacity of schools to learn more about their own challenges in their own context and offer tools for solving them effectively.

Always questioning and learning, they stand for genuine integrity and excellence in all that they do. With a depth of understanding and seriousness of purpose, they seek continuous improvement in schools and in their own work. And we couldn’t celebrate that more.

So if you’re sincere about innovation and you want to see others succeed, you would do well to pursue a partnership with STL – and to always start small to make big changes.

Paul LeMahieu

Paul LeMahieu is senior vice president for programs for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Superintendent of Education Emeritus for the State of Hawai’i, and chair of the board of directors for Schools That Lead.