Reforms won’t work without trust

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State Education Agencies (SEAs), school districts and teacher unions across the country have committed or will soon commit to making ambitious changes to their schools over the next several years in response to the Race to the Top competition and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act waiver process.  The commitments include everything from the Common Core standards to new ways of evaluating and compensating teachers. If well-planned and implemented, each of these initiatives could be a powerful lever for school improvement. Combined, they could transform schools and dramatically improve student learning.  

Accomplishing these changes will be hard. Each requires administrators and teachers to shift from a focus on compliance to a focus on outcomes.  It also requires a willingness to experiment with new, unproven ways of doing things. It is inevitable that mistakes will be made and hard lessons learned.  

For the past three years, I have been helping SEAs, districts, teacher unions and schools to plan and implement some of these initiatives.  I am convinced that there is little chance of effective implementation unless state policymakers, SEA and district administrators, principals and teachers develop a level of trust that allows them to try new ways of doing things, fail and then try again. 

How can we approach the work in ways that will begin to build this trust?

Be realistic and focus

First, we need to balance a sense of urgency with a sense of reality. Asking schools to make too many changes all at once will result in failure. Rather than going along with arbitrary deadlines established to meet political requirements, SEAs and districts should schedule and sequence changes in ways that make sense to the people who will do the work. For instance, a district might adapt a multi-year plan that begins with implementing the Common Core, then adds new assessments, next incorporates student growth to the evaluation system and finally considers performance-based compensation. Schedules also need to include time to negotiate inevitable changes to rules and contracts. For example, Illinois’ new teacher evaluation law provides most districts with 180 days to negotiate a new evaluation system with their teacher unions.  These six months make it more likely that the district and teachers union will explore options, learn what is possible and reach agreement on a system that will be effective.

Second, we need to be open to the “75% solution,” recognizing that transformational change takes place incrementally. We need to privately recognize and publicly admit that we don’t know how to do all this work, but expect to learn together as we go. SEAs, districts and schools should be encouraged to begin with ”lower-hanging fruit” and demonstrate that success is possible before scaling the change to all schools, grades, subjects or classrooms.  For example, why not begin using student growth in teacher evaluations in core subjects with established assessments rather than trying to implement the new system across all grades and subjects all at once? Over time, as we show that growth data is useful in evaluating teachers in core subjects, we can begin to experiment with other types of assessments in non-core subjects.          

Third, for every new initiative, districts need to choose to stop doing at least one other thing.  We can’t continue to layer one “reform” on another.  If a district is committed to providing teachers with time to work on Common Core standards, it needs to stop other professional development in language arts and mathematics.  If a school adopts new formative assessments, it must stop administering other assessments that cover the same material.  Without clearing time and space for these changes, they won’t be successful.

Listen to teachers, principals

Finally, we need to listen to and learn from the people who do this work—teachers and principals. Despite what’s often portrayed in the media and by some politicians, most teachers, principals and union leaders support these changes. They favor higher standards, better assessments, meaningful evaluations, and better data, but they are skeptical about the system’s capacity to execute the changes without substantial unanticipated negative consequences.  They also doubt the commitment of federal, state, district and school leaders to sustain the changes beyond one or two funding cycles.

Their concerns are legitimate.  Over their careers, most educators have experienced a succession of well-intentioned, but poorly executed, reforms. Each has been heralded as a research-based answer to a fundamental education challenge.  Press conferences were held, expectations raised, materials and professional development delivered, and then the reform withered for lack of sustained attention and focus.

Trust begins with clear, honest, consistent, two-way communication. Communication needs to begin during planning and continue through implementation. It’s not acceptable to say that we don’t have the time or the resources to communicate, because if we don’t have an ongoing conversation with the people who need to do the work, the change won’t happen.  An email or presentation on the opening day of school, periodic newsletter and a website are necessary but not sufficient. School staff needs constant proof that this time will be different—the obstacles to change will be removed and the people in charge are learning from what is happening in their schools.  

The federal government has given us a unique opportunity to change our schools.  Let’s slow down, be clear about the challenges we face, listen, focus and make sure we get it right. 

Laurence Stanton served as strategy and planning officer for the Chicago Public Schools from 2003-2008.  He now consults with SEAs, districts, and teachers unions.  He is co-chair of the Illinois State Board of Education’s Performance Evaluation Advisory Council, which is charged with developing new teacher and principal evaluation systems incorporating student growth.