3 Ways to Work Towards Better Implementation in Schools and Districts
The implementation of a completely new program, technology platform, or curriculum is equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking. It means that you’ve identified something that is truly going to help your school or district move forward and meet the vision and goals you’ve set forth—and then again, it also means that in most cases, you’ve got plenty of hard work ahead of you.
As a school or district leader, you know that the success of any initiative comes down to how well it is launched. Implementation requires an acute understanding of the who, what, and where of a program, and how it will be set up. And, it can be especially complex when you consider the different stakeholders who will potentially interact with the program—who all will have different needs, points of view, and capacity within the roles they play.
As a school or district leader, you know that the success of any initiative comes down to how well it is launched. Implementation requires an acute understanding of the who, what, and where of a program, and how it will be set up.
It’s an undertaking that requires a healthy dose of agility, as there are bound to be a few roadblocks. Education is a complex system, and in addition to simply adopting a new process or tool, a critical part of managing and implementing change is equal parts strong vision and a clear yet flexible plan.
To help you on your path toward school improvement, we’ve put together a few implementation strategies on how to set you, your team, and your school up for success—and also how to recognize when it might make sense to de-implement an initiative and decrease burnout among the members of your staff.
Start with the end in mind—and assess “readiness”
Any implementation project will need goals, strategies, and problem-solving approaches to be a success. Launching a large-scale project in your school isn’t much different than developing a school vision—only in a more macro way.
No matter what your initiative is—adopting more culturally responsive instruction, embarking on a new way forward for professional development, or taking the steps to implement a new technology platform—you’re making a strategic choice that rolls up to a larger, ideal future state you have in mind for your school community. That means it’s important to think about outcomes: what do you want students, teachers, and staff to be able to do after this initiative has been launched?
And, as you’re thinking about that end goal, consider the “readiness” of yourself, your teachers and staff, and your school community at large. Here are some great questions to ask as you’re working through your initial plans:
- What is the level of knowledge about this initiative among my teachers and staff? The ideal way to begin the implementation process is at a place where your team understands why this particular change is needed and what it means for them and their students.
- Do I have the resources available for implementation? This is especially critical when thinking about teacher and staff time. Is your team able to contribute to a new project amid all of their other work and priorities?
- Does this program align or conflict with any existing programs or work we’re currently doing, or does it require additional resources? This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s worth a double-check. For example, if your goal is to roll out a 1:1 computing program, but upgrades to your technology infrastructure aren’t on the docket until two years from now, you run the risk of having to rework key parts of your initiative.
Have a clear implementation plan
There’s plenty of truth in the old adage “if you fail to plan, plan to fail,” and this is especially true when it comes to implementing new initiatives at your school. A documented plan is absolutely essential—as is an implementation team whose purpose it is to keep the project moving.
There are many reasons for this. Implementation is not a linear process, with actions and tactics often needing to be performed simultaneously. A large-scale change management or continuous improvement initiative is made up of several stakeholders—all of whom may need to be involved, informed, and provide input at various times. A plan keeps workstreams organized and lines of communication open.
Implementation is not a linear process, with actions and tactics often needing to be performed simultaneously. A plan keeps workstreams organized and lines of communication open.
Here are a few pieces every implementation plan should include:
- The why: What is the current challenge or problem that the new program or initiative will solve for your school? What needs to change, and how will embarking on this plan solve the problem?
- The who: Who needs to be involved, and at what level? What are the methods of communication for each of your stakeholder groups?
- The how: What’s the blend of activities or evidence-based practices that need to happen, when do they need to happen, and what’s the protocol for dealing with bumps in the road?
- The what: What are the phases, and the outcomes of each phase? Will you split implementation into short-term, half-way, and long-term outcomes? What is the measure of success for each point in the journey? What is the final measure of success?
- The active ingredients: What tangible content and inputs do you need, and what behaviors do you need among your teachers and staff for this program to do what it needs to do?
A plan also helps leaders identify the ongoing work that needs to happen after implementation: collecting data to ensure the program is being implemented with fidelity, making sure your teachers and staff have the professional development and resources they need to make the program a success, and deciding when to scale up the program in the future.
Don’t be afraid to de-implement
Just like clutter in our houses, clutter in our day-to-day school lives is very real. The usual cause of this untidiness? Initiative fatigue, or continuing to engage in actions that just don’t work.
Implementing new initiatives gives you a great opportunity to ask yourself which of your current programs or practices should be on your “stop list,” or de-implemented.
As our own Chief Program Officer Michele Caracappa wrote in a recent blog, “Ask any school leader or teacher if there are practices and programs that persist regardless of whether or not they have a positive impact on students, and they will likely be able to rattle off more than a handful.” At best, these ineffective programs and practices signal annoyance and frustration—and at worst, it might be a contributing factor to school leader and teacher turnover. Working conditions—of which unrealistic workloads is an attribute—is one of the largest factors in educator burnout.
Implementing new initiatives gives you a great opportunity to ask yourself which of your current programs or practices should be on your “stop list,” or de-implemented. Consider conducting an informal audit. Are there:
- Time-consuming activities that take teachers away from classroom instruction, such as updating bulletin boards monthly or unnecessary meetings?
- Labor-intensive paperwork and protocols that have “always been done a certain way” but have rarely been questioned?
- Systems that reinforce inequity and are holding students back from engaging, such as tracked reading groups or zero-tolerance policies?
When in doubt, ask yourself these questions to determine whether a specific practice is still needed:
- Is there data or qualitative evidence that this practice still has a purpose?
- If they can’t be abandoned entirely, can they be replaced with practices that can be more impactful?
- If it’s a worthwhile practice and we know it’s working, can we streamline the action to increase efficiency?
De-implementation doesn’t need to mean completely ceasing an initiative. It can mean reducing activity, or swapping parts of an initiative with tactics and actions that might work better with your school’s current context.
Implementing change = a chance to better serve students
Making the kind of large-scale change that requires a strong implementation plan is part of the opportunity—and responsibility—schools and districts have to continuously do better for the students in our care.
Trying new things, learning from those experiences, and working to adopt what works best—these are actions that are essential components of not only change, but ongoing innovation and future-proofing in education.