Opinion

Johnson: The Pizza Rule and Other Tips for Making Effective, Long-Lasting Changes in Your School

By Daniel Johnson and Aaron Churchill | September 12, 2017

School and district leaders face a difficult balancing act when it comes to change. On one hand, leaders are expected to drive rapid and complete change, often with academic, enrollment, or other quantitative performance indicators as immediate benchmarks. On the other, bringing change too quickly or forcefully can overwhelm teachers and students, leaving leaders without anything to show for their efforts.

With short tenures being common in the role of superintendent as well as principal (each averaging less than five years in the role), it’s no wonder bringing about significant change is difficult, because by the time a leader has established enough credibility to try something new, it is nearly time to move on. It is for this reason that while the most successful change initiatives may start with top leadership, they must also include school leadership teams. These teams, made of teachers, coaches, and school administrators, increase context and credibility among staff, and often have a greater likelihood of sticking around for longer.

In considering the essential roles that school leaders and school leadership teams can play, it is useful to consider six areas of responsibility: construction, planning, implementing, supporting, and monitoring of these change-based initiatives.

Construction

How many should be on a team? One rule of thumb: If this group got together, could it split one large pizza? This isn’t about saving money on food provided in meetings — but when you need more than a pizza, the decision-making often gets a lot harder. You want to make sure you have enough perspectives in the room to represent the needs of your school and community, but not so many that moving an idea forward becomes too challenging.

The number of people is one thing; the composition of the team is another. Stacking your team with natural advocates for the work may be easiest, but it is worthwhile to consider including a skeptic or two. You should strive for a team that will be a good source of ideas as well as constructive feedback, and you want people whom others will want to follow.

School District 197 in Minnesota developed an effective selection process for members of its Design Teams at the start of the 2016–17 school year. In advance of eventual district and schoolwide rollouts, the district formed teams of teachers and building administrators to learn about, practice, and promote personalized learning at each district school. To form the teams, a group of school and district administrators started by outlining the experiences, characteristics, and expectations of their ideal team members, and then built a promotional video and application delivered at each school. The group also considered the ideal mix of grade level and content areas to fill. Within weeks, the district had a group of committed, risk-taking teachers actively committed to engaging in personalized learning.

Planning

Once assembled, school leadership teams can play an active role in planning an initiative’s rollout and implementation. Regardless of district size, teachers and coaches often have the read on a school’s readiness for change. Many have seen initiatives come and go, and can indicate which variables contribute to an initiative’s longevity and success. Teams often identify factors like continuous professional development, clear communication of expectations, or a sense of ownership as key requirements. These conversations allow school and district leaders to ensure that the planning of an initiative’s rollout reflects a school’s readiness, needs, and culture.

They also provide a measurable starting point that can be referred to later on. Though an imperfect measure, it is helpful during conversations involving readiness to ask leadership teams about teachers’ ability to target instruction for groups or individual students. The responses and examples provide a clearer picture of the school’s readiness before any work is done and can be revisited once the initiative is underway as a source of anecdotal evidence of success.

Beyond identifying the school’s readiness, leadership teams can define an initiative within the context of the school’s individual needs and priorities. In one step of this design phase, schools discuss challenges or focus areas that personalized learning will help them solve and develop “problem of practice” statements. For example, a team might determine it hopes to “provide a balance of student needs and choice,” and then work to define ways in which personalized learning will help achieve this. The process provides teams with a sense of ownership and connection to what might otherwise be a top-down school or district mandate.

Fulton County Schools in Georgia has 95 schools and is organized as a charter district, meaning each school has a high level of autonomy. Over the past few years, every school in the district has designed and launched personalized learning, 15 to 20 schools at a time, in a series of five waves. What made the Fulton approach unique was that the district enabled each school to design its own instructional model, professional development, and communications plan as a precursor to selecting technological devices for students. The result: school-based teams that were highly engaged in determining what personalized learning would look like at their schools and committed to its success.

Implementing

Having been directly involved in the planning phase, members of a school’s leadership team can be well positioned to take the first steps with the implementation of a new initiative. They might be the first to institute new strategies, tactics, or procedures in their classrooms, paving the way for their colleagues. Often, teachers attempt personalized learning strategies and models long before the initiative is launched schoolwide. Having a team of early implementers can provide leadership with school-specific anecdotes, tips for success, and an ability to adjust expectations prior to full-scale implementation.

Depending on the team’s capacity, members can also share the responsibility of leading site-based professional development. Their involvement can range from leading entire sessions to short share-outs on their experiences. Personalized learning simulations can model the changes teachers may make in their classrooms, and leadership teams can take these simulations back to their staff, with each member playing a different role. Involving team members in these workshops both reduces the lift on school leaders and increases staff buy-in.

The leadership team at Liberty Park Elementary School in Warren, Indiana, trained to become the first group of teachers to implement personalized learning at their site. Prior to schoolwide rollout, team members invited teachers to visit their classrooms to see personalized learning in action, and as the initiative was implemented schoolwide, each member of the team formed a “personalized learning posse,” adopting a small group of teachers who could come to them with questions.

Supporting

Once an initiative is implemented, school leadership teams can act as pillars of support for its long-term success. Team members hold a direct line to the needs of both teachers and classrooms. Their feedback can be used to determine professional development opportunities or indicate the need for other supports. Teams can build resource banks filled with classroom examples of personalized learning strategies, plan monthly “Choice PDs” based on peer feedback, or write blogs about their experiences and learning.

In the Dundee Central School District in upstate New York, school leadership teams meet monthly to discuss successes and challenges of personalized learning, and divide into smaller teams to plan professional development sessions for teachers to choose from on monthly early-release days. Topics range from trainings on digital content to strategies for small-group instruction to teacher share-outs on successful practices attempted in their classrooms. In the first year of implementing personalized learning, districtwide surveys indicate that the clear majority of teachers feel highly supported by this peer-led system.

In addition to being able to understand teacher needs, leadership team members playing a support role have opportunities to further develop as leaders at the school. As they support teachers, team members often build additional expertise, and it is common for them to take on formalized coaching roles as they are increasingly seen as experts by their colleagues.

Monitoring

Ensuring initiative success requires a systematic collection and analysis of data. Monitoring often attempts to answer three questions:

• Are teachers implementing with fidelity?
• What challenges are teachers experiencing?
• Is the initiative leading to positive change?

The goal is to have positive responses to each question, and, while it is the school leader who must be able to provide the answers, school leadership teams can help back up the responses. Schools may implement a variety of structures to determine whether teachers are implementing and how successful they feel. These might be formal or informal walk-throughs, student and teacher surveys, or focus groups. Regardless of structure, school leadership teams can play a valuable role in analyzing the results. The team of teachers and coaches may be used to validate whether identified trends align with their experience, or to clarify teacher concerns.

In Yuma School District 1 in Arizona, leadership teams have played an active role in monitoring personalized learning implementation. The teams go on formal learning walks in the fall and spring to get a pulse check on implementation, identify strengths and focus areas, and provide staff feedback. The classroom visits both support accountability and help identify needs for resources and upcoming professional development.

Districts or schools may determine quantitative measures of success around academic or behavioral changes through standardized test scores or metrics like attendance or suspensions. However, leadership teams can provide a constant narrative on perceived changes in habits and mindsets. One way to do this is to repeatedly ask a similar set of questions, starting at the planning stages — about, for example, the staff’s ability to target instruction. The notes from these conversations can be compared with initial responses (or even in the years to come) to determine initiative impact.

Effecting change in education and making it stick is a complex task for both school and district leaders. Short tenures and endless lists of responsibilities often mean school leaders do not have the capacity, social capital, or on-the-ground understanding of teacher and student needs. To assist with these challenges, selecting influencers who can empower strong school leadership teams makes a school or district better able to actualize impactful and long-term change. If assembled with the right mix of personalities, strengths, and schoolwide representation, these teams can help scale the skills and behaviors necessary to ensure an initiative’s successful adoption and retention.

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