The school change paradox: To innovate (and avoid fads!), go slow

Harvey Alvy ASCD learning reimagined

It’s no secret: America’s K–12 schools face a slew of challenges. From increasing competition to rapidly changing technology to increased diversity and inequity, and more.

 To face these challenges head-on, school leaders and educators need to think outside the box and look outside the classroom.

 We recently teamed up with ASCD, a leader in professional and curriculum development support for educators, for a new ongoing blog series called Learning Reimagined.

 The regular column asks some of ASCD’s leading thinkers to shed light on the obstacles facing classroom innovation and the opportunities available to educators who are willing to take the leap.

 In our first edition, former principal and current education thought leader Harvey Alvy–author of Fighting for Change in Your School: How to Avoid Fads and Focus on Substance (ASCD, 2017) and co-author of Learning from Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success (ASCD, 2010)— examines how school leaders can separate real school innovations from trendy fads.

“Poor implementation is harmful not just to the particular teachers and students who are immediately involved; it also undermines the very idea that change is possible.”

–Charles Payne (So Much Reform, So Little Change, 2008)

I’ve spent 20 years trying to distinguish the difference between educational fads and reforms of substance. As a teacher, I rolled my eyes when administrators introduced new ideas (often fads) guaranteed to transform education. Later, as an international school principal, I would return to the U.S. each year and be overwhelmed, and frankly intimidated, by all the front burner reforms introduced during educational conferences.

How do schools choose among all the initiatives? Clearly, educators needed a roadmap to thoughtfully pursue proposed practices. The stakes are high. Failing to promote meaningful reform affects student achievement, teacher success, precious time, fiscal and resource stewardship, and the public’s confidence in schools.

With this in mind, here are three ideas that can help educators engage in a conversation and take practical actions to minimize the effects of fads.

1. Honor the change process and the difficulty of implementation

 William McCallum (math standards co-author) learned that “implementation is everything” after observing how the Common Core State Standards were initially applauded, then harshly criticized, by politicians, parents, and educators (Hess & McShane, 2014).

A sound idea is not enough. Change occurs on dual tracks: ideas and process. The planning process is messy and involves listening, humility, and time. This includes listening to teacher skeptics who often raise excellent points related to respecting the local context, initiative overload, piloting, assessing the initiative, creating timelines, financial and infrastructure capacity, and professional development.

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2. Beware of shiny objects that endanger the school mission

Educators are susceptible to promising new ideas—shiny objects—because we want to make a difference, now. However, the desire to stay ahead of the curve can lead to careless decision making. Some vendors and policy makers will capitalize on this desire by overpromising. (A recent ad promised perfect lessons for every student.)

The failed Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Common Core Technology Project should be a warning to educators, as Benjamin Herold wrote in Education Week.

Initially, LAUSD contracted with Apple and Pearson to distribute iPads preloaded with Pearson CCSS digital curriculum to all 650,000 district students, teachers, and administrators. In the end, the superintendent at the time suspended the multimillion-dollar project for reasons related to advantaging specific vendors, students hacking iPads, and inadequate curriculum resources.

Herold drew three insightful lessons:

  • Urgency is no excuse for poor planning
  • Be wary of one-size-fits-all solutions
  • Don’t play favorites with vendors

In addition, all educators tasked with ed-tech procurement should consider:

  • What evidence indicates that the resources coherently align with the school mission?
  • How are teaching and learning goals advanced in class by the technology?
  • Could ed-tech decisions hurt underserved students? If yes, what preventive actions should occur?
  • Finally, to innovate, pedagogy should drive technology

3. Embrace “the genius of the AND” to effectively innovate using timeless teaching practices

In Built to Last, Collins and Porras introduce their insightful “Genius of the AND” concept: Synthesize the best ideas of contrasting positions to avoid either/or traps. Thus, 21st century skills AND factual content should be taught together. To illustrate, today’s innovative teachers engaged in maker movement STEM activities would be wise to study and celebrate John Dewey’s pedagogical strategy: Align structured lessons with student-centered teaching (Ravitch, 2000). This will help maker movement advocates avoid some of the criticism Dewey faced (e.g., “These activities look like play”).

Paradoxically, innovative approaches can gain credibility by documenting their historical lineage to timeless practices. In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe celebrated the conceptual ties of their popular program to Benjamin Bloom and Ralph Tyler. Timeless pedagogical practices that can help today’s innovative teachers flourish include:

  • Teaching with an eclectic mindset: Use a variety of instructional strategies
  • Practicing sound lesson design: Include objectives, modeling, guided practice, checking for understanding, and formative assessment
  • Supporting a rich, well-rounded curriculum: In addition to the high stakes tested subjects (e.g., reading and math), support science, history, literature, civics, foreign language, the performing and visual arts, technology, and physical education
  • Modeling democracy in the classroom: Foster citizenship to understand public issues and how to vote responsibly
  • Serving as caring teachers: Build trust and relationships that emphasize academic and social support

Thoughtful decision making—going slow—raises the odds that an innovation will succeed. Before green-lighting proposed initiatives, educators must ask: Are the ideas masquerading as quick fixes or will the interventions advance teaching and learning? Interestingly, one of the world’s most innovative companies operates at a speed that will surprise many. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, at Google, “moonshots don’t begin with brainstorming clever answers. They start with the hard work of finding the right questions.”

What do you think of these ideas? How does your school or district identify true innovations versus fads? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Harvey Alvy
Harvey Alvy, a former NAESP National Distinguished Principal is the author of Fighting for Change in Your School: How to Avoid Fads and Focus on Substance (ASCD, 2017) and co-author of Learning from Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success (ASCD, 2010).

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