Change Management: Finding a Solution

By Peter Lorinser, Improvement Specialist

This is the third of a series of blog posts on the components of the Rennie Center’s Change Management Framework.

Making lasting improvements in classrooms, schools, and districts takes a thoughtful and structured approach. You need to have consensus around the problem you are looking to solve and a clear set of goals your team wants to reach. Once those pieces are in place, the next step is to choose a strategy, or intervention, that will help you reach your goal. In this crucial element of our Change Management Framework, the key is to look for a solution that has worked for others and customize it for your unique context.

What do we mean by an intervention? At the classroom level, this could be a new lesson plan to help students understand fractions. A school-level intervention could be a focus on enhancing social-emotional learning to address achievement gaps. A district-level example could be a city-wide effort to provide students with work-based learning experiences to improve college and career readiness.

At any level, the aim of effective reform is to improve outcomes, not discover new strategies. So you should look toward best practices to find an intervention that has been successful in solving a similar problem, then tweak it to meet the needs of your class, school, or district. It’s important to remember that no one solution will work in every context and the first intervention you try may not work. The key to improvement is systematically testing what has worked for others until you find what works for you. 

Our Change Management Framework breaks down this process into three components. Each component builds on the others, and they collectively provide a set of guidelines for selecting the right intervention:

  1. Build a common understanding of the context.
  2. Specify potential programmatic components and ensure they are rooted in research-based best practices and local context.
  3. Ensure that strategies can be led and sustained by practitioners.

Component 1:  Build a common understanding of the socio-political-cultural context

Understanding the context is crucial. Very few improvement efforts begin with a clean slate. Most improvements alter existing systems or processes. Complete and wholesale adaptation of a strategy that worked elsewhere rarely leads to the intended outcome. Examples of this are the smaller schools initiative, zero tolerance discipline policies, and the overreliance on high-stakes testing.

As your team prepares to move from identifying a problem to defining potential solutions, you must consider how to bring internal and external stakeholders into the conversation. Surveys, focus groups, and open meetings allow the local community to express their opinions while also illuminating potential political challenges that may put pressure on the improvement effort. The process of identifying, vetting, and mapping competing priorities and reforms will most certainly impact the efficiency and efficacy of the improvement project as it will help you understand potential road-blocks, potential champions, or other initiatives that will enhance or hinder the effort.

Questions to Consider

  • Has the team identified potential opponents or proponents and any potential competing priorities that may detract from the improvement effort?
  • Has the team gauged the feasibility and sustainability of the intervention by analyzing the implementation environment and developed a plan to navigate the local context?
  • Has the team established a process to consistently check in and gather feedback from stakeholders and decision makers to gain their support and ensure that the problem of practice is viewed as a priority?

Component 2:  Specify programmatic components rooted in research-based best practices and local context

Anyone looking to fix a problem can quickly type a few words into a computer or phone, and they will be inundated with thousands of remedies. Within the haystack of solutions some may be effective; others, pure myth. Although time-consuming, it’s vital for teams to distinguish between the two. The search for proven best practices is crucial. After all, as noted above, improvement science is not about discovering or testing new ideas but about contextualizing already proven practices and implementing them within the local context.

The team leading the effort to select an intervention should consult three potential sources of information to distinguish useful from less-useful interventions: 1) relevant empirical research, 2) within-district or outside subject-matter expertise, and 3) local team-based professional experience and relevant data from the local context. Again, research, interviews, focus groups, surveys, and other data collection methods can help a team understand, identify, and ultimately select potential strategies to drive improvement.

Questions to Consider

  • Has the team gathered relevant research to support and influence their potential intervention(s)?
  • Has the team confirmed that the selected strategies are best practices/proven to work somewhere else?
  • Has the team investigated what practitioners are currently doing around the shared problem of practice?
  • Are the programmatic efforts developed with a consideration of both research and local context?

Component 3:  Design strategies that can be led by practitioners

To implement an effective improvement program, teams should consider strategies that allow educators to collaborate and serve as the primary drivers of reform. For example, if improvement teams can use existing formal structures to collaboratively analyze data or establish a plan that aligns with existing teacher professional development/learning goals, the effort is more likely to be sustained over time.

Personnel working in schools are often stretched thin, and far too often improvement efforts seek additional teacher time to implement a strategy that has been developed elsewhere. This sort of top-down approach can lead to teacher burnout and improvement fatigue. When selecting an intervention, the team must empower educators to lead the effort in a way that weaves the intervention into some of the already-formed structures mentioned previously, at least at the start. Teams can look at the fit between the intervention and existing school or district systems to determine whether a particular proven practice would work in their context.

If the initiative is a “side project” it will lose steam shortly after initial implementation. The last stage of defining the intervention is ensuring that the needs, interests, and goals of the actual implementers are brought into the process of developing the method for reform. Although we advocate for practitioners to lead all improvement efforts, the role of administrative and district staff is equally important as they must help articulate and communicate a vision for the work, align various school or district priorities, and ultimately set the stage for teachers to work together and feel empowered to experiment in an effort to improve.

Questions to Consider

  • Has the improvement team selected an intervention that will empower educators to lead the effort?
  • Has the team developed the necessary sub-groups, space, and time to vet and select an intervention that will be collaboratively worked on by teachers?
  • Has the team of teachers collaboratively codified their action plan to align with their professional learning goals, and do they see their participation in the improvement effort as beneficial?

To further assist our networks and other improvement teams we have created a set of project management tools. These tools enable teams to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses. Check out our Defining Potential Interventions rubric for more on this topic, and stay tuned for our next blog where we will discuss the importance of outlining how an improvement initiative can take root, starting by building a trusting an committed team.