Lessons Learned about Sustainability of District Innovations

Why do some district innovations stick and some disappear? From my years spent as a teacher, superintendent, and researcher in different districts where a great deal of money, time, and staff were spent in adopting and implementing innovations, I offer four lessons about those reforms that have stuck or, in academic-talk, achieved sustainability. These district innovations ranged from redesigning big high schools into small ones to introducing complete school choice for parents. They included start-up International Baccalaureate programs to introducing charter schools to 1:1 laptops in schools. Here is what I have learned:

1. No innovation can survive unless it is institutionalized at the district level. Examples of the loss of board support for district innovations occur often. In Memphis, Tenn. the work of Superintendent Gerri House in building system-wide whole school reform over 8 years was dismantled by her successor in six months. After six years of reform under David Hornbeck in Philadelphia, state and local officials disassembled them within a year after he resigned.

In any district, then, current and subsequent leaders must retain the school board’s support for the district innovation. Both board and superintendent must recruit new district leaders who understand the rationale for the innovation and share in the spirit of the reform, even though they were not involved in its initial implementation. One example of superintendents leaving and their prize legacy continuing under their successors can be seen in Cleveland after Barbara Byrd-Bennett embraced K-8 schools and subsequently exited. Her successor, Eugene Sanders, continued the innovation.

2. The innovation must be sustained at the school level. Factors such as teacher and principal turnover, institutional inertia, and a gradual diminution of energy and commitment slowly press upon each school to turn back the page and return to what existed before the innovation. Recall open-space schools from the 1970s when districts built schools with large open areas for team-teaching and small group work. But then teachers, anxious about the noise and constant movement of students, put up bookcases to separate spaces; principals had walls built. Within a few years, a return to the familiar self-contained classrooms within those open-space schools surprised few observers.

Insuring, then, that new principals and teachers at each school are recruited and trained in the practices of the innovation and understand what needs to be done is just as essential to the innovation’s longevity as is each school-site adding and subtracting changes as they adapt to changing conditions inside and outside the school.

3. The reform must be financially viable. Early on in most district innovations, enthusiastic promoters promised that, after high start-up costs, operating expenditures for the change would be level off. That may or may not happen, depending upon the kind of innovation. That reduction in cost occurred when “professional learning communities” in schools and districts moved from external consultants started the process and then district personnel took it over.

But with the conversion of big high schools into many small high schools that has not been the case because district costs do rise.(OVAE Cost of SLCs Final Balfanz)

4. The innovation must be flexible and change as conditions change. Eager innovators think about sustainability in one of two ways. There are those who launch an innovation, establish practices and programs and want all of the pieces to stay the same for years to come. Others, however, see sustainability as launching and establishing a new program but also changing it as conditions shift.

The first group sees being faithful to the original design of an innovation as essential; to them the primary task is to preserve the change as it was intended. The second group seeks to sustain the innovation by adapting it continually; innovating, to the second group, is a process, ever evolving.

The innovations that last, however, seem to be the ones that adapt as they age. Consider the kindergarten as an innovation that began in public schools in the late 19th century. Initially, the kindergarten had a progressive curriculum anchored in play as the way for five year-olds to learn social and academic skills. Over decades, however, especially since the 1980s, the kindergarten has clearly moved away from play toward learning reading, math, and other academic subjects before the first grade. The point I want to make is that the innovation has been around over a century, meeting the test of longevity, to be sure, but also it has adapted to changing conditions.

These four lessons drawn from my experiences are a first pass at unraveling the puzzle of why some innovations stick and why some disappear like bird marks in the sand. A subsequent post will take a deeper look at the puzzle.

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