Far too many reformers, regardless of ideology, forget two key principles in pushing for changes that will stick in community institutions.
The first principle is an organizational fact. Both change and stability are constants in every societal institution. No institution is static. They are stable in adhering to rules and daily routines while adopting small and big changes at the same time.
Think of state, federal and local government, big and small business, hospitals and clinics, police and court systems, and yes, K-12 schools and universities. Planned and unplanned changes occur all the time amid officials and practitioners going about their daily duties. But these changes–installing computers in police cars to doctors using electronic health records for doctors in diagnosing ill patients to teachers allowing students to use their cell phones as clickers in answering classroom questions–are not what reformers seek.
The changes that current reformers of every stripe seek–charter school advocates, online enthusiasts, pay-for-performance champions, Common Core Standards boosters–are not these everyday changes that occur in classrooms, schools, districts, and states. Often they dismiss those changes as not “real” or “true” reform but changes of no great significance. They want to “revolutionize” the institution. They want the kind of big changes that emit the smell of improvement, nay, “transformation.”
Knowing that change and stability are inherent to every societal institution and in tense equilibrium is important because reformers consistently paint existing institutions as “traditional,” “resistant to change,” and in need of a “revolution.” In wanting their version of “true reform” they have to dismiss the daily changes that occur as inconsequential or even changes that perpetuate the “status quo.” That forgetfulness of this institutional fact on the part of reformers is forgivable if they acknowledge that it is a fact of life and build on it rather than dismiss it as insignificant.
The second principle is making clear publicly the theory of change that drives the proposed reform. What is the logic of the change? What do reformers believe will cause a desired result to occur? What assumptions are being made about the institution, the participants, and how the change will unfold once adopted. And even more questions.
Based on these two principles often ignored by big name reformers on the national stage, I want to downsize both to fit the classroom and school where teachers and principals, often in concert with parents, work daily and plan and implement changes that they hope will lead to improvements in teaching and learning.
I believe that it is the spirit of democracy to air and debate proposed changes in policies and practice for those affected. I believe that is practical in getting those who are expected to alter their work routines to understand the proposed change. I believe that is morally responsible for those engaged in seeking improvement to lay out answers to the following questions.
1. What are the problems you want to solve? What are your goals?
2. What assumptions are built into the change?
3. What strategies are you using to solve those problems? Are the strategies consistent with assumptions?
4. What capacities (knowledge and skills) are needed to carry out the strategies to effect change? Who has them? Where to get them?
5. What has to be done in the school and classroom for the desired policy to be completely implemented?
6. How will you know that changes worked in the short-, mid-, and long-term?
What these questions do is lay out the theory of action embedded in the change for those touched by the change. Without getting at the innards of a proposed change–which is what these questions do–students, teachers, administrators, parents, taxpayers, and voters can only guess at its logic. When the daily work of those affected by the proposed change, their hopes and those of parents for their children, and the general public for the future of the rising generation are affected, knowing the theory driving the change is essential.
When I offer these questions to teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members, I usually do it with many clear-cut examples. I also portray these questions in a graphic figure with boxes and arrows that illustrate the problems that a proposed change will potentially solve, the actual change itself, the assumptions embedded in the proposal, strategies, outcomes etc.
Take, for example, a current change highly desired by many educational associations, district officials, principals, teachers, and researchers: professional learning communities (PLC). The following shows my answers to the above questions.
I invite readers to read and discuss the theory of action driving so much talk about professional learning communities. For those readers who are thinking of making changes or have already embarked on such changes in their classrooms, schools, and districts, I would like to know whether the questions and figure were helpful or unhelpful.