Questions To Ask in Making Changes in Schools and Classrooms: A Primer

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.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

6 responses to “Questions To Ask in Making Changes in Schools and Classrooms: A Primer

  1. One of the key reasons behind the pursuit of “transformation” you correctly identify Larry is the unusual way education projects tend to be structured and funded. It’s not unusual to find them being driven by an individual, or small team at best, who have a very short term, contractual interest in the change. These figures nearly always see the project as a major step on their personal career ladder, and are at least as actively engaged in their personal goals, as in achieving meaningful change in the organisation. I have worked on numerous commercial, educational projects and it is a standing joke amongst colleagues that at some point or other in the process, a key individual on the educational, client side, will ask for a job. Frequently they get one.

    As your model points out, the time factor is important and no kind of lasting change in teachers’ and pupils’ performance is going to happen in under 3-5 years. It is vital therefore that reformers seriously seeking change, put in place the incentives and structures to create sufficient stability to deliver real, not cosmetic, change.

    I would also add one thing I have definitely learned. The value of skilful and effective communications strategies in these kinds of projects can’t be stressed enough. I have never come across an educational organisation or body who understands this at all, in the detailed, thorough way businesses do.

    • larrycuban

      I believe that you are correct in your analysis of short-term projects, Joe. At least what you say accords with my experience and a host of studies done by Milbrey McLaughlin and others on adopting and implementing change. Ditto for the point you make on the importance of communication within such projects. The questions that I offer (and which I think are basic to any teacher, administrator, and district official seeking to launch a change) are too often ignored so that the support necessary for sustaining a short-term project is missing because no public discussion (and communication) of the logic of the change has occurred. Then again, it is possible that in asking the questions the promoters of the change might see the illogic of what they are proposing and stop. That might even be refreshing.

  2. Cal

    I like your structure, but the reason I like it may sound a little harsh: because it shows exactly what’s wrong with your initiative (and most others). The success criteria in the first year is very “soft” and, as someone who has been through this in both education and corporate America, I know that it means “everyone talk the talk”. Then in year two, it’s “everyone walk the walk.”

    And by years 3-5, when we’re supposed to finally see tangible improvements that are the actual purpose of walking and talking the prescribed way–well, they’ve moved onto a new initiative, or simply forgotten about it.

    I’m sure you know this; I just couldn’t resist pointing it out.

  3. Donna

    Although you seem to use the terms Theory of Change and Theory of Action interchangeably, I’m learning that they are different. Your ToA captures the big picture and logic of a single, relatively small initiative (in the context of current reform milieu). A ToC would try to capture the logic of a complex social change, like the simultaneous reforms of Common Core, educator evaluation systems, and more complex student assessment processes. Nevertheless, those who successfully pushed for these “transformative” reforms don’t seem to have pondered the questions you raise nor do they believe that their implementation should take more than a year or two. When an executive manager of our DOE told our state’s business and political influentials that full implementation of the reforms would take up to ten years, their response was, “Well, with that attitude, they’ll never be accomplished.”

    • larrycuban

      Donna, thanks for your comments about the differences you see between T of A and T of C. And, of course, the story about your state’s policy elite’s response to the DOE official’s estimate of a long timeline for implementation.

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