Is Implementation the Secret to Student Success?

Learn more about Anne Wicks.
Anne Wicks
Ann Kimball Johnson Director, Education and Opportunity
George W. Bush Institute

As a field, we know a great deal about how to support student learning, but too often we gum up the works with spotty implementation. It's time the implementation elephant in the room is addressed.

“We don’t rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.”–James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

If we believe every system is perfectly designed for the results it gets, then we should not be surprised that our public-school system struggles to keep all kids on track for future success.  We, as a field, know a great deal about how to support student learning, but too often we gum up the works with spotty implementation – missing key ideas like engaging stakeholders, using root cause analysis, and assessing how initiatives conflict or enhance each other. 

When will we address the implementation elephant in the room?

Research-based initiatives should drive what happens in classrooms and schools. However, too often we see that new education initiatives fade away mid-year or have mixed results. Commonly the “what” – the new program or initiative – is where leaders solely put their focus. As a result, improvement is usually anecdotal and sporadic. We believe considering “how” to implement that new initiative is just as important.

It is not uncommon to leave a conference or sales pitch enthused about a new curriculum or initiative or a new leader shares ideas that worked in their past organization. Change then commences quickly. While change is good, too often it happens without fully considering how the new policy or practice will impact work currently underway. Additionally, leaders neglect to clarify why the new option is better for students, or forget to assess whether stakeholders are ready to adopt and execute the new idea well.

This scenario happens at the state, district, and school levels for two reasons. First, decision-makers are moving quickly to serve students, leaving little time for thoughtful consideration of implementation. Second, educators are not supported or trained to do the kind of strategic management that running schools, programs, and districts truly requires. Instead, people act by instinct alone or follow what has been done before.

To better understand and address this challenge, the George W. Bush Institute developed the Effective Implementation Framework, which details what it takes to make changes to practice and policy in complex human environments. We are testing that Framework with our four school district research partners as part of a bigger research project about Principal Talent Management. The Framework identifies the practical actions needed from leaders – anyone from district decision-makers to principals to department chairs – to implement something new.  

The Framework helps teams prepare for and then execute change.

Do you have a vision for why this work matters? Have you engaged all your stakeholders – and do you know who they are? Do your cross functional teams have meeting norms in place to guide agenda setting and use of time? Do you have a way to track work, deadlines, and action step owners? Do you utilize root cause analysis? Do you know who has decision-making authority and what matters most to him or her?  Are you aware of the micro politics at play in your district? 

In other words, a new idea can be great, in theory, for students, but if your team can’t move through a meeting agenda and make decisions, you are sunk.

Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD) is one of our district research partners, and they are using the Framework to organize their work broadly. Specifically, the team is using the elements of the Framework to determine how to best support the district’s lowest performing schools  –  those campuses that scored a D or F in the most recent state accountability system. Instead of quickly restructuring and applying blanket solutions to all campuses, the district understands that principal supervisors need to spend a lot of time on those struggling campuses, listening to people, and watching the work that is underway. Those supervisors can then more effectively work with their colleagues in the district office to support the schools in targeted ways.

Principal supervisors have a lot of demands on their time, from meetings in the central office to supporting a full portfolio of schools. The team created a color-coded schedule tracker to map which schools are getting the most visits to help the principal supervisors prioritize their time.  The superintendent sees the tracker – so there is strong accountability for everyone in the central office to ensure that the principal supervisors are freed up to be on the highest need campuses instead of meetings at headquarters or handling more minor needs at higher performing campuses.  

This kind of very targeted blocking and tackling work is a key part of solving the larger problem – how can the central office team best support the district’s lowest performing campuses. This relatively simple tracker does not automatically solve very complex school challenges. But it does provide a clear guide to the team as they draft a longer-term strategy, which will now include a range of well-informed possibilities. Once a decision is made, the team can clearly communicate to all stakeholders that the increased time on campuses, listening and observing, helped to inform the final strategy.

While educating all students well is complex work, we already know the basics of the right formula– high quality teachers and principals, strong instructional practice, and strong school cultures that welcome kids and parents. The challenge, then, is implementing what we know works in complex environments. The Framework is not flashy. Implementing well over time requires discipline, thoughtful reflection, and always keeping the end goal in mind.  

Educators consistently operate with limited resources of people, money, and time, and the stakes – preparing kids well for their futures – are high. If we are serious about improving student outcomes, we must also be serious about implementation.

We give CEOs and corporate managers training in this kind of management. Why do we shy away from it in education, which is arguably more complicated and regulated? If we are serious about improving outcomes for kids, then we must change how we work together for their benefit.