Implementing and Sustaining School Reform

It is obviously hard to institute sustainable school reform when much of the reform undertaken in schools is the result of constant policymaking and changes mandated by incoming district administrations or temporary measures. Sustainability does, though, require changes to happen, as a “lack of change” speaks more of conservatism than reform. Essentially, sustainability means that improvements should be ongoing.

The evolution of transportation provides an instructive example. Transportation did not stop with the invention of the wheel. In the intervening centuries, transportation mediums were being developed, refined, and improved upon until they evolved into the industry we know today. The process has not stopped, nor should it. Innovation is always taking place, which means improvements are occurring. Our schools should emulate this type of process—school improvement should never end.

Let us consider five key points to sustaining school reform. The first of these is a substantial level of commitment, which stems from the belief that change is possible. There is, in fact, a great deal of power to be found in belief. Belief is what gives disadvantaged people the will to try to succeed and minorities the will to prosper. Conversely, the lack of belief can impede the success of reform efforts, regardless of how promising the proposed content of the reform may be.

If the will is not there, reform will not happen. Belief is just as important in school reform as in any other areas of life. If support, belief, and commitment are missing, then schools can paper over the gaps in the short term, but without the commitment of staff and faculty, the reforms lack stability. The likelihood of successful reform is, therefore, dependent on faculty and staff members embracing the implementation process of reform and sticking to it.

Reforms that originate outside of schools (e.g., reforms initiated at the district level) are by no means doomed to fail. Even so, district or other administrators need to make special efforts to assist teachers and other school staff in developing a feeling of ownership of the project in order to foster commitment and a belief in the efficacy of the reform.

Sustainable reform depends on the development of capacity. As our knowledge of cognitive science grows, we learn more about the ways individuals take in and process information. This knowledge has led to greater focus on how effective learning environments are built. Schools and districts are somewhat restricted in how they operate due to political, financial, and practical concerns, but they can still use their increasing knowledge to develop practices relevant to student learning needs and to structure learning environments to more effectively support these needs.

One absolutely vital aspect needed to sustain school reform is the time to accomplish it. It is a commonly reported issue that one of the most challenging issues schools and districts face is the need for time to plan and implement reform that would lead to improvements. No matter how successful the leadership of a school happens to be, leaders only have the same number of hours in a day as everyone else. Nonetheless, they likely have more demands on their time, which places them under pressure to maximize how their overcommitted time is used.

This issue often separates effective from ineffective leaders: the best ones will make much better use of their time, and have more control over it. Naturally, they will still come up against obstacles they can’t change, but they also have strict time management processes and will constantly evaluate how effective they have been in their use of time.

Sometimes the result of leader’s evaluation of time use will help them realize they are stretched too thinly.  Effective leaders are able to delegate some of their leadership responsibilities to other staff members who can perform those functions with support.  They also make sure that all the activities they undertake – particularly those relating to reform – will be structured around teaching and learning. Effective leaders will also make sure that their processes are efficient and that their actions will always work to further the goals of the school.

The actions of effective leaders may leave some staff or stakeholders feeling a little neglected or angry that they have not been given sufficient time with their leader. Ultimately, however, nothing comes without a cost, and it’s a case of weighing the benefits of spending time on reform against the costs of not focusing on other duties. The aim is to minimize the cost of actions while maximizing their benefit. This means that good planning and implementation are vital in order to manage time effectively.


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