K-12 education has a perennial hunger for change, improvement and innovation. From “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 to the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitions to the revision of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, there’s been a fluctuating yet ever-present pressure to improve student achievement.
Meanwhile, priorities such as school discipline reform, instituting culturally affirming curriculum, addressing COVID-19 learning loss, treating a youth mental health epidemic and curtailing educator burnout have been added to the mix. Across the board, these pressures all call for change management in one form or another.
People often think that change is just about getting the right leaders in place and giving them the right incentives to make change happen. Yet, a surprising number of K-12 change management and innovation efforts fail. The culprit isn’t always bad leadership or poor accountability. Rather, many fail because the locus of change is schools, and leaders strive for change in a context that just isn’t conducive to change.
Research-based insights, however, can help education leaders as they work to drive improvement and innovations within their school systems.
Which stakeholders do you answer to?
All organizations, schools included, exist in a broader environment that shapes their priorities. A school must follow myriad requirements set forth in state and federal policy just to keep its doors open and have the funding to pay its bills. Then, to do its work, it depends on contracts with staff unions and its ability to procure key resources from vendors and teacher preparation pipelines. It must also respond to the expectations of families, staff and its community. Thus, the priorities of a school ultimately derive from whatever it takes to survive and thrive in the context of its broader environment.
This environment is what our research frameworks call an organization’s value network: the external entities (government agencies, families, staff, unions, voters, vendors, etc.) that have the actual power to shape an organization’s priorities through resource dependence, regulation, democratic governance and more.
People often think that an effective leader who’s good at change management is the key to getting desired changes enacted. In reality, an established school’s value network will support some changes and stymie others.
Balancing all interests isn’t easy
Consider a real-world example. In September 2015, a California school district rolled out a new approach to middle-school math: a highly touted math program developed by a nonprofit. The district expected the program to address its students’ achievement gaps by providing learning experiences personalized to their individual needs. The program does this by capturing daily snapshots of students’ learning progress and then using its algorithms to build each student a customized learning schedule for the next day. The learning experiences in a student’s schedule can include live lessons with a teacher or tutor, online instructional activities or collaborative learning activities with peers. Research has demonstrated its effectiveness in improving student math achievement.
The partnership seemed like a match made in heaven. It made sense that a district in the heart of Silicon Valley would adopt an innovative, technology-enabled approach like this one. Yet, within just a few weeks of the program’s rollout, the district began receiving a barrage of complaints about technical difficulties and lessons that were not appropriate for their student’s grade levels. By December, the pushback from parents and teachers was so strong that the district canceled the program in the middle of the school year.
The problem, however, wasn’t the program. Nor was it poor execution of the program by the district, despite news coverage that questioned the vetting the program, its rollout and family communication to expect the program.
Reading between the lines of news articles and making sense of conversations with the program’s vendor, it seems the district’s value network was at play rather than the more typically anticipated problems. In this case, middle-schoolers’ families — a group with significant sway in the districts’ value network — pushed back because the program didn’t provide what they expected. When all students had a personalized schedule that had them learning at the cusp of their understanding, students who had breezed through math in the past found the program frustratingly challenging. Advanced students were also learning in the same classrooms as remedial students, contrary to their expectations.
In short, the program wasn’t what families thought “real school” should look like. They feared that their students were falling off the known path to academic success.
How leaders can work with value networks
Running afoul of major influences isn’t uncommon when academic best practices are an initiative’s driving force. The power of an organization’s value network requires a deeper approach to change. Leaders must learn to discern the priorities coming from their value networks and then implement strategies and tactics for delivering what the value network expects.
In a school system, leaders can spearhead the adoption and implementation of a quality curriculum, hire and develop effective teachers, and build trust with students and families so they will work together in support of the school. If the problem at hand is one of upgrading resources or improving practices in service of the existing priorities of an established value network, then leaders can plan accordingly.
Unfortunately, change isn’t just a matter of vision, strategy and execution. Sometimes it requires prioritizing something that runs counter to the dominant influences in its value network. When that happens, the typical leadership playbook is likely to fall short. In these circumstances, building the organizational capabilities to deliver on different priorities requires developing those capabilities within a new value network aligned to those new priorities.
A solution to make good intentions work
Village High School, part of Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., provides a case study on how to pursue innovations that run counter to the value networks of conventional schools. Here, students work with teacher-mentors to create individualized academic programs based on their needs and interests. They get to choose the pacing for their courses as well as where and how to spend their time over the course of a school day.
This degree of individualization works because students receive all of their core academic content — English, history, social studies and math — through mastery-based online courses. With core classes covered online, students and teachers then have more time and opportunities for an array of in-person and highly engaging electives, such as Adulting 101, Renewable Energy, Beekeeping, Comparative Religions and International Relations.
The Academy district didn’t create the Village High School model by reimagining an existing conventional high school using change management strategies. Instead, it built Village High School from the ground up as an option that students, families and staff could opt into based on whether the program matched their needs and interests. This approach to enrollment enabled the new school to pull families and staff into its value network whose priorities aligned with the aims of the school. Additionally, because of its designation as a virtual school, the priorities coming from the state policy wing of its value network gave it some flexibility to operate differently than conventional schools.
Where innovation can flourish?
If you’re an educator who wants to bring about important changes or innovations in schooling, don’t assume that you alone can lead your current school to those changes. First, ask yourself whether those changes align with the priorities of the value network that your school already sits within. If alignment exists, proceed with the leadership playbook. But if policies or stakeholder priorities clash with your goals, then traditional leadership is not the answer. Instead, you need to find a space where you can build a new school or program with a value network aligned to your aims.
For some, that may mean launching a new, specialized school within the district — such as a new alternative school or virtual school. For others, that may mean creating a new after-school program, extracurricular program or summer school program. The key is to find a space where you can assemble an aligned value network — where both policy and influential stakeholders can come together in support of your goals.
Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K-12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system.
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