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It's the HOW not the WHAT

Many schools across the country have struggled to make significant improvements in student outcomes. As school leaders we try to implement research-based practices. We engage in yearly school improvement efforts. We’ve even tried cycles of continuous improvement. We use the What Works Clearinghouse to adopt materials that are highly evidence based. We’ve implemented PLCs. Why do we not see the results that we read about in the research?

The problem is not the WHAT. We know the impact of effective PLCs. We know the importance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum. There is clear evidence of which practices are most effective for all students. We’ve known about the WHAT for decades.

“We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do this.” - Ron Edmond mid-1970s.

While Edmond’s quote highlights how long we’ve known what effective schools do, it implies that the cause for lack of improvement is our own motivation. While this may be the case in some specific circumstances, it’s not the case in general. We’ve worked with hundreds of school districts that truly want what’s best for kids and are engaged in significant improvement efforts. That’s why they’ve tried to implement all of those research-based best practices.

The problem is the HOW.

When we adopt a new materials series or decide to implement PLCs or even engage in curriculum mapping, we often get a lot of support on the WHAT. Education companies or the district office provide all sorts of training on what those things are: how to use the new materials, what PLCs look like, or even the practices associated with the science of reading. These trainings include how to engage in the new practice, but they rarely provide support in how to implement this new initiative at the leadership level. Sure, there may be some support in general for how to implement those systems or how they’ve seen it done in other places. Unfortunately, those are rarely nuanced or strategic enough to capture the complexity of education in a specific context.

This is why initiatives often fail. It’s not the WHAT. It’s often not the WHY (our motivation). It’s usually the HOW.

Consider the following questions that a leader should explore in order to successfully implementing a new initiative. How often do you receive support in these areas?

  • How does this initiative fit with other projects currently happening at the school/district? How do we ensure coherence and alignment so that people are not overwhelmed?

  • What seeds need to be planted, messaging sent, or capacity built before the initiative even starts?

  • How will you collect implementation data over the course of the initiative and what is the plan to provide differentiated support to staff based on that data?

  • How are you involving and supporting principals, instructional coaches, or other key staff in monitoring and supporting the initiative? What specific training will they receive before or in conjunction with the rest of the staff on the topic? What knowledge or skills might they need to support implementation?

  • Who are your early adopters and how will you leverage them as the initiative progresses?

  • What barriers and leverage points exist within the system that need to be addressed or leveraged for the initiative to be successful?

  • How will you, as the leader, model the change in a way that supports implementation with your staff?

These are just a few of the key questions we need to answer for our initiative to be successful. These questions help us to plan for the HOW of successfully implementing the strategies and structure we know make a difference for students.


  • All - To what extent (if at all) were these ideas considered before implementing your last initiative? What initiative are you considering in the near future? How can these questions assist with planning for that initiative?

  • Principals - How might this change your school improvement planning process this year?

  • Coaching/Principals - When might you discuss some of these questions with your building or district leadership this spring as they begin planning for next year?

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