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March 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 6

Getting More Urgent About Change Leadership

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School leaders need to break with 5-year plans, “buy-in,” and other hidebound conventions on implementing change.

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It is time for a change in change leadership. In this time when the world of schooling is finding its way after the pandemic's height, when schools need urgent change, many education systems remain stuck in the five-year time horizon of strategic plans. While schools face crises, too many leaders remain paralyzed by the notion that change is impossible without buy-in from everyone involved.
Implementing needed changes at a too-careful, too-slow pace isn't the only problem: Many schools are trying to push too many changes simultaneously. So at a time when teachers and administrators need focus, schools are inundated with initiative fatigue. For example, in reviewing more than 2,000 school plans, we've found schools with dozens of priorities and districts with more than 100—but schools with the greatest gains in achievement consistently had six or fewer priorities.
What's needed for effective change leadership has changed since the pioneering work of John Kotter, a leading thinker in this area, in the 1980s. We believe it's essential for leaders at every level to re-evaluate their previous notions of change leadership—and their own strategies. In particular, they need to embrace the reality that significant change within a school can happen more quickly—within 100 days, we contend—when leaders stop focusing on "buy-in" or too many initiatives. Observing and consulting in schools in the last few years, we've seen that when leaders recognize three new realities about how to promote change in schools, increased student achievement results.

Change #1: Leaders Must Accelerate the Pace of Change

In contrast to the traditional claim that change takes five to seven years, the evidence is that great things can be done in 100 days (Reeves & Eaker, 2019). That's a single semester in most schools. The writing of the United States Constitution, Handel's Messiah, and Dostoyevsky's The Gambler all happened in fewer than 100 days. Perhaps more significantly, so did the major policy and legislative actions Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to rescue the nation from the Great Depression. We've seen schools reduce (by more than 80 percent) the rate at which students fail courses; dramatically improve attendance and behavior; and increase student engagement—within 100 days.
When people accept the "five to seven years" claim, it can be an excuse for institutional lethargy—and our children suffer for it. Imagine that you are a parent of a 1st grade student and a school leader tells you, "We have this great reading program that helps struggling early readers–but it will be five to seven years before it's implemented." Or imagine that you're teaching students who clearly show serious learning gaps associated with school closures and remote learning in recent years (Anderson, 2022), and you hear someone tout great intervention initiatives to help your students catch up—but add that it will take years to successfully implement them.

Leaders need to take decisive action and say without equivocation, 'This is what we will accomplish in the next 100 days.'

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We often argue our point to school, district, and state-level leaders through this comparison: Imagine the school is on fire and children are in the building. Do you really need to have another meeting or study to decide whether to evacuate the building? Leaders need to take decisive action and say without equivocation, "This is what we will accomplish in the next 100 days."
We have seen practical examples of the 100-day action plan. For instance, we worked with a high school in San Bernardino, California, where the failure rate for some courses in math, science, and English language arts was 50 percent. After teachers made two fundamental changes, starting around 2016, the failure rate for these courses declined dramatically within one semester—to less than 10 percent or, in some cases, zero.
First, teachers stopped using the electronic grading system built into their school's learning management system for course grades. This system, like most, automatically assigned grades on a zero to 100-point scale and used the average of each student's points to determine their final course grade. Teachers couldn't override that grading system while using this LMS. Eventually, with encouragement—and seeing more students of the teachers who switched grading methods both pass courses and learn key material—all teachers assumed their own professional responsibility to evaluate students based on their performance on state standards. Neither standards nor assessments changed. Teacher expectations didn't change. The fundamental change in assessment terms was to displace the toxic practice of the average to determine final grades.
Second, teachers stopped the traditional policy of assigning homework and made time for students to practice and reinforce learning in class. They rejected the fantasy that homework completion rates are a reflection of student character or achievement, rather than of how conducive to schoolwork the home environment is, and how some kids have more external responsibilities—like sibling care—than others. As one teacher said, the shift to in-class practice was "not grade inflation, it was work inflation. Students were working harder—they just got the work done in class."

Change #2: Move from Buy-in to Evidence-Based Commitment

One of the most persistent myths in change leadership is the assumption that buy-in from all staff members is essential before initiating change. Given the pervasive learning gaps associated with the global pandemic, there is a genuine crisis in schools. The resulting lack of skills and knowledge is leading to some of the lowest student achievement in two decades. For instance, on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only one-third of 4th and 8th grade students were reading on grade level, and the results were even more dismal in mathematics. The high number of students experiencing struggle and failure is a time bomb that will soon explode into higher school-dropout rates if education leaders fail to take decisive steps to address the underlying learning gaps.
We often ask school leaders this simple question: How is your schedule and time allocation different today than it was in 2019, before the pandemic? In the vast majority of schools we've visited in the past year, we hear that these things haven't changed; we often run into a brick wall of denial. Even though many students are far behind in reading and math, the amount of instruction and instructional support they receive today is often no different than before the pandemic. There seems to be pervasive magical thinking that teachers should just provide grade-level instruction and a miracle will happen. This is scant comfort to the 3rd grade teacher with students who don't know how to hold a pencil and are struggling with letter sounds, or to the middle school math teacher whose students cannot perform basic mathematical operations. With each additional year of denying the need to make significant adjustments in schools, we believe these problems will compound.
In conversations with school leaders, we continue to hear that implementing effective interventions is impossible without teacher buy-in. But the old model of change that depends upon buy-in has failed education leaders because it's based on the premise that "belief precedes behavior," when the latest psychological evidence reveals that "behavior precedes belief" (Milkman, 2021). This means that people should first implement a new practice, then observe the results—only then will they support the practice. Even in the face of evidence of learning loss and student failures, some people will always be initially unwilling to change. When we hear assurances from a leader that she or he has buy-in from all staff, we know one of two things is true: Either the leader is not asking for true change, or discussions about the proposed change are happening out of the leader's earshot.
Leaders must stop waiting for buy-in and giving resisters veto power over essential changes that will have lifetime impacts on students. Principals don't ask for buy-in on cafeteria hygiene or bus safety, because our students' lives depend on our commitment to safe food and transportation. Student success in school is also a health and safety issue: Students who fail in school usually face a lifetime of poverty, unemployment, excessive medical care costs, and increased involvement in the criminal justice system (National Dropout Prevention Center, n.d.).
Simple changes like the ones made by the San Bernardino high school can have an immediate positive impact on student learning. Again, schools that have made just these two changes (adopting standards-based grading and eliminating traditional homework policies) have achieved dramatic reductions in their failure rates. The reason for their success was that teachers and administrators, in a short period of time, saw their colleagues implement new practices and achieve positive results. That's changing belief through behavior. Yet many school leaders continue to tolerate toxic grading practices, inequitable homework policies, and other methods of operating that get in the way of learning (especially post-pandemic)—often because some faculty cling to familiar practices. While leaders are waiting for buy-in, a generation of students will be lost.
We aren't recommending unbridled autocracy, but rather a commitment to evidence-based change. Rather than asking for buy-in, we counsel leaders to ask teachers to undertake a "fair experiment," proposing, for instance, "Let's see what happens when, for a set period, we have students practice in class rather than at home—or when we double the amount of time allocated to math instruction." When the set period ends, leaders must share the evidence of how—or if—achievement changed. Only then should they seek buy-in, assuming positive change happens (which is likely if previous research has backed the change). External evidence isn't enough; leaders must produce local evidence of impact. That can only happen when leaders get the sequence right—implement the change, gather evidence of impact, then ask for buy-in.

Change #3: Move from Fragmentation to Focus

A common cause of failures of promising reforms, especially in education, is that leaders try to do too many things at once. With the recent flood of federal dollars, it is not unusual to see new curricula, new technology, new training, and multiple interventions all implemented at the same time. Sometimes the pendulum swings from multiple changes to no change and back again. Initiative fatigue, combined with poorly communicated changes, insufficient support, and unnecessary complexity, undermines even the most logically sound change efforts (Guskey, 2021).
No matter how much people believe in their multi-tasking prowess, the neuroscience is clear: Humans do not multi-task, but switch between tasks, at a terrible cost to their cognition and sound decision making (Hari, 2022). The literature is consistent that neither individuals nor organizations can effectively monitor and implement more than six priorities at once. When we attempt to scatter our attention among dozens of priorities—and doesn't this describe the latest strategic plan in your system?—we burn leaders to a cinder and fail to implement even the best initiatives well (Daisley, 2022).

Exceptional gains can happen in 100 days, if leaders adopt the appropriate sense of urgency and abandon myths that stand in the way of effective change.

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Moving with a Sense of Urgency

Exceptional gains can happen in 100 days, if leaders adopt the appropriate sense of urgency and abandon myths that stand in the way of effective change. With 100-day leadership cycles, schools will not wait for next year's test scores to celebrate wins—and teachers can make mid-course corrections if needed. As schools face staff shortages, teacher burn-out, learning loss, and unremitting criticism from many sectors of society, our stakeholders and colleagues need to regain confidence that leaders can step up and drive change effectively.
Asking stakeholders to wait years for evidence of impact and imploring teachers for buy-in without taking action will likely breed cynicism or even contempt. We know how to make effective change in schools, and we can do it in 100 days.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Do you think real change tends to take too long in schools? If so, why do you think that happens?

➛ Do you agree that gaining teacher buy-in is an ineffective change management approach? Why or why not?

➛ What steps could you take to accelerate improvement in your school or district?

The Learning Leader

School improvement starts with strong leadership. In the fully updated second edition of his book, Douglas Reeves helps leaders reimagine the role they play in school improvement, leverage their existing strengths, and reset their priorities to achieve success.

The Learning Leader
References

Anderson, J. (2022, April 20). Harvard EdCast: The COVID Catch-up Challenge.

Daisley, B. (2022). Eat sleep work repeat: 30 hacks for bringing joy to your job. HarperCollins Publishers.

Guskey, T. (2021). Learning from failures: Lessons from unsuccessful grading reform initiatives. NASSP Bulletin105(3), 1–9.

Hari, J. (2022). Stolen focus: Why you can't pay attention—And how to think deeply again. Crown Business.

Milkman, K. (2021). How to change: The science of getting from where you are to where you want to be. Penguin Publishing Group.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2022). NAEP reading assessment results, Grades 4 & 8 and NAEP math assessment results, Grades 4 & 8. Author.

National Dropout Prevention Center. (n.d.). Economic impact of dropouts. https://dropoutprevention.org/resources/statistics/quick-facts/economic-impacts-of-dropouts/

Reeves, D., & Eaker, R. (2019). 100 day leaders: Turning short-term wins into long-term success in schools. Solution Tree Press.

Douglas B. Reeves is the author of more than 100 articles and 40 books on educational leadership and student achievement and has worked with numerous education, business, nonprofit, and government organizations throughout the world.

Reeves is the founder of Creative Leadership Solutions, a non-profit with the mission to improve educational opportunities for students using creative solutions for leadership, policy, teaching, and learning. He was twice named to the Harvard University Distinguished Authors Series, and received the Contribution to the Field Award from the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) and was named the Brock International Laureate for his contributions to education.

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