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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

Getting Unstuck

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As a kid, I spent many summer afternoons riding in the back of my grandpa's Ford pickup on his farm. The farm was located in a flood plain in Iowa, which made for rich soil and muddy driving. Ostensibly, our purpose was usually to go fishing, or more vaguely, to "check something out." But my mother suspected another motive: to see if we could get stuck—and unstuck—in the mud. Usually, turning the wheel to a new angle and hitting the gas would do the trick. The truck would fishtail and then lurch out of the dip in which it was stuck. Sometimes, though, cranking the wheel and gunning the engine only made things worse, sinking us deeper into the mud.
In a way, education in the United States seems to be stuck in a similar rut. We're hitting the gas harder and harder on approaches that worked in the past, but we're spinning our tires.

Getting Started, Then Getting Stuck

By now, we're probably all familiar with the phenomenon of the implementation dip, a term coined by Michael Fullan (2001) to describe the slump in performance that often occurs when innovations require new knowledge and skills.
Fullan and others have told us a lot about what leaders need to do to overcome implementation dips, including
  • Maintaining focus and urgency to quash any this-too-shall-pass syndrome.
  • Monitoring implementation to avoid backsliding into familiar (yet inferior) practices.
  • Listening to naysayers and, as appropriate, incorporate their ideas into change efforts.
  • Working in teams to buck one another up when the going gets tough.
Much like revving the engine and cranking the wheel to get a truck out of a dip in a cornfield, these strategies work well … until they don't anymore. Researchers have found that schools often do what it takes to overcome initial difficulties, achieve results for a while, but then find themselves stuck in a rut:
  • In Virginia, many so-called turnaround schools improved for three years, then hit a performance plateau (Hochbein, 2012).
  • In Texas, test-based accountability drove performance gains for a while, but results then leveled off (Schneider, 2011).
  • In 25 states, testing pressure created initial gains before student performance plateaued and declined (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012).
  • Worldwide, education systems show a "pattern of a steep rise followed by a plateau," likely because "once the 'easy wins' have been achieved in classroom instruction, further improvements take longer to embed and are harder to achieve" (Mourshed, Chijioke, & Barber, 2010, p. 50).
Schools are not alone. Plateau effects are common in many endeavors—from exercise to the arts to business (Sullivan & Thompson, 2013). In exercise, the recommended treatment is to switch up one's routine. In business, the treatment is much the same. Business coach Bill Bishop (2010) says that companies typically hit a performance plateau when they stop improving their products because they believe they've found that one right way to do things. Similarly, Jim Collins (2009) has observed that one of the first signs of trouble among declining companies is that they "lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place" (p. 21). In short, they believe they were successful because they did certain specific things, but they've never built an understanding of why these things worked—or, more important, the conditions under which they would no longer work.

Adopt, Then Adapt

Schools and districts often demonstrate the same myopia when they hit performance plateaus. There's a tendency to double down on what they've been doing—tightening the screws to get everyone to follow the prescribed program to a T. Or maybe they patch the first program by layering a second program on top of it.
The trouble with these responses is that they both view the problem as what Heifetz and Laurie (1997) call a technical problem—something for which we assume there's an existing solution. To solve a technical problem, we just need to find the solution and implement it well. However, performance plateaus may really be caused by adaptive challenges, which cannot be as easily identified or solved with neatly packaged solutions. Adaptive challenges require changes in beliefs, roles, and approaches to work. They demand collaboration, creativity, and experimentation—in a word, innovation.
In her profiles of high-poverty, high-performing schools, Karin Chenoweth (2007) observed that many of these schools achieved quick wins by adopting prepackaged curriculums, such as America's Choice, Success for All, Everyday Math, Open Court, or Core Knowledge. Which program they chose seemed to be less important than the fact that they picked one and implemented it faithfully throughout the school. Once the school was able to get everyone on the same page, achievement soon rose.
However, within a few years of adopting the curriculum, most schools saw that it wasn't a perfect fit. Instead of dropping the program or simply forging ahead, high-performing schools began to adapt it to align with student needs. Unlike failed companies, they weren't wed to the specific program that led to their early success. Instead, they understood the principles underlying their success—for example, the importance of having a consistent and aligned curriculum. And because they remained focused on the needs of their customers (that is, students), they saw the need to develop a version 2.0 of their new curriculum.

Elements of Inside-Out Improvement

Making this shift is not always easy. Often, powering through initial implementation dips requires top-down direction from a leader who assigns roles, monitors performance, and holds people accountable. Sure, the leader listens to others' concerns, but he or she knows what needs to be done. Research suggests that this style of leadership can, in fact, be effective—when the improvement strategy is straightforward (Goodwin, 2015).
However, when schools face thornier challenges in which the way ahead is less clear, they need to find a different approach—one that drives improvement not from the top down, but from the inside out. The following elements are characteristic of inside-out school improvement.

Deep Understanding of the Problem

Carnegie Foundation researchers note that educators are prone to solutionitis, or "the propensity to jump quickly on a solution before fully understanding the exact problem to be solved" (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015, p. 24). Real solutions, they note, come from better insight. For example, when Proctor and Gamble wanted to develop a new product for mopping floors, the company did not simply formulate a better soap. Instead, product developers visited homes and conducted detailed observations of how people mopped their floors. They gained a thorough understanding of the physical challenges, and even the psychology, of floor mopping. Then they took that deeper understanding and invented the Swiffer (West, 2014).
In the same way, schools can benefit from looking more closely at a problem before plugging in a solution. For example, in 2011, Austin Independent School District in Texas teamed up with researchers from Harvard and the Carnegie Foundation to gain a deeper understanding of a problem that seemed intractable: high rates of teachers, especially new ones, leaving the district. The obvious place to focus efforts to fix this problem—improving hiring and placement practices—was off-limits, largely because this solution would require time-consuming changes in collective bargaining agreements and district policies. This obstacle was actually serendipitous, because it forced the research team to look deeper. Through careful thought and analysis, the research team surfaced another driver of teacher retention that seemed so obvious it had been overlooked: principals giving frequent feedback to new teachers (Bryk et al., 2015).

Rapid-Cycle Improvement

Paralysis by analysis can keep many good ideas from ever leaving the drawing board. That's why Silicon Valley designers have learned to develop minimally viable products, test them with real people, and then improve them before launching them more widely. In schools, this might entail designing a novel approach—say, combining project-based learning with reciprocal teaching—studying its effects over a few weeks, improving it, studying the improved version, and continuing in ongoing, iterative cycles.
In Austin, the team working on principal feedback faced another serendipitous challenge: The start of the school year was rapidly approaching, so the customary district process of spending countless meetings to develop a new protocol for principal feedback wasn't an option. An experienced principal working on the team listened to the group's brainstormed ideas and then jotted down six prompts to guide principal-teacher conversations (creating a minimally viable product). He tried the prompts out in an on-the-spot conversation with a second-year teacher working on the team. The group listened to the conversation and offered some tweaks. Over the next few days, the prompts were tried and tweaked further. Soon, all the principals on the team were using the prompts with their teachers. As more data rolled in, the team fleshed out a process for supporting teachers following the conversation and added a technology platform. The practice of providing principal feedback to teachers in addition to their formal evaluations spread districtwide (Bryk et al., 2015).

Peer Observation and Coaching

Deep instructional change requires more than training teachers in the new curriculum and setting them free to implement it. Teachers need support and feedback as they transfer new ideas into practice. Coaching can be top-down (coach to teacher), but it's usually more powerful when it's reciprocal (teacher to teacher).
Joyce, Hopkins, and Calhoun (2014) found that for professional development practices to produce long-lasting and significant change, peer coaching duos or triads must take what they learned in training sessions, apply it in classrooms, and collaboratively study student response and student learning. They assert that "everybody, from the leaders to paraprofessionals, needs to engage in continuous action research that links PD content to the study of implementation, engagement in problem solving, and the study of student response (learning) in the short and long term" (p. 10).
In Melbourne, Australia, reformers used all three of these elements to improve math and reading achievement, as well as to foster student curiosity. First, they used instructional rounds to discern the best practices of effective teachers and then codify those practices into a new teaching framework. Next, they grouped teachers into peer-coaching triads that used six-week cycles to apply, study, and improve on the practices in their classrooms. The result? Student scores on the Australian national exam rose significantly across the 80,000-student region (Hopkins & Craig, 2011).

Getting Unstuck

When my grandpa's truck got truly stuck, we had two options: (1) concede defeat and seek an outside solution (that is, walk back to the farmhouse to fetch the tractor), or (2) rely on our wits and collaboration (find a nearby branch to wedge under the tires and push together on the truck). But really, there was only one option. No one ever walked back to the farmhouse.

Bishop, B. (2010). Beyond basketballs: The new revolutionary way to build a successful business in today's post-product world. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. (2015). Learning to improve: How America's schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Chenoweth, K. (2007). It's being done: Academic success in unexpected schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Collins, J. (2009). How the mighty fall: And why some companies never give in. New York: HarperCollins.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goodwin, B. (2015). To go fast, direct. To go far, empower. Educational Leadership, 72(5), 73–74.

Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (1997). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 75(1), 124–134.

Hochbein, C. (2012). Relegation and reversion: Longitudinal analysis of school turnaround and decline. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 17(1–2), 92–107.

Hopkins, D., & Craig, W. (2011). Going deeper: From the inside out. In D. Hopkins, J. Munro, & W. Craig (Eds.), Powerful learning: A strategy for systemic educational improvement (pp. 153–172). Camberwell, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research Press.

Joyce, B., Hopkins, D., & Calhoun, E. (2014). Winning with coaching: Strengthening the links between professional learning, CCSS, and STEM. Changing Schools, 72(3), 8–10.

Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., & Barber, M. (2010). How the world's mostimproved school systems keep getting better. New York: McKinsey and Company.

Nichols, S., Glass, G., & Berliner, D. (2012). High-stakes testing and student achievement: Updated analysis with NAEP data. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 20(20), 1–30.

Schneider, M. (2011, December 15). The accountability plateau. Education Next. Available at

Sullivan, B., & Thompson, H. (2013). The plateau effect: Getting from stuck to success. New York: Penguin.

West, H. (2014, June 14). A chain of innovation: The creation of Swiffer. Retrieved from Technology Marketing Corp at

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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