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RAND Research: Implementing Education Reform

A friend and colleague, Dr. Rita Karam of RAND conducted research on implementing education reform. RAND has confirmed what I've humbly recommended for years:

Provide educators an opportunity (and time!) to balance accountability with experimentation, and establish a well-defined continuous improvement process. 

Link to RAND

Unfortunately, this recommendation is highly underestimated when it comes to its implementation. It is rarely ever done well (or at all) because, among other things, when the desired reform outcomes are not achieved fast enough the system is conditioned to quickly and automatically apply accountability pressures (with no credible research--that I'm aware of--to support that these accountability pressures help educators make better sense of mandated inputs into their practice). Therefore, many educational leaders make hasty, unproductive decisions as a result of these pressures while other well-intentioned thoughtful leaders are fired within two to three years; contributing to high national school superintendent and college president attrition rates. Understandably, teachers are left frustrated because yet another "flavor of the year" initiative has been injected into their practice without the opportunity to learn how to implement well through proper structures, processes, protocols, settings, and quality long-term leadership that provides balanced support and pressure.

Dr. Ron Gallimore summed it up best (to paraphrase): For education institutions to be productive places of learning for students they must also be for the educators. I believe this also holds true for many institutions of higher education, which similar to K12, seem to often be under some kind of pressure with new initiatives. In my opinion, teaching a group of people with varying learning styles (not to mention socioeconomic factors) and producing verifiable learning outcomes is one of the most challenging tasks a human being can undertake. It calls--no, it screams--for a continuous improvement process. Society should not be surprised to learn about low-morale in so many of our education institutions when we pile on initiatives and mandates that rarely have any peer-reviewed, statistically significant research to back them up (or at least give some sites the research support and funding to produce such rigorous research). Worse, when one initiative phases out it is replaced with another one and the cycle continues without giving educators quality time and support to learn how to implement the first initiative well.

However, educators cannot always blame the system. Often initiatives and the failure to implement them well are self-inflicted. For example, when education organizations pursue comprehensive grant proposals without the necessary pre-award learning processes to ensure buy-in, capacity, and alignment with the organization's mission and strategic plan to make sure there is a seamless transition from proposal to implementation. While the need for funding is very real at many education institutions, educators increase the probability of grant/initiative implementation challenges or failure when they chase money instead of chasing strategy. When educators learn to do the latter well, they make better use of tax dollars, avoid costly and punitive audits, and are more likely to improve student outcomes and meet other initiative goals/objectives.

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