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Aurora Institute

Three Ways Districts Stumble in Implementation

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Lead Change and Innovation

growthThis is the twenty-third article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

How are you preparing for the implementation dip?

There is likely to be an implementation dip during transition years. After the initial work is done, confusion tends to rise and achievement scores may go down. The question is, how fast can districts get beyond the dip and embrace the new practices?

Pittsfield invested heavily in preparation and engaging the community, and then implemented the redesign in one year. It was a challenging year of “ripping off the Band-Aid.” But when they came back in September of the next school year, they were all going in the same direction and were ready to begin refining and enhancing their student-centered approach. Building in a late start Wednesday for teachers to meet made the implementation year manageable.

Chugach solidified the school board and district leadership commitment to a long-term strategy and created an intentional communication strategy that reinforced the idea that the system transformation will take several years. They also used data to intensify the sense of urgency by reminding people of the poor results in the traditional system as well as celebrating small steps of progress. Most importantly, they kept their community engaged so members could continue to deepen their understanding and celebrate alongside the students who were beginning to thrive and enjoy coming to school.

In interviews, district and school leadership have shared the ways they learned from their mistakes when they stumbled or the ways their neighboring districts have encountered troubles.

Are Your Shared Values and Shared Purpose Alive?

If districts and schools do not have a clear, shared purpose or do not consistently use their shared values in daily decision-making, it is difficult to develop or maintain the desired culture. To ensure that shared values are embedded within the fabric of the schools, create a shared purpose for the entire district, with schools developing a variation for themselves and with each teacher developing a “code of cooperation” with their students to ensure ownership of the commitment to learning.

At RSU2, complex problems are addressed using the school’s set of guiding principles such as, “Students learn in different ways and in different timeframes” and “mistakes are inherent in the learning process.” For example, by using the guiding principles at public discussions on the budget, RSU2 has been able to resolve issues and reinforce the shared purpose of the school system.

Something to Think About: Remember to use the shared purpose and guiding principles when doubts arise during difficult times in the first years of implementation. There may be times when it feels best to create hybrid models that maintain parts of the traditional system. Test those ideas out with your guiding principles to ensure they won’t undermine the commitment to learning and supporting all students to reach proficiency.


How Distributed is Your Leadership?

When processes are inadequately inclusive or shared leadership is in name only, schools will quickly revert to turning to higher levels of governance, the district, or school leadership to make decisions. This can also open the door to mistrust if people are invited to participate in processes only to find that top management makes decisions through separate processes. Educators need to understand the decision-making processes, their role in it, and when they will have opportunity to have input. District and school leadership will need to take the responsibility to design, get feedback, and then implement decision-making processes with integrity.

There are several ways districts can invest in distributed leadership to ensure it is sustainable. First, create organizational structures that ensure participation, be clear about responsibilities, and encourage membership. Second, leadership needs to ensure that processes are clear and that there is someone to check that they are implemented with integrity. Third, the focus should remain on the shared purpose. Distributed leadership can create difficulties when individuals take ownership but are more enthusiastic about their own ideas or only consider their team rather than the whole. District and school leadership may need to make interventions to help people see how ideas might work for them but not for everyone else.

How Strong is the Ownership?

Districts have often relied on marketing or buy-in methods to introduce new initiatives. However, community members or educators may accept the initiative without ever having a sense of ownership and can begin to blame the district when implementation doesn’t run smoothly. Superintendents who have converted to competency education suggest engaging community members and students in developing and periodically revising the shared purpose so that new community members have a chance to have ownership. Internally, you may wish to develop processes that take into consideration motivational theory and clear decision-making processes so that staff understand the scope of their autonomy. Consider making the process of creating shared values and a code of cooperation a non-negotiable for educators. Perhaps, as Pittsfield School District has done, students can become part of policymaking processes. Embed reflection by all stakeholders to think about their contribution and ownership into operations.

Something to Think About: Districts converting to competency education know they need to invest in organizational learning in order to fully integrate the new infrastructure. Learning means mistakes are going to happen. Just as competency-based schools need to create a safe place for students to make mistakes, those districts converting to competency education need to create safe environments for educators. This means district leadership will need to engage state leadership with the institutional power to create room for innovation. Invite policy leaders to site visits with you to more developed competency-based schools. Encourage them to read Necessary for Success about how other states are creating innovation space. Most importantly, recognize their leadership when they take risks themselves to change the top-down compliance culture of state-level organizations.


For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

Blog #5 Engaging the Community

Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose

Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency

Blog #8 Clarifying the Overall Pedagogical Approach

Blog #9 Configuring the Instruction and Assessment Model

Blog #10 Constructing a Common Language of Learning

Blog #11 Creating a Common Language of Learning: A Continuum of Learning

Blog #12 Creating a Common Language of Learning: Rubrics and Calibration

Blog #13 Creating a Common Language of Learning: Habits of Learning

Blog #14 Policies for Personalization: Student Agency

Blog #15 Policies for Personalization: Levels, Pace, and Progress

Blog #16 Empowering Teachers

Blog #17 Preparing for Leadership Lifts

Blog #18 Rollout Strategies

Blog #19 Preparing Teachers for Personalized Classrooms

Blog #20 Leveling and Parent Conversations

Blog #21 Making Mid-Course Corrections and Refinements

Blog #22 Refining the Instructional Model and Enhancing the Instructional Cycle