Why Do School Improvement Plans, Initiatives, and Implementations Fail?

school improvement failure quote

Educators believe in the importance of learning from our mistakes and failures, and it isn’t uncommon to hear conversations about how we should support and maybe even celebrate failures. Students should understand that mistakes and failures are an integral part of learning and growing. But as educators, do we really embrace the same mindset for school improvement? Is learning from our mistakes or failures an important part of school improvement plans?

An article written in the May – June 2021 issue of the Harvard Business Review with the title Why Start-ups Fail by Tom Eisenmann caught my attention. At first glance, I saw a glaring statistic: almost 66% of all startups fail. I wondered if start-up’s failures could help us learn more about the school improvement process. 

Before we discuss the connection between start-ups and school improvement, it is vital to make a sharp distinction between Decisions and Outcomes.  Most of us connect Decisions and Outcomes to such a degree that at some point you have probably blamed making a wrong Decision because of the Outcome. 

However, we must understand that we can make a sound Decision and get a poor Outcome and vice versa: make a poor Decision and get a good Outcome. Therefore, we must be able to reflect on the Outcomes from our decision-making skills.  

What the Fundamental Attribution Error Has to Do with School Improvement

Typically, when we reflect on results, we employ the Fundamental Attribution Error to explain the results.  What is the Fundamental Attribution Error? It is simply the idea that we try to explain the results based on factors that are not under our control, thus making a similarly poor decision later on. For example:

  • According to this error, if we were asked why so many start-ups fail, we would simply determine it was because of the founder. However, when the founder is asked why it failed, they usually reference something else besides themselves as the cause. 
  • If we ask schools why they fail to improve, the teachers may blame students’ home environments, while a principal may reference lack of funding for professional development.

For both start-ups and school improvement, success is the goal: 

  • A principal wants their school to be the best by having the most successful students. 
  • A start-up aims to produce the best product/service for loyal customers. 

School Improvement Elements

The primary goal of any school improvement initiative is rooted in the increased success of all students. Depending on the grade level, there are numerous ways to determine if the initiative is successful.  Defining the criteria for success is a crucial step in reflecting on the success of your Decisions based on the Outcomes. If we do A, then we expect B to happen, which will impact C. 

For example, if we implement PLCs, we expect teachers to improve collaboration, thus improving engagement and learning. For both start-ups and school improvement, there is an expectation that each Decision will lead to their ultimate goal of success.

When you think about the steps necessary to go from the Decision to the Outcome, you can probably identify numerous areas where an initiative may fail or be influenced. Like many start-ups, school improvement plans and implementations are not always successful.  

An average growth rate would reflect a 3-6% improvement, with exemplary schools achieving 12+% in a year.  Let’s pause and complete the following “If…then..” statement:  If the average growth for any initiative is about 5% and most schools have 3-5 initiatives every year, then…

For example: “then…schools may struggle to improve each one significantly.”

If over 60% of start-ups fail, then the reasons that Eisenmann gives for start-ups’ struggles may provide insight into why schools struggle to meet growth expectations. 

5 Reasons Why School Improvement Plans May Fail

Reason #1: Good Idea / Bad Bedfellows. 
The author states that the “bedfellows or stakeholders, including employees, strategic partners, and investors, all can play a role in a venture’s downfall.” Numerous books discuss the need to have buy-in from each level to implement the initiative successfully.

Everyone in a school system has heard, read, or experienced good ideas that were not successful at some point. This occurs because each relationship with a system can include a bad bedfellow who changes a good idea into a bad idea. If you think about the process, a good idea can start at any level within a school system but turn out bad due to any level not buying into the initiative.  

school improvement communication flow

For example, when I was a first-year Assistant Principal, I read Todd Whitaker’s book What Great Principals Do Differently. In the book, there was a discussion around the idea of Positive Referrals. I thought it would be a good initiative, so I created a form and presented it to my principal, and she agreed that I could move forward. 

I then presented the idea to the 6th grade and 7th-grade teams. The result was that specific individuals adopted the practice quickly, and it was a great success, while other individuals never wrote a single positive referral. It was a good idea that only had a minor impact compared to what I planned. 

The good idea to bad outcome transition occurred at the individual level because certain teachers did not believe it was necessary.  Understanding “why” the idea is good, and the intended outcome can be lost through each relationship. It follows the basic rule of communicating the “why” as essential for buy-in. Think about the last initiative that failed and ask how many conversations about the “why” you had with the stakeholders? 

Reason #2: False Starts.
In education, this occurs when the decisions to move forward with the idea are made before determining and communicating the efforts necessary for the improvement. This becomes manifested by requesting more information or more time, leading to a pause and finally a reboot. 

This can be detrimental to the initiative because of the fatal attribution error. We may tend to feel like we have tried this, and it failed even though it never really got off the ground.  Change is difficult and going through a starting/stopping cycle only makes the process that much more challenging

Reason #3: False Positives. 
False positives are caused by misinterpreting the difference between compliance to greatest impact. The vast majority of school improvement initiatives stall at this point because moving to compliance is the first step but is often celebrated as reaching the end. 

Compliance is an important step in change and improvement, but it lacks an understanding “Why” the initiative is important.  

For example: 

  • In our initiatives, we discuss the impact and why questions should be used to introduce new lessons. 
  • The compliance level of this occurs when teachers have created them and posted them in the classroom. 
  • This is the first step, which should be celebrated, but does not meet the expectations associated with the greatest impact. This is where the majority of school initiatives fail to meet the expected outcome. 
  • We then evaluate the lack of improvement as a failure instead of understanding that the level of implementation didn’t progress to the greatest impact.

Reason #4: Speed Traps.  
Like speed traps on the highway, the desire to get from point A to point B as fast as possible will prevent the initiative from achieving its desired outcome. Improvement takes time and practice.  If we are truly asking stakeholders to change their behavior, we must provide the opportunity to let them try with support and embrace mistakes.

Reason #5: Help Wanted. 
This stumble occurs because improvement requires a deep understanding and commitment to manage higher expectations from the leaders spearheading the initiative. As a leader, your job is not necessary to have all the answers but to recognize that everyone must learn and grow to move forward. 

The most obvious example of this is when the school improvement plan calls for some professional development and during the professional development, the leaders in the building are either not present or do not participate in the day’s activities. This behavior sends a clear message that this is important to you, but not us as a team.

While each of the five reasons has its causes, you may see that they are often connected to a failed implementation attempt. There is a possible ripple effect where the communication around the “why” is lacking, which may cause a false start for the initiative. If the building administrators don’t clearly understand expectations, they may celebrate too early by focusing on false positives. 

3 Possible Improvement Solutions

One of the keys for improving the implementation of an initiative is understanding where it may break down.  Here are three ways to be proactive in your approach to any initiative:

  • Solution #1Develop the Why.  Be clear with why the initiative is important and work with your school improvement team to create a comprehensive statement that is used and referred to throughout the year.  Over-communicate the “why” through meetings, feedback, etc. to ensure that the hard work is upfront and center moving through the school year.  The everyday operation of running the school or classroom will add additional hurdles and stress.
  • Solution #2 Identify a specific problem. Frequently, we look for school improvement to encompass multiple problems and this makes the decisions more difficult. Try to stay away from blanket statements like “Our goal is to improve reading scores.” Statements like these are focused on a symptom and do not address a root cause of the differences in outcomes.
  • Solution #3 Define the criteria of success. Success criteria will help you reflect on your progress toward the goal or outcome throughout the year. This will help make sure that the initiative does suffer a false start or a false positive.

To achieve the goal of increased success, we must recognize and learn from failure. Through an understanding of why failure may occur, our decisions of how we approach an initiative will have a larger impact on the outcomes. 

Take the next step and contact us. A Learning-Focused partnership will support you as you address each area of concern and ensure your greatest chance of successful implementation.

Don Marlett

Don has been an educator for 20+ years. Before joining Learning-Focused, he taught High School and Middle School Science and was a school administrator. Don has participated in school evaluations focused on implementing High Yield Strategies. In addition, he partnered with various state DOE to support leaders as well as present at numerous conferences hosted by multiple leadership organizations in Florida, NC, Ohio, WV, TN, and KY Don leads product development, provides leadership training and coaching, and coaches educators in the implementation of the High-Yield strategies.

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