Implementing Proven Programs

There is an old joke that goes like this. A door-to-door salesman is showing a housewife the latest, fanciest, most technologically advanced vacuum cleaner. “Ma’am,” says the salesman, “this machine will do half your work!”

“Great!” says the housewife. “I’ll take two!”

All too often, when school leaders decide to adopt proven programs, they act like the foolish housewife. The program is going to take care of everything, they think. Or if it doesn’t, it’s the program’s fault, not theirs.

I wish I could tell you that you could just pick a program from our Evidence for ESSA site (launching on February 28! Next week!), wind it up, and let it teach all your kids, sort of the way a Roomba is supposed to clean your carpets. But I can’t.

Clearly, any program, no matter how good the evidence behind it is, has to be implemented with the buy-in and participation of all involved, planning, thoughtfulness, coordination, adequate professional development, interim assessment and data-based adjustments, and final assessment of program outcomes. In reality, implementing proven programs is difficult, but so is implementing ordinary unproven programs. All teachers and administrators go home every day dead tired, no matter what programs they use. The advantage of proven programs is that they hold out promise that this time, teachers’ and administrators’ efforts will pay off. Also, almost all effective programs provide extensive, high-quality professional development, and most teachers and administrators are energized and enthusiastic about engaging professional development. Finally, whole-school innovations, done right, engage the whole staff in common activities, exchanging ideas, strategies, successes, challenges, and insights.

So how can schools implement proven programs with the greatest possible chance of success? Here are a few pointers (from 43 years of experience!).

Get Buy-In. No one likes to be forced to do anything and no one puts in their best effort or imagination for an activity they did not choose.

When introducing a proven program to a school staff, have someone from the program provider’s staff come to explain it to the staff, and then get staff members to vote by secret ballot. Require an 80% majority.

This does several things. First, it ensures that the school staff is on board, willing to give the program their best shot. Second, it effectively silences the small minority in every school that opposes everything. After the first year, additional schools that did not select the program in the first round should be given another opportunity, but by then they will have seen how well the program works in neighboring schools.

Plan, Plan, Plan. Did you ever see the Far Side cartoon in which there is a random pile of horses and cowboys and a sheriff says, “You don’t just throw a posse together, dadgummit!” (or something like that). School staffs should work with program providers to carefully plan every step of program introduction. The planning should focus on how the program needs to be adapted to the specific requirements of this particular school or district, and make best use of human, physical, technological, and financial resources.

Professional Development. Perhaps the most common mistake in implementing proven programs is providing too little on-site, up-front training, and too little on-site, ongoing coaching. Professional development is expensive, especially if travel is involved, and users of proven programs often try to minimize costs by doing less professional development, or doing all or most of it electronically, or using “trainer-of-trainer” models (in which someone from the school or district learns the model and then teaches it to colleagues).

Here’s a dark secret. Developers of proven programs almost never use any of these training models in their own research. Quite the contrary, they are likely to have top-quality coaches swarming all over schools, visiting classes and ensuring high-quality implementation any way they can. Yet when it comes time for dissemination, they keep costs down by providing much, much less than what was needed (which is why they provided it in their studies). This is such a common problem that Evidence for ESSA excludes programs that used a lot of professional development in their research, but today just send an online manual, for example. Evidence for ESSA tries to describe dissemination requirements in terms of what was done in the research, not what is currently offered.

Coaching. Coaching means having experts visit teachers’ classes and give them individual or schoolwide feedback on their quality of implementation.

Coaching is essential because it helps teachers know whether they are on track to full implementation, and enables the project to provide individualized, actionable feedback. If you question the need for feedback, consider how you could learn to play tennis or golf, play the French horn, or act in Shakespearean plays, if no one ever saw you do it and gave you useful and targeted feedback and suggestions for improvement. Yet teaching is much, much more difficult.

Sure, coaching is expensive. But poor implementation squanders not only the cost of the program, but also teachers’ enthusiasm and belief that things can be better.

Feedback. Coaches, building facilitators, or local experts should have opportunities to give regular feedback to schools using proven programs, on implementation as well as outcomes. This feedback should be focused on solving problems together, not on blaming or shaming, but it is essential in keeping schools on track toward goals. At the end of each quarter or at least annually, school staffs need an opportunity to consider how they are doing with a proven program and how they are going to make it better.

Proven programs plus thoughtful, thorough implementation are the most powerful tool we have to make a major difference in student achievement across whole schools and districts. They build on the strengths of schools and teachers, and create a lasting sense of efficacy. A team of teachers and administrators that has organized itself around a proven program, implemented it with pride and creativity, and saw enhanced outcomes, is a force to be reckoned with. A force for good.

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