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Facilitating Change in Our Schools


Perspectives on Educational Change
Compiled and Edited by Dee Dickinson

Linda MacRae Campbell, M.A.


At present, numerous schools across the country have accepted the challenge of updating and upgrading their services. However, as administrators and faculties forge ahead to rethink their educational mission, organizational structure, academic program, teaching methods, personnel roles, or community relationships, their renewal efforts often falter because schools lack effective action plans. Many involved in efforts to change are unaware of guidelines for the successful initiation and implementation of an innovation. By working with a game plan, even if it requires frequent modification, schools can avoid unnecessary wheel spinning and prevent excessive time loss to process issues. Determining where a school is going and how it will arrive can make educational reform less stressful, more predictable and manageable, and most importantly, more successful for all involved.

While the restructuring experience will vary from school to school, renewal efforts at any site can be well strategized and coordinated. To manage the change process efficiently, some guidelines follow that highlight essential aspects and issues of educational reform. It should be noted that the nature of restructuring is nonlinear and that the following guidelines will not necessarily unfold in a predictable sequence:


Guideline 1: Identify a new mission or a need for reform within the school.

Restructuring can begin only with the initiation of honest dialogue at a school. This is often difficult to achieve since many teachers and administrators are resistant to any perceived change effort, are hesitant to speak truthfully about problems, or else they opt to maintain a collegial, "let's not rock the boat" school climate. One interesting observation some educational reformers have made is that when teachers are asked to assess their school, many believe it is above average. Faculties assume that serious problems exist elsewhere but not at their own site. Those who promote school renewal will necessarily and frequently have to engage individuals, small groups, and full faculty meetings in repeated school appraisal and restructuring conversations. Dialogue of all kinds, both informal and formal, both low key and hard hitting, must be risked before a school will determine it has reason to change.

Many restructuring efforts begin by targeting a high profile need or concern within a school. Serious issues such as dropout rates, lack of parental involvement, or too many curricular add-ons can be highlighted. Supporting "evidence" of the extent of the problem should also be shared, and will frequently catalyze individuals to action and insure widespread support. An example of targeting a high-profile need to initiate restructuring was recently evident at an urban high school of 1600 students. Some staff members had, understandably, become concerned with the failure statistics of its ninth grade students. At the end of the first semester, 450 ninth graders generated over 500 class failures. While many faculty members placed blame on outside factors for the dismal academic performance, several maintained that action should be taken to prevent such failure from recurring.

A major restructuring effort was launched by a committee of approximately 12 members, including teachers, administrators, parents, and a school counselor. After a year of research, heated debate, discussion, and grant writing, a significant alteration of the school's program was proposed. An entire wing of the school building was dedicated to house the incoming ninth grade students for four hours each day.

Five "schools within schools" were created for the ninth graders; teachers and counselors were reassigned to accommodate approximately 90 students each; an interdisciplinary curriculum was developed; new instructional methods were pursued; and extensive parental outreach was initiated. Plans are currently under way to spread the "school within a school" concept throughout the entire high school program. Ultimately, by beginning with one high-profile issue, the essentials of schooling at this high school were radically redesigned to better meet the needs of its students.

Another approach to instigating significant change is to write or update an educational mission statement. Many schools have not specified their philosophy, goals, and values; this oversight results in a lack of purpose and vision for such sites. Without a cohesive mission statement, schools exist merely to adhere to the rules and regulations imposed by outside agencies; they are thus unprepared for self-determination. A mission statement clarifies a school's identity and underscores its distinct individuality.

Writing such a mission statement requires extensive preliminary dialogue among all members of the school community: teachers, administrators, students, parents, community members, and classified staff. Once clearly articulated, however, all academic and extracurricular offerings, curricula, teaching methods and most importantly, staffing, should reflect the school's stated purpose in operation. To achieve such internal integrity usually requires significant restructuring efforts.

One middle school, besieged with the acute inner-city problems of gang violence, drug abuse, low standardized achievement scores, and poor staff morale, determined that significant improvement must occur to maintain staff and enhance the academic program. Weary of focusing on what was wrong, a group met with the principal to discuss how they might revitalize the school. It was evident that the teachers and administrator wanted to be enthusiastic about what they were doing; they wanted a new burst of life and energy to fill them personally and to spark the students with a love for learning. The group determined that the way to move their middle school forward was to create a new mission, one which would provide a schoolwide impetus for change.

From discussions with the school community, the new mission quickly emerged: the school would become the state's first arts-based school. Later, a full mission statement was drafted which specified, in part, that the arts would be used not only as specific disciplines taught by art specialists, but as an integral part of classroom instruction in all subjects, as the source of schoolwide projects and activities and as one avenue to increase interaction with parents and local community members. Extensive revision of the school's program was undertaken, as was the retraining of staff members. The few teachers who did not agree with the the new mission statement were encouraged to transfer elsewhere in the district to insure integrity in the new program and its practice.

Educational renewal is often a conflict-ridden process. As they begin honest and earnest dialogue about their schools, faculties commonly find it necessary to seek training in conflict resolution skills, problem-solving, and decision-making approaches. Assuming the role of change agent requires the honing of a variety of new skills in order to complete the tasks at hand successfully.

Guideline 2: Seek support for educational change.

Support for change efforts can come in two forms: information that provides reformers with a solid knowledge base to work from, advocacy from those inside and outside the school. During the last twenty or so years, an explosion of research from the cognitive sciences has revealed ways to optimize learning and teaching. It is indefensible not to implement what is currently known about improving human learning potential. Many of the researchers represented in this book serve as guides into new educational terrain.

As schools endeavor to upgrade their programs, they can look to the current knowledge base for both inspiration and support. Providing rationales for change efforts founded upon solid research helps persuade many naysayers. Educational innovators who are well informed of the breakthroughs in the cognitive sciences are intellectually and often politically empowered as they begin to influence school philosophy, policy, and practice.

When a change effort is initiated, strong advocates for the innovation from within and outside of the school should be identified and their support actively sought. By offering a variety of ways to participate, more individuals can contribute to the restructuring effort. It is unrealistic, however, to expect that any innovation will be greeted with consensus and also highly unlikely that a majority of those involved will embrace the innovation. Fortunately, consensus and majority favor are not necessary to initiate change. Many significant restructuring projects have gotten under way with the support of only 15 to 20% of a school's population. Some change projects have begun with as few as two supporters.

As an example, at one high school of approximately 50 teachers, two teachers decided to team their first and second period classes. Since this arrangement had little or no impact on the other teachers, scant attention was paid at first to the teamed and interdisciplinary approach; however, the student response was enthusiastic and vociferous. They wanted more similar courses, and, a year later, their requests were met. What began as a two-person project quickly escalated into a schoolwide instructional approach.

Guideline 3: Create and communicate a model of the change effort.

To reduce the rampant cynicism among most school staffs about educational improvement, restructuring endeavors should be well organized and coordinated. A written and/or visual model of the change effort can be developed and posted, including timelines, activities, task force members, and their responsibilities. One middle school decided to track its accomplishments on a monthly basis. In the faculty lounge, a large monthly calendar was made and posted on the faculty bulletin board. Meeting dates, tasks, and accomplishments were logged, as were sneak previews into the projects ahead. Such a simple visual tracking device served to keep the faculty informed, and meanwhile conveyed the important message that things were being accomplished.

It's often wise to specify short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals with renewal endeavors. Beginning with small projects that gain visibility and success within the first three to four months can increase confidence as well as demonstrate that achievements are being made. For far-reaching restructuring plans, many reformers suggest a minimum of three to five years for developing, implementing, and institutionalizing new models.

Ways to measure the effects and results of the innovation can also be undertaken. School personnel will find it valuable to evaluate their efforts and then use such data to determine their next steps. As research is conducted, it can be shared with other reformers and restructuring sites, thus making important contributions to the expanding knowledge base of school renewal. One highly innovative approach to conducting and sharing research is evident in the National Education Association and IBM partnership that has linked teachers across the United States electronically, enabling them to telecommunicate their research and build upon each each other's experience.

Guideline 4: Secure needed resources.

A variety of resources must be secured to implement any kind of educational innovation successfully. Both human and material resources will be required, including consultations, training programs, financial support, and curriculum materials. Extensive and ongoing staff development must become a regular feature of school life so that educators can keep abreast of the knowledge base and continually broaden their range of educational tools.

Usually, the most important resource, and the one in least supply, is additional time for those involved in restructuring. While confronted with the relentless demands of teaching, school personnel must have time to reflect on what must change as well as time to implement the changes. To accommodate this need, many schools have creatively altered their daily schedules to provide meeting time for staff members. Some sites begin five minutes earlier each day to "buy" two half days of release time every month. One school provides a full release day each week per teacher. This is accomplished by having faculty work longer days four days out of five, resulting in one full day of preparation or staff development time. Other approaches have included coordinating teachers' schedules to create team or group planning time; adding paid work days beyond the school calendar; and hiring substitutes to release teachers to conduct restructuring projects.

Guideline 5: Acknowledge the emotional reaction to change.

School renewal is rarely an objective, rational process. Change agents should anticipate their own emotional reactions to change, as well as strong reactions from others. Some researchers have studied the affective dimension of restructuring with fascinating findings about the emotional response to change.

In the 1979 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, University Associates, Don Kelly and Darryl Connor have identified an emotional cycle of change, which includes five stages:

  1. Uninformed optimism is the honeymoon phase of the project and provides the energy and enthusiasm to begin the restructuring effort.
  1. Informed pessimism ensues when unexpected problems are encountered, the resistance of others rears up, and morale drops. This is a dangerous stage of the emotional cycle, and many change efforts are abandoned during this phase. For those projects that continue, the three remaining three stages include:

  2. Hopeful realism when it is evident that some efforts will succeed in spite of the obstacles;

  3. Informed optimism which emerges when confidence is restored as things move ahead, and

  4. A sense of rewarding completion which is experienced by those involved in the change effort as they see concrete results of their work.

Another emotional phenomenon encountered in restructuring is the "Implementation Dip" identified by Michael Fullan, author of The Meaning of Educational Change. When people agree to implement a new procedure or policy, a decline in performance or work quality is commonly experienced during their initial attempts. This can be so humiliating and frustrating that feelings of awkwardness and guilt often emerge. It is important, however, to note that the decline in skills is only temporary. Once the dip has been reached, behavior usually reorganizes itself at a higher level than before.

Anyone attempting to initiate change within a school must also realize that some others will openly, verbally, resist the change. Occasionally, the resistance takes the form of professional or personal attacks. Emotional fortitude, a sense of humor, and a personal support system are usually necessary to sustain the commitment of any change agent. Since the emotional roller coaster ride of educational innovation appears inevitable, being forewarned of the ups and downs can, at least intellectually, make the ride more bearable.

Guideline 6: Anticipate restructuring problems and identify problem-solving skills.

Taking a proactive approach to predictable restructuring problems serves to streamline and accelerate change efforts. In his research of schools embracing change, Matthew Miles, professor at the University of Massachusetts, has identified their common renewal problems. These include, in order of importance: attitude and emotional issues; process factors such as lack of coordination, planning, or communication; and lack of resources. Other predictable problems are unanticipated crises, competing demands, limiting physical environments and perceived low or minimal control among those involved in the change effort.

Change facilitators may want to plan how to handle such problems before they arise. Matthew Miles has also identified a variety of problem-solving strategies, and he asserts that active problem-solving methods are extremely important if a project is to be successful. Passive avoidance, procrastination, doing things the usual way, and shuffling people from task to task are weak strategies. Effective problem solving approaches include vision-building and sharing, monitoring progress and revising plans accordingly, securing outside assistance, re-staffing if necessary, team-building, increasing resource control, and redesigning the school organization.

Since each change effort is undoubtedly fraught with problems, it is crucial to use myriad coping skills. Sensing what is appropriate for any situation is an important intuitive skill to develop. At times, deliberate postponement may be the best approach; however, empowering school staff, establishing new roles and groups, and monitoring and adjusting efforts often reduce restructuring problems.

Guideline 7: Share the leadership.

For widespread change to take hold, it is necessary to share control of the project and to work collaboratively with others. Securing both input and follow-through from diverse groups such as teachers, administrators, classified staff, students, parents, consultants, and school board and community members will effectively broaden the support base.

To distribute leadership equitably, one high school developed a new governing body. This group, called the Representative Council, includes teachers, administrators, counselors, classified staff, students, and parents. Membership requirements consist of a personal commitment to attend the bimonthly meetings for the entire school year. The R.C. oversees two main components of the high school: ongoing daily affairs and the school's philosophy. Thus, in a highly democratic manner, it assumes responsibility for establishing the mission and conducting the operation of the high school on a daily basis.

For successful restructuring it is also necessary to develop effective communication channels. Information can be shared at weekly meetings, through newsletters, bulletin items, phone trees, or other means. One elementary school placed a journal on a podium in the staff lounge. Anyone was free to write individual or schoolwide messages about the renewal efforts. The resulting avid interest in the journal was not anticipated. It provided a powerful link and voice in the restructuring effort. Another elementary school, wanting to enlist broad community support for its continual progress, ungraded school program, created a high quality newsletter published monthly. The photographs, articles, and interviews explore successes and challenges of the innovative model while maintaining one important communication channel with community members.

Guideline 8: Anchor the innovation as quickly as possible to classroom practice.

The ultimate goal of all restructuring projects is to enhance the learning of children and the teaching of teachers in schools suitable for our time. Change efforts must necessarily be linked to classroom practice and the sooner the better. Skepticism about improvement efforts is reduced when teachers are asked to expand their instructional and assessment repertoires. When change facilitators address the nitty gritty of school life and of teaching and learning, educational innovations appear relevant and important.

For new classroom practices to be implemented, both support and pressure are required. Encouragement and technical assistance should be offered freely as deadlines are met, new teaching approaches adopted, and results achieved. Also important are the rewards and recognition offered for innovators at each school site.

Recently, one elementary school made a commitment to change instructional strategies in each classroom. All staff members received training in learning styles theory. Each teacher then identified ways to apply learning styles concepts to his teaching. The students were informed of their teachers' efforts. Banners were then hung in each classroom stating, "Each student in this classroom has the right to learn through his/her strengths at least some of the time." The banner exerts gentle pressure for teachers to remain on track with their commitment and guarantees students that their learning styles will be actively engaged. The banners have become a source of pride to teachers who eagerly point them out to classroom visitors as they explain the schoolwide effort to "teach to reach" each student.

Guideline 9: Embed the renewal effort and process into organizational practice.

Once implemented, measured, and refined, the restructuring effort becomes part of organizational life. When it has become embedded in many aspects of school life, including its philosophy, budget, policies, and practices, increasing numbers of personnel will make use of the change. Even when significant results are achieved and celebrated, however, renewal efforts are not complete. Restructuring is a process that must become a regular feature of school life, enabling continual initiation, implementation, and institutionalization of change within each school.

The world, and the mass of information at our disposal, are being transformed rapidly, and schools must create processes to keep abreast of and implement new approaches to education, teaching, technology and human development. When school personnel perceive change as synonymous with learning, then ongoing restructuring will be the norm, and schools will evolve into learning organizations.

Educational innovation can be understood, managed, and valued as positive results are achieved. Schools can derive satisfaction from taking charge of their destinies and leading the restructuring movement forward, rather than being pushed into it. There is also great satisfaction in helping our schools better meet the needs of children they serve. These children are waiting for us to act.

About: Linda MacRae Campbell

Linda MacRae Campbell is never daunted by any challenge, whether she is helping a retarded adult to learn to read, working with easily distracted young children, or motivating the interest of gifted high school students. Her greatest current interest is in teaching teachers, and her work in that area is resulting in great rewards as they apply what they have learned to teaching their own students.

She is coordinator of the innovative Teacher Certification Program at Antioch University Seattle. Her continuing success as a "facilitator of change" in public schools began with her work as a restructuring consultant for the National Education Association.

As a classroom teacher, she received the Teacher of the Year awards three times. She has taught on all levels; and, as a junior and senior high school teacher, she taught language arts, French, and humanities. She was director of an award-winning drama department at Redmond High School in Washington State.

Later, as director of her own school, she received a Professional Business Woman of the Year award. She was founder and director of the Pegasus Schools, where she developed an integrative educational program for children from three to seventeen.

She is currently an adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific, Eastern Washington, and Antioch Universities, and Gifted Program Coordinator for the Burlington and Concrete Public Schools.

Her publications include Our Only Earth: A Curriculum for Global Problem-Solving (a series of six books integrating science, social studies, and language arts). Her No Time to Waste and We All Live Downstream are environmental manuals commissioned by Greenpeace. She is co-author, with her husband Bruce Campbell and Dee Dickinson of Teaching and Learning Through Multiple Intelligences.

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