6 Lessons for Leading Change in Schools


In the classic Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, I’m Just a Bill, a young boy is given a lesson on the legislative process by a scroll of paper named Bill. “I’m just a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill,” Bill sings as they journey from a committee room to the House and Senate and on to the White House. As the video concludes, the boy asks, “It’s not easy to become a law, is it?” “No!” proclaims Bill.

We all learn growing up the process of how a bill becomes a law. And, anyone who has attended a school board or city council meeting, observed a state legislative session, or followed the actions of Congress on the news would probably agree with Bill that our system of making laws can be complicated. But, the work to develop and implement a new law does not end with a signature from the President or Governor. The steps necessary to successfully transition that law from policy to practice, in the way lawmakers intended it to be implemented, are often just as challenging. 

Late last year, a bipartisan Congress passed and President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a comprehensive rewrite of the five-decade old Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While there are still several questions to be worked out through the regulatory process in the coming months, the bill gives states and districts greater flexibility to shape policies around accountability, school turnarounds, standards, teacher evaluations, and more. At the same time, ESSA presents challenges for state and local education leaders charged with implementing the new law. Successfully embedding education policy into practice takes more than drafting new rules and sending a memo to districts and staff notifying them of the change. It requires systemic and cultural reform at all levels. 

Over the past 15 years, Battelle for Kids has worked with districts and state departments of education across the country to implement large-scale, educational-improvement initiatives. We know that leading and navigating change in any organization, particularly school districts, is not easy. Effective communications, change management, and stakeholder engagement are critical. Following are six lessons we’ve learned from this work to help education leaders implementing new policies and programs under ESSA: 

1. Develop a plan that connects the work to the overall vision. 
School improvement is challenging work. It can be easy for those on the ground responsible for implementing change to get discouraged and lose sight of the ultimate goal. It is critical to connect these efforts to the state or district’s larger educational-improvement vision. Stakeholders need to understand that their hard work will have a long-term impact and is not temporary. As John Kotter outlines in his 8-Step Process for Leading Change, education leaders must “develop a vision and strategy” and then “communicate the change vision.”

2. To go fast, go alone, but to go far, go together. 
Key stakeholders must be engaged early as partners. Successful school improvement efforts seek out leaders from all constituencies, get their input, keep them informed, and let them lead. This also ensures that changes remain institutionalized and are never about a single person. Powerful coalitions are built when leadership is shared and supported; it also makes it harder to give up when the going gets tough. 

3. Consider engaging external partners. 
Partnering with professionals who have experience implementing large-scale educational-improvement initiatives can be highly valuable. A trusted, knowledgeable third party can provide strategic counsel and tactical support to help districts and states develop a change management and communications plan aligned with their unique improvement goals. 

4. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. 
There’s an old adage, “People are down on what they’re not up on.” In the absence of information, people tend to be negative. Communication frequently becomes an afterthought when it should be at the core of any school improvement strategy. If you’ve connected stakeholders to the larger vision through meetings, communications, and input, they will believe it’s worth it. Remember to involve all stakeholders—educators at all levels, students, parents, business and community leaders, media, unions, partners, and others. Ask, “What do we need people to know, feel, and do?” Personalize messaging to each group to ensure relevance and understanding. Make your communications about issues and successes very concrete. Abstract messages get lost in the shuffle. And, carefully consider the timing and sequencing of your communications. 

5. Training and support matter.
A new program, no matter how promising or well-intentioned, is bound to fail eventually if those on the ground in schools don’t have the right training and support to implement it. Educators need clear, comprehensive, and easily-accessible professional learning resources as well as opportunities to ask questions, voice concerns, and collaborate with their colleagues to share ideas and find solutions. Any plan for implementing ESSA must include training and support for teachers, leaders, and other staff to ensure the change is successful and sustainable.  

6. Celebrate and share success. 
When states and districts create opportunities to recognize excellence, people develop an appetite for it. Consider how you can communicate the sense of urgency necessary for change, while recognizing and building upon the genuine successes of the past. It’s important to celebrate progress made, while sharing efforts to continually raise expectations to ensure student success. 

In I’m Just a Bill, Bill’s trip through the legislative process ends with a Congressman running out of the Capitol Building yelling, “They signed ya, Bill. Now, you’re a law.” In reality, Bill still must navigate the often challenging trek across the bridge between policy and practice. 

Over the next several months, national, state, and district education leaders will continue to dissect ESSA and how the new law will shape education policy moving forward. But, no matter what the final policy looks like, it is unlikely to have its intended impact without a comprehensive, thoughtful implementation plan—driven by effective communication, change management, and stakeholder engagement—that helps translate those policies into meaningful practice in schools. As Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate Education Committee, said recently about ESSA, “A law that is not properly implemented is not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Battelle for Kids is ready to partner with educators, policymakers, and others on this journey to move education forward for all students.