Over the past two decades I had the privilege to work on several national initiatives to advance education change. These initiatives on topics of service-learning, civic development and social inclusion focused on ensuring education was more engaging, relevant and productive for students.
Looking back there are several common stages these initiatives employed to advance their mission, outcomes and impacts. In all three initiatives we began with a focus on identifying high-quality practices, current school models to share with others; national, state, district and school leaders willing to share their experiences and motivate their peers; existing and needed resources relevant to education stakeholders; research supporting the initiative; and existing networks to advance the initiative nationally.
Initially the goal was to increase the number of schools implementing the initiative and ensuring the corresponding practices were of the highest quality measured by their positive impact on students. I was able to experience various levels of progress and success both in terms of number of participating schools and the initial impacts on students.
The challenge for each of these initiatives was moving from a focus on implementation to a focus on sustainability. For me sustainability is system-wide, long-term and large-scale support, encouragement and rewards for the initiatives’ practices. We found that many of the strategies used to inform and influence schools to implement a teaching method, support student engagement strategies and cultivate advocates were not sufficient to actually sustain the initiative.
We found that we needed to:
- Move beyond the few champions to engaging all education stakeholders (i.e., students, teachers, staff, parents and community) and establish a core of emerging leaders;
- Conduct and share research relevant to continuously improving school practices and informing and influencing the stakeholders;
- Assist schools to align the initiative with their mission and accountability systems;
- Promote the impacts of the initiative beyond students to the school and community;
- Identify school, district and state policies that support the initiative and reduce corresponding policy impediments;
- Contribute to and inform the national conversations on education priorities, practices and policies;
- Develop district-wide strategies to ensure a pipeline from P-K through high school ensuring students experienced high-quality strategies to enhance their development and competencies.
- Ensure a focus on reflection and continuous improvement to consistently enhance practices and impacts on students, schools and communities.
One specific insight I gleaned from my experiences across all three initiatives is that successful implementation and sustainability of an education innovation requires the courage to engage different individuals, of all ages, at different stages. Initially it is important to mobilize individuals capable of co-designing and implementing the initiative but as we move to sustainability we need to engage others positioned and proficient to advocate for system support and policy change. I found that too often we expected those who implemented the initiative to stay the course and assist in sustainability efforts rather than create sets of emerging leaders, of all ages, to engage in the sustainability stage.
This is where the concept of courage comes to bear, we need to be honest and deliberate if we are to be successful inviting the most capable educators and leaders to contribute to the initiative at the appropriate stage. Allowing people to exit the initiative, acknowledging their progress, and cultivating new advocates is necessary to effectively move from implementation to sustainability.