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Change or die – A principal’s dilemma

By July 6, 2009June 16th, 20166 Comments

In my travels to many school locations throughout the United States, I often find myself working with principals of schools that are struggling with issues related to making the organizational changes necessary to improve student achievement. A few weeks ago, I spent some time with a small group of principals in a Midwestern town. One principal’s comments have resonated in my mind ever since. This particular principal, who would like to remain anonymous, shared her struggles over the past three years as she has worked to turn around her school, as student achievement has declined.

For the sake of this blog, we will call this principal Mrs. Jones. Principal Jones described to me a familiar scenario in regards to making instructional improvements in her elementary school. I asked her what she had done up to this point in reaction to her test scores declining and she explained a scenario that brings to mind a book I recently read called Change or Die (Deutschman, 2008). Mrs. Jones story, as you will see in the following paragraphs closely aligned with Deutschman’s “old” change paradigm. In this change paradigm, which is widely used in many fields, the leader of an organization uses Facts, Fear, and Force to bring about changes within the organization. Using Mrs. Jones’ example, she presents the Facts to the staff. Next, the principal uses Fear as leverage, and follows up with Force by letting the staff know that compliance will be expected and consequences will result for lack of compliance.

Let’s expand on Facts, Fear, and Force using Mrs. Jones example:

Consider Mrs. Jones’ dilemma when she learns that her school has not met the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for the third school year in a row and has been labeled by the state as a school that “Needs Improvement”, which is a decline in status from “Acceptable” in previous years. Based on this designation, Mrs. Jones rightfully decides that immediate action is necessary. She shares the Facts of the situation with her staff by letting them know that student achievement has lapsed and gives specific details. Next, she uses Fear by telling the staff that if improvements are not made, the potential exists that jobs may be lost and the school may lose accreditation or even be closed. She then uses Force as she lays out the mandatory new multi-year requirements for all teachers — requiring compliance with utilizing new classroom strategies and eliminating some extracurricular activities for students. Mrs. Jones uses this model as a way to bring about rapid results in student achievement.

While Mrs. Jones did see short-term improvements on interim assessments at her school using the Facts, Fear, and Force model, she did not see sustainable results by using this strategy alone and end of year state test scores still continued to decline over a three year period. Facts, Fear, and Force tends to create a lack of trust among staff and can lead to resentment among the ranks of teachers which hurts the school culture and staff morale.

Let’s fast forward three years into the future:

Mrs. Jones has another option to use as she moves into a new school year. Deutschman’s “new” change paradigm also suggests three components. Mrs. Jones could Relate, Repeat, and Reframe instead of using the Facts, Fear, and Force model. Using Relate, Repeat, and Reframe, she is able to build staff capacity, buy-in, and trust.

Using this model, Mrs. Jones approaches her problem in a different way. She first Relates to her staff in a way that shows support and mutual understanding of the problem at hand. She does this by sharing in the responsibility for increasing student achievement, making the priority universal for all school staff – including herself. Next, Mrs. Jones employs the idea of Repeating by making sure that her approach to the problem is shared and practiced by everyone in the school. Repetition makes the new strategies for improving student achievement part of the daily routine through intensive practice, in turn changing the school culture. In order to Reframe Mrs. Jones needs to help her staff see issues and problems through a different lens. This involves a cultural shift at the school because the staff is required to view students and instructional practices differently and may have to give up old practices. Eventually, the staff embraces the new way of doing business, which leads to student success that is sustainable.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Carl says:

    Management methods for quality, (not TQM), have been proven but continue to be ignored in programs for administrators and administrators continue to administer the way they were administrated.
    The correct way:

  • Learner says:

    I appreciate the comments and continue to wonder why it is so hard to get staff to change. I think we have to pay very close attention to the fundamental beliefs and values of our staff. Based on that information we need to make change incremental and help other move step by step to the new behavior. I think of what Rick Dufour says about behave your way to believing.

  • Learner says:

    Change or Die? We may look at that literaly as it portrayed in the book, change or die. Heart patients who do not take advantage of ways to proling life. However, think about Change or Die as the future of public schools. Either we change how we meet the needs of kids and parents or public schools exist only for those students who do not have resources to enroll private schools or all of education becomes a private business.
    Change or Die, either the public schools meet the needs of all students or we seise to exist. If that was the case, how would that affect equal access to high quality education? We owe it to all of our students to CHANGE our practices to meet the needs of all students. If we do not change we will see the death of public schools and equal access to a quality education.

  • Kim says:

    Having worked for a principal who utilized the Facts, Fear, and Force method with limited results and currently for one who utilizes the Deutschman model, the differences are astounding. An administrator who is viewed as a teacher-leader has the opportunity to create relationships with the staff, which can lead to the desired changes in behavior and eventually to increased student success.

  • Thanks for adding a new comment to this post, Kim. Your experience is like so many others who are coming to the realization that top-down, control-centered leadership is simply ineffective in schools. The most successful leaders know the importance of strong relationships on all levels and they make it a priority to develop and sustain relationships of trust.

  • Jill English says:

    I am very interested in your article. I have been in the fortunate position to have had the opportunity to lead whole school change for improvement in student learning outcomes, student wellbeing and staff wellbeing. The key to the improvement was in building positive relationships with staff to engage them in the improvement process. One very important strategy was giving staff voice and ensuring accountability measures were in place.

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