The next frontier of education: Implementation

In my latest “research says” column in Educational Leadership, I report that a new slew of “gold-standard” studies has unearthed (somewhat inadvertently) that in a lot of cases, educators really aren’t very good at the whole implementation thing. The studies, commissioned by the Institute for Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, were carefully constructed with impressive sample sizes and rigorous statistical analyses. They found little or no effects for several popular education programs, such as Odyseey Math and Rick Stiggins’ Classroom Assessment for Student Learning.

Yet, almost without exception, the programs in question were so poorly implemented that it’s difficult to determine if they—or the poor implementation—were the reason for the weak results. In other words, the programs might have actually worked had they only been implemented with fidelity.’

This may be true of many education approaches and reforms, which ultimately get thrown on the trash heap because we believe they don’t work, when in reality, they may work just fine when they’re implemented well.

On the upside, we have seen a lot of improvements in education (for example, great teaching and curricula that challenge and engage students, to name just two) that can have a tremendous impact on student success … when done well. In fact, most of the big impact approaches aren’t new at all. For decades, we’ve known that teachers setting high expectations, being a “warm demander,” and intentionally matching instructional strategies to learning goals really do work. We just need to do these things correctly and stick to them.

Educators might take some solace in knowing that they’re not alone in struggling to do what everyone knows must be done. Businesses have the same trouble. Everyone in the airline industry knows Southwest Airline’s open secrets of success, such as their “all aboard” seating; yet few, if any, competitors have been able to effectively follow Southwest’s formula. Doing things right, of course, is a thorny challenge. Yet, it’s not impossible—in fact, we know quite a lot about the keys to good implementation.

So the good news is this: we don’t need to wait for silver bullets, or Superman, or some yet-to-be invented innovation to improve our schools. As we show in the video below, we simply need to do better what decades of research says matters most to change the odds for student success.

Bryan Goodwin is the author of a new book from ASCD, Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.

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