Want to make and sustain change? Build a hive.

May 18, 2023

It’s a common theme in education reform. Public school systems across the U.S. adopt the same evidence-based tool or follow the same policy (a particular curriculum, training for teachers and school leaders, school-family partnerships) – and get different results, so many of them disappointing. 

Why is that?

It’s because leaders are laser focused on what they are changing but less so on examining and transforming how they make that change. 

How you do things matters as much as what you do. There often is much more to learn from the former than the latter.

At CPRL, our research and work supporting education sector leaders across the U.S. has shown that leaders can make and sustain impact when they create a dynamic and coordinated hive of activity that encourages ongoing learning, adjusting, and flexibility. Since 2011, we have built leaders’ capacity to rewire systems so they intentionally attend and attune policy and its implementation to differences that exist from student to student, classroom to classroom, school to school, system to system. We help leaders change how their systems make decisions; broaden participation to include implementers (teachers) and consumers (families) traditionally excluded from decisions; define success; motivate action; support and propagate high-quality services; solve problems; and define, generate, capture, share, spread, and apply knowledge.

To succeed, all of a school system’s many interconnected elements must be part of the creative hive. That is why we take a multidisciplinary approach, applying expertise in law, policy, research, data sciences, and education; supporting change on the school, intermediate, and district levels; and changing laws, regulations, policies, and standard practices that govern how school systems function and keep them from improving. 

Of course, changing how systems work is hard – their logic often is deeply entrenched, little examined, and less understood. But when leaders partner with their communities to co-discover, expose, take on, and transform a system’s flawed logic, people inside and outside the system can together produce a new logic that works for students, families, and communities. 

This is how we can improve learning for each and every student so they get what they need when they need it. This is how to close the opportunity gap that has stymied generations of students of color and those living in poverty. 

This is at the heart of CPRL’s approach to leadership development for systems change. 

When leaders partner with their communities to co-discover, expose, take on, and transform a system’s flawed logic, people inside and outside the system can together produce a new logic that works for students, families, and communities.

Decades of ed reform: What hasn’t worked, and why? 

When we look at the persistent opportunity gaps and the ways the Covid-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated inequities in student learning experiences, it’s clear that the education reforms of the last 50 years have not had the impact our young people need and deserve. This is because most ed reforms have failed to align policy and program designs to context and address variability in implementation. They have not accounted for the multidirectional forces of stasis and change within the system; they do not engage inclusive,  substantial, authentic participation from those closest to the change. 

Take initiatives that have relied heavily on top-down uniformity of easily quantified inputs, services, and milestones. These efforts place one rigid set of rules on school systems that are hardly one size or shape and that serve different communities and receive different resources and services. When things have gone awry, rather than examine and change how these initiatives are attuned to their intended beneficiaries, system leaders often blame frontline workers – typically the teachers – for not strictly following the rules imposed on them, then double down, further constraining discretion. 

Some reforms have offered glimmers of hope for the impact deeper systemic change can have. In the early 2000s, local and state education systems changed how they set and monitored goals, how they supported and motivated schools to meet goals, and how they communicated with families and other stakeholders. In many large systems, school assignment; teacher recruitment, preparation, assignment, and compensation; and decision-making within the system and schools changed as well. By 2012, the white-Black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps were nearly 40% smaller than they were in the 1970s. While we can’t make a direct causal connection, we believe that rewiring key pieces of systems’ operating logic contributed to the improvements. 

However, because these changes were made in a heavily top-down manner focused on easily quantifiable, often excessively uniform metrics, progress plateaued. As we see from persistent inequities within and across our school systems, the changes did not go deep and far enough.

How do you rewire systems to achieve equity that sticks and scales?

Together—genuinely together—with a diverse array of stakeholders, you build systems that treat daily operations as ongoing opportunities for learning and improvement. At every turn, quantitative AND qualitative measurement using multiple data sources transforms daily practice into strategic learning. And the system’s democratic approach to knowledge management allows each member of the system to contribute to the generation, capture, spread, and application of new learning.

Leaders of our partner organizations are redesigning systems so learning and doing are inseparable. They learn to work across lines of difference, while orchestrating learning across the system. They actively participate in the process themselves, submitting their own leadership strategy and system design to the same scrutiny they apply to the entire system’s activities and processes. 

CPRL partners with leaders to redesign their systems in ways that allow them to learn constantly with and from those closest to the work and to spread and motivate uptake of effective practice. Our partners collaborate with students, families, and communities to set goals and monitor progress, to test and adapt innovations, and use flexible teaming and supervisory structures to ensure multi-directional knowledge sharing and application. 

You might be thinking this all sounds good in theory, but what does it look like in practice? Up next in our Story of CPRL series, we will show how our graduate students are building their capacity to lead systems change.