Answering Tough Questions About Sustainability
Private and public agencies have invested large sums of money to reform districts over the past decade. Exhilarated over receiving handsome grants, district and school innovators happily throw them themselves into efforts at putting their ideas into practice. By the end of the first or second year, funders will ask, rarely gently, what the plans are for the continuation of the innovation after the grant ends. If their enthusiasm for the reform remains undimmed, project leaders scramble for advice on how to continue the entire project or its key features. They often ask system insiders and outsiders, "What do we need to do in our district not only to sustain our hard-fought efforts but also to spread the reform's positive effects to the rest of the system?" Funders and innovators who depend upon their monies are deeply interested in the "how-to" of institutionalizing their work.
I am also. But I believe other, seldom-asked questions must be addressed along with the "how-to" question. I begin with the popular how-to question and then move to the equally, if not more important, question of why should a project be sustained.
How to sustain your project?
There are generic strategies for establishing the conditions and infrastructure that institutionalize a project and distribute its effects across a system-what policy elites (top public and private officials, policymakers, and foundation executives)-call "scalability." Note that I label these "generic" to distinguish them from strategies that are unique to particular districts. I will discuss those context-bound ones below.
Staff turnover, particularly of those who have given leadership to the innovation in its early stages, often undermines sustainability. Project leadership often changes. Recruitment of successors either from within the existing cadre of participants or from a pool of similarly committed outsiders becomes imperative. Of equal importance is paying attention to introducing new staff to the vision, prevailing culture, and expected outcomes of the project so as to maintain continuity.
Political. Sustaining a project intact, or preserving its main features (a tactic to keep in mind if continuation runs into difficulties), will not occur until particular decision makers replace external funding with a line item in the operational budget. In most cases, that will be the superintendent and ultimately the school board. For that to occur, project leaders need to make top district administrators knowledgeable of the project's efforts, its connections to other district programs, and how spreading features of the project across the system advances district goals.
Beyond convincing top district administrators of the worth of the project, building strong ties to, and credibility with, other departments in the system are other important tasks. Most LSC projects, for example, coordinate their activities with varied instructional and curricular departments, individual schools, and in some cases, unions, universities, and local corporate leaders. To the degree that the project's work helps those administrators and agencies to do their work well, they become allies in the project leaders' quest for institutionalizing the innovation.
Internal allies may be willing to redirect some resources to link their work to that of the project. External allies may commit publicly to continuing their participation through contributing staff and monies. Although such tasks impose additional responsibilities on project leaders in the last few years of external funding, building direct and indirect support among those who ultimately determine district budget allocations is essential in translating rhetorical endorsements into actual mechanisms of institutionalization.
Structural. Getting a line item in the operational budget converts a project into a regular district program. But there are other organizational mechanisms beyond the budgetary. Some LSC projects integrate into ongoing district structures to enhance their effort. For example, in professional development, redirecting district funds for project-influenced summer institutes, continuing workshops during the school year, and negotiating with the union additional days in the annual calendar set aside for teachers and principals work project initiatives into routine district operations independent of agency grants.
The hardest feature of a project to replicate across a district is its unique culture (the norms, expectations, roles, and rituals that come to characterize the community). Yet even with this difficulty there are mechanisms that can at least make the growth of a similar culture possible. To use professional development again for example, the program might build time for off-campus retreats into district-wide or individual school calendars. The provision of early dismissal days, allowing staff to use time during the regular school day for professional development, is another possibility.
These generic strategies are common suggestions to innovators seeking sustainability. The defect of leaning wholly on generic strategies is that each district is different in its size, governance, demography, experience with innovations, and political culture.
Does local context matter?
Few generic teaching strategies can be implemented as designed by others without some amending by teachers and principals who work with students of different ages, different abilities, and different ethnic, racial, and class mixes of students in schools and classrooms. What is applicable to the school and classroom is true for the district. Seeking institutionalization for an externally-funded project in Chicago is quite different than doing so in Scarsdale, New York, or Oakland, California. Knowing that context matters imposes upon project leaders a search for insider knowledge of the district and much tactical savvy in constructing staffing, political, and structural strategies adapted to local conditions.
This completes my answer to the question: how to sustain a project? Complicated as it is and remembering that there is limited research on the issue, I offered a personal response that combined research and my experience working in schools over the years. I turn now to the even tougher question facing those wishing to continue their projects.
Why sustain your project?
For advocates of a curricular, instructional, capacity-building, or technological innovation the answer to the question is self-evident: we want to continue the project because it works. It is a success. But what do "work" and "success" mean? In defining these simple, everyday words, hidden complexities emerge that should be considered prior to beginning any effort to continue a project.
To policy elites "a successful innovation" or "one that 'works'" often mean that the effort's intended goals are being (or were) achieved. In other words, they did what they said they were going to do and they have the figures to prove it. In a society where "bottom lines," Dow Jones averages, sports statistics, and vote counts matter, quantifiable results often determine success. Thus, when policy elites claim that a project is a success, they often point to the achievement of desired outcomes, often expressed in numbers, to show that the innovation has worked. In doing so, they are using an effectiveness standard.
For the last quarter-century, policy elites have used the effectiveness standard to judge the success or failure of innovations and the quality of schooling. From what students have learned in school to what graduates do after they leave high school, measures of performance point to whether explicit goals have been achieved. Primary indicators of effectiveness have been standardized achievement test scores, rates of college attendance, improvements in teaching, and similar outcome measures.
Note, however, that educational policymakers, public officials, and agency funders subjectively set the desired goals for reforms and the measures to be used to determine success. For example, national and state policymakers concluded by the late 1970s that American public schools had declined in quality because Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores had plunged downward. This widely reported use of SAT scores as reliable measures of school performance fueled public support for states raising academic requirements in the 1980s. It did not matter that the test makers called such use of scores inaccurate; what mattered more to public officials seeking support for their policies and media seeking high-profile stories were quantitative measures that could be used in a numbers-conscious society to establish ranking of schools, thereby creating easily identifiable winners and losers.
Yet even here, test results proved ambiguous measures of whether a reform worked. Consider that early evaluations of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in the late 1960s revealed so little improvement in poor children's academic performance as to endanger congressional renewal of the program. Such negative evidence gave media critics and national policymakers hostile to federal intervention a reason to brand the War on Poverty programs as failures. Yet unpromising test scores were insufficient to overcome the program's political attractiveness with constituents and legislators. Since the early 1970s, each successive president and Congress has used this popularity as a basis for allocating eagerly sought funds to needy students in schools across the nation.
Thus, the gold coin of the evaluation realm, numerical data, dominates the scene but is not irresistible in determining success. Other evidence drawn from interviews, impressions, and unquantifiable indicators may well convince policy elites and advocates that success has been achieved.
Policymakers, then, use the popularity standard to judge success. The spread of an innovation and its hold on the imagination of voters, educators, and decision-makers becomes an important criterion, as documented by opinion polls and media reports, often translates into political support for top policymakers endorsing the reform.
The rapid diffusion of special education, bilingual education, new math and science curricula, personal computers in schools, and professional development since the 1970s offers obvious examples of innovations sweeping the nation. Few funders or educators questioned the accelerating outlays of public funds for these reforms or asked for measurable evidence to support these outlays. Advocates viewed the new programs as worthwhile ways of coping with important unmet educational needs of children and teachers. The popularity itself of these reforms became evidence to support media editors' and policymakers' judgments that the reforms were, at least initially, resounding successes.
In addition to effectiveness and popularity as common ways of judging the success of an innovation or reform, policy elites also use fidelity as a standard. The fidelity standard assesses the fit between the initial design, the formal policy adopted, the subsequent program it spawns, and the implementation of the reform. Those using this criterion ask, "How can you judge the effectiveness of a reform project if the innovation departed from the blueprint?" When the NSF, for example, funds a curriculum or professional development project and stipulates that grantees provide at least 100 hours of professional development to at least 100 teachers, align their innovative curriculum to district and state frameworks, and build partnerships with external agencies to enhance the project's effectiveness in the district, NSF officials want implementers to adhere to the stipulations because they believe that the desired outcomes-better science and math teaching and learning--will be achieved.
The fidelity standard places great importance on practitioners' following the designers' blueprint. When teachers and principals add, adapt, or even omit features of the original design, then policymakers, heeding this standard, say that the policy and program cannot be determined effective because of the changes.
Another frequently used standard to judge success or failure is to ask whether the reform has staying power. This longevity standard is plausible because in public schools where so many innovations last no longer than warm breath on a cool window, a program that persists more than a few years is a signal achievement to which advocates can point with pride. The comprehensive high school, The Bay Area Writers project, kindergartens, and (a more prosaic example) overhead projectors were once innovations and, over time, have become thoroughly institutionalized to become virtual commonplaces of schooling.
There are other innovations, however, which also have longevity but are no longer recognizable because their original goals and practices have been abandoned. A non-educational example would be the fight against infantile paralysis in the 1930s that led to the founding of the March of Dimes organization. As vaccines for polio became available in the 1950s and the incidence of the disease became rare, the organization lost its primary reason for being. Yet today that very same organization survives as a foundation fighting other childhood diseases. Some educational innovations in the past have also survived but have changed considerably: the Platoon School in pre-World War I America has evolved into the modern elementary school; The Dalton Plan of the 1920s has been transformed into a technique-making contracts with students over the work to be completed-that both new and experienced teachers use; effective schools innovations targeting low-performing urban elementary schools in the early 1980s has become nationalized by 2000 into the standards-based, test-driven, accountability movement for all American schools. None of these once brand name innovations exist today but their features can be found in current programs.
Longevity and survival, then-note the differences between the two- provide other standards by which success or failure can be determined. The press from federal and private agencies for sustainability in projects, I suspect, is another way of saying that the longevity criterion is being used to determine the worth of an innovation.
These mainstream criteria -effectiveness, fidelity, popularity, and longevity - alone or combined, are the ones most often used by policymakers, top private and public officials, and the media to judge whether a project is successful. For teachers and principals who largely are responsible for implementing innovations, however, these criteria have been imposed and are seldom openly discussed among themselves; nor, for that matter, are they often discussed among those who make district-wide decisions. Policymakers, not practitioners, use these standards to judge a project's success and failure. When federal, state, and local policymakers (and media reporters following their lead) talk about reforms and use these criteria to determine success, their judgments carry much more weight than teachers and principals because elected officials are authorized to act as legitimate decision makers for the community.
But what criteria do these practitioners--the foot soldiers of every reform-use? Seldom do teachers and principals use effectiveness, fidelity, popularity, or longevity as standards to judge a innovation's worth. Of course, teachers seek visible evidence of improved students' academic performance but what teachers count as effectiveness are seldom achievement test scores but students' acquiring certain attitudes, values, and their display in actual behavior on both academic and nonacademic tasks in and out of the classroom. Also practitioners value putting their personal signature on the reform and tailoring the innovation to work with students in their classrooms. Teachers and principals view these adaptations as prior conditions necessary to achieve their outcomes as well as those of the innovation.
To policymakers and those who design innovations alterations in their design become evidence of failure; to teachers and principals, however, the very same modifications are viewed as healthy signs of flexibility, inventiveness, and active problem solving in reaching effectiveness. How, practitioners ask, can you determine whether an innovation is successful unless we adapt the change to the unique conditions of this classroom, this school? This practitioner-derived standard of adaptiveness (the flip side of the fidelity standard) becomes essential prior to applying any other criteria.
But why is the adaptiveness standard, one that practitioners would prize in a school reform, seldom invoked publicly? The question boils down to one of power and status: whose standards count? When policy elites, using research findings often displayed in numbers and their access to media, place their weight behind reforms, they have an automatic legitimacy that those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, that is, practitioners, lack. Without the cachet of scientific expertise, access to top officials, or entre to reporters, individual teachers and principals are stuck. Collectively, teachers have organized into unions and, more recently, asserted their political clout through taking explicit positions on school reforms. Yet in making policy and judging success, unions still play a limited role.
Thus, when individual or groups of teachers or principals do choose to adapt innovations they do so unobtrusively or, in some cases, engage in guerilla warfare with district administrators. Organizational legitimacy, use of scientifically derived data and power often determine whose criteria are used to judge success and failure. Finding out whose standards are being used to judge the worth of an innovation and the exact content of those standards including what constitutes acceptable evidence becomes critical information in deciding whether and how to continue a project.
To summarize, achieving explicit goals drive three of the standards used to judge success or failure of an innovation: effectiveness, fidelity, and adaptiveness. All display evidence (albeit using different measures) to support claims of success but the power to determine which standards to use varies considerably between policymakers and practitioners. Neither popularity, which values widespread belief in the innovation's virtue, nor longevity which values the age of the innovation, are concerned with effectiveness.
Much of the disappointment that enthusiasts for an innovation experience as they rush down the road of sustainability comes from the reluctance to ask the simple question: why sustain the project? The answer to the question means probing at what criteria for judging success and failure are being used by project staff and district decision makers and where, if at all, there are discrepancies that can be eased (or at least made explicit and openly discussed) even before the tough work of actually institutionalizing the innovation proceeds.
In offering a personal answer to these tough questions about sustainability, I have skipped too hastily over some difficult dilemmas buried deep within the concept of sustainability. Let me end with these and pose them as further questions to consider in our online discussion. Here are a few that I believe need careful deliberation in institutionalizing your projects.
I look forward to our discussion.
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