If You Can’t Maintain an Initiative, Maybe You Shouldn’t Do It

Peter Dewitt
10 Minute Read
January 24, 2022

“Initiative fatigue” and “implementation dip” are words that leaders and teachers know far too well. When we enter into the field of education as new teachers, the word “initiative” is quickly introduced to our vocabulary. It usually has a negative connotation. Unfortunately, what happens next is the blame game where initiatives are concerned.

“They’re just so resistant” is what we hear about the people who question the need for an initiative. “They just don’t listen to what we need” is what we hear from those who believe the initiative is forced upon them. “We never get the support we need” is yet another response.

Regrettably, instead of slowing down the process; trying to take time to deeply understand the community; or consider the consequences, both positive and negative, that come with the initiative before the process begins; we just keep plugging on and build the plane while flying.

One of the issues with implementation is that leaders often think they know what they need, and teachers are usually involved in the process, but the long-term benefits are never really considered. In preparation for a book I’m writing on de-implementation, which van Bodegom-Vos L et al. (2017) defines as “the process of abandoning existing low value practices,” I found myself deeply involved in studying implementation models. We can’t talk about abandoning practices if we can’t focus on how we engage in those practices in the first place. The model I found most interesting was PRISM.

The PRISM Model

Feldstein and Glasgow (2008. P. 228) write,

A conceptual framework for improving practice is needed to integrate the key features for successful program design, predictors of program implementation success, factors associated with diffusion and maintenance, and appropriate outcome measures

Feldstein and Glasgow (2008. P. 229) also go on to write that their “primary focus is the health care practice, but the model is also applicable to other settings where health interventions may be delivered, such as work sites or school-based settings.

In the image below, I adapted the PRISM model to fit the needs of educators. Where it used to say “medical directors, doctors, and nurses,” I adapted it to say “leaders, teachers, and staff.” Where it says “students,” in the medical field it typically says “patients.” Yes, in a way, students are the patients from this model.

This is where I usually lose people. After all, they say, “We know how to implement.” Unfortunately, as much as leaders and teachers implement, they often make assumptions that cloud their judgment when it comes to doing so.

What I mean is that they believe they understand their students but may not have done the proper work to understand all their students, parents, and teachers. For example, I remember a few school districts that tried to move from grading to a feedback model on report cards, but there was so much pushback from parents that the district needed to reverse the initiative. They made an assumption parents would want feedback instead of grades because it was more of a holistic and equitable approach, but they did not do the proper work to communicate the need for a feedback model and they underestimated parents who valued grades for their children.

As you can see above in the image, the new initiative is first broken into two main categories: perspective and characteristics. Schools should never move forward with an initiative if they do not understand the perspective and characteristics of their teachers, students, and community. These are then followed by additional elements that need to be taken into consideration.

Perspectives and Characteristics - Understanding the perspectives and characteristics of our stakeholders is important, because if we lack that understanding, our ideas will often fail. Schools are taking time to understand the importance through the use of empathy interviews. An empathy interview is a method used by teachers and leaders to understand how students best learn in the classroom. Yes, this is a novel idea!

Implementation and Sustainability Infrastructure – In the field of education, this would be the school-based leadership team.

External Environment – How much support do schools get from their boards of education or their school community? How will COVID impact implementation?

Adoption – How will this work get adopted? What are the reasons for adopting this particular initiative? How will this initiative help our school community improve? In what ways will our school roll it out?

Implementation – This is where the team takes the actionable steps to implement the initiative.

These pieces of the model all seem standard and understandable, but the next part is often the most difficult. And that is the maintenance.

Can You Maintain Momentum?

During a session with the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) where I share lead adviser duties with my colleague Jenni Donohoo, and we work with Chris Beals, Mike Nelson, and over 180 directors of teaching and learning from across the state over a two-year period to provide professional learning, I shared the PRISM model. The sentiment that came out the loudest was that, in education, we are good at adopting an initiative, but we are not good at maintaining.

What we know is that implementing a new initiative or idea in school is not like posting on social media. You can’t just do it once and hope that people will like it, follow it, or reshare it. It requires maintenance. And that brings us back to what I wrote at the beginning.

Too often, the blame game begins when an initiative begins to fail because we blame teachers for not implementing it correctly in the classroom. Teachers are most likely not able to implement something in the classroom if they learned about it once at a ½-day workshop that may or may not have been engaging.

What we know is that high-quality professional learning takes three to five years (Timperley), in which teachers are engaged in an inquiry approach to understand how to properly implement and to decide and try out different strategies to do so successfully. These sessions are where leaders and teachers work together to define a common understanding around what support looks like (an often-complicated topic between leaders and teachers). This will help achieve the last part of the PRISM model, which is “Reach and Effectiveness” in which teams collect evidence to understand the impact of their actions.

In the End

If you made it to this point of the blog, thank you. Unfortunately, people begin to fade out after we get to adoption, and that’s part of the reason why implementation of initiatives often fail. We know that schools are experiencing the most challenging times they have most likely ever seen in our history. COVID has brought about unprecedented challenges.

The issue is that, even though people are tired, burned out, and anxious, schools still move forward with implementing new initiatives. If they weren’t doing well when it came to initiative fatigue and the implementation dip prior to COVID, imagine how much more difficult that is for them now.

This post originally appeared on DeWitt's Finding Common Ground blog (Education Week) on Sunday, January 23rd, 2022

Peter Dewitt, "If You Can’t Maintain an Initiative, Maybe You Shouldn’t Do It’", as originally posted on DeWitt's Finding Common Ground blog, 01-24-2022, https://petermdewitt.com/blog/f/if-you-can%E2%80%99t-maintain-an-initiative-maybe-you-shouldn%E2%80%99t-do-it

Photo by Frank Romero on Unsplash

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