“We tried that, but…”

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I recently served as a process observer during a discussion about how to best support the central office leadership of a local school district as they planned school improvement efforts. The individuals who offered support to the district leaders commented on how frequently they heard these school leaders say, “We tried that, but…” followed by the discouraged refrain, “we didn’t get results.”

As an observer of those coaching the district, I wondered why they didn’t probe further. Whenever I hear “we-tried-that-but,” a series of questions comes to mind: What did you try to implement? How do you know teachers used the strategies? Did they use the strategy often enough for students to get the anticipated benefit? Did the teacher use the strategy long enough to change student learning? Did the teachers use the strategy or method the way it was intended or did they change it? What were the students’ responses to the changes in instruction? Were enough students engaged to make a difference in the results? If teachers struggled to use the strategy, why did they have difficulty? Did they need more professional development to fully understand the new practice? Did they have time to practice using the new approach and work with their colleagues to plan new lessons and discuss how to best use the practice in the classroom? Were the working conditions and culture safe for teachers to try newly learned skills? How were teachers involved in planning the roll-out of the effort? What role did principals and other school leaders play in supporting teachers’ application of new practices and removing barriers that teachers experience when trying something new?…among others.

I wonder how often school administrators and teachers have voiced disappointment about not getting the intended outcomes from various initiatives without looking further into the implementation of the effort. Without answering these and other questions about the implementation of a reform effort, it is not possible to make good decisions about what works or doesn’t work.

At another level, how often have state and national leaders said, “We tried that, but….”? Looking at implementation from a macro-level — reformers have advanced legislation, funded expensive reform agendas, pushed various curriculum and assessment models with the goal of improving student learning, established task forces, organized new departments, created new positions, and a myriad of other strategic actions. I suspect many were tried and abandoned, because the data indicated that student outcomes didn’t improve. It is impossible to tell if the innovation had the capacity to fulfill the promises intended by the policy makers without studying implementation. What was actually known about how widely the reforms being advanced through policy were implemented?

Implementation Science provides the understanding of systemic implementation practices needed to help local district leaders, as well as state and federal policy makers, to design and support reforms in ways that intentionally attend to the factors necessary to achieve full implementation. The National Implementation Research Network(NIRN) offers research and frameworks for understanding effective implementation processes. Educational reformers should study NIRN’s core implementation components and their conceptual model for designing and creating the conditions needed to operationalize and advance full implementation. Dean Fixsen and the other authors of the monograph Implementation Research: A Synthesis of the Literature (2005) state, “There is broad agreement that implementation is a decidedly complex endeavor, more complex than the policies, programs, procedures, techniques, or technologies that are the subject of the implementation efforts. Every aspect of implementation is fraught with difficulty, from system transformation to changing service provider behavior and restructuring organizational contexts.”[1] 

The lessons learned from implementation science should provide hope for reformers at all levels of the educational system who are struggling mightily with these challenges. Anyone listening to the often-cited mantra “We tried that, but…” should suggest they carefully study implementation and seek out these resources.

[1] Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S. F., Blase, K. A., Friedman, R. M., & Wallace, F. (2005). Implementation research: A synthesis of the literature. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, The National Implementation Research Network.