Better services in schools and afterschool programs. Reforms that work. Exciting new opportunities for young people. They all come from a single source.
It’s not politics.
And it’s not money.
It’s better professional practices.
Think about what happens when planning for summer learning programs is left until the last minute. Or when training gaps mean that school and afterschool staff members are unprepared to support kids’ social and emotional development. Or when novice principals who are key to district efforts to improve school leadership have to fend for themselves, without mentors or coaching.
It’s not pretty. How efforts are implemented really matters. Even the best ideas and the most well-resourced programs can’t make up for weak implementation.
We know this because we’ve seen what happens when implementation goes awry. It’s a problem first pinned down in the 1970s, when Seymour Sarason’s The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change traced the surprising shortfalls of the 1960s “New Math” to lapses in how this approach to grade-school math education was carried out. Notably, teachers asked to teach the new math hadn’t been trained in how to do so. Moreover, the new curriculum wasn’t adapted to the local context, and planning was left until the new books arrived.
The bottom line was clear: Even the best idea, done with the best of intentions, doesn’t help kids if it isn’t implemented thoughtfully, carefully and with a smart change process that responds to the challenges faced by practitioners.
Practitioners in schools and youth services take their work very seriously, so they know that well-executed programming is the best way they can help kids grow. And at The Wallace Foundation, we take practitioners’ work as seriously as they do. That’s why in addition to supporting improved practices and gathering many kinds of evidence to help enhance services for young people—from cost studies and outcomes data to market research and case studies—we gather practical, reliable lessons on implementation. Indeed, we place the highest priority on finding lessons that practitioners in education, youth services and other fields can use to strengthen their work, overcome barriers to effective programming and assist staff members when new services are being introduced. And we’ve seen how useful and beneficial these lessons are for practitioners and the kids they serve.
Our vehicle for this is the implementation study—independent research, which we commission and publish, that examines how an effort is put into operation. In uncovering both the strong points and flaws of implementation, this research identifies and illuminates the practices needed to carry out an innovation well. In the foundation’s early days in the 1990s, for example, researchers examined our initiative to support then-novel efforts by public schools to provide services for children and families beyond regular school hours. Among the lessons in Getting Started with Extended Service Schools: It’s crucial to include school custodians in planning lest afterschool programming and afterschool cleaning and repairing collide. This simple reminder saved time and backtracking when the 21st Century Community Learning Centers effort began, and the U.S. Department of Education sent each center a copy of Getting Started.
Here are three examples from our more recent work:
In our National Summer Learning Project, begun in 2011, we supported five urban school districts as they worked to make high-quality summer learning programs available to children. Getting to Work on Summer Learning: Recommended Practices for Success, 2nd ed. finds, among other things, that the districts needed to begin summer planning well ahead of summer’s onset if they wanted the programming to be as sound as possible. Best practices uncovered included this: Start planning in January at the latest.
Our effort to help youth-serving organizations introduce high-quality arts programming for young people in disadvantaged areas began in 2014. Raising the Barre and Stretching the Canvas highlights the ways local Boys & Girls Clubs of America managers integrated teaching artists into their staff teams so the “arts kids” were supported by the entire Club community.
And then there’s the Principal Pipeline Initiative, launched in 2010, which supported six large school districts as they developed a systematic effort, known as building a principal pipeline, to cultivate a large corps of effective school leaders. A recently published outcomes study found that these pipelines proved advantageous to both student achievement and principal retention. The examination of the initiative’s implementation suggests how and why this played out—in part, through flexibility that allowed for local adaptation. Specifically, even though each district set out to build pipelines with common components—such as rigorous job standards and on-the-job supports including mentoring for new principals—each district adapted the components to its circumstances and managed to overcome the barriers that inevitably cropped up locally. In other words, principal pipelines benefit kids when school districts emphasize strong implementation. The evidence is laid out in five Wallace-commissioned implementation reports, Building a Stronger Principalship.
We are looking forward to future explorations of implementation, too. A forthcoming Wallace-commissioned report from our Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative, for example, is setting out to detail how front-line youth workers and teachers find the time to incorporate social and emotional learning into their regular practices.
Over more than two decades of commissioning and communicating about implementation studies of Wallace’s initiatives, we’ve learned a lot:
- We’ve learned to pay attention to straightforward descriptions of what’s feasible in several different places. Practitioners value descriptions of what their peers have actually done in the real world, because that’s how they see they can do it, too. And we’ve seen that comparisons among several sites deepen the value of the implementation evidence.
- We’ve learned to look at the start-up process, because it points to the stakeholders who need to be at the table and the practical ideas they contribute.
- We’ve learned to identify hindrances to implementation—whether planning oversights, disengaged management teams, unequal treatment of some practitioners, lack of preparation time, staff inexperience or other commonplace operational challenges—and crucially, how practitioners overcome them.
- We’ve learned that sensible adaptations help practitioners respond to their own context—and show people who are considering an improvement approach how they can tweak it to fit their own situation.
Most of all, we’ve found that every serious improvement effort requires significant operational changes in day-to-day practices and management, so it is essential to probe and learn from the on-the-ground experiences of the front-line practitioners who are serving kids. The payoff for good implementation evidence is feasible, adaptable, practical ideas that enable institutions to engage in continuous improvement of services—with a consistent focus on benefitting young people. Strong practitioners are constantly figuring out how to do their work better. Smart implementation evidence helps them in that and, ultimately, in serving kids.
Effective implementation is the not-so-hidden story of services that work, and Wallace’s support for disadvantaged young people is rooted in the foundation’s recognition that the right kind of implementation is what gets the job done. That’s the most useful, and most constructive, lesson from Wallace’s work. And it’s the lesson practitioners use.
Ed Pauly is Wallace’s former director of research.
One More Look: Highlights from Wallace-Commissioned Implementation Evidence
Over the years, Wallace-commissioned research has looked at the implementation of initiatives in areas ranging from adult literacy and financial management of not-for-profit organizations to school leadership and summer learning. Which reports have ideas to help strengthen your practices?
Getting Started with Extended Service Schools: Early Lessons from the Field, Kay E. Sherwood (2000)
Aligning Student Support With Achievement Goals: The Secondary Principal’s Guide (2006). The book is available for purchase online. A free Wallace brief highlights key report findings.