The challenge to change

My friend Jason works as the manager of a gym. I work as a consultant to school districts and state agencies on improving student and instructional success.

You might never imagine us giving each other professional advice–but in fact, it’s Jason I can thank for one of the most important insights I’ve ever gained into what it takes for leaders of struggling schools to be willing to commit to better intervention strategies to improve results: Committing to the whole program of change from day one–even when you feel just starting one adjustment will be hard enough.

One day, a customer came into Jason’s gym. His doctor had just sternly advised him to change his life radically–lose weight, eat better, exercise more.

“I’m glad you are here,” Jason said. “We have a wonderful approach that starts with exercise, coupled with nutritional education and nutritional coaching.”

The customer looked overwhelmed. It was too much at once. Couldn’t he try just one some exercise first? Then start changing his eating habits and hopefully lose some weight? Jason had seen this before and said: “Listen, your doctor told you your blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight are off the charts. You need to take this seriously.” Then he added the magic words: “We have a low-impact way for you to get started that blends all three–and you can work up from there.”

The customer signed up, and was soon on his way to a much healthier self.

What can we learn from Jason’s story?
Jason’s story resonated with the work we do at PCG with districts and states in focusing on better intervention strategies to improve results. Like that gym customer, so many districts recognize they are in dire straits–disproportionality numbers and over-referrals to special education are too high, and too many educators have lost a sense of focus on the individual student.

Unfortunately, many districts feel as overwhelmed as Jason’s customer and want a sequential, linear approach to solving their problems. What we’ve learned is they must commit simultaneously, at some level, to all three prongs of the approach that drives sustainable results: Technology upgrades, professional development, and coaching.

We’ve all heard the motto: “You can’t change or improve what you can’t measure.” We’ve all seen how technology speeds access to information, streamlines complex projects, and simplifies reporting. As uncomfortable as it can sometimes be for large and complex organizations, technology can drive transparency–and that unlocks the door to real change.

In our experience, a sequential or linear approach to change–professional development in year one, coaching in year two, and technology later–tends to delay, not accelerate, the results and impact a district seeks. If over-identification for special education services is an urgent issue, more professional development may make educators more sensitive to the issue-but it won’t alleviate the issue immediately without coaching and better measurement and enhanced workflows enabled by technology.

Several years ago, we worked with a U.S. Top 20 district in North Carolina on a district-wide project to address discipline processes and the high number of student suspensions. Aligning policy and practice was key to the success of this project. The district agreed with our recommendation to employ a multi-pronged approach and, after implementing new policies, workflows, and PCG’s EDPlan technology platform, the district realized a 29% reduction in suspensions in the 2013-2014 school year.

In Georgia, we worked with a large, urban school district to improve intervention process efficiencies and implement the supporting technology. This district, in its first year of revising how it approached the intervention process and implementing EDPlan, reduced the time it took to place students in plans — from nine weeks to two weeks, a 75% improvement.

These are just two examples of how the multi-pronged approach can drive change quickly. As my gym manager friend Jason likes to say, “If you aren’t challenging yourself, you aren’t changing yourself.” And what our experience with districts shows is, if you aren’t challenging yourself to begin improving on multiple fronts at once, you won’t change your results anytime soon.

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