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In Defense of Incremental Change

by Justin Baeder | @eduleadership

If you can bring about rapid, radical change to accomplish something important, go ahead - why not? We need bold experimentation and exploration. We need people to try things no one else is doing in education.

I'm a big fan of pilot projects and trying new ideas, but we can't rest only on bold new ideas as our reform strategy. Why? The opportunities for radical change are fairly limited.

In other words, radical doesn't scale. A bold reform may make headlines in one district, but it won't even be allowed on the table in others. In most settings, improvement is going to happen at a slower and more incremental pace.

This can be frustrating - it can seem like nothing is happening, and it can be hard to maintain focus on the improvement. However, the greatest opportunity for improvement lies in those areas that can be changed incrementally - because everything can be improved incrementally.

We like fast results. We like to take credit. We like to celebrate visible success.

But over the long term, the biggest gains are going to come from the quiet, incremental changes we build into our work every day. Curriculum is a great example - it's the quality and refinement of the implementation, not the radical shift to something new, that most improves student learning.

Is Everyday Math better than TERC? It depends - either curriculum can be implemented well or poorly (even within the same school). The devil (and the greatest opportunity) is in the details.

So what does getting better at something over time look like?

First, practice. When we consider how students improve as readers, it's clear that doing lots of reading - in other words, practice - makes all the difference. The same is true for our work as educators - we improve our practice through more practice.

Second, strategies. Just as we run drills at soccer practice and teach students to use new reading comprehension strategies, there are strategies we can use in our schools to accelerate and scaffold the improvements that are taking place in instruction and other areas.

Third, attention to detail. When we get better at something and start to become experts, we start to see a world of detail that's invisible to the untrained eye. This is why instructional coaches are so helpful - they see the opportunities for improvement that others might miss.

Fourth, collaboration. When we have a highly evolved state of practice, and this practice is shared among everyone in the organization, it's possible to uphold very high standards and continually push everyone to the next level. This does not mean everyone is equally proficient - on the contrary, the diversity of levels of expertise is a rich resource for improvement. When you're very good at something and I can see that I'm not as strong in that area, I can learn from you, and you can reflect on what would take your practice in that area to an even higher level. My school is in the first year of full implementation of a new writing curriculum, but some teachers have been using it for years, and their expertise is both a valuable resource for others and a reminder that others have strengths in other areas, and this expertise can and must be shared regularly.

In our national policy context, we're investing in innovation, but I'd also suggest that refinement is even more worthy of investment, because refinement brings the greatest opportunity for improvement. There may be some gems out there waiting to be discovered, but there are no silver bullets.

What opportunities exist in your context for powerful incremental improvement?

Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) is a public school principal in Seattle, Washington. He speaks and writes about principal performance and productivity, and is a doctoral student at the University of Washington in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies.

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