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Problems in the Implementation Chain

By Jal Mehta

The first of our commentaries is authored by myself, Anthony Bryk, and Louis Gomez. Tony is the president of the Carnegie Foundation, Louis is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies learning, and I write about the relationship between knowledge and action. Tony and Louis will be along a little later this week, but today I wanted to say a bit about why I believe in the changes we outline in our piece.

I work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which sees itself as at the nexus of policy, research and practice. The usual way to think about these elements is that university researchers will conduct research on good practices; they will turn over this research to policymakers; policymakers will enact laws and regulations to achieve change at scale; and teachers and schools will implement these policies to achieve better outcomes. I've come to think that this implementation chain is fundamentally flawed at every link: university-produced research is often better for growing disciplinary knowledge than in directly addressing needs of practice; policymakers are too distant from schools to know how to improve them effectively; and teachers are highly resistant to top-down initiatives. The result, which is familiar from the implementation literature, is that there are many successful pilots, but that efforts to "scale" these programs through the above process almost always fall short.

In our piece we outline what we see as a better model, where rather than using knowledge developed externally to control what happens in schools, knowledge is developed by frontline practitioners to address problems of practice. Such an approach would give meaning to the cliché of schools as "learning organizations"; rather than being hosts to stove-piped programs from above, they would work as coherent institutions seeking to generate improvement. By having these schools work across networks, the idea is that social learning would spread across three levels: at level A, teachers revise practice on basis of what is and is not working with their students; at level B, schools revise practice for institutional improvement; and at level C, learning happens across the network, as what is learned in one school spreads to another. In a somewhat unusual wrinkle, we envision teachers and administrators working with university researchers and commercial designers, drawing on the diversity of expertise across the three groups as they work together to address problems of practice.

We discuss all of this in more detail in our commentary. What do you think? Is there a way to develop and share knowledge that is more effective than our current practices?

Jal Mehta is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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