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Consolidation, Not Innovation: Successful Educational Reform at Scale

This post is by Alma Harris.

Despite several decades of writing about school reform and a great deal of effort in making it happen, relatively few countries have managed to achieve deep and lasting improvement at scale. The reasons for this are unquestionably complex but it remains the case that moving from the few schools to the many still proves to be a considerable challenge. Looking at those countries that have achieved successful reform at scale, the two success criteria are firstly, adequate time and secondly, fidelity of implementation. Countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Chile have taken the time to implement their reforms deeply. They have taken the long view on educational change and have invested years rather than months in getting the right reforms firmly embedded. They have focused on a few priorities, a few core reforms, rather than multiple innovations or a kaleidoscope of changes.

Such countries have resisted the urge to grasp at every new idea that passes their way and have not been seduced into adopting re-labeled innovation. The world of educational reform is fond of recycling and reinvention - to be avoided at all costs. The myths about system and school reform are still peddled on a global scale. The convoluted and often redundant debates about improvement and change still travel the world. While the innovation sideshows lay out their international stalls laden with fancy concepts and new jargon, the real world of schooling is busy with the present issues and challenges facing today's teachers and students. Of course, it is important to look to the future but not at the expense of loosing sight of what needs to be done here and now in classrooms.

The sustainable and deep change that we see around the world has not been secured by innovation alone, as we are often led to believe. Conversely, in most cases, consolidation has also played a major part in successful reform. The absolute determination and resilience to not fall at the first hurdle or indeed any hurdle is at the heart of what makes school reform actually work. Without question, it is far less exciting and undoubtedly, far less profitable, to talk about consolidation than innovation. It is assumed and even asserted that innovation lies at the heart of educational change. True but only up to a point. Much less is said about the sheer hard work of getting the change implemented at all levels of the system, of trying and trying again to make things work, of investing time, resources, and effort in ensuring that the reform is fully embedded and properly sustained.

The spreading of reform to greater numbers of classrooms and schools, without watering down the process, reshaping it or hi-jacking it, remains the central challenge of educational change today. Scaling up has to involve more than the spread of new materials, new ideas, or new strategies; it must also involve the spread of underlying beliefs, norms, and principles. This takes time, resilience, determination, and persistence.

In countries still striving for better educational outcomes, the need for consolidation is very clearly illustrated. For example, In Wales, the widespread adoption of professional learning communities (PLCs) as a lever for system wide improvement will only succeed if there is deep adoption. PLCs will only be effective if the teaching professionals believe in the idea, establish the norms of authentic engagement, and actively demonstrate the principles of collaborative learning. A national PLC model has been established, extensive training has been delivered, and support materials have been disseminated, but this is simply not enough to get the job done. What is needed now, more than ever, is a consolidation of effort at all levels in the system to ensure the type of deep and authentic implementation that guarantees improved results.


Alma Harris is a professor and the director of the Institute of Educational Leadership at the University of Malaysia and the president of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and School Improvement.

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