One of the criticisms often leveled at evidence-based reform in education is this: Programs may be proven effective in controlled experiments, but on a larger scale, they won't be implemented with care and therefore won't work. I have seen many awful implementations of programs that have been successful elsewhere and I agree that this is a problem. Proven programs don't implement themselves.
How can we ensure widespread, effective, intelligent use of proven programs? After many years of wrestling with this question, I have a set of principles for ensuring high-quality implementations of proven programs, which I will now reveal to one and all.
1. Make sure teachers chose to implement the program. When anyone is forced to do something, they often do a poor job of it. Work with volunteers. If a program works with individual teachers, let them opt in. If it works with schools, let the teachers vote (Success for All* requires 75% in favor). After you demonstrate local success, then come back and offer the program again to those who chose not to do the program, but start with people who are committed and positive about implementation.
2. The school is the unit of change. It's very hard for isolated teachers to do serious innovation. Schools taking on programs usually get much better results. In secondary schools, departments may take on this function.
3. Make sure the program itself is well specified. Teachers should have a clear idea of what it is, and have manuals, videos, student materials, and other aids to quality implementation.
4. Provide plenty of training and, even more importantly, follow-up support. Real change is hard, and teachers need both top-quality initial training and visits over time from skilled coaches, who give feedback and help teachers stay on track.
5. Assess implementation and student outcomes. Every few months, look at how teachers are implementing the approach and give them friendly feedback. Look at student data to see that kids are benefiting from the program, and share the data with the teachers.
6. Engage implementers with each other. Teachers implementing new programs need opportunities to share ideas, visit each other's classes, ask each other for help, and take joint responsibility for outstanding outcomes.
7. Plan for the long haul. The change process goes on forever. If you want quality implementation, plan on sticking at it for a long time, to help school staffs continue to grow in sophistication and skill.
A very wise businessman I know lives by the principle that a mediocre plan well implemented always beats a great plan poorly implemented. I don't know if that applies in education, but I do know that a great plan implemented with care, fidelity, and intelligence is the only thing that makes a difference. Whatever national or local policies we adopt must make sure that proven programs are outstandingly implemented, especially with the kids who need them most.
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* Robert Slavin is Chairman of the Board of the Success for All Foundation