The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Educational Change…What’s the Big Deal?

“Adaptive change involves changing more than routine behaviors or strategies; it involves bringing about changes in people’s beliefs, values, and attitudes.”

Donald Deshler | May 11, 2017
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A teacher holding out a light bulb

Schools have always been expected to change how they do their work. However, in recent years, the pace and magnitude of change initiatives thrust upon schools has increased dramatically. Response to Intervention (RTI) is one such example. During the past decade, thousands of schools have attempted to adopt an RTI framework as a means of improving educational outcomes for all students, including students with disabilities.  Some of these efforts to adopt and implement RTI have been resoundingly successful; others have fallen far short of hoped for expectations. Whether successful or not, school leaders and teachers would agree that the process they went through to adopt and implement RTI was not easy.

In simplest terms, RTI integrates assessment and intervention within a school-wide, multi-level prevention system to maximize student achievement and reduce behavior problems.  When at risk students are identified, they are provided evidence-based interventions and their learning progress is carefully monitored. When progress doesn’t meet expectations (i.e., a student is not “responsive” to an instructional practice), instructional intensity and/or the nature of the intervention is adjusted. 

Thus, RTI is an organizational change process affecting both the staffs and the underlying structures of schools. Planning, developing, implementing and sustaining organizational changes, such as RTI, is a complex endeavor. During any organizational change process, leadership from the organization’s administration is pivotal to the success of the initiative (Elmore, 2004). Effective leadership sets the context for successful implementation of RTI (or any change initiative) by creating a broad awareness and initial buy-in for the implementation of the innovation. For RTI to achieve success in enhancing the performance of individual students and overall school improvement, full support of local leadership is required.

For any major educational change effort to be successful, school leaders need to consider two main dimensions of the change process: (1) the technical aspect and (2) the adaptive aspect (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). It is important to understand what each component is and how to provide the kinds of leadership support to enable each dimension to succeed. Technical change involves people implementing solutions to problems for which they know the answers. In the case of RTI, screening, progress monitoring, multi-level interventions, and data-based decision making are the core components of the model that must be implemented with fidelity.  Solving specific problems that arise in implementing these various components is a “technical” problem that must be solved (e.g., determining how to set and implement a cut-point for moving students from one tier of instruction to a more intensive tier of intervention).  While solving technical problems can be difficult, they are not as difficult as the adaptive aspects of change. 

Adaptive change involves changing more than routine behaviors or strategies; it involves bringing about changes in people’s beliefs, values, and attitudes.  When a new instructional model (RTI) requires educators to embrace a new philosophy of education or to define the role that they will now be expected to perform in a dramatically different way than they have previously, resistance may emerge. Successfully dealing with the adaptive changes that educators are expectefed to make requires sophisticated leadership strategies.  For example, Spillane, Reiser, and Reimer (2002) emphasize the importance of allowing the targets of a change initiative to have sufficient time for “human sense making” (i.e., be able to raise questions, reflect, figuring out how to integrate new knowledge, etc.) the new reality and expectations.  Alternatively, Knight (2007) suggests the use of “partnership principles” which is an empowering alternative to more common top-down models of human interactions. The partnership principles include: equality, choice, dialogue, voice, reflection, reciprocity, and praxis.

Our research (Mellard, Prewett, & Deshler, 2012) has revealed some key leadership behaviors, dispositions, and competencies foundational to successful change efforts. Behaviors have included hands-on involvement in all implementation aspects such as; providing regular coaching, modeling, support and feedback to staff, listening to staff concerns, and scheduling and participating in formal and informal on-going professional development.

Dispositions have included flexibility, open-mindedness, confidence and investment in RTI. All school principals involved expressed a passion about student learning. Strong principal leadership was seen as crucial in creating a culture of RTI by supporting implementation. First, they protected the schedule. They ensured that staff had sufficient time to understand and incorporate RTI into their daily routine. Second, principals promoted staff buy-in by being personally involved. They recognized that RTI was a significant change in at least some aspects of how education occurred within their buildings and that substantial staff buy-in was necessary. To support buy-in they created a culture of open communication for planning and implementing RTI’s components. Third, they directed the agenda by establishing RTI as the school expectation and the defining characteristic of the school’s culture. Fourth, to support that agenda they altered the priorities for protecting the time and resources necessary for implementation.     

The data from this research has underscored the vital role that strong leadership plays in the successful implementation of change initiatives – especially complex ones.  Among other things, these school leaders: (1) built in time and opportunities for the “human sense-making” process to play out by allowing their staffs to reformulate how they thought about and approached their work; and (2) provided opportunities for staff members to discuss their role changes and the new interaction patterns they were expected through the use of role playing, describing the way the ideal model would look in their school, allocating time during faculty meetings to explicitly engage the topic, and making it a priority to communicate the changes to others (e.g., parents, school boards, and students).

The lessons learned from schools’ efforts to successfully implement RTI has clearly underscored the fact that educational change is a big deal. When school leaders give serious attention to both technical and adaptive factors the probability of a successful change effort is significantly increased.

Elmore, R.F. (2004). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Corwin: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Mellard, D. F., Prewett, S., & Deshler, D. D. (2012). Strong leadership for RTI success. Principal Leadership, 12(8), 28-34.
Spillane, J.P., Reiser, B.J., & Reimer, T. (2002). Policy implementation and cognition: Reframing and refocusing implementation research. Review of Educational Research, 72(3), 387-431.