Education’s Last Mile Dilemma: Improving Instruction Without Mandates

When it comes to discussions on how to improve instructional practice, some variation of “we just need to get teachers to do x” always seems to emerge. Yet the perilous journey from ideal to implementation, from policy to classroom practice, has created an unresolved “last mile” problem in education. While a tremendous amount of immediately useful information and guidance on high-impact teaching exists, getting this into classrooms is where things tend to get messy. 

The typical attempts at “improvement” in most schools follows a predictable and exhausting pattern: a big purchase of the latest silver bullet; a cram session of professional development at the beginning of the year; perhaps sporadic observations for accountability; and inevitably a large proportion of teachers dragging their feet and doing the bare minimum until the next buzzword-driven initiative gets underway. The result of this charade is hours and hours of professional development that exist only in a detached realm that rarely (if ever) penetrates or improves daily classroom instruction.

All the while, teachers are diligently working behind the scenes to improve their craft. I’d reckon the real professional development that impacts daily instructional practice takes place individually, on teacher’s own time. In a recent post questioning common top-down observation practices, Tom Sherrington writes “most of the time teachers are on their own. Most of the improvements they generate emanate from their own self-evaluation. By miles.”

From top-down mandates to use certain resources to forced data-driven PLCs, so many efforts to change instructional practice fall flat because such efforts a) rely on coercion for improvement and b) ignore what many teachers do everyday (and openly tell anyone who asks). We develop, tweak, and share lesson resources under-the-table with people we trust – other teachers.

A 2016 Harvard report found “80% of ELA teachers and 72% of mathematics teachers reported using, on at least a weekly basis, curricular materials that they or their colleagues at their school developed.” In addition, it’s been found teachers trust fellow teachers far more than principals, district staff, and evidence-based reports.

Given these obvious and well-known truths, it’s time to let go of the notion that classroom practice will be improved by strong-arm mandates from “those who know better.” And yet, complete teacher autonomy with free-for-all professional development and blank checks to purchase the latest and greatest fad is also not the answer. We need a flexible yet grounded model – one that empowers teacher decision-making with reliable principles of instruction but that does not drift towards prescription and control.

In this post I’ll argue that the most effective path to improving instruction is by taking advantage of, and improving the resource and knowledge sharing that happens among teachers on a daily basis. We need to recognize that this natural, grassroots process of resource sharing is key to developing and nurturing local expertise. The key question is how to improve the quality of  resources being shared without resorting to coercive measures. The Jobs to Be Done framework offers a useful start.

Why Don’t Teachers Use Purchased Resources in Schools?

What motivates teachers to adopt new practices and change daily practice? How do we overcome years of built-up (and likely deserved) cynicism teachers have developed towards most forms of “training” and “development?” How can instructional practices be improved without soul-crushing mandates?

A recent report entitled “Why Aren’t Teachers Using the Resources Companies Sell to Their Districts” provides a useful lens. The report utilizes the Jobs to Be Done framework which “starts with a simple premise: all people – teachers included – are internally motivated to make change in their lives that help them progress in their particular life circumstances” (Arnett, 2019). 

Whenever a teacher is looking to make progress in their classroom, choices are made to “hire” certain solutions and “fire” others. According to the framework, these decisions to adopt and discard solutions are influenced by forces enabling progress  – the push and pull of a situation or idea – and forces hindering progress  – habits of the present and anxiety resulting from adopting a new solution.

For example, many schools and districts are in the process of adopting knowledge-rich, grade-level curricula as a result of the push and pull of a national dialogue around stagnant and inequitable reading outcomes. Forces hindering progress likely include classrooms full of students reading multiple grades below peers along with decades of ingrained teaching habits (and observation rubrics) informed by “workshop” models of instruction.

While schools tend to excel at taking advantage of forces enabling process to initially purchase and roll-out resources, they frequently fail to sufficiently address or resolve the myriad of forces hindering progress once the “shine” of a new initiative wears off.

Jobs to Be Done Forces of Progress
From Arnett, Moesta and Horn (2018)

With brutal honestly and deadly accuracy, Arnett (2019) describes how school districts frequently purchase curricular materials and plan professional development wholly detached from the needs of teachers and blind to the realities of implementation. “Education leaders and policymakers have missed out on understanding the circumstances in which teachers are operating and their real motivations.”

After surveying 102 teachers who had recently changed their instructional practices, the full report from Arnett, Moesta and Horn (2018) identified two primary reasons teachers adopt new resources:

  • Job A: “Help me find manageable ways to engage and challenge more of my students.”
  • Job B: “Help me not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.”

While Job A taps into teachers’ innate desire to improve instruction, Job B results in teachers who “are not inspired by a quest for improving their schools or helping their students…their desire for progress boils down to relief or escape” (Arnett, Moesta and Horn, 2018). Generally, most top-down efforts to improve instruction rely on Job B and ignore the power of Job A.

What this Jobs to Be Done survey ultimately highlights is that while mandated initiatives might push teachers to adopt certain resources in the short-run, the change will be met with reluctance, resentment, and anxiety among teachers in the long-run. Crucially, no matter how fantastic the idea or solid the supporting research, a top-down approach will ultimately backfire simply because of how the resource is perceived by teachers.

Ben Kutylo writes in Start with Teachers: Rethinking the change process in education how “teachers who feel forced to adopt a solution they don’t believe in are less likely to implement it well. They do the best they can, but they know that before long the next initiative will come down replacing the current one.” This is my greatest worry with current efforts to improve instruction – excellent and useful ideas will mutate into another “trend” for teachers to roll their eyes at in PD. 

So, what actually works and doesn’t work when it comes to resource adoption? And how can we use this knowledge to develop a model for improving instruction that improves the resources teachers seek out and share?

What Works

  • Teachers adopt new resources that are manageable.  Arnett (2019) found teachers were unenthusiastic when new resources and strategies required dramatic change. “If a 20-minute tutorial gave them what they needed to incorporate an attractive new resource or practice into the next day’s lesson, they would give it a shot. But if adoption required 12 hours of training and a complete overhaul of their unit plans, they weren’t interested.” Just like a well-designed lesson for students, it’s important that professional learning for adults is similarly delivered in digestible chunks to avoid overwhelming teachers and causing anxiety.
  • Teachers are more open to resources that incrementally build on prior expertise. It’s unrealistic to believe schools can pave over teachers’ entire prior expertise by mandating a whole suite of new resources, even if “the research says so.” And yet this seems to be the current trajectory with many curricula adoption efforts. Rather, allow teachers to opt-in and test out resources. If the resource is proven to improve instruction and decrease workload, it will only be a matter of time before other teachers enthusiastically join in. Coercive measures will only backfire in the long run.
  • Teachers are more open to resources that directly address context-specific needs.  All resources have to be adapted to their unique environment, and this requires active involvement and calibration by teachers. As a profession, we really need develop better capacity to non-judgmentally “observe the circumstances that motivate actual choices…when you understand people’s life circumstances and the progress they are trying to make, you understand the criteria driving their decisions” (Arnett, 2019). If a teacher is struggling with a new curricula or feeling anxious about a new resource, that should be a cue to listen more and judge less. 

What Doesn’t Work

  • Mandates. Arnett, Moesta, and Horn (2018) write “one key reason most school-improvement initiatives struggle to gain traction is that they are coercive.” Instead of mandates, the report recommends leaders recognize the progress teachers are already trying to make, utilize authentic “pushes” (e.g. a visits or video of classrooms demonstrating genuine progress-making) and then allow teachers to opt-in and trouble-shoot.
  • Teacher self-report and “input.” Avoid asking teachers “what resources do you want” as this tends to only draw out the loudest or most trendy responses. Instead, seek out teachers who have recently changed to high-quality resources in pursuit of improving their instruction. This is more than likely already happening at the individual level. Find out how the new resource was a better solution to a past problem, and why they decided to stick with the new resource. Share those resources and stories to cultivate local expertise and drive adoption.
  • Leading with “Evidence-based” or “Standards-aligned.” While I’m a big believer in research-informed instruction and find grade-level standards to be useful guideposts, I’ve come to recognize neither are effective motivators for teachers when it comes to improving instruction. However, most teachers are absolutely trying to make progress in their classrooms through better solutions to common problems – thus we’re always looking for high-quality, effective resources. Arnett’s (2019) survey confirms this: “when the rubber hits the road, most teachers look for resources that (1) are easy to adopt and (2) students will find engaging. Unless a resource first meets these two criteria, all the evidence and alignment in the world is superfluous.” And so, better to lead with how a resource can incrementally improve daily instruction and lead to progress than to expect all teachers to become education research junkies. 

Now that we have a good idea of what works and doesn’t work when it comes to resource adoption, how can this knowledge be put to use?

Improving Instruction Without Mandates

A better model is desperately needed for improving daily instruction at schools – one that does not rely on coercion or drift into complete autonomy; one that cultivates local, context-dependent expertise utilizing research-informed best bets.

The ultimate goal of this model is to take advantage of teachers’ natural desire to seek out and share useful resources with colleagues, while simultaneously raising the quality of those resources by drawing attention to clear examples of progress and expertise.

model2

1. Develop a shared knowledge base around high-impact instruction. As a teaching community, get the word out about clear empirical generalizations in education and robust, research-informed principles of instruction. These straight-forward and manageable principles and generalizations will form the foundation of a shared culture and language around high-impact instruction. Most importantly, this knowledge-base will remain consistent and reliable over time – something teachers should greatly appreciate.

2. Identify and spotlight local expertise & progress. Seek out teachers who have recently adopted resources or changed instructional practice in ways that demonstrate clear progress and illuminate principles of high-impact instruction – positive deviants in the community. Have these teachers share their stories of improvement, and ideally emphasize how the new resource or practice increased student learning while decreasing teacher workload. This will drive local expertise and trust.

3. Facilitate high-quality resource sharing. Encourage teachers to share lesson materials and periodically step in to purchase resources teachers recommend and find to be particularly useful in their context (ensuring these resources are generally aligned with empirical generalizations and principles of instruction). Lean on these resources to empower teachers to make better instructional choices, which will in-turn develop a greater sense of shared professional expertise. Here are just a few examples of some resources that have dramatically impacted my classroom instruction and led to great progress in my teaching:

    • Hochman and Wexler’s (2017) The Writing Revolution
    • Beck and McKeown’s (2013) Bringing Words to Life
    • Agarwal and Bain’s (2019) Powerful Teaching
    • Lemov, Driggs, Woolway (2016) Reading Reconsidered

4. Allow low-stakes adoption & refinement. It’s crucial that this process of low-stakes adoption is not mandated. At all costs, school leaders must avoid increasing teacher anxiety and stifling the development of local expertise. Allow teachers to opt-in, tweak, trouble-shoot, and share struggles and breakthroughs. Catch lethal mutations of well-intended ideas that will likely develop. Pay particular attention to work-a-rounds that are particularly effective. Spotlight those stories to increase discussion and adoption. We need to trust that when provided with the best information, guidance and resources, teachers will not only make the right decisions but also cultivate shared local expertise.

Put Simply

  • The last-mile challenge is real. Education is awash in excellent ideas to improve daily instruction but clueless when it comes to scaling up and garnering widespread teacher buy-in.
  • Teachers adopt new resources for two primary reasons: 
    • Job A: to find manageable ways to engage and challenge students
    • Job B: to keep up with a new initiative.
  • Schools largely pursue resource-adoption and instructional improvement through coercive (or passive-aggressive) initiatives like “coaching” and “PLCs.” This typically only causes additional anxiety and blow back.
  • We do have some clues of what works using a Jobs to Be Done framework:
    • What Works: teachers adopt resources that address context-specific needs; make teaching more manageable and effective, and incrementally build expertise.
    • What Doesn’t Work: teachers tend to begrudgingly use mandated resources, provide unreliable “input,” and are not motivated by claims of “standards-aligned” and “evidence-based.”
  • A new model is needed that develops knowledge around high-impact instruction and then then allow teachers to opt-in with resources while spotlighting localized expertise and progress.

Resources

Arnett, T., Moesta, B., & Horn, M. B. (2018). The Teacher’s Quest for Progress: How School Leaders Can Motivate Instructional Innovation. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Retrieved from https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/JTBD.pdf

Arnett, T. (2019). Why aren’t teachers using the resources companies sell to their districts? American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved from https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/why-arent-teachers-using-the-resources-companies-sell-to-their-districts/

 

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