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The Center for Education ServicesJoe Edney and Laurie Baker discuss change management in schools.

1. What got you interested in studying change management as an education researcher?  (Joe)
Our team has worked with a lot of schools and districts over the last couple of years on topics ranging from project-based learning to school board facilitation. The one thing each and every project has shared in common is the objective to achieve a goal by implementing change. We tend to find that educators know why they want to implement a change and what needs to change. The gap we typically see is based on the how. Change management is a way to bridge that implementation gap.

Taking a deeper dive into change management research literature felt like a necessary step to hone our support approach. As we got into the review, it became clear that there are variables that make education different from any other industry, things like the imperative to serve all students, or the sheer volume and variety of stakeholders that must be attended to. We wanted to take what we know from our project work and our team’s practitioner experience to curate change strategies that have the greatest application to education contexts.

2. What kind of projects have you been working on lately regarding change management? (Laurie)
I’m currently supporting a rural school district in southwest North Carolina. They originally sought support for its secondary principals around Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS) implementation. After initial conversations, the real issue was not MTSS, per se, but all the things that go beyond just strategic planning for a new initiative, i.e., change. Implementing a new initiative often looks like: told to change, make a plan, reach out to stakeholders, and it happens. A missing piece is, "How do we deal with this change?" Principals in this district surfaced all the nightmares and resistance around change, we called out the elephant in the room and talked about it. So much of the magic comes from being self-aware and determining how your constituents will react to the change. Future support for this district will focus on types of change, change management tools, buy-in, and managing saboteurs. Not until the last session will we start strategically planning for MTSS. 

3. What do you think are the most important findings in Change Management research to share with schools? (Joe)
I would call out three things: 

First, a surprise—when we spoke with educators about their challenges with change, the results were remarkably consistent: things like lack of a communicated rationale, unclear objectives, feeling of change being done do to rather than done with, lack of awareness, etc. We tried to use these issues as a guide to help us better tailor the information.

The next thing I’d call out was really a confirmation: the need for any change initiative to address implications for classroom instruction. Even if we are doing something far removed from the classroom, like changing the bus schedule, successful case reviews suggest that there should always be a deliberate emphasis on the implications for student instruction.

The third important conclusion is the idea that the approach to successful change is not a universally applicable formula. The type of change that is sought and the readiness level for that change should guide change leaders to select the right tools for the job. Though our work did reveal some unanimously good practices, not all change efforts should be treated the same. We identified a taxonomy for change types and 15 different change strategies based on the type of change sought. One of the simplest examples is how we might recommend managing a change that happens in response to a specific event or trigger versus managing a change that seeks to foster cultural change over time. In both cases, it’s important to communicate early and often; however, in the response situation, a quicker, more direct approach may yield better results while in the cultural situation, going slower to foster genuine authorship by those involved would be better suited. We are releasing a white paper within the next month focused on change management including this taxonomy. 

4. Where do you think the field should turn its attention regarding change management in schools/districts? (Laurie)
We (educational leaders) give a lot of lip service to buy-in and engaging all stakeholders, but I don’t think we are strong in actual strategies and tactics that can overcome resistance to change. In some of our training for school leaders, we use hostage negotiation strategies as examples of what to do when you have individuals who are resistance to your ideas. For example, thinking through scenarios of when to use caregiving or analysis and when do you move toward holding your ground and lay out non-negotiables. We must have comfort with drawing our lines in the sand. We want to avoid getting there, but do we have the skillset to navigate resistance when it does occur? We need more tactical depth when things get hard. Using strategies like Lewicki and Hiam’s Negotiation Matrix and a negotiation tool, can help to identify when compromise is not always the right answer. 

Read more about change management in the upcoming release: Managing Change in Education.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Joseph Edney (Educational Consultant) and Laurie Baker (Manager, Education Services) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.