A group of colleagues of mine had the opportunity to attend the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) at Harvard University some years ago. One significant item that our district team brought back and began sharing with other system leaders was a problem-solving approach to improving performance. Although some major system improvements resulted in the collaborative work our district team learned while at PELP, we never seemed to adopt and implement a problem-solving approach consistently across the entire district. Why?
Providing consistent systemic professional development for Central Office leaders is rare. However, district leaders are often the first that school-based leaders look to for guidance and support. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in providing central office leaders with professional development to improving their inquiry and problem-solving skills in order to support schools with improving teaching and learning. In fact, in the 2014 article entitle “Re-imagining the Central Office Role” by Trent Kaufman, Emily Dolci Grimm and David Doty they concluded:
“After conducting comprehensive research, central-office leaders in Denver Public Schools discovered large gaps in the capacity of schools and departments to effectively use data to improve teaching and learning. Therefore, they embarked on a serious effort to create a districtwide vision for inquiry-based improvement”. page 20.
Building Inquiry Skills
“Selecting and adopting an inquiry cycle are necessary but insufficient for districtwide school improvement. Attention also must be given to building the capacity of school staff so they can implement the cycle with expertise, ensuring the inquiry cycle guides the identification of specific learning needs and relevant instructional improvements”. page 20.
Consider the following seven steps outlined by Stacey Childress and Geoff Marietta in their resource A Problem-Solving Approach to Designing and Implementing a Strategy to Improve Performance as you reflect upon improving the inquiry and problem-solving skills of your STEAM implementation team. Notice the types of questions Childress and Marietta ask at each step of the process.
Seven Steps To Supporting Your Implementation
1. Identify and Analyze the Problem
-What is the performance problem we are trying to solve?
-What concrete evidence do we have to back up the short description we developed? Will this evidence enable us to communicate the nature and importance of the problem to staff and stakeholders? How will we test our assumptions with them and learn from their feedback?
-What are three or four observable symptoms of the problem we identified? What are the root causes of each symptom?
-What are the consequences of not solving the problem?
2. Develop a Theory of Action
–What specific actions do we think will reduce or eliminate the effects of one or more of the root causes we identified in the previous step? Answer this question for as many root causes as you can.
-Why do we think these actions will lead to the results we desire? In other words, what assumptions are we making about how kids learn? How adults learn? How our team operates? About our context or environment? About our students and their families? Another way to think about this step is, ―What do we have to believe for our theory to have merit?
–From the above analysis, construct a series of ―if…then… statements that communicate the theory of action.
3. Design the Strategy
-What set of actions will we take to put our theory of action into practice? How do the specific actions map back to the assumptions about cause and effect that underpin our theory of action?
-Who will be affected by our actions (students, stakeholders, employees)?
-What is a reasonable timeframe over which the actions have to be consistently implemented to achieve results? (Build this directly into your strategy statement.)
-Are the relevant systems, structures, resources and culture of our organization likely to make it easier or harder to effectively implement the strategy? If they make it harder, what changes are needed in order to increase the likelihood that we can implement the strategy well?
4. Plan for Implementation
-What steps will we take to implement our strategy? Who will do what by when?
-What material resources are required to implement the strategy? (curricular materials, technology, physical space, etc.)
-Is new training needed to ensure that the people asked to implement pieces of the strategy have the skills they need to do their best work?
-How much will the implementation cost? How will we pay for it? Will there be savings in other areas related to the new strategy?
-What are the implications for teachers, principals, and central office staff if nothing changes?
5. Implement the Strategy
-Do people understand how their day-to-day actions are related to the strategy? Is the strategy meaningful to them?
-Are we providing the supports people need to enable them to successfully perform the work required of them during the implementation phase?
-Are people actually implementing the strategy as it was designed? If not, why not? Are there consequences for failing to implement the strategy?
-What is the process for making sure that all participants provide regular feedback that will allow us to continuously improve performance by adapting the strategy as we learn?
6. Assess Progress
-Is the data we are gathering the best data for assessing our progress? Are we asking the relevant stakeholders to give us input about the implementation?
-Are we achieving all of the milestones we set during the implementation planning step? Are we on track in terms of timelines? Budget projections? Staff allocations?
-If we are missing milestones, why is that happening? Was the initial schedule unrealistically ambitious? Did we underestimate the time certain activities would take to accomplish? Did our forecasts fail to account for important factors? Have barriers come up that were unexpected? Should we adjust our expectations or accelerate our efforts in order to meet our original targets?
7. Adapt and Modify for Continuous Improvement
-How should we respond to the information generated in the ―assessed step?
-If we are making progress in solving the initial problem we identified, what adjustments do we need to make to our approach now that one or more of the root causes might be diminishing in importance?
-How can we create opportunities for the people involved in the work to celebrate progress while maintaining a sense of urgency about solving difficult performance problems over the long-term?
These seven steps provide a great framework and the questions allow you and your team to take the conversation deeper. As you reflect upon supporting your STEAM implementation, whether you are leading at the district or school level, consider some of these additional resources to further support your efforts in leading others to improve their inquiry and problem-solving skills.
- The Data Wise Project based at the Harvard School of Education
- Model for Improvement: A framework for developing, testing and implementing changes by the Associates in Process Development
- Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry by The Partners In School Innovation
- Rapid Inquiry-Driven Change Cycle (RICC) by Nanci Schneider, Education Northwest
What success are you experiencing with your STEAM Implementation?
What challenges are you experiencing with your STEAM Implementation?
How are you developing the inquiry and problem-solving skills of your STEAM Implementation team?
What insights and “aha” moments can other STEAM leaders learn from your experiences?
Greg is a former Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction and has nearly twenty years of classroom, school-based and district-level leadership experience in five different public school systems. He has a passion for teaching and learning and a commitment to supporting school-level and system-level leaders with integrated and innovative resources. Not only is Greg an accomplished leader and speaker, he’s also an avid tinkerer in his workshop where he enjoys making projects around his historic home for his lovely wife and two Labrador retrievers. You can catch Greg’s insights right here each and every Thursday and contact him directly at: [email protected]