Guide to Successful Sustainability of a K-12 Initiative

As a new teacher, I remember listening intently to my school leader share new initiatives we would be required to implement.  As I feverishly took notes, two veteran teachers looked at me and told me to “not waste my time”.  They went on to explain that this happens every year and by late October the initiative is done and the same teaching and learning from the past is occurring.  Unfortunately, as I spent more years teaching, I realized they were mostly right.

Years later and now I am the one sharing the new initiative. I remember my early days constantly and I focus my efforts on helping schools create long term success for an initiative.

In an earlier post, I shared ideas I have observed on successfully introducing a new initiative.  Even more important is keeping the initiative going and embedding it in the teaching and learning process for everyone involved.

As the CAO of an edtech company, Defined Learning, I help schools implement project-based learning into their school through our web-based tool –Defined STEM.  Here are five elements that I have I have observed with school systems that successfully implemented a new initiative.

5 Elements that Contribute to Successful Sustainability of a K-12 Initiative: 

  1. Aligned with Mission & Vision: It is critical that the new initiative is more than just the latest fad or a cool new idea. The initiative needs to be embedded in what matters for all of the stakeholders involved with the school and/or school system. Aligning the new program with the mission and vision helps everyone understand why the initiative was brought in and why it needs to be integrated into the curriculum.
  1. Curriculum Integration: The curriculum is packed tightly. Academic standards and standardized testing are utilized to measure student and school performance. The standards must be taught and assessed. The tests often drive what is taught and how it is taught. Adding new things to the curriculum must be done purposefully and it must be aligned with standards. Connecting to the mission and vision can help people accept the new initiative and the value it can have in the classroom and beyond.
  1. Infrastructure: This is often the most overlooked aspect of implementing a new initiative. Often the excitement of the program is ended quickly when it can not be implemented correctly. Two common issues are technology and scheduling. Defined STEM is a web-based program. I have had experiences involving a lack of bandwidth that made a class of 25 unable to access the site. In a few conversations with teachers, they were aware of this shortcoming and hopeful it would have been addressed. Another instance involved a 1-to-1 initiative that did not have enough computers for classrooms. These can certainly be worked around but they must be addressed quickly and successfully. Often teacher and student schedules can create issues as programs and initiatives can have certain time needs. Addressing these prior to implementation can help ensure short and long term success.
  1. Professional Learning Community: It will be important to have time built in to the schedule to allow teachers to share what is happening with the initiative. This may involve mentors observing teaching, collaborative planning, and/or the review of student work and experiences. In an earlier post I discussed the importance of having educator champions who are identified in the beginning to help make the program successful. These people can serve as mentors to the staff. They have been a part of the beginning of the program and have already experienced some of the pitfalls bound to occur. Additionally, they have seen the student successes and what the students needed to succeed. They can be an incredible resource.

As teachers become more involved in the initiative they should be allowed some ownership of their own learning tied to the initiative. It will be important for teachers to have the ability to determine their own learning paths. This may involve formal and/or informal professional learning. This could include visiting other school sites, having experiences with other programs, and meeting like-minded professionals. The teachers will determine what they need as the process involves.

  1. Leadership Support: For any program or initiative to be successful, leadership support at all levels is vital. Often one level will not be supportive and the initiative fails. School leaders need to understand the program and how it impacts teaching and learning. They need to understand their role in the initiative and promote communication between and across the school system. Recognition of the need for providing time for teachers to communicate and learn will be important.

School leaders will need to know what behaviors they should be observing, what successful schools and classrooms look like, and get an understanding of potential barriers that may be need to overcome from leaders who have been working with this initiative.

Understanding the ideas individually and collectively can help make an initiative systemically successful while helping schools meet their mission and vision for all students.

Dr. David L. Reese serves as Chief Academic Officer for Defined Learning. During the past twenty years, Dr. Reese has served K-12 students as a science teacher, Curriculum Specialist, and Central Office Administrator. He has taught Masters and Doctoral courses in all areas of curriculum and professional development leadership. His work focuses on providing students with engaging, relevant learning opportunities designed to encourage students to apply content from a local, national and international perspective.


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