Implementation Versus Idea

Guest blogger Mike Goldstein writes:

1. Rick Hess once wrote “Life is an implementation problem.”

Yes, it’s true some strategies/ideas are better than others.  But what’s universally (okay, mostly) true is all advocates — whether for curricula like Core Knowledge or Success For All, pedagogy like project-based learning or Doug Lemov’s taxonomy, expenditures/time whether universal pre-K or longer school days, governance efforts like choice or socioeconomic integration, teacher residencies or peer evaluation — would say “Yes, bad execution would kill X instance of this idea I cherish.”

I’m not sure I agree anymore.  I now wonder if anything less than excellent execution “works.

What if….even pretty good implementation of a good idea is not enough to help many kids?

2. My favorite intervention

I like high-dosage tutoring, as described here in Ed Next.

Because the team at Saga Innovations has had such incredible results in the Chicago Public Schools (and elsewhere), Brookings released a thoughtful paper calling for a massive expansion of the work (also see Matt Kraft here).

“Specifically, we propose that all school districts receiving schoolwide Title I funds provide individualized daily tutorials to all third through tenth grade students who are at least two grades behind grade level in math.”

Some years ago, I would have kvelled!  Scaling an idea I love.

Now, I wonder.

Saga’s Alan, Antonio, Ashley….they execute magnificently.  But Alan and I tracked a counterexample as well.  It turned out, at the same time he launched the Chicago work with the district, an unrelated, similar effort was launched by a Chicago charter network.  It lasted a year before dying.  They just didn’t get the details right.  We know of other similar stories.  You assuredly do as well.

It reminds me of Bill Belichick.  His ideas work!  When he does them.  In an organization that embraces them whole-heartedly.

But when his assistant coaches try those ideas elsewhere, with an inherited base of players, scouts, owners, and other staff that do not fully buy-in, it hasn’t worked so well.

High-dosage tutoring remains my favorite intervention (trying a version now with older kids helping younger kids), but I increasingly believe it’s like….all the other interventions, where even “decent” implementation doesn’t help kids.

3. Where does that leave us?

It’s obvious that almost any strategy is a waste of time if buy-in is, say, 3 out of 10.

But, more provocatively, is that true if buy-in is, say, 6 out of 10?

If so, two thoughts.

a. Upfront is the best way to secure buy-in.  If you’re going to do a particular pedagogy, best to surface during application process, freeing teachers to choose to apply (or not).

b. Qualitative feedback loops become more important.  You need to expect process failure (instead of hoping for the best), then invest heavily in daily tinkering.  You can win over many practical educators by attending to little details, and steadily pushing the implementation rock up the mountain.  But, perhaps, only if your starting point is that you need to Fail Fast, even with a favorite, “research-proven” idea.

One Reply to “Implementation Versus Idea”

  1. Another way of thinking about this is as a huge overweighting of policy vs practice that prevails at think-tanks and foundations. Generally, the essential problem is not that districts (or other gov entities) do the wrong things, but tat they do things wrongly, whatever they do.

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