by Dr. Louise Waters
Education innovation is beset by seemingly intransigent, although opposing, forces. The first is well known to any change agent. It is “Can’t Because.” We can’t do x, y, z because we tried it before and it didn’t work. We can’t because our children / families aren’t ready for it. We can’t because our context is unique. We can’t because our school is under-resourced. Etc. Etc. Etc.
A less obvious barrier is the true believers “Can and Must”:
Lasting innovation and the hope for achieving systemic equity goals must bridge this divide. But it needs the “Can If” orientation described by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in their book, A Beautiful Constraint. As I have experienced it, those with a “Can If” orientation view change as a Rubik's Cube with three dimensions: Strategic, Human, and Execution. Like the colored cubes embedded in the larger Rubik’s Cube, the components of each dimension are continually changing, providing new opportunities and constraints. All must be managed and aligned for innovation to lead to permanent institutional change.
The Strategic dimension incorporates the need - the call to action and a compelling vision to address it. Taken together these energize passion and purpose. It also includes the strategy to identify the barriers and assets already in place and the path to leveraging them. These constraints and opportunities are embedded in both the Human dimension - how to get buy-in, alignment and momentum from stakeholders - and the Execution dimension - how to make sure that each step of the strategy actually works and moves the system closer to achieving the vision.
Let me make this concrete. In the 1990s I became principal at a Bay Area Elementary School, the school two of my children had attended. One was a strong traditional learner and one struggled with severe dyslexia. Neither had been well served by the systems it had in place. The school was extremely diverse with no dominant ethnic group and situated in a working, middle-class community. The families were heavily immigrant or recent arrivals to the suburbs and were supportive but not demanding of their safe, welcoming, physically attractive school. The staff was complacent with the achievement level and with gaps attributed to language, culture, income and family structure. The likelihood that it would or could change to truly meet the needs of children like either of mine seemed low. If I came in as the knight in shining armor with all the answers for school improvement, I was going to be dismissed with Who are you to tell us how to do our job? or Yes, but our kids come from families who don’t prepare them for success! But if I entered trying to win their approval and agreeing with their complacency and prior beliefs, I would be complicit in maintaining the status quo.
However, I also came into school-site leadership after eight years as a professor of urban education and a school reform coach in low-income Black and Brown schools in nearby Oakland. I knew we could do better and the achievement gaps I had observed here were not inevitable. I had also seen how assessment and data could be used as entry points for fundamental change. And I knew from both research and practice that the traditional assessment, grading and retention system negatively impacted all students and had devastating effects on students with IEPs and low-income students of color. It was a key element of the systemic racism embedded in American schooling. Like most aspects of systemic racism, it was taken for granted and largely invisible, simply “normal,” to people who had risen through it - here and at schools across the country.
Armed with data and the knowledge garnered from years of supporting schools in changing their outcomes by changing their assessment and grading processes, I had a vision for using this entry point to transform my new school. However, as a parent I knew the staff was highly seasoned, one of the most traditional in the district. It would be easy to trigger backlash and resistance. My goal: to move them from what would surely have been “We Can’t Because” to a more open “We Can If” that would allow us to align on a path to greater impact and equity. I knew this would mean a fundamental disruption in teaching and learning.
The strategy I began evolving then, so many years ago, I have come to term Disruptive Incrementalism. Disruptive Incrementalism is a contrarian theory of change. In accepted practice, particularly in the world of “Can and Must” believers, a visionary leader is hired and / or a long, blue-sky design process engages a large group of stakeholders to create a vision. Once leadership and vision are in place, implementation plans are created. Often implementation is delegated to a small, select staff with little transparency and engagement. The timeline is often very short. Disruptive Incrementalism turns this process on its head: First build trust with outstanding execution and early wins with a good-enough, equity-oriented vision. Then collaboratively iterate, deepen the equity vision and tailor to the local context.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Human Change
A veteran staff has seen innovations come and go, often poorly implemented, misaligned, time consuming, and seldom sustained. They have little reason to get on board. Trust is built through doing, not talking: getting early wins and being responsive. Here is the strategy for change in the human dimension:
In working with the staff at my school, this meant building an easy consensus that the hated elementary grading system had to change. It included a narrative K report card, an effort-based 1-2 card, and traditional letter grades at 3rd through 5th. A clear pain point. Second was shrinking the change. Initially this initiative was not about mastery grading, portfolios, the language arts program, homework, etc. It was simply designing a new K-5 report card. Obtaining district permission was a huge trust-building first step. Calling out equity as a piece of the initial good-enough vision set the stage to later deepen the discussion of inequities in the current practice. And finally, there were bright spots to build on. The kindergarten team used a variety of performance assessment tools, a number of teachers had writing portfolios, and so on. My job was to highlight these and why they worked - building internal models rather than simply holding up easily dismissed external exemplars.
The next steps involved generating buy in via authentic engagement. This meant bringing those pioneer teachers together and exposing them to the relevant research and to their own classroom inquiry, building a design team focused on implementation not on vision. Each of them had a long history of pushing their own practice. Now they were working as a team encouraging each other and prototyping new approaches to grading. This I later came to call collaborative innovation. As they began fleshing out a new system and were provided the time and autonomy to experiment, others wanted to join - a process of demand pull.
By the end of the year, the pioneer group had the skeleton of a new report card and a plan for building the grading practices to support it. Presented at a full-faculty meeting, everyone was invited to join in extensive, paid, summer work. Those who did not choose to come committed to abiding by whatever the group had put in place, knowing that it was a pilot that would be iterated over the following year and subsequent summer. This second more inclusive stage I have come to call collaborative iteration. “We can make this work if we…..” Over those first two years the fluid teams - sometimes by grade and sometimes focused on content areas or specific populations like English Learners, expanded their sense of accountability from their own students to all students. In later years the report card, assessment system, and design team grew to include all elementary schools in the district. The sense of responsibility also expanded. Teachers began to feel responsible for all students in the district.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Execution
Attending to the human dimension of change means building trust and hope. Can staff trust that they will have a voice, that you will deliver, that there will be results? Much of the way you build trust and hope this is through how well you execute:
As I mentioned, my first big win was gaining permission to pilot a new report card in a district seen as highly centralized. The fact that I personally led the work and had visible support from top district administrators both validated and empowered teachers. The involvement of “Can’t Becausers” and “Can and Musters” meant issues of implementation were addressed all along the way. To address concerns, increase participation, reduce overwhelm and shorten timelines, different teachers prototyped different pieces of the system. Each component was needed for the new report card to be successful. Some created mastery exemplars for grade-level performance in math, reading and writing. Some designed electronic lesson plan templates or grade books that worked for mastery grading. Others thought through how this type of report card would fit in with traditional practices like the GPA honor roll (eliminated) and parent conferences (became student led conferences). Still others worked on parent communication. Feedback from parents, students and teachers identified best practices as well as execution disconnects. Many were addressed immediately before the next report card. Substantive issues were put in the parking lot for summer iteration. Problems were surfaced and addressed. Champions emerged. Trust was built as iteration continued.
Disruptive Incrementalism: A Strategy for Systemic Change
Many strategic guidelines are detailed above:
A word about goal and vision iteration. This is the contrarian aspect of Disruptive Incrementalism. Don’t invest time and political capital on a blue-sky vision and lofty goals - both of which will probably not be reached anytime soon. Instead, start with something that has wide support and is concrete and achievable in the near term - but that is aligned to a long-term vision that substantively disrupts inequity. In doing the actual work, staff will expand their understanding of the issues and their belief that deeper change is possible. In designing a new report card you have to address what is the role of effort, of achievement, of mastery, of improvement - and how does this play out with a student far below grade level, an emerging speaker of English, a student with an IEP, etc etc. With strong facilitation, these questions drive people to the research and to classroom cycles of inquiry. If this is done in a learning, not a punitive or lecturing, way and if that inquiry is public and inclusive (we called it “The Committee of Whoever Comes”), fundamental change can happen.
With strong facilitation, the measurable, systemic, equity goals can be teased out and called out and understanding deepened. Over 7 years we built a district-wide, K-5, developmental, standards-based report card. It pulled from authentic assessments and supported an academic program that aimed to meet every student, whatever their skill level. A critical element was a comprehensive formative data system for all schools. A wrap-around extended day program with multi-layered tutoring provided intervention. Morning extended day included 4 primary language academies to build primary language literacy. This was systems change, not simply a new report card.
By the end of the first year, teachers were able to articulate a clear, measurable goal: All children would grow at least one year in reading, writing and math and students below grade level would grow at least a year and a half. After tracking data for three years an additional goal emerged for students entering the school with no English proficiency: grade-level achievement after four years. While few staff would have believed this possible at the beginning, most came to see that if data showed a significant number of students could meet these markers, it should be possible for all. That same data system, one which codified and tracked formative data, allowed for the close monitoring of these goals. In fact, individual data for each of the 900 students lined the wall of the faculty conference room for ready use in staff meetings. These goals and this comprehensive vision, especially when they became district wide, could have sparked rebellion and been shot down before change got started. Approached with collaboration, iteration and demand pull - the processes of Disruptive Incrementalism, changes few would have foreseen did happen.
Two final corollaries of Disruptive Incrementalism are important to note if the goal of education reform is systemic change that sustains over time. These are:
Education change strategy seems to swing from researched-based fidelity to creative autonomy and back again. Disruptive Incrementalism has the opportunity to bridge these predictable poles. Neither autonomy nor fidelity are good in-and-of themselves. Rather they are means to an end. The goals are equitable access and outcomes across teachers, classrooms and schools. This is not possible without common standards along with consistent expectations and practices that allow alignment. The lack of these is an underpinning of systemic racism that allows the best teachers, practices, and programs to go to the students with the strongest advocates and most privilege. Consistency is also necessary for teachers to collaborate. If teachers cannot share data or curriculum, they have little concrete to collaborate about and little opportunity to identify best practices.
At the same time a system that is lock step does not allow teachers and schools to contextualize for specific communities and students. It also does not allow them to bring their own passion and tap into the passion and creativity of their students. Impact and equity need both. In the report card project, common standards, rubrics, exemplars and key aspects of the curriculum supported consistency and high expectations. But this approach also allowed teachers the latitude to build, borrow or iterate many aspects of their practice. For instance, the development of schoolwide, K-5, student-led conferences equitably supported student agency and grading transparency. However, the exact structure and artifacts of a given teacher’s conferences invited creativity. So too did integrated units collaboratively built by teacher teams.
By starting small, under promising and over delivering, and calling the full range of school voices into the iterative design process, the so-called report card work attracted little attention beyond the boundaries of the school. The number of advocates increased, coming to include parents and students themselves. And their understanding deepened. By the time more fundamental changes were part of the vision, what could have been major issues, like the end of letter grades and the honor roll, brought inquiries not protests. And the trust that had been built meant that when true problems arose, like incompatibility with the district’s online grade book, teachers became problem solvers not saboteurs. The practice of summer collaborative iteration was in place and frustrated teachers were willing to do work arounds until then. The spread to other schools was viral - teacher to teacher with pioneers from other campuses asking to join the summer work. The actual district-wide move to a new report card was uneventful. No concerns rose to the level of a complaint to the Board, let alone a public outcry. And the district-wide extended day program was celebrated.
This, then, is Disruptive Incrementalism. It has an end goal of disruptive, systemic change. However, the process is incremental: building the understanding of complex change, a trust in implementation, and buy in from a range of stakeholders. It takes into account the three faces of change: strategic, human, and execution. And it leverages the cautions of the “Can’t Becausers” and the passions of the “Can and Musters” to move systems. I returned to my school 10 years, two principals and many teachers later. A new teacher gave me a tour pointing out school highlights, not knowing my role in any of them. Most were products of the “report card” work now institutionalized. 20 years later my granddaughter moved into the district to start kindergarten. The comprehensive extended day program, designed to support meeting students where they are, was still a touted feature of every elementary school. I do not know how many of the deeper shifts have lasted, becoming invisible as they, too, just became part of “Who we are and how we do things.” That, too. is Disruptive Incrementalism, where invisibility and longevity may be the ultimate markers of success.
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