“So Now What?” Managing the Change Process

Can we impose order on the messy process of school change? Only by agreeing that teamwork is viatl, veterans say. Changes in classroom practices, school structures, and attitudes then rise and fall like a juggler’s balls, keeping each other in balance.

Judy Cunningham can put her finger right on what turned the tide of change at Rancho San Joaquin, where for seven years she has led some 50 teachers and 900 diverse 7th and 8th grade students. Plenty of teachers, parents, students, unions, administrators were skeptical, she readily admits, when Essential School ideas first surfaced in this Irvine, California school community.

“At first people’s concerns were just informational,” she says. “They wanted to know more.” But soon enough, that evolved into other, quite legitimate concerns: “How is all this going to affect me personally?” she remembers them asking. “Why fix something that ain’t broke?”

So Cunningham worked to turn the very exploration of such questions into the whole point — helping the members of the school community work through what she calls “stages of concern,” at their own individual paces, until new norms of trust and collaboration could take hold. Drawing ideas from a well-known organizational change model and from training sessions offered through the Coalition’s National Re:Learning Faculty, she and her staff together started learning how to set clear goals they could agree on, and how to work together respectfully in carrying them out.

Today Rancho San Joaquin is a different school by all accounts, and the people who work there have made it that way themselves. It has gone from tracking to virtually complete heterogeneous grouping; teacher teams in “village” units are working toward an integrated curriculum; and teachers and students report a new climate of respect for learning. At its most recent faculty meeting, the staff decided to require consensus on any issue that affects all students. More than half the school’s teachers belong to the voluntary committee that plans and evaluates professional development activities. And one teacher works full time as a staff development coach — encouraging every teacher to explore new ideas, try new classroom practices, and reflect collaboratively on how they work.

Watching schools like this one change, it’s clear that, for reform efforts to get anywhere, people must continually juggle at least three balls in the air at once. Simultaneously, Rancho San Joaquin is 1) changing its teachers’ classroom practices, 2) changing its beliefs and attitudes through an open and ongoing conversation about education in the school and community, and 3) examining the school’s structure and questioning how it works and how to change it. Any one of these continually shifting elements supplies multiple entry points into bigger changes — and any one of them will inevitably affect the others.

But exactly how does a school carry out this tricky process? How do successful schools turn a vision into practice, given the established structure and workings of their organization? What do they do first? Are some training workshops more important than others? What kinds of committees and other structures and procedures are required? What current committees and structures (site-based management, for example, or special magnet programs) must either fit into the change somehow or be eliminated? How can a school counteract the stresses and conflicts that serious change inevitably involves?

First, Teach Teamwork

The answer, many school-watchers say, lies not in a 1-2-3 formula, because so much of a school’s experience is unique to its own situation. Instead, it lies in getting people to understand how the process of change is crucial to whether new substance will take hold — a powerful mix of vision and teamwork that is far easier said than done. “Regardless of what specific plans a school has, they will succeed if those involved set clear goals and use teamwork to carry them out,” says Faith Dunne, a Dartmouth College education professor who helps lead the Coalition’s Building Effective School Teams (BEST) institute. “If they don’t do that,” she flatly declares, “no change is going to work.”

The overarching task of learning teamwork and goal-setting puts the other tasks of school reform into a new perspective. For one thing, every step the school considers — instituting advisory periods, or changing the schedule, or de-tracking, or integrating the curriculum — now becomes an opportunity to practice the skills of goal-setting and teamwork. In turn, the real conflicts any serious change engenders (“What? You’re taking away my honors class?”) get the attention they deserve; and people learn the hard business of listening respectfully, gathering information, negotiating differences, and building consensus.

“When we realized an atmosphere of condemnation was developing toward those reluctant to change, we made a conscious effort to dispel it,” says Judy Cunningham. Once the “we-they” dynamic shifted, she asserts, “things could really start to happen. We were all hearing the same things in our staff development, after all. Everyone understood that new ways were going to be expected of everyone — but not right now. We committed ourselves to giving support and building skills, so that everyone could take part when they felt ready enough to do so, and not before.”

Teaching people to work together, of course, is itself a structural and philosophical change. It requires, for instance, making time within the teachers’ salaried work day and year for coaching and practice in collaborative work. And perhaps most important, it requires thinking of teachers as crucial players in the very redesign of their profession. Suddenly instead of being technicians who must be conscripted into cooperation, teachers are professionals whose thoughtful questions, ideas, and objections will inform a new intellectual climate for the schools and shape the way they work.

Getting people to work together, moreover, has a direct bearing on the “Now what?” question that frequently stumps schools shaping their change strategies. Because the Coalition of Essential Schools is organized entirely around common intellectual principles (not around specified practices like team-teaching or block scheduling), it has long been reluctant to lay out management and procedural guidelines for schools that have embraced those broad principles. Even such well-regarded techniques as site-based management, CES leaders point out, do not of themselves spark thoughtful pedagogy, curriculum, or assessment. Nonetheless, a long-range intention to involve teachers in collaboratively shaping and evaluating new practice does lie at the heart of every kind of support the Coalition offers member schools.

The National Re:Learning Faculty, for example, has brought some hundred teachers, principals, and administrators to Brown University for intensive coaching on Essential School ideas — and sends them back prepared to work with colleagues as critical friends and coaches. Since 1988 CES’s Trek program has guided school teams through a year-long reflective analysis, including setting goals, designing action plans and decision-making structures, and visiting other schools to observe and reflect on their progress. Last summer, two one-week BEST institutes at CES trained more than a dozen school teams to facilitate whatever change agendas their schools had set. And through its Exhibitions project, led by Joseph McDonald, the Coalition has devised a change process organized around “planning backwards,” which several schools have received funding to try.

The woods are full of other good strategies for managing organizational change, of course, and many successful Essential schools have turned to non- Coalition sources for help. Rancho San Joaquin relies on a program called Concern-Based Adoption Model (CBAM), designed by Gene Hall of the University of Florida. (See Figure 1.) Fairdale High School in Jefferson County, Kentucky draws from Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management process for their consensus decision-making. (See Figure 2.)Central Bucks East High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, uses a change model described in Herbert Simon’s book on administrative behavior; and several Coalition member schools have used Peter Senge’s “systems thinking” approach. James Comer’s School Development Program at Yale, one of the Coalition’s new partners in the ATLAS school change project recently funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation, offers a three-stage process that some Coalition schools have taken to heart. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 1.

“Stages Of Concern” in One School’s Change Process

Rancho San Joaquin School works toward change using these steps from the Concern-Based Adoption Model (CBAM), designed by Gene Hall of the University of Florida.















Know Something Better

Working with Others (Peers)

How Affecting Clients

Time, Materials, Organization

How Will It Affect Me?

Like to Know More

Not Concerned

Figure 2.

One High School’s Consensus Decision-Making Process

The goal of all proposals and decision making must be greater student academic success:

Order of Steps


2. SBDM (School-Based Decision-Making) COUNCIL –>



  • Consensus Reached –> 5.
  • Consensus Not Reached –> 4A. Task Force Fact/Finding Process–>5A.



Steps Explained

Step 1. Day-to-day operational processes are the responsibility of the principal. The SBDM Council is a policy-making body. Proposals for school-wide policy changes may be submitted to the Council by individuals or groups of staff, students, or community persons at least ten days before the Council meeting.

Step 2. The Council will discuss the proposal(s) and may decide to submit it to a Task Force, ask for more information from sponsor(s), or ask for changes to be made by sponsor(s).

Step 3. Once a proposal is assigned to a Task Force, it is the duty of the Task Force, through notices, to make all constituencies aware of the proposal and how it will serve our goal of student success.

Step 4. The Task Force will conduct a formal consensus-gathering session with all faculty, using the four-question format:

  1. How will this proposal contribute to student success?
  2. What disadvantages may result?
  3. What resources are needed?
  4. Will you agree to pilot the proposal?

Step 4A. If consensus is not reached, the Task Force moves to a fact-finding process that develops data (observable, measurable, factual) for and against the proposal. The fact-finding session is open to all constituencies. Results of the fact-finding session are forwarded to the SBDM Council for a decision.

Step 5. A consensus decision to pilot the proposal goes to the SBDM Council for final approval.

Source: Fairdale High School, Jefferson County, Kentucky.


Figure 3.

The School Development Program’s “Three-By-Three” Process
Copyright 1991, Yale Child Study Center School Development Program. Reprinted with permission.

Whatever the method for learning to work together, everybody agrees, it doesn’t happen quickly or easily. At stake, after all, is a hierarchical authoritarian, isolationist bureaucracy so deeply entrenched in our notion of schooling that it is hard even to imagine it differently. Plenty of vested interests — standardized test companies, college admissions, school boards, teacher unions — keep the status quo going in the old tracks if nothing challenges business as usual. It can easily take a couple of years for a core group from a school to learn teamwork well enough to be able to teach it to others. And to get a whole school used to working together toward change could well take five years, organizational change research suggests.

Equally important, it may not be much fun. “Real change only starts when you run up against resistance,” says Faith Dunne. “No resistance signals that you’re not changing anything serious.” That’s why school change analysts regard learning to cope with and manage conflict as a key part of making any change happen. At the Coalition’s Fall Forum, workshops on faculty resistance led by psychologist Robert Evans, who directs the Human Relations Service in Wellesley, Massachusetts, were packed to overflowing, and his counsel — to identify with the concerns of the reluctant, and address them directly and openly — fits neatly into several of the change strategies Coalition member schools have embraced. (See: What Schools Can Learn from Resistant Teachers.)

The Key Task: Clear Goals

Given that a school does commit to this long, hard process and finds ways — either through the Coalition or elsewhere — to coach itself into effective teamwork, what actual tasks do these nascent cooperators have to address? Even after they’ve made the commitment to adopt Essential School ideas, many schools simply stall out in the face of a daunting array of challenging principles and a staff leery of too much change all at once.

Though the specific content of each move will depend on each school’s particular situation, virtually all effective change models call for some version of the same basic steps:*

  • Agree that a problem needs solution.
  • Set clear goals that get beyond surface issues.
  • Understand what in the school’s current structure and culture works for and against these goals.
  • Establish a participatory structure that allows those affected to organize how and when changes will happen — one that can accommodate new ideas and conflict when they arise.
  • Start making the changes in an orderly way according to that process, which must include steps for ongoing evaluation and reflection.

* These steps draw on the guidelines of the School Leadership Project based at Dartmouth College, but many other models reflect a similar process.

The first two steps — agreeing that a problem exists, and setting goals to solve it — sound deceptively simple. But they lie at the heart of many of the stumbling blocks to Essential School reform, argues Theodore Sizer, who began the Coalition eight years ago in an effort to remedy high school students’ “intellectual docility” and raise the standards by which their work is judged. “High schools that believe ‘it ain’t broke’ need to take a careful and collective look,” he says, “at the quality of their student work, and identify where problems exist.” Until every graduating student can demonstrate competence in rigorous and clearly defined thinking skills, Sizer asserts, a school has a problem that its entire community should be able to agree on.

But embracing the Coalition’s Nine Common Principles, or even drawing up an idealistic mission statement, only marks the start of the real challenge, change analysts say. Rather, the school’s faculty must start to define how those principles might play out in new practices, and then articulate the new goals that arise.

Those goals might be pedagogical: “Every senior must qualify for graduation by exhibiting mastery of the following competencies.” They could be structural: “Class periods will be long enough to address a subject in depth.” They could encompass both structural and pedagogical aims: “We’ll integrate our curriculum across the disciplines,” or “We’ll teach students of differing abilities to work together in the same classes.” If they are serious goals, they will generate controversy, and that should be welcome; if no one’s interests are offended by them, they probably merely reflect the status quo.

A number of Coalition member schools are generating these goals by the “planning backwards” strategy CES’s Joseph McDonald has described in several studies. The faculty begins by framing in their minds’ eyes a specific and concrete task they want to see candidates for graduation exhibit — not quite an “outcome,” which may be too abstract to imagine in the context of everyday teaching tasks, but a performance that demonstrates that outcome.

Chicago’s Sullivan High School makes a good example of how starting with such a goal leads to logical and thoughtful steps toward change. Under the challenging leadership of principal Robert Brazil, the school community agreed that Socratic seminars would serve as the core educational experience at this large urban high school. Every graduate, they decided, should be able to read sophisticated texts and thoughtfully discuss them in seminars, then write about the ideas generated. So Sullivan devised a “diploma by exhibition” that would ask all seniors to publicly demonstrate those skills.

Next, they struggled to define what would have to happen in their school so a student might learn to carry out such a task — what kind of classroom experiences, what kind of practice assignments, what kind of teacher preparation, what kind of assessment? Sullivan started by involving all students and staff in quarterly “all-school seminars” and monthly “enrichment seminars,” but soon decided to practice seminar techniques in every subject and with every student. Once the first Sullivan students went through the new graduation requirement, the staff recognized substantial weaknesses in their written work, which led to systematic curricular changes across the disciplines.

As weak points show up in the existing system, schools can begin to “rewire,” as McDonald dubs the hard process of changing norms and procedures so that they contribute to common goals. (Sullivan teachers, for instance, developed consistent rubrics that could be used in every class to evaluate written work and seminar participation.) Part of the rewiring process, McDonald points out, is a continual “tuning” of decisions — soliciting and responding to feedback about the school’s performance from interested outsiders of all stripes. (Sullivan uses Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Project as a continuing source of teacher education, self-evaluation, and new ideas.)

As soon as it began, the new exhibition requirement allowed the Sullivan community to look together at what graduating students knew and what they could in fact do — not in the future but at that moment. If the results are taken seriously, Joe McDonald argues, such a concrete goal can generate a logical series of moves toward new norms and institutions at the school. From its new perspective the whole school community both celebrates its demands on students and evaluates those demands — reflecting together on where students should be going and what needs to happen to get them there.

In Sullivan’s case, those new norms included academic rigor, heterogeneous grouping, and cross-disciplinary challenges — all generated by one simple imaginative act, collectively undertaken. “By requiring that all our students demonstrate the competencies we had earlier demanded from only a few,” Sullivan teacher Eileen Barton says of the experience, “we discovered they could not only meet our expectations but were willing to work harder than ever before to do so.” The graduation exhibition has become an institution at Sullivan now — involving all teachers and all students in a conscious and everyday movement toward their own clearly defined goal.

Look for the Energy

Such success stories point to the clear gains a school can make if it agrees what it wants and has a system in mind for getting it. But many practitioners prefer chaos theory to neater methods as a guiding principle in the messy realities of school reform. Like the defiant child who says, “I’ll do it because I want to, and not because you said to,” they assert, change will resist formulas, happening only when and where it is ready to. And astute reformers, like observant parents, may know more by instinct than by rules what to do and when.

“I see an organization in terms of physical science,” says Chuck Bowen, a Thomson Fellow who is principal of Broadmoor Junior High School in Pekin, Illinois. “When you want to move the organization, you have to apply energy to it.” To answer a school’s “Now what?” question, Bowen suggests, its leaders must locate the friction points where its energy already gathers — by listening for the conflicts, the heartfelt concerns, the dissatisfaction, and the needs perceived by the people who make up the organization. “If you start out with something logically,” Bowen argues, “you won’t draw from that energy source.”

For Broadmoor, the obvious hot spot was the staff’s grave dissatisfaction with the school’s organizational structure. “Teachers felt isolated, unhappy with how business was being done, frustrated because they had no time to get together,” Bowen recalls. “That was the energy source that drove change, so our substantive emphasis at first was highly teacher-centered.” Within two years, Broadmoor had redesigned its structure from a conventional seven-period day to a two-house team-based system with a long-block schedule providing teams with 70 minutes a day and an extra half-day monthly for common planning time.

“But organizations are tied together so tightly with roles and expectations that you can’t change just one thing,” Bowen notes. The issues of curriculum and instruction that emerged, he says, created conflicts which became the school’s new hot spots. “After a while the very fact that conflicts and concerns keep arising becomes an energy source itself,” he says. “That keeps everyone thinking about where new ones in future are going to come up — which in turn directs our energy toward future planning.”

The scenario could just as easily have started, as Ted Sizer recommends, with seeking faculty agreement on inadequate student performance and what to do about it. Pedagogical innovations like cooperative learning or exhibitions, Bowen notes, could generate structural conflicts; or poor communication could become the source of discontent, sparking attention to either classroom practice or school structure and governance. Again, these three areas — pedagogy, structure, and communication — continually shift positions as schools juggle the tasks of change; again, the dynamic is more important than any scripted sequence.

And here again, giving shape to the whole process is the requirement for teamwork. Even to take the first step toward changing things, Bowen notes, the Broadmoor staff had to start learning to work together, a process guided by a team that attended the Coalition’s first Trek year. Himself a former “school coach” and facilitator for Illinois Re:Learning, Bowen feels strongly that sustained outside help is essential to schools in the midst of change. “Just think of it as learning a highly complex and detailed craft that doesn’t lend itself to being written down into well-structured steps,” he says. “Other crafts like this use apprenticeship to teach their skills — the master and the apprentice share the task, with the master taking on the tasks the apprentice can’t yet do.” Illinois Re:Learning requires and pays for school coaches to commit a half day weekly to each Coalition member school, and Bowen thinks the time could easily be doubled. “Our current coach offers us an impartiality I don’t have any more,” he says.

Developing the skills of working together must precede even a school’s earliest exploration of Essential School ideas, Bowen argues. When Broadmoor first investigated joining the Coalition, he says, “we set it up so that skeptics and converts were all represented on the steering committee set up to investigate it. All they had to commit to was doing a good job of learning about it so they could report back to the whole faculty.” Before sending the group to their first CES symposium, the entire school met for two long sessions to develop a list of questions they assigned to their emissaries. “Some of us were learning about it so we could shoot it down; others because we wanted it to happen; others just to learn what the heck was going on,” Bowen recalls. “But working together began from the very start.”

Once a staff’s collective energy is trained on common goals, Bowen asserts, problems become easier to solve. “We made all our changes on a zero-based budget,” he says. “In our first year of change we tried a new structure that didn’t work, and had to live with it for a year. We stared that dilemma down, empowering a new committee to reorganize our schedule and house structure. The teachers sat down and made their own hard decisions — to lay someone off, to save money by covering for each other on planned absences — and it worked, because it wasn’t some administrator telling them what to do.”

A System for Participation

Broadmoor’s system also works, in part, because the school follows a clear protocol of joint decision-making, in which everyone affected by any change has a say in making it, unmaking it, and getting it to succeed. “Many schools go through the Trek and come out with a diagnosis, a vision, and a plan,” says Coalition senior associate Patricia Smith. But the Trek process must put a decision-making structure in place to facilitate change, she says, or they get stuck and the effort dissipates. Schools can also go astray when a Trek team coexists with a parallel movement toward site-based management, but the two fail to integrate their visions. “If you can instead use shared decision-making initiatives to decide on and carry out Essential School changes,” says Smith, “then you have a new structure that includes the whole community, and the ball can really get rolling.”

For an example Smith points to Central Bucks East High School, a large suburban high school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Though it is not technically a site-based management school, Central Bucks East has consciously arranged its structure so that teachers are intimately involved with matters of educational leadership. An elected Leadership Team of six teachers, four parents, three administrators, and one student makes many policy decisions; and task forces form as necessary to study everything from communication to team-building and curriculum matters.

“Making decisions as a team has increased communication tremendously,” principal Joseph Jennelle says. “We’ve opened doors to conversation. There are so many variables in the Nine Common Principles — we need to learn all we can about them and develop a common language. While we do that we’re also learning how to talk together in a structured way, learn what each person feels is important, and make decisions together as a group.”

Some schools run into unexpected trouble because they forget to keep in close touch with parents and other community members. As principal Bob Mackin at Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire points out, “there’s simply no limit to the amount of communicating you need to do with parents.”

Souhegan faced a particular challenge because it is a brand new school this year, says Mackin, who formerly headed Fox Lane High School, a Coalition member school in Bedford, New York. But the process of articulating Essential School change, he argues, is the same for every school.

“We had a series of community meetings and newsletters to say ‘We’re rethinking what school should look like and here’s why,'” he says. “We used lots of good examples of places already in existence, to give people a sense of security that we’re not using their kids as guinea pigs.” Mackin also sent out regular newsletters that served as a basis for discussion. “Writing reaches people who may not come to meetings,” he notes.

Building community understanding buys time for schools, Mackin says, “so you don’t get accosted from day one when you start to change.” Nonetheless, he says, given another chance he would do even more, and he recommends focusing meetings and newsletters on hot issues like heterogeneous grouping. “Two months into the year you can count on a challenge from the parents of the honors kids,” he says. “You have to have confidence in the research — but the community can’t be left behind.”

Keep Symbols of Stability

Ironically, Souhegan is riding high in its community at the moment partly because of its championship athletic teams. “If you’re going to spend time and energy challenging norms,” Mackin says, “do you challenge the football team or tracking? They’re both deeply embedded in American culture.” Unless expensive sports programs foreclose the possibility of crucial academic reforms, he has a point. Maintaining a few typical high school traditions simply as symbols — designations like “juniors” and “seniors,” or sports teams, or bells between classes, or A-B-C grading systems (at least for a time) — can lend stability to a system that may feel overwhelmed by change, observes CES’s Director for Schools Bob McCarthy.

Even such symbols as the traditional honor roll, though, can be put to new uses, observes Rancho San Joaquin principal Judy Cunningham. Analyzing what most affected the school’s persistent discipline problems, her faculty concluded that one key factor was students’ work habits — bringing materials to class, using time effectively, coming prepared for class, and class participation. They instituted a new Work Habits Honor Roll, measured every three weeks and rewarded with publicity and other positive incentives like sodas and “yogurt feeds.” If a student drops off the honor roll in three or more classes, the parents are called in for an intervention, the student contracts for specific improvements, and a continuing evaluation of the cause of the problem begins. “It has made a remarkable difference,” says Cunningham. “It’s become the cool thing.”

Things like this can establish a necessary sense of order in the midst of change — a quality that also shows up in the way successful schools organize their process of reform. New institutions and norms arise at such places — regular meetings, for example, where educational ideas are discussed, their practical implications sorted out, the problems they raise addressed, and their early trials evaluated. At one Essential school, the principal has scheduled hour-long weekly “quality circles,” of ten faculty members each, to discuss substantive issues. At another, monthly faculty meetings break into small groups to discuss readings and questions on matters like assessment practices. A third school devotes an afternoon each month to exploring the Nine Common Principles one by one, in depth.

“It’s important to have a structure for the change process,” Chuck Bowen comments. “It’s like the balancing stick a tightrope walker holds — it helps you locate yourself in an unstable situation. But no model can tell you everything that can happen. You have to use these models intelligently, continually analyzing and criticizing how it works for you.”

In the end, no model can substitute for teaching people to work together, setting their own priorities that reflect their own situations and assessing their own progress against new standards of thoughtfulness. That is a tall order for educators long habituated to taking instruction like so many obedient children in neat rows of desks. But despite the time, effort, and pain that change of this order entails, a real hunger for just such large-scale transformation appears to be growing among those interested in Essential School ideas. As teachers see more serious attention paid to their own professional worth, more weight placed on their own honest inquiry into new ideas, the chances for real consensus only grow.

“You see a lot of great mission statements on big posters hanging around schools,” says Rancho San Joaquin teacher Erin Hughes. “But if you want me to implement what’s on the paper, you have to include me, attend to my needs. The bottom line is, Do you want to change something on paper or do you want to change people?