Positive Impacts of the New Normal and Making Them Stick
I’m hoping things will be back to normal someday.”
Nine-year-old Sasha’s reflection in the New York Times echoes sentiments from many students, parents, and educators seeking a return to normalcy during the coronavirus pandemic. With thousands of public and private schools in the U.S. shuttering their doors, many schools transitioned to alternative operations seemingly overnight. “This has pushed us to adapt very quickly, and whether it’s mindset, disposition, or just resources, not everyone has been able to make the switch successfully,” Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Bridget Terry Long commented in a recent interview with The Brookings Institution. How schools and school systems are failing to meet the needs of millions of U.S. students during the pandemic currently dominates conversations in the education sector.
Yet in a recent virtual panel presented by Bellwether Education Partners, education leaders explored another angle within this dialogue: the potential for positive change in a system that was failing to adequately and equitably serve students long before COVID-19’s arrival. For panelist Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, getting back to normal isn’t the goal. He explained, “This is a time to move into the 21st century aggressively […] A lot of the things that are going to happen as a result of what’s going on are not necessarily bad and could be an impetus" for innovation. Domenech’s comment suggests we think of pandemic-influenced schooling not as a disruption to our educational system, but rather as a transition within the life of the system to a new and better way of operating. But will the change stick?
To answer this question, we might look to the concept of imprinting. Arthur Stinchcomb* first introduced this idea to the organizational research field in 1965 when he described how organizations’ operating structures often date back to elements they adopted when they were founded. These elements reflect the values and social conditions present within the environment at the time of the organization’s founding. Even as that environment changes over the life of the organization, those structures remain “remarkably stable over time.” Applied to U.S. schools today that are rapidly innovating in response to COVID-19, Stinchcomb’s ideas suggest that a return to normal, or a reversion to traditional operating practices, is inevitable; schools’ 20th-century structures will be unwelcome hosts to emerging 21st-century strategies.
In recent years, however, researchers have expanded upon Stinchcomb’s claims and challenged the idea that imprinting only occurs at an organization’s onset. Marquis and Tilcsik suggest “windows of imprintability” can occur throughout an organization’s lifetime, making the organization sensitive to environmental influence particularly during “periods of organizational transition, upheaval, and instability.” I’ve heard educators around the U.S. describe COVID-19 as just that: an upheaval. One teacher put it to me best, “This pandemic has rocked my school to its core.” Comments like hers make me wonder if schools today, like the organizations Marquis and Tilcsik describe, could be forever changed by this pandemic’s influence. And I’m not simply talking about online learning becoming a common instructional practice. The change that most intrigues, and honestly excites me, is the change to how schools and school districts operate.
It is a change that Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), is already seeing in her district. “Discussions that at one time took two months are now taking two days,” she shared during Bellwether’s April 9th panel when describing how leaders in her system are cutting through the bureaucratic red tape to iterate standard operating procedures “in the moment.” The system she describes is agile and far from how we would normally characterize a large district serving 80,000 students. Santelises detailed BCPS’ strategy as “starting with the user [student] first versus starting with the bureaucratic infrastructure” when imagining what pandemic-influenced schooling could look like. BCPS’ limited stores of technology meant they needed to think beyond what peer districts were attempting with immediate laptop distribution and district-wide online learning. Their user-focused solution was a creative collaboration with public access television to broadcast K-8 lessons into students’ homes daily. As BCPS plans for “recovery” in the 2020-2021 school year, Santelises and her team are imagining changes to the very foundations of school life: how instructional time is allocated and how highest-performing teachers across the district could be strategically reassigned to highest-need communities.
Changes like these challenge inequities that Santelises knows have long been present in BCPS but, as a result of COVID-19, are now “front and center.” At RIDES, we might describe these inequities as not only front and center, but also woven throughout every facet of a school. The RIDES Systemic Improvement Map illustrates this. The map’s concentric circles illuminate the overlap between the classroom (which includes students, teachers, and curriculum), the school (which includes systems, culture, leadership and partnerships), and institutional racism and oppression. RIDES believes such a perspective allows change-makers to facilitate a ripple effect, encouraging “isolated solutions” to “radiate outwards into long-term institutional change.”
Yet even with this roadmap from RIDES, we should not assume school transformation is inevitable. Making the changes stick requires we organize the people within schools to own and facilitate that change. For that, we can look to John Kotter’s “Eight Steps to Transforming Your Organization”:
Establishing a Sense of Urgency
Forming a Powerful Guiding Coalition
Creating a Vision
Communicating the Vision
Empowering Others to Act on the Vision
Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins
Consolidating Improvements and Producing Still More Change
Institutionalizing New Approaches
While Kotter argues that all eight steps are essential, Step 8 seems particularly relevant to this blog post’s wonderings. Kotter writes, “Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed.” To avoid this, Kotter suggests organizations make clear connections for their employees between new behaviors and success. He also recommends being strategic when hiring and promoting leadership to ensure decision-makers “personify the new approach.”
Inspired by Kotter’s wisdom, I leave you with the following list of actions school leaders can take in the present to help make positive changes stick in the future. Though certainly not exhaustive, it’s a place to start:
Surface the “pockets of promise” happening now: Santelises used this phrase when describing how BCPS is thinking about success amidst COVID-19. Survey stakeholders at all levels and don’t be afraid to include some open-ended queries. You’ll welcome insights about things you don’t even know are happening.
Compile successes in a central location and give it an owner: With teachers and school leaders making in-the-moment decisions, practices are rapidly changing. Important organizational learnings will get lost in the shuffle. Empower someone within the organization to own this archive and develop a system for keeping it up to date.
Tune into the people facilitating these successes: HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long named mindset and disposition as barriers to school innovation during this pandemic. What are the characteristics this new environment demands of your employees? Put a name to them and take note of the structures within your standard operating procedures that either promote or undermine them.
Communicate, communicate, communicate: Kotter suggests doing so “relentlessly.” Leverage or enhance your current communication platforms to share the successes. Highlight instances of desirable mindsets at work. Elevate voices from throughout the organization to build a sense of what Kotter calls “the way we do things around here.”
Keep tabs on the inertia towards the status quo: Even as new ways of operating become permanent, Marquis and Tilcsik warn that they merely “layer” on top of and do not erase prior imprinting. Make sure to name the operating structures that your new changes deviate from and develop ways to reflect on their continued influence. This will help you to recognize the inevitable pull towards the past and to take action to anchor new changes in the present.
By RIDES Fellow Abigail McCann
*Special thanks to my RIDES Fellowship comrade, Dr. Dia Bryant, for introducing me to Stinchcomb’s work on imprinting!
Dodd, H. (2020, April 14). ‘I Can’t Believe I Am Going to Say This, but I Would Rather Be at School.’ The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/14/us/school-at-home-students-coronaviru...
Domenech, D., Moskowitz, E., Rees, N., Rotherham, A., & Santelises, S. (2020, April 9). What’s Happening, What’s Next: COVID-19 Lessons and What School Leaders Need Now. Bellwether Education Partners, webinar.
Kotter, J. (1995) Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review, March-April, 59-67.
Map: Coronavirus and School Closures (2020, April 13). Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-coronavirus-and-school-...
Marquis, C. & Tilcsik, A. (2013) Imprinting: Toward a Multilevel Theory. The Academy of Management Annals, 7:1, 195-245.
Stinchcombe, A. L. (1965) Social Structure and Organizations. In J. G. March (Ed.), Handbook of Organizations: 142-193. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co.
Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools (2020). “Systemic Improvement Map.” https://rides.gse.harvard.edu/systemic-improvement-map
Vegas, E. (2020, April 9). What can COVID-19 teach us about strengthening education systems? The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/04/09/wha...