“A Little Bit Better” Isn’t Enough

Doug Reeves, in his book, “Leading Change in Your School: How to Conquer Myths, Build Commitment, and Get Results” (2009), addressed the myth about ‘change leadership’, ‘a little bit better is good enough’. Many education change leaders have encountered the slings, arrows and painful diatribe around even minor shifts in pedagogy, curriculum, resources, etc. Because moving an organization to systemic change is tough stuff, it is natural to believe that incremental change or doing a lot of things a little better hits the target (Peters & Waterman, 1982). Reeves also addressed Margaret Mead’s infamous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Reeves found that small groups cannot change schools. His 2008-2009 research showed that only deep implementation had positive effect on student achievement. If implementers are only those who ‘buy in’ from the onset, the impact is the same as non-implementation. Reeves’ data tell us that for the change to have its desired impact, all members of the organization, including those who are not accepting of the changes, must implement and do so well. When the implementation takes its course, over time, the results are apparent, the non-believers will witness outcomes, understand and accept the changes. The fact is that behavioral change often precedes changes in belief systems. Reeves says, “….implementation precedes buy-in; it does not follow it.” His case after case review and discussion give evidence.

In our work at One-to-One Institute, we have witnessed the latter time and time again. For starters, in Michigan’s Freedom to Learn Program, the statewide professional development framework created teacher leaders who emerged with knowledge and skill around meaningful integration of personal, portable technologies and curriculum/instruction. They provided PD for the next tier of teacher leaders within regions and then followed the same protocol within districts and schools. Early adopters rapidly emerged – as did the fence sitters and naysayers. Sprinkled throughout were teachers who were just a year or two from retirement. Of that group, those who were fence sitters and naysayers became ultimate cheerleaders for the one-to-one approach. They commented how invigorated they, personally and professionally, had become; and renewed their commitment to remain teaching. A number of them, with whom I’m still in touch, are still working or retired just a year or so ago (Michigan’s program began in 2002 and sunsetted in 2007). We have seen the same across the country.

We have also documented how districts that implemented systemically and deeply, continue a one-to-one program. Where implementation was isolated, lacked foundational support, consistent leadership and professional development, the programs went belly up. There are far more in the latter category.

Nearly 10 years later, there is more research and understanding around successful digital conversion implementations. But we still hear the echo of ‘a little bit or pockets of this change’ are good enough. They aren’t for two important reasons: First, authentic school transformation requires systemic behavior change for all stakeholders; second, and most importantly, desired learner outcomes can be realized when the system moves in the right direction. The latter is our most important mission.

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