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Maze Runners in Education

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October 1, 2014

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Have you seen The Maze Runner? Here is a spoiler alert. I have not, so don’t read any further if you’re looking to learn more about this popular movie or book series. Sorry. However, hearing about the movie reminded me how much the effort to improve low-performing schools feels like trying to get through a maze. We know what we want at the other end of school improvement: students who can succeed in careers and life. But, often we don’t know how to get there and we wind up feeling lost or trapped.

For most educators and policymakers, getting through the school improvement maze is fraught with repeated disappointments. Schools try one approach, and when it doesn’t work, try another. And then another. When school leaders reach dead ends they often throw up their hands and despair that they will never succeed. In education, we run from one solution to the next without a long-term strategy or game plan for progress.

Look up “how to escape a maze” in a web search, and you will find a simple answer on how to navigate most mazes: Using either your right or left hand, touch a wall and keep walking without breaking contact until you exit on the other side. It’s a simple but time-consuming solution. Following this rule, you will likely encounter dead ends, but you will eventually succeed. This approach reminds me of something we don’t do frequently enough in educational improvement: Stick to the plan, and give it time to succeed.

Too often in education, we give up on the best designed and most research-based plan when we encounter difficulties. Losing faith in a plan when it reaches its first “dead end” leads to a constant churn of new plans and efforts, and to educator dissatisfaction, policymaker doubt, and poor student results. Research consistently suggests that to get the best results, even the most effective programs require several years to implement. We recognized this critical factor when we designed our own school improvement process, Success Now!™

I’m very pleased that the U.S. Department of Education has recognized the need to give even the most effective research-based solutions time to work: it recently proposed lengthening School Improvement Grant award periods from three to five years. If you agree that getting through the school improvement maze requires that we “stick to the plan” and give it time to work, you might wish to contact the Department of Education and comment on this proposed change. (Comments are accepted through October 8.)

I’d love to hear about ways that you have successfully navigated the school improvement maze. What advice do you have about how to stick to the plans you have made so that they have time to succeed?