Building Equity Through Barrier Removal
We all have “our people.” Usually, we think of “our people” as those we turn to for help or a listening ear. As a leader, you also need the people who know what you need to know, who see what you need to see, who speak truth to power–the people who can truly implement the work you are trying to lead. As a leader, despite your best efforts you CANNOT (it turns out) do everything! You need your implementation people to help you transform your leadership work into instructional practice, and most importantly, into improved student learning.
What leadership work, exactly, are we talking about?
The role of district leader is inherently concerned with equity. A central tenet must be to ensure equitable access to instruction for all students, no matter the school or teacher to which a student is assigned, and no matter the student’s abilities or needs.
To ensure equity of instruction, we must (1) plan for what the instruction is supposed to look like, and everyone else in the system must (2) implement their piece of the plan. As you are probably well aware, as a leader, you are no longer able to directly impact student learning. Your work must funnel through other people in the system. In other words, your “product” is other people’s behavior, many, many other people (building administrators, coaches, teachers), and other people’s behavior can be an incredibly difficult thing to change.
However, we have one powerful tool to refine large numbers of individuals’ behaviors—systems. Therefore, the job of a leader is create and support systems that improve equity of instruction.
Planning v. Implementation
Over the past couple of decades, we have improved how we, as districts, plan for school improvement. We now use a process to analyze data and root causes to identify needs, we research and select evidence-based strategies, and we formulate plans to align needs and strategies. Nowadays, most districts have well-laid plans with well-intended systems. But plans do not equal improvement. Improvement requires actual implementation, monitoring, and adjustment. And not implementation by a few for a few, but implementation by all for all.
Let’s say you have a plan, a really solid plan, in place. You rolled out the plan and provided the necessary pieces for everyone to implement the plan. Then, you checked in to monitor implementation in classrooms. Now let’s truly reflect: when you do have those opportunities to get out of Central Office and into classrooms, how do you typically feel about implementation at the classroom level?
- Wanting to skip through the halls and cheer out loud, so overcome am I by the high level of implementation fidelity and equity of instruction across all classrooms for all students.
- Puzzled by the inconsistency of implementation across classrooms. They all received the same PD, so why are some teachers implementing and others not? Or, I can see they are all trying, but how did they come up with such different ways of implementing the plan?!
- Frustrated by the lack of implementation overall, and by the inconsistency where efforts do occur. Do they even know what the plan is? Did they attend the PD on the instructional strategies we are trying? Are they purposefully resisting?
Based on my experience in districts, I would guess almost all of you chose B or C. (If you did choose A, you can stop reading here, and start sharing your work, because you clearly already have the rest of these steps in place!)
Implementation, Monitoring, and Adjustment: The Importance of a Barrier Removal Process
So, you have a great plan! 🥳 But so far, it’s not being implemented like you intended. 😕 Remember, implementation science says the plan is only the beginning. (Click here for wonderful and detailed information and modules about implementation science in education, and implementation stages in particular.)
It is so tempting, when facing the frustrations of implementation, to blame teachers or other adults responsible for the work. “They” don’t want to do the work. “They” are resistant to change. “They” are just complaining about the parts that don’t work. However, this is precisely when we as leaders have to stop and (1) assume positive intention, and (2) ask, “Why?”
The simple question, “Why?” is the very heart of an absolutely crucial, but often missing piece of implementation—the barrier removal process. To enable implementation of any plan, we must identify and remove the barriers we come across when trying to implement. Yet, usually, district level leaders are not the ones able to do so.
Educational Cascade: Bird’s Eye v. Ground Level Views
Take a look at the image below of the educational cascade. This image depicts how district level leaders are working at the systems level, from a Bird’s Eye View. Classroom teachers are working at the practices level, from a Ground Level View. The Bird’s Eye View is a powerful tool. It sees the big picture, and therefore, is able to see patterns and trends not visible on the ground, which is precisely what is needed to create equity. The Ground Level View is powerful too! It sees the nitty-gritty details of implementation, where the system actually affects real individuals with real, complex needs, in real space and time. Each view and each educator role has its purpose in building equity.
Precisely because district leaders operate at the systems level, they rarely have time to interact meaningfully at the classroom implementation level. This is not a criticism; it is the nature of the job. However, because they are not involved in classroom level implementation with students, it is impossible for district leaders to be the ones to identify implementation barriers. And if they can’t identify the barriers, they can’t address and remove them to support implementation of the plan. Thus, without classroom level implementation information, it is impossible to effectively guide district-level implementation. It’s a vicious cycle right?!
Similarly, individual teachers, with only a Ground Level View do not possess the Bird’s Eye View to effectively distinguish a systemic barrier from an individual barrier. For example, when a barrier is identified by a small number of individual teachers, how do they or we know if it is truly a barrier to be addressed by the system for all, or if it might be a need for PD or coaching of a single teacher or small group of teachers? For precisely this reason, barriers identified by individual teachers are often distrusted and discounted as “complaining” or “resistance”. Sometimes they are, but often they are not, and yet it is really hard to know the difference at the district level, when you do not have the daily on the ground implementation view.
So who can identify systemic barriers and remove them, if it can’t be district leaders or teachers?
District leadership positions require trust in individuals who BOTH see and understand the district level system striving for equity AND frequently work at the classroom level to identify and remove barriers for them. These are “your implementation people”!
There is no single, right person, group, or position to fill this role for you. They may be instructional coaches, building administrators who are deeply embedded in instruction, teacher leaders, content specialists, or intervention specialists who frequently observe and collaborate with groups of teachers. More important than the position(s) of the people you choose is their ability to meet the necessary criteria.
Effective barrier removal people:
- Are highly knowledgeable about their content and pedagogy
- Work frequently (almost daily) across classrooms and buildings to see patterns across individuals’ implementation (ground level view)
- Have an insider perspective on district-level plans and intentions to know “where the district is trying to go” with a particular plan (bird’s eye view)
Ok, I’m starting to get the picture! But what does this look like in practice?
Below is a vignette of an intermediate school with 12 classroom teachers per grade level.
Plan: The district created a Local Literacy Plan that included implementation of a morphology program to improve the advanced decoding skills of their 5th and 6th grade students.
Installation: The district researched materials and selected an evidence-based program. They purchased and scheduled a series of professional development sessions to teach teachers the science of reading. They secured a literacy coach to provide classroom-level support. They reworked their building and classroom schedules to allot time for the new materials to be implemented. Then they rolled out the plan with the first round of a series of connected PD continually supported by job-embedded coaching.
Initial Implementation: Based on informal learning walks after the first PD session, administrators found that about half of teachers began attempts to implement the program, but the other half did not immediately implement.
Barrier Removal: The district formulated the following barrier removal process:
- The district leaders identified “their implementation people” for barrier removal, in this case the literacy coach and grade level ELA team leaders.
- The coach and team leaders assumed positive intent of teachers, and asked, “Why?” When asked in team meetings, teachers reported the following problems:
- Their schedules did not allow enough time.
- The words were too difficult for students.
- The words were not defined so even when students said them, they did not learn the meanings.
- Intervention specialists, reading specialists, and ESL teachers were not provided the materials, so it was difficult for them to support their students with this instruction.
- The students were disengaged and refused to participate.
- “This is just another new thing; I’m not going to put it in practice until I know it’s going to be around for awhile.”
- “This is really hard for me (as a teacher) to manipulate words this way, so I avoid doing it in front of the students.”
- “I’m going to wait until someone says I have to.”
- The coach and team leaders then analyzed teacher feedback. They looked for patterns across teacher feedback, and interpreted the feedback from a deep knowledge of the district plan, of the content area, and of each teacher’s context.
- Finally, they collaboratively developed a plan to address and remove each barrier. More frequently reported barriers were seen as systemic and thus addressed with tweaks to the overall system. Less frequently reported barriers were seen as individual barriers and addressed with individualized support and accountability.
- They addressed each barrier in the following ways:
A couple of months later, implementation of the new program had significantly improved, from half of teachers just beginning to try it out in September, to 19 out of 24 teachers fully implementing, 3 teachers just beginning, and 2 teachers still learning and warming to the idea in November. “Your implementation people” to the rescue!
Barrier Removal for Equity
District leaders are leading for equity of instruction for all students. To get there, we need: (1) a solid plan, and (2) to ensure implementation, monitoring, and refinement of the plan. Despite your best efforts, there will be barriers to implementation that you did not think of, and often cannot even see. With “your implementation people” by your side, your district as a team will be able to swiftly identify the barriers and remove them strategically, to get your plan into action. And with your solid plan truly being implemented by all for all, you will achieve the goal of improved student learning.