Thursday, January 3, 2019

It's Not the Implementation

"You just didn't implement it properly."
This is the all-too-frequent cry of program creators and policy writers after their pet project goes belly up in the great goldfish bowl of education.
It was a popular explanation for the crash of Common Core. More than a few district superintendents have used it to explain why their pet project failed. And publishers like to use it as an explanation for why their materials didn't deliver the promised results.
But was that really the problem? After all, there is no good way to implement a bad idea. Here are some points to consider when conducting the post mortem on your failed program.
1. Bad PR Is A Program Problem

"If we had just gotten the teachers and parents to buy in..." and "People just developed a negative perception that we should have counteracted" are not implementation problems. If your program requires aggressive selling, it's not a good program. If your teachers and parents "developed" the perception that your program is ugly and smells funny, the most likely explanation is that your program is ugly and smells funny. If you think negative reactions are a problem to be managed rather than input to be considered, then your design process is flawed and the materials that come out of it will be flawed as well. Your "bad PR" is a symptom of your failure, not an explanation of it.
This is most striking in a rollout technique used by both local school districts and state legislatures, a technique we could call: "Try to do this is as quickly and quietly as possible and hope nobody notices." Word always gets out, public reaction is lousy, and afterwards leaders shake their heads and say, "Well, if only all that negative perception hadn't sprung up," as if the negative perception is a mysterious act of God. Come on. You knew the idea was a loser; that's why you were trying to sneak it past the taxpayers.
2. Fidelity Is A Bad Sign
Teachers have come to know and loath the phrase "with fidelity" because it means, roughly, "Do exactly as we tell you to and never, ever use your own professional judgment." The need to implement a program with fidelity is not an implementation problem; it is a fundamental flaw in the program.
First of all, any program that proposes to replace the professional judgment of classroom teachers with the judgment of textbook writers or software developers or government bureaucrats is flawed. Any program that denies the value of judgments made by the person who is actually in the room with the students-- that program is flawed.
Second, any program that is so brittle and inflexible that it can only work under certain precise conditions has no business being deployed in a real classroom. Flexibility is central to teaching. Everything teachers do must be able to bend and stretch and tweak and change-- often on a split-second's notice-- to fit the students, the teacher and the unpredictable conditions of the day.
3. Could It Work? Under What Conditions?
Teachers, who implement classroom ideas large and small on a daily basis, ask this question all the time when a planned lesson goes south. Higher grade teachers have an advantage; they get several tries in one day, and if the lesson works in first period, they know it can work. But all teachers have to imagine the conditions under which their idea can work. Then they have to ask the harder question:
Do those conditions realistically exist on this planet?
This is one of the brutal lessons that some teachers have to learn in their first year or two. Yes, that lesson would work beautifully in a classroom filled with students who are electrified by the use of symbolism in Huck Finn and would like nothing better in the whole world than to have a spirited discussion about it. But that's probably not the world you're actually teaching in, so the lesson needs to be redesigned.
Nowadays, many tech companies are developing wonderful tech-dependent programs. These programs will be excellent in any school district that has an extra couple million dollars to spend, every year. Most districts do not live in that world.
4. What And How Are Not Easily Separated
In education, the what and the how are usually inexorably entangled. If your goal is for students to be comfortable discussing the techniques of Elizabethan poetry, is class discussion your what or your how? We are currently seeing a swing in discussions about teaching reading. Common Core pushed us toward a notion that the what and how of reading could be completely separated, and we would just teach the how. Now we're getting back to understanding that the how cannot be disconnected from the what.
When a legislature or an administration tries to implement a program by top-down fiat, that's not just the how. That top-down your-input-isn't-desired aspect is baked into the whole program. It's part of what the program does, what the program is about. Implementation of a program lays the tracks on which the program will run.
5. Is This Really A Good Program?
Yes, it's theoretically possible to have a bad implementation of a good program. But every version of that I can remember seeing had one key feature-- a person in charge of implementation who misunderstood the program being implemented. So yes, it was an implementation problem in the sense that the wrong person was doing the implementation in the first place. (This is, of course, an excellent way to kill a program-- put the wrong person in charge of it.) The very definition of a good education program is that it is robust and flexible enough to pass through many, many different (though not necessarily hostile) hands, but someone with no gift for organizing or leadership can botch an implementation. You can also kill a program by denying it the requirements it needs to survive (say, cramming thirty-five students into the classroom). Bad implementation of good programs can happen.
It could be a clarity issue-- it's just hard to understand how the program is supposed to work. But if it's difficult for people who interpret and explain things for a living to interpret and explain your program, your program has a problem with clarity. That's a program problem, not an implementation bug.
But let's be honest-- saying "It's the implementation" is mostly a way to shift blame. "I did my design work and writing perfectly; it's all those other jerks who are messing things up." The teacher equivalent of this sentiment is to say, "I taught it perfectly, but those kids just wouldn't get it." In both cases, if you find this sentiment coming out of your mouth, you should step back, take a deep breath, and go take a good hard look in the mirror.


  1. Non-teachers creating products and programs all have the same obstacle: they cannot fathom just how easy it is to confuse (and frustrate) students - and how really, really difficult it is to do the opposite. Nor will they ever without actually teaching for many years. And then the really nuanced versions of "what works" is completely dependent on being familiar with classroom make up, group dynamics and even individual personalities and abilities. Canned crapola that can't be tweaked/improved will always gather dust.

  2. "You're not doing it right" is a form of mansplaining. I take the car to the mechanic and tell him what's going on, he tells me I shouldn't press the accelerator so hard or I should ... blah, blah, blah. My husband takes the same car to the same mechanic and tells him the same thing. The mechanic fixes the car.

  3. "And the teachers were people..."

    The Fun They Had, by Isaac Asimov (1951):

  4. You left out "There IS no good way to implement a BAD set of standards."

    There's no GOOD way to teach little concrete-minded kids algebra and other abstract math concepts, especially in classrooms of 25+. (There are LOTS of good ways to start doing that once they're out of the Early Childhood window and reliably into more complex thinking, more like 4th-5th grade and onward.)

  5. If only edu-fakirs new how unbelievably easy it is to confuse (and frustrate) students with their poorly conceived programs and products. Every word matters; lazy writing by edu-fakirs is, more often than not, badly misconstrued by kids who mean well. And when their products and programs leave no room for correction, tweaking, or improvement they simply gather dust.