The lure of programs

I heard a principal talk the other evening about installing a new program at her school, Project ACHIEVE’s Stop and Think, a social skills program. My ears perked up. Generally, I’m suspicious about programs and their effectiveness. So much is dependent on fidelity of implementation.

First, let me define what I mean by”program.” I see it as any out-of-the-box set of curriculum or lesson plans or the like that a school or district can purchase and institute at the school building, at times with accompanying professional development for teachers and school administrators. For example, programs focused on curriculum and instruction include FOSS Science Kits, the Saxon products, and various Zaner-Bloser products. There’s much stuff out there, some better than others. It’s big business, as you might imagine, as education companies vie to sell their wares to the 40,000+ school districts ‘cross the country.

Why might folks at a school institute a program, rather than develop something themselves? They might not have the expertise, for example, or the time to spend on development. A school might decide that, after careful examination, a program is much better than anything that the school building can develop. And school districts have been known to institute programs district-wide, and so schools need to follow the district’s lead – not ideal, obviously, but a reality.

Think of a program as a kind of out-sourcing.

Sure, there are times when instituting a program can help a school building rather significantly. Several years ago, when working with a set of highly dysfunctional elementary schools, a colleague helped me see the importance that a curricular/instructional program might have for those schools. “They’d help stabilize instruction,” I remember him saying. These schools were so out-of-whack that teachers were doing whatever they wanted, from classroom to classroom, from grade level to grade level. An appropriate program, if well implemented, would install some consistency to the school’s instructional practices, even if it seemed cookie-cutterish. Once some best practices were established, the school might then work to develop its own best practices, its own systems, and slowly phase out that program.

It’s that cookie-cutter potential and the poor selection of programs that raise my suspicions. For the most part I believe that schools, their teachers, and their building leaders know what’s best for their kids and their practices at those schools. Well chosen, an off-the-shelf program supports the vision that teachers and principals have for their school. Badly chosen, a program is an aberration to the school day, the school year, even the school culture on which those at the school might have worked. Schools discover that they chose badly, the program gets poorly implemented, and it is quickly shelved, money for it down the tubes.

So, what are good questions to ask when you hear that a school’s about to implement a program?

  • How was the program chosen, and how does it align with the school’s and school district’s priorities?
  • Will it be piloted first, maybe with one grade level, or rolled out all at once?
  • What professional development will teachers get so that they can implement it with fidelity?
  • What is the principal’s role with implementation?
  • How will the program’s effectiveness be measured, and how will implementation reflect the data collected?
  • Is the program permanent, or will it be used to build capacity at the school and then be slowly phased out?

Just a few questions – what others do you have?

I got the Stop and Think image here.

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