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Monday / October 23

How Successful Leaders Avoid the “Implementation Gap”

As someone who has had the privilege of working with educators the length and breadth of the United States, I can confirm this: there is no shortage of leadership in American education. At every level – school, district, state, higher ed – and, yes, even in the federal government, I’ve met leaders who are passionate about graduating more students ready to lead successful lives.

Unfortunately, passion does not always translate into measurable improvements in student outcomes. Again and again I have seen the frustration of education leaders whose reforms just aren’t having the impact they expected.

In our new book Deliverology in Practice: How Education Leaders Are Improving Student Outcomes I, along with my colleagues Nick Rodriguez and Ellyn Artis, set out to understand why this happens. Why, with all the energy that has gone into education reform over the past five years, has progress in raising student achievement and reducing inequalities been so slow?

Our answer can be summed up in a single word: “implementation.” In the recent era of reform, policy and legislation – the “what” of reform – has driven the work, but implementation – the “how” of reform – has been given far less attention. Everybody knows, on some level, that policy changes need to be interpreted and operationalized by leaders at different levels, but rarely do we devote the time and attention needed to develop the skills leaders need to implement effectively.

To put it another way, education leadership in America suffers from an “implementation gap.”

However, the good news is that a small number of leaders from across the country have succeeded in closing the implementation gap using an approach called “delivery.” The delivery approach has its roots back in the U.K., where I worked to develop it under Prime Minister Tony Blair, and since 2010 the Education Delivery Institute (EDI) has partnered with education leaders here in the U.S. to help them use the approach. In the book, we draw on EDI’s experiences working with over 100 education systems and institutions in over 40 states.

Every leader EDI has worked with has found their own way of applying the delivery approach in a way that works for their specific context, but there are five main things that we’ve seen successful leaders do:

  1. Establish a foundation: Setting clear goals for students, establishing a Delivery Unit to help the system stay focused, and building the coalition that will back the reforms.
  2. Understand the challenge: Analyzing the data and evidence to get a sense of current progress and the biggest barriers to achieving the goals.
  3. Plan for delivery: Developing a plan that guides the day-to-day work by explicitly defining what is to be implemented, how it will reach the field at scale, and how it will achieve the desired impact on the goals.
  4. Drive delivery: Monitor progress against the plan, make course corrections, and build and sustain momentum to achieve the goals.
  5. Create an irreversible delivery culture: Identify and address the change management challenges that come with any reform and attend to them all the time.

We don’t pretend that implementation is easy – it isn’t – but for leaders who really want to improve results for their students, we maintain that the delivery approach provides a set of tools, techniques, and examples which they can use to start implementing more effectively right now. It’s quite possible that you have already some of these elements in place – in which case, think about how you can build on and strengthen them. The book itself provides a how-to guide for each element of delivery, and there’s also a suite of downloadable tools and resources on EDI’s website.

Deliverology in Practice (1)

If you’re an education leader, my biggest piece of advice to you is: don’t leave implementation to chance; poor implementation is like poison to a reform effort, and when we neglect it our students pay the price. But take heart in the example of leaders who are already seeing results. They have shown that if we take the skillset of implementation seriously we can build an education system that truly delivers.

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Sir Michael Barber has been chief education advisor at Pearson since September 2011 and is the founder of Delivery Associates.

In 2001, he founded the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in No10, Downing Street, which he ran until 2005. In this role he was responsible for ensuring delivery of the government’s domestic policy priorities across health, education, crime reduction, criminal justice, transport and immigration. The sustained focus on delivery from the heart of government, and the processes the PMDU developed, were a significant innovation in government, of interest to numerous other countries and global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. Tony Blair described the PMDU as “utterly invaluable.”

From 2005 to 2011 he was a partner at McKinsey and Company where he played a leading role in creating a public sector practice and founded the global education practice. In 2009 he founded, in Washington DC, the Education Delivery Institute, a not-for-profit organisation that works with more than a dozen US States to apply systematic delivery approaches to improving outcomes in schools and public higher education.

Since 2009, on behalf of the British government, he has visited Pakistan over 30 times to oversee a radical and, so far, successful reform of the Punjab education system.

He is the author of numerous books and articles, such as How to Run a Government published by Penguin in 2015 and Instruction to Deliver (Methuen 2008), which tells the story of his time in Downing Street, and was described by the Financial Times as “one of the best books about British government for many years.” Deliverology 101 is the textbook on how to deliver in government and was written as the curriculum for the Education Delivery Institute.

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