Five Change Management Principles Can Spur Uptake of Quality Curriculum

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The articles in this first digital-only issue of NASBE’s State Education Standard, entitled “Curriculum That Counts” (January 2024), make a compelling, evidence-based case for the use of high-quality curriculum and instructional materials. Several point to steps state boards of education can take to support such use. While state-level actions can spark changes at the classroom level, all too often they do not achieve the desired impact because of ineffective implementation.

Let’s face it, change is hard! The education community has often struggled with making the promise of evidence-based policies and practices felt in the day-to-day experiences of students in school. Making the leap from policy change to classroom practice requires the deliberate attention of all educators and education leaders. In their 2020 paper, Jim Short and Stephanie Hirsh call out effective change management as part of a multifaceted approach to instructional transformation through curriculum implementation.[1] Yet change management cannot be legislated or mandated. It requires authentic, context-informed practices that are more social and emotional than technical in nature. What state boards and other policymakers can do, however, is promote the actions and conditions that increase the likelihood that desired changes reach students.

Change management requires authentic, context-informed practices that are more social and emotional than technical in nature.

Five key aspects of change management often get overlooked in implementing transformational initiatives, including introducing high-quality curriculum.[2]

Culture. There is a saying in the field of organizational management: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” You can have the best strategy in the world, but if you attempt to introduce it into a toxic culture, you will not likely see change. Being deliberate about nurturing a culture of cooperation, trust, mutual respect, vulnerability, continuous improvement, and valuing data and evidence is key to effective change management in a school or district.

Co-design. How many times have you heard the slogan “Nothing about us without us.” (Or for those of you who took Latin: Nihil de nobis, sine nobis.) When teachers and staff gather to understand a problem and have a voice in identifying causes and solutions and monitoring implementation, they are more likely to be open to change and vested in its success. Leaders have to take deliberate steps to ensure that staff are partners in the improvement work. Interestingly, a co-design process can also meaningfully improve organizational culture.

Coherence. A one-off change, attempted in isolation from other improvement-related activities, is unlikely to achieve much. The change has to align and integrate with other strategies and actions. Too often, tutoring, summer school, and other interventions are disconnected from the overall education plan and consequently fail to have the desired impact.

Leadership. Leadership matters. Without a working understanding of effective change management, leaders can go through change motions and the technical aspects of change, but their organizations likely will not reap much benefit from it. Many education leaders would benefit from a stronger understanding of what good change management looks like and from opportunities to engage with peers and experts to develop these skills. Top-down or command-and-control leadership approaches thwart reform. Change management leadership is most successful when a committed school principal models best practice for staff. A lead teacher or group of teachers, or a curriculum director or content coach, can also spearhead or support such an effort. What is important is that a clear message emerges that change is important, supported, fundamental, and everyone’s responsibility.

Many education leaders would benefit from a stronger understanding of what good change management looks like and from opportunities to engage with peers and experts to develop these skills.

Coaching Support. I recall learning to rollerblade. It was awkward and disorienting, causing me to question why I was doing it at all. But my instructor reassured me when I fell down, helped me get up, and showed me what I needed to do differently. After a number of classes, my confidence and skill increased. A person who uses their expertise to help, model, counsel, and advise makes such a difference. Not only novices benefit from coaching; even athletes at the top of their game are constantly coached to advance their prowess. In the curriculum context, a coach can be a master teacher, an instructional director, or someone shared with other schools and districts. They need to be well trained and deeply committed to the change they are supporting.

Given that change management by fiat will fall flat, what can a state policymaker do to advance it? State boards of education in particular have avenues for elevating effective practice and convening key partners. They can do the following:

  • nurture a broad understanding that effective change management leads to better implementation;
  • highlight school and district successes that illustrate attentiveness to key change management practices and celebrate the results achieved;
  • ensure that education department web pages feature change management considerations and state initiatives embed them;
  • assemble a coalition of state associations, advocacy groups, higher education institutions, and business leaders that share a vision for improving change management practices and can commit to elevating best practices; and
  • provide opportunities for practitioners to learn, share, and consult together.

Effective change management is not applicable to curriculum implementation alone. As these practices become more prevalent, they can buoy a whole host of improvement strategies that lead to more and more students being better prepared for success in school, work, and life.

Paolo DeMaria is NASBE’s president and CEO.


[1] Jim Short and Stephanie Hirsh, “The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning,” report (Carnegie Corporation of New York, November 2020).

[2] Much has been written about change management. I recommend Dan and Chip Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Crown Business, 2010), Robert Evans’s The Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance, and the Real-Life Problems of Innovation (Jossey-Bass, 2001), Douglas Reeves’s Leading Change in Your School: How to Conquer Myths, Build Commitment, and Get Results (ASCD, 2009), and The Change Catalyst guidebook from Chiefs for Change.

Also In this Issue

Portrait of senior woman holding a book in the library. Image credit: iStock

What Role Do States Play in Selecting K-12 Textbooks?

By Julia Kaufman and Sy Doan

A network of states move the needle on quality without usurping local control.

Tree growing on open textbook with doodle for educational investment and success concept. Image credit: iStock

The Unrealized Promise of High-Quality Instructional Materials

By David Steiner

Overcoming barriers to faithful implementation requires changing teacher and leader mind-sets.

Teacher and kids school learning ecology gardening. Image credit: iStock

The State of K-12 Science Curriculum

By Eric Hirsch and Sam Shaw

While the availability of aligned, high-quality materials lags what science standards demand, states can press the market for better ones.

Business people sitting on books. Image credit: iStock

How Background Knowledge Builds Good Readers and Why Knowledge Building ELA Curricula Are Vital

By Ruth Wattenberg

A common base of content knowledge and coherent, comprehensive, and sequential curricula to deliver it are prerequisites for reading comprehension. Most students are not getting what they need.


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