Learning Environments Consortium International

Implementing and Living with Change

James W. Keefe

“American education is obsolete. It produces people to fit into a reasonably well functioning industrial society, and we no longer have one.” This is the sweeping assessment of futurist Alvin Toffler (1974) in his book, Learning for Tomorrow. The basic assumption draining American education, one that is both deceptive and dangerous, is that the future will be like the present. Toffler suggests that “Schools are preparing children for a society that no longer exists.”

If our education system is to remain relevant, it must focus not only on changes in American society, but also on changes taking place throughout the world. The world has become increasingly interdependent. Schools must help students understand the implications of these changes. And schools must be reorganized to help students learn to think for themselves. Such a school requires a new vision. John Gardner, founder of Common Cause, tells us that the worst of our problem is not that the old vision is fading. Old visions are always fading. The question is whether we have lost the capacity to generate a new vision — or the capacity to tolerate visions. If so, we’re in trouble.

The educational locksteps which have plagued our schools for over a century must be replaced with more rational ways of grouping students and organizing subject matter. It was, perhaps, excusable for the schoolmasters of the 1850’s to organize their schools on the assumption that students all learn at the same rate and that the same content is appropriate for everyone of the same age. Now, however, we are faced with the enormous task of educating our young people for the space age. Knowledge is expanding at an astonishing rate. New technologies are changing the ways in which we make a living. Social, political, and economic problems of unprecedented complexity face all of our people.

The schools of tomorrow can no longer afford the luxury of organizing themselves for administrative convenience. They must become schools for learning instead of schools for teaching.


The graded school system, which groups students by their age, is a product of another century and another culture. The practice of grouping students by age was devised by the Prussians as a method of preparing young people for an authoritarian, militaristic society. The system was imported to this country in 1848 through the Quincey Grammar School of Boston. The practice grew as our population grew and it became necessary to accommodate large numbers of students in our schools. It has been a popular system primarily because it is easy to administer. No professional judgment is required, for example, to place all students who are eight years old into grade three or all 15 year-olds into grade 10. Of course, there will be obvious misfits – children who are handicapped by coming, for instance, from less verbal environments. These children can always be failed, the usual 19th century Prussian solution to such problems.

The graded organization was initiated in response to the problems raised by an ever-increasing school population. The one-room schoolhouse, which was followed by the Lancastrian system with its monitor-teachers, was not able to cope with the vast numbers demanding to be educated. Since the ratio of students to teachers was rapidly increasing, the tutorial method quickly disappeared, and the focus shifted from the individual to the group. The most obvious rationale for grouping was on the basis of age The graded structure solved one of the first administrative problems of massive education by neatly categorizing students and curriculum according to age and subject.

Just as the transition from the one-room schoolhouse to the Lancastrian school to the graded structure caused a certain amount of consternation, we should expect a similar reaction as we move from a graded to an ungraded structure, from a group-paced to a personalized learning environment.

Characteristics of Successful Programs

Good advice about successful school program implementation has been around for a long time. We know, for example, that a successful program of planned change in a school requires a committed, competent staff and systematic preparation for change. A 1973 U. S. Office of Education report on compensatory education studied successful programs and listed eight characteristics common to all of them. USOE emphasized that “an overriding characteristic of a successful project is a committed, competent staff.” By combining this kind of staff with a “proper mix” of the eight factors, a school can have the greatest promise for a successful program. The eight “common characteristics” (slightly modified) can be applied to any program of planned change in a school:

l. Systematic planning which begins with a policy decision to provide “seed money” for start-up costs and builds the necessary partnerships among board members, educators and parents as they plan the program.
2. Clear objectives stated in specific measurable terms. Instructional techniques and materials must be closely related to these objectives.
3. Intensity of treatment, including the amount of time a student spends in the program and the staff-pupil ratio in the classroom or learning environment.
4. Attention to individual needs, including a careful learning diagnosis and an individualized plan for each student.
5. Flexibility in grouping, allowing for small-group and individual instruction. Group instruction is more effective, USOE says, if students are not left in the same group too long without reassessing both the teachers’ and students’ strengths.
6. Personnel management which allows key staff personnel to work individually with teachers. USOE stressed the need for extensive coordination and cooperation among staff members and
a well designed inservice program.
7. A structured program approach which stresses sequential activities. Pupils must also receive frequent and immediate feedback.
8. Parental involvement so that the home supports what the student learns in school. Parents must also be committed to working as partners with school personnel and students.

Implementation Barriers

Any project that involves comprehensive and systematic change must also hurdle some barriers. Most implementation barriers are related to three distinct sources (Packard, 1973):

l. Pre-existing (in)capabilities of schools – unsupportive faculty or parents, lack of faculty skills, conservative philosophy, etc.
2. Vulnerability of new ideas and novel practices – the urge to throw it out if it doesn’t show great and immediate gains (even unrealistic gains compared with typical standards used to evaluate traditional programs).
3. Implementation progress – too much work; too much criticism.

Other barriers are presented by Charters and Pellegrin (1973) as problem themes. (They cite 12):

l. Unclear goals — not specifying exactly what a school hopes to accomplish.
2. Unwarranted assumptions that appropriate behavioral changes will follow structural changes –structure supports but does not cause change; but inadequate structure can inhibit change.
3. Unwarranted assumptions about statements of values – the school philosophy must be internalized by faculty, students, parents; dialogue and discussion are needed before implementation.
4. Unwarranted assumptions about project objectives — implementation supports are needed (in-service training and teacher time for resource development).
5. Unrealistic time perspective– large-scale systematic change efforts typically take five years
to implement and up to 10 years to institutionalize.
6. Untrained staff and inadequate in-service — schools need to pre-plan at least one year ahead of the first year of implementation.
7. Role overload — job descriptions or the start-up workload required to develop the program are often unclear to staff.
8. Lack of resources — plant deficiencies; unsatisfactory program materials; inadequate community involvement.
9. Lack of evaluation technology– no total evaluation plan encompassing program evaluation, criterion-referenced tests for diagnosis of student learning characteristics, and comprehensive evaluation of student progress including performance evaluation.
10. Ideology of self-governance– inadequate administrative structure; poor communication; not striking a balance (participatory leadership) between adversarial (authoritarian) and laissez faire (permissive) modes of leadership.

Packard (1973) also raises some problems that can result from inadequate implementation in large-scale change efforts:

1. Standardization — adopting the same procedures throughout the entire school early in the implementation to offset the vastly increased work load and in response to teacher or parent criticisms; too early standardization results in loss of creativity and flexibility.
2. Incorporation — ending the implementation efforts too soon (after 2 years or so) in response to emotional exhaustion, loss of key leadership personnel or lack of motivation. Wolcott (1973) stresses the importance of the period preceding incorporation, which he calls the “intensive half-life” of the innovation, wherein great effort, vast amounts of time and considerable money are expended in getting started. The greatest needs in large-scale change efforts are to sustain implementation supports and to maintain staff continuity.


Toffler argues that as our society shifts away from the industrial model, schools will have to turn out a different kind of person. In the past, most people needed to be punctual, obedient and prepared to do the same thing many times a day. But in our technology-based, information-age society, that kind of worker becomes a hazard to the system. Schools now need to produce people who are inventive and can cope with change. “Children have to learn to start making decisions at an earlier age — decisions which affect both themselves and others — and learn to live with the consequences.”

Children see about 2,000 hours of television before they enter kindergarten. Television teaches them that everything is all right. All problems are solved within 25 or 50 minutes. It is difficult to impress kids with reality when they are so well off, free to say and do what they want and constantly bewitched by the propaganda of the media.

Many contemporary adults are wondering why they are being forced to change their approach with young people. The answer is simply that young people do not relate to the old methods. They really are nothing like we were. Teachers today must make friends with kids, become their mentors and coaches, make an effort to teach them meaningfully, and stop failing them.

Implementing and living with change is a question of openness, risk-orientation, commitment and careful organization. The job is demanding but the stakes are high – involving the very future of the young people we serve. Comprehensive change is needed in our school system and can be accomplished if we orchestrate change systematically, approach students authentically, and heed the advice of earlier generations of school reformers to walk the path of change carefully and patiently.


Charters, W. W. and Pellegrin, R. J. (Winter, 1973). Educational Administration Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1.

Packard, John S. (1973). “Changing To A Multiunit School”, Process of Planned Change in the School’s Instructional Organization. Eugene, Oregon: CASEA, University of Oregon.

Toffler, Alvin. (ed.) (1974). Learning for Tomorrow : The Role of the Future in Education.
New York, NY: Random House.

Wolcott, H. F. (1973). In Differentiated Staffing, Scobey and Fiorino (Eds.), Washington D. C.:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

LEC Forum

LEC Forum