By Stephanie Delaney, Vice President of Instruction at Renton Technical College, and Margo Keys, Administrator Coach at Carnegie Math Pathways and Certified Executive Coach. This blog first appeared on the Carnegie Math Pathways blog and is posted here with permission.

Too often, education initiatives that can drastically improve student outcomes succeed in a contained setting but fail to achieve those same results at scale. A study by Carnegie Math Pathways at WestEd is examining what conditions and support are needed for institutional leaders to implement promising innovations at scale effectively and sustainably.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and launched in 2018, the six-year Scaling Up Through Networked Improvement (SUNI) project is providing leadership coaching to teams in two cohorts of two institutions to scale Carnegie Math Pathways course programs. The resulting evidence from the cases in the project is intended to shed light on effective approaches to implementing reform and change management at higher education institutions more broadly.

Early findings from this study have revealed several factors critical to enacting large-scale change effectively. These findings have practical value to college administrators seeking to scale proven solutions to bolster student success.

Rally support and buy-in from all stakeholder groups to ensure strong implementation

Implementing reform at scale is more likely to happen when key decisionmakers in multiple departments of the campus organization agree that the change is a worthy investment of effort and resources. For institutions participating in the SUNI study, it was clear that significant changes were needed to increase student success rates in developmental math, where many students’ education journeys were being derailed. Learn your department’s pain points and wishlists to develop ambitious but realistic goals that everyone can rally behind.

Develop an implementation plan that defines and guides the scaling effort and helps minimize disruption amid leadership turnover

Documenting shared goals, roles, and responsibilities can help leadership teams understand the scope of the work to be done, how it will get done, and by when. Using an implementation planning tool that project coaches introduced to the teams, institutions developed a guide to define and help steer the implementation of their reform. Inspired by the A3 management process developed by Toyota, this tool helps leaders develop shared goals, measures of success, and a means to communicate those goals and progress towards meeting them.

Since each leadership team created its implementation and scaling guide, the buy-in for the initiative was high. During times of change, such as when leaders transitioned to new positions, this guide has given new leaders a road map of the project, allowing them to quickly orient and keep the initiative on track.

Nurture authentic engagement among your team with strong relationships and mutual trust

Because scaling reform requires buy-in, it’s perhaps not surprising that fostering relationships built on trust and mutual respect is a key aspect of effective scaling. As we saw at one institution, when a key administrative leader consistently honored the contributions and positive impact of his team, it made them more willing and trusting participants in the reforms. Additionally, open and honest communication about the challenges and barriers that they faced along the way, and a willingness to consult with and accept input from colleagues, also helped strengthen support for the scaling effort. Before and throughout undertaking reform, evaluate relationships among your team and explore the resources available to strengthen them, such as professional development and coaching for leadership on team-building.

Ensure quality of communication and coordination between departments to maintain effective implementation

Quality communication that supports transparency and coordination across stakeholders is essential to any reform endeavor. Early in the study, leaders at one institution discovered they were struggling with a lack of clarity about their roles and responsibilities for their reform initiatives, which led to unclear expectations. Through coaching and professional development facilitated by the project, these leaders identified ways to more concretely organize and communicate their needs, roles, and expectations to fulfill their program goals. As you consider embarking on reforms, evaluate the quality of communication among and between departments. What channels are they using, and are these channels effective at keeping your team(s) informed? What steps can be taken to improve the effectiveness of communication and the quality of coordination?

Continuously improve processes to sustain reform efforts

With goals, challenges, and potential solutions subject to change quickly and at any moment, it’s critical to practice continuous improvement to sustain reform. When conditions that impact reform arise, recalibrating with colleagues is crucial not just for delivering the best possible outcome for students, but for keeping teams engaged, proactive, and joyful in their work of serving students. Continuous improvement means the regular evaluation and reevaluation of the considerations described above—maintaining buy-in, refining the implementation plan, nurturing strong relationships, and ensuring effective communication. Build in time to regularly monitor and assess what’s working and what isn’t so that the right improvements can be made at the right time.

In addition to these factors, the research reveals that engaging in coaching and networked learning (collaborative professional learning with peers), and extending these supports to entire leadership teams, is linked to the successful scaling of Carnegie Math Pathways programs. These insights remind organizational leaders that trust, communication, and shared goals are vital for sustaining large-scale reforms and building leadership capacity.

Throughout the next and final year of the study, participating leadership teams will continue to receive coaching and professional development support as they scale their Pathways programs. At the end of the study in 2023, the research team will publish the results to support institutional leaders in scaling ambitious reforms that can drastically improve student outcomes.

To learn more about our findings to date, join our session at the 2022 NISOD International Conference on Teaching and Leadership Excellence. You can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter, In Sum, to stay informed about this work.