Breaking Down Why District Initiatives Break Down

Chad OstrowskiAdministration, Blog, Professional Development

In This Post:

  • The sad truth is, most district initiatives fail.
  • There are common mistakes that are typically to blame for district initiatives failing, and they can be avoided.
  • Start small, plan long-term, involve all stakeholders, provide follow-up, and choose the right provider, and you’ll be off to a better start, with your initiative much more likely to succeed.

We’ve ALL Been There…

No matter where you are in this country, or what district you lead, work, or teach in, chances are you’ve been through at least a few new initiatives. Many times these initiatives are viewed as “just another thing to do” and sadly most of them also…fail.

Working with schools and districts across the country, we have experienced a few common things that can doom any initiative, regardless of its good intentions and potential value. As you think about your next initiative, or new instructional plan, keep these 5 mistakes in mind, as they can quickly hurt your progress, and potentially derail your next plan or initiative rollout.

1. Starting at full scale (100% of staff)

If you want your next district initiative to fail, make every single teacher jump in line and fully implement immediately. This is one of the most common, and most detrimental mistakes we see districts make. While going full scale from day one can quickly get things moving, it has some inherent flaws that will significantly harm both progress and success of the plan.

When you require your entire staff to do anything…yes, ANYTHING, you will almost always have a fidelity breakdown where:

  • 25% try hard to make it work because they see the value;
  • 50% do it simply out of compliance; and
  • 15 – 25% actively fight against the initiative, and may even refuse to implement, or do it with barely any fidelity.

Instead, start small.  Introducing an idea or concept with a smaller pilot group of teachers with voluntary buy-in can help not only improve implementation, but also allow you to have “proof of concept” and reliable data and experiences to reflect on as you scale up in the forthcoming years.

If you want your next district initiative to fail, make every single teacher jump in line and fully implement immediately. Click To Tweet

2. Not Planning Long-Term

I know quick roll-outs are really tempting, but if you aren’t planning for a long-term strategy, chances are that things aren’t going to go well, especially year to year.

We look at district initiatives in phases:

  • Phase 1: Pilot / Introducing Idea
  • Phase 2: Scale-up / Build Capacity
  • Phase 3: Increase Expectations / Build Longevity

Starting slow can help iron out issues as your pilot group finds solutions. You can then scale up and build capacity for your staff to implement at larger scale. Once this is complete, you can increase expectations because the support and capacity exists to do so. Often times these phases are rushed or crammed into a single year (or less) and it creates confusion, stress, and yes…failure of the initiative.

3. Forget to Involve Staff In Process

Even the best plans with the best intentions can go astray when all stakeholders are not involved in the process. Having teachers, coaches, and support staff all involved, so that all levels are represented in decisions, can greatly help how an initiative gets rolled out.

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Many school districts utilize a committee model so that all stakeholders have representation as decisions get made. This can help avoid the feeling of “top down” decision making, which can receive unwanted backlash in any organization. These stakeholders can also help spear-head some of the conversations and implementation process, creating a solid foundation to build on.

4. Don’t Consider Follow-up or Support

If anyone thinks that a single workshop or day of training in August or September is enough to create monumental change, I’m sorry but you’re probably wrong. Follow up, support, and coaching after the training is where success truly occurs. This not only ensures proper implementation of a plan or idea, but it helps prevent teachers from falling back on former practices if things get tough or there are issues. If you are hiring an outside vendor or provider for PD, make sure they offer follow up packages or that you consider this when having your initial discussions.

5. Choose The Wrong Provider / Vendor

If you are bringing in a partner, provider, or vendor to provide training, development, or to help support a new initiative, make sure they are the right fit.

You will want to ask a few questions:

  • Are they providing a pre-packaged plan, or are they listening to your needs and able to customize solutions for you?
  • Do they offer follow up and support after the training?
  • Will you have a single contact point that can support and help throughout the year?
  • Will they respond to issues, concerns, or questions from teachers or the district in a timely manner?
  • Do they have the necessary experience to successfully implement your vision and mission?

All of these are questions that should be easily answered by a professional development provider who is the right fit for your school or district.

So,  there you have it! As you think about your next district initiative make sure you avoid these common mistakes so that you can make the change, and have the success you and your students deserve!


Chad Ostrowski is the co-founder of the Teach Better Team and the creator of The Grid Method, but he is a middle school science teacher at heart. He now travels the country sharing his story, working with teachers, schools, and districts to help them to reach more students.

Top header image photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash.