Five Reasons Change Is So Hard for Schools – And What Can Make It Easier

The pressures on today’s schools are many, and include accommodating demographic changes in the student population, meeting a greater array of student needs, and ensuring that students are prepared for future success. No matter how well your school is currently meeting these challenges, there is room to improve.

Fortunately, schools have access to a wide range of data to identify gaps between where they are and where they aspire to be. In addition, it is now possible to isolate and label students’ learning needs.
At the same time, problems have more available solutions. Third graders falling behind in reading? We have a dozen programs to tackle that. World history falling flat? We have a new technology-based approach to try. Parent involvement waning? We have a study for teachers and staff to read. Behavior issues? Bullying? Number sense? We have a new curriculum, a book series, real-time professional development, and, dare we say, an iPad app for that.
Regardless of the challenge, there are so-called best practices to choose from, each promising results. But to bring about needed change, it’s important to first make sure schools know how to understand the root problem well enough to apply the needed solution.

Why Is Change So Hard?

Leaders who try to improve their schools have trouble doing so for a variety of reasons. We highlight five below. Note that none of these are about personalities, dispositions, or the personal characteristics of participants. They are all within our control. Overcoming them, however, requires taking a systematic and patient approach to change.
But first, we summarize the reasons change is difficult.

1. Data and knowledge are not the same.

We have lots of data, as noted above, but as Michael Fullan so aptly points out in Leading in a Culture of Change, facts and figures are information, not knowledge. Where do knowledge, insight, and understanding come from? They come from dialogue among knowledgeable professionals, making meaning possible. In fact, dialogue is such a fundamental part of the change equation that Fullan includes knowledge sharing as one of five key elements of leading change.

2. We start with solutions.

Leaders are under tremendous pressure to come up with solutions. More than 40 years ago, decision theorists Michael Cohen, James March, and Johan Olsen immortalized this in their 1972 paper, “A Garbage Can Model of Organizations Choice.” In it, they described observing that decision makers often generate preferred solutions before identifying or analyzing problems.
There is enormous pressure to adopt best practice solutions simply because they are considered hallmarks of effective schools. Problems, solutions, decision making, and choice opportunities flow in and out of the garbage can, so to speak. It can be difficult to understand which solutions address which problems. Indeed, the push to implement best practice solutions has a profound impact on stakeholders’ commitment to change. For example, this quick adoption can leave teachers wondering: What problem are we solving by doing this new program?

3. We address symptoms of problems.

Mix the pressure for answers and actions with an abundance of data identifying gaps between the real and ideal, and you have a recipe for implementing solutions that eliminate the symptoms of problems rather than addressing their underlying causes. As an example, schools may rush to adopt a new program or devote additional time to a subject as a response to poor test results. But upon further consideration, you realize that the results only reveal that a problem may exist; they do not unearth what that problem may be. Test scores represent symptoms, or indicators, of an underlying problem.
In our work, including Using Research to Lead School Improvement: Turning Evidence into Action, we observe that few schools probe the root causes of problems in their decision making and planning processes. In other words, their processes do not answer the question, “Why is there a gap between the real and ideal?”

4. Best practices aren’t.

There are no such things as best practices. To be sure, we know of effective ways to address many daunting and persistent educational challenges. But no practice can be best for all kids, in all schools, taught by all teachers, on any given day. The teaching craft is just too complex for ready-made, out-of-the-box solutions. We need to be able to differentiate change options and give professional educators the chance to apply their decision expertise in real time, to find better ways to meet students’ learning needs.

5. Structural change is easy; cultural change is not.

Organizational cultures emerge as we solve real problems, according to observations by Edgar Schein in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership. The solutions become part of the “way we do things” in our institutions. Culture represents our deeply held assumptions about what is right and proper, so much so that we teach these beliefs and practices to newcomers (e.g., “That’s not how we do that in our school.…”). Everyone enforces the culture.
Hence, while it is relatively easy to change structure, establish a new program, or alter a rule, it is far harder to change people’s beliefs and assumptions and their behaviors. When we face ambiguity in change, we revert back to what we know.

The Importance of Root Cause Analysis

So how can leaders build capacity for change in their schools? The first step is to understand that process matters, as stated in our publication, “Teacher Leadership in Collaborative Teams: The Importance of Process.” A school builds the foundation for change by establishing a process that includes identifying areas of growth potential, laying out reasons for a gap between the real and ideal, outlining supportable solutions, creating action plans, and monitoring implementation.
Each of these elements in the change process is important, but the one that typically gets short shrift which can prove to be a costly omission is Root Cause Analysis (RCA). Such analysis is critical to organizational learning it helps a leader and his or her team understand what’s contributing to the problem.
Simply put, root causes explain why a problem exists in the first place. Symptoms are the visible signs of the problem. Therefore, reducing or eliminating the problem requires first identifying and eliminating its causes.
Leadership teams can gather information about a problem’s causes from several sources:
  • The collective knowledge of faculty and leaders in your school. In an age of big data, we often forget that the folks in our schools are sources of evidence and expertise.
  • The experiences of schools like yours in your region. Networking helps you learn about the nature of persistent problems as well as how other schools approach solutions.
  • The published research. Examining relevant scholarship can help you understand the knowledge base for both causes and solutions.
We present five steps to conduct a Root Cause Analysis in the infographic.
We also offer a particularly poignant example to illustrate why it is so vital to probe root causes. A K8 school’s leadership team we worked with started to notice a decline in retention rates for students transitioning from fifth grade to sixth grade. The ready-made solution the director of admissions suggested was to pay more attention to recruitment and marketing. But instead of jumping to this obvious solution, the team took the time to conduct an RCA.
When the team spoke with teachers, students, and parents and reviewed the relevant research, they discovered a variety of possible causes. From there, we worked with the team to compile a list of those causes and sorted them based on whether the school could influence each cause.
What unexpectedly emerged in this process was the concern among families about a perceived lack of academic rigor in grades 68, as well as increased anxiety about the transition from middle school to high school. This cause rose to the top of the team’s agenda. Had the team jumped to focus on recruitment, no doubt some progress would have been made, but a significant cause would have been largely untreated.

What to Consider About Causes

When your school is evaluating root causes, you need to keep the following in mind.
  • Problems have multiple causes, but not all causes are equally important. Discuss which causes appear most influential, and why.
  • Your school cannot control all causes. An obvious example is characteristics of students’ home lives that affect learning. True, it’s important to understand all causes. However, to be effective and efficient, you need to focus your school’s actions on the causes that you can influence.
  • A lack of something is not a cause. It is a solution in disguise. For example, if your school leaders determined that teachers lack time to provide effective math instruction, they have committed to the solution of providing more time. This might be a legitimate action. However, they have closed themselves off to a more complete investigation by focusing on the lack. A better question might be, “Why do we lack time to provide effective math instruction?”
To create lasting change at your school, it’s imperative to commit the necessary time and resources to uncover the relevant causes of problems. While this process may seem too time-consuming, especially when you’re faced with angry boards or dissatisfied parents, the resulting actions and solutions will be more effective in the long run.
In addition, the knowledge-building that occurs when you probe the deeper “why” questions is extremely valuable in cultivating leadership and teaching capacity in your school. You’ll see the time you spend richly rewarded.


Bauer, Scott C., Michelle Van Lare, S. David Brazer, and Robert Smith. 2015. “Teacher Leadership in Collaborative Teams: The Importance of Process.” In P. Tenuto (ed.),  Renewed Accountability for Access and Excellence: Applying a Model for Democratic Professional Practice in Education (pp. 131-146). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Bauer, Scott C., and S. David Brazer. 2012. Using Research to Lead School Improvement: Turning Evidence into Action. Los Angeles: Sage.
Cohen, Michael, James March, and Johan Olson. 1972. “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 17 (1), 1-25.
Fullan, Michael. 2001. Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Schein, Edgar. 2010. Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Scott Bauer and Anne-Marie Balzano will deliver the NAIS School Leadership Team Experience from July 31-August 4, 2016, in Potomac, Maryland. The immersive learning opportunity is for teams of three to five independent school leaders. It’s hosted by NAIS and the Division of Education Leadership at George Mason.
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Anne-Marie Balzano

Anne-Marie Balzano is a former director of leadership and governance at NAIS.

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Scott Bauer

Scott C. Bauer is professor and director of the Education Leadership Division in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. His research and teaching focus on the development of teacher leaders, the organizational design of schools, the connection of education research to practice, and the preparation of school and district leaders.