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How to Enable Transformational Change in K-12 School Districts Through a "Do Now, Build Toward" Approach

In this historic moment of uncertainty, exhaustion, and desire for "normalcy," how can leaders enable transformative change that makes a real difference for the most marginalized communities they serve?

Our answer: Take small steps now, grounded in data and research, that address critical needs and build toward an inspiring, bold vision.

Its not easy, but it is possible—if we can allow for innovation, inclusive learning, and trust in ourselves and our communities.

Our “Do Now, Build Toward” (DNBT) approach builds on research around change management, innovation in times of crisis, harnessing complexity, continuous improvement, and designing for equity. It incorporates practical limitations and uses a community-driven, iterative framework that starts with strategic, doable steps and leads to sustainable transformation.[*] We're using this process to navigate transformation in K-12 school districts—particularly with ESSER spending—but leaders can apply this approach anywhere that needs bold change.

How To Use the "Do Now, Build Toward" (DNBT) Approach

The DNBT process isn't a step-by-step plan with a start and an end. It's both a mindset and a method of problem-solving, iterating, and driving innovation that leads to better outcomes.

A bold DNBT vision highlights doable steps that address urgent needs. The framework starts with two key pieces: acknowledging the tensions and challenges of the current moment and developing a bold vision.

The next phase might look different depending on your context. Each of these steps influences another, so leaders might cycle through this section multiple times before they feel equipped to move onto the final principle of this framework.

The DNBT framework "ends" with iterative cycles of learning and measurement, which is critical for the sustainability of this work. In order to see continued success, leaders must adapt these strategies over time, based on meaningful community input and reliable data on effectiveness. In fact, the most successful leaders deliberately incorporate the middle steps of the cycle into their learning and measurement process—and then regroup to ensure that the vision still feels like a sustainable reflection of the community's long-term end state. Leaders should continually integrate the DNBT approach into all strategic planning processes—because this work doesn’t end until the vision becomes a reality.

Transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It happens through research-backed strategies, deep community engagement, and a commitment to learning, measuring, and improving over time. “Do Now, Build Toward” offers a sustainable approach to transformation that addresses critical needs, while laying the groundwork for a bolder, better future.

The DNBT Approach

This first section helps ground leaders in the current context and the target end state.

Acknowledge the uncertainty, urgency, and exhaustionbe real.

Start by grounding this work in the context of the current state. Build trust by acknowledging the exhaustion of today’s world; understanding everyone’s needs and urgency; and recognizing the impact of uncertainty.

By explicitly connecting to stress, burnout, and other emotions, we develop different designs and supports that are achievable in the current moment. We can encourage new ways of working that begin where people are, address critical needs, and size the work accordingly.

Guiding question: What uncertainty, exhaustion, and urgent needs are your stakeholders facing?  

Build toward community-owned, bold, inspiring vision.

A strong vision acts as a North Star for all “Build Toward” steps, providing the “why” for our short-term actions and investments, as well as inspiring everyone to move forward with change that can sometimes be difficult. Adding short-term solutions on top of the “old ways” of doing things rarely brings long-term change. Instead, designing solutions with a larger vision in mind leads to different—often better—choices and investments.

It’s critical that the community shares this vision because a community-owned vision will be far more impactful than one developed in a silo. As a first step, reach out to those most impacted by transformation and those who may not have as much of a platform to share feedback. This isn’t a box-ticking exercise to secure buy-in; rather, it must be borne out of a genuine desire to gather community input.

The best visions also include sufficient specificity—to ensure all stakeholders are clear on the direction—as well as adequate flexibility to adjust along the way based on learnings and changing conditions

Guiding questions: What are we building toward that feels bold yet doable? What specifics do we need to be clear on? What do we want to leave flexible? 

This next section includes intersecting, overlapping steps to help leaders learn and focus on the high-impact starting points for system-wide transformation. These steps will be imperfect, but they will lead to deep learning for growth and improvement.

Pick research-backed catalytic entry points that leverage data to address urgent challenges and initiate system-wide change.

Catalytic entry points are cohesive strategies built from research on what works. A catalytic entry point is actionable in the near-term and stimulates meaningful long-term change up and down the system. It’s not just a pilot or an isolated innovation—it’s an intentional step forward to catalyze long-term change.

As an example, here are some criteria we’ve used to identify strong entry points in our work to transform K-12 schools and systems. A strong entry point should: 

  • Address felt needs and pain points right now.
  • Build toward a fundamentally improved student and teacher experience.
  • Build new skills and mindsets at all levels in support of the vision.
  • Motivate, enable, and force change in all other critical areas.
  • Tackle underlying cost structures to enable long-term sustainability.
  • Require fundamental change at the system and school level that enables lasting impact.

The different contexts that leaders bring into this work will guide them to different catalytic entry points. But regardless of where you start, you should always have a long-term view toward sustainability.

Guiding questions: What entry point(s) feel right to start from? Why? 

Define guardrails—based on research—that guide new design solutions.

Defining guardrails can help narrow the set of strategies on the table, both for the catalytic entry points and the innovation design.

Guardrails establish must-haves:

  • What does the work need to accomplish?
  • What are the required parts of the solution? What parts are flexible?

Guardrails also elevate constraints:

  • What staff can or should we deploy?
  • What is our budget?
  • What is palatable/politically viable?

Guiding question: What are the must-haves and constraints that should guide your decisions? 

Engage those closest to the problemoften centering marginalized communities.

Authentically and continually engaging and centering stakeholders who are closest to the problem is critical to the DNBT approach. Draw on the assets/expertise held by those closest to the problem, and use that input to inform every step of the process. Remember that “buy-in” is the by-product of authentic engagement—not the purpose of this exercise.

Think through the primary goals of this stakeholder engagement. Where are you in the process? Where do you need input? Are you trying to learn about a problem, co-design a solution, or just validate your approach? 

Whose voices are often loudest? Whose perspective might be missing?

Guiding questions: Who are your stakeholders? How will you engage them? With what objectives? 

Define learning questions.

Perfection isn’t always possible right away—even if you have a crystal-clear vision, strong catalytic entry points, and consistent community engagement. That’s why it’s important to figure out what you can learn from your starting points and to connect disparate initiatives that address pieces of the overarching challenge.

This step can happen either while you select your catalytic levers or directly after. Consider centering your learning questions on the aspects of catalytic lever design that are the most challenging, expensive, contentious, or uncertain.

Guiding question: What are the most important things to learn from the “Do Now” implementation to continue Building Toward your vision? 

Plan spending for long-term sustainability.

One-time federal stimulus funds, like ESSER, are critical resources in meeting urgent needs. But short-term investments are often not enough to generate meaningful, long-term change. That’s why leaders need to begin planning and investing for sustainability—so they can continue making progress toward the ultimate “Build Toward” vision for years to come.

Here are four ways that leaders can plan for sustainability in K-12 school systems:

  • Size the full cost of implementing strategies over time.
  • Integrate all funding sources and stretch the window for investment.
  • Invest in building bridges to new ways of organizing.
  • Plan out how spending and organization will need to shift to sustain critical investments over time.

Example: How planning for sustainability could look in a school district.

Read the brief to learn more about planning for sustainability in K-12 school systems.

Guiding questions: What are the full costs associated with implementing a strategy well? What funding sources are available? What are possible shifts to existing cost structures that would make implementation sustainable?

This last piece enables leaders to continuously adapt and innovate to best meet the needs of their community—and build toward their ultimate end-state vision.

Organize iterative, practical learning and measurement cycles to progress sustainably toward the ultimate “Build Toward” vision.

Derived from the continuous improvement model, crafting practical learning cycles provides a feedback loop to inform the overall strategy.

Through learning and measurement, leaders can answer:

  • How well are we implementing our planned approach?
  • What early indicators can help us understand what’s working and what isn’t?
  • What are our outcomes?
  • What changes can we make?

Continuous improvement cycles require resource investment, but they’re critical to establish early in the initial “Do Now” process. The information gleaned from this work, paired with community engagement, can equip leaders to adapt their strategies based on their experience and improve outcomes that align with the overarching vision. Transformative change only comes with consistent improvement over time—so whatever your findings are, make sure to bring them back into the middle steps of this approach to figure out how to implement changes that lead to better outcomes.

Guiding questions: What will be most important to measure? Whose input must be included in this ongoing measurement?  How and with what frequency should we collect input? 

* Acknowledgements: We have deep appreciation for the many amazing scholars and leaders who we’ve worked directly with and whose work has informed this “Do Now, Build Toward” framework. In collaboration with Rachel Curtis and Aspen Urban Superintendent’s network, we’ve discussed elements of this framework and applied it in this moment of K-12 recovery and redesign. Jennifer O’Day’s scholarship focusing on system change has largely informed this work and helped us understand more about harnessing complexity. We’ve also drawn on the work of Marcia Blenko, ERS board member and expert in organizational change and growth and Advisory Partner at Bain & Company. We’re grateful for all the school system leaders who have engaged with and will continue to help us refine these ideas along the way.

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