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Implementation: The RIGHT Investment to Address the COVID-19 Learning Gap

A Call to Action

Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Representative Bobby Scott, told school districts last week to "take the money, use it well, and show us the good job you did so we will be empowered to make the argument that money made a difference." He was referring to federal relief funds to reopen schools for in-person learning. He went on to say that "the achievement gap got worse, and in some areas, it may have gotten a lot worse" and "we need to acknowledge that and find out how bad it got and then show that the money we provided and focused according to the Title I formula made a difference."

This is a call for action. This is a call for action beyond politics and the promise of continued funding or the threat of diminished resources. This is a call for action to demonstrate that we can close the achievement gap. We have before us an opportunity to demonstrate our ability to recognize deficiencies, change previous behaviors and effectively implement what works. Now is the time to reimagine K12 education, turn around our schools, and fill critical gaps in a short period. Our students, parents, and communities are counting on us to impact the learning loss.

Through news and social media, our nation's citizens are acutely aware of the learning gaps the pandemic created for all students and exacerbated for our most at-risk students. There is a call to close those learning gaps as soon as possible. If we continue to do things the way we have always done, the learning gaps will only widen. We will miss an opportunity to show our communities that we know what works and that we have the capacity and competency to make the changes necessary to meet students' needs.

We Know What Works

In the past 25 years, the body of evidence of what works in schools has expanded exponentially. Yet, significant learning gaps remain despite our access to this overwhelming evidence of what works (Hansen et al.); (E. Dorn et al.). We believe the solution is not just what we do but also how we do it. In other words, the quality of implementation will make all the difference in how fast we can close this ever-widening achievement gap. Implementation is the who, what, why, where, when, and how of change. It is where change happens.

For decades, we have been concerned with implementation in schools. Year after year, we witness district and school leaders adopt high-quality innovations to create lasting impact and reform teaching and learning outcomes. Unfortunately, we frequently observe the adopt and abandon cycle so prevalent in education today. Regardless of the knowledge and expertise school systems bring to their implementation efforts, we often notice a disconnect between 'knowing what works' and 'doing what works.' In other words, there’s an implementation gap.

The good news is that the education profession understands the need to adopt evidence-based practices (EBPs) to help meet our learning community's needs and close learning gaps. What we often miss is understanding how adopting evidence-based practices "is one thing, implementation of that practice is another thing altogether" (Fixsen et al., 2009, p 5). Identification of EPBs alone will not create significant outcomes in schools. Getting the results promised from evidence-based practices requires implementation literate leaders, systems, and teams focused on intentional efforts to change practice. Becoming implementation literate increases your learning organization's ability to navigate the most critical variable impacting sustainable change and realized outcomes; that is, implementation. Answering the call to action will take more than purchasing or adopting a new program/strategy or practice. It requires the effective implementation of the selected program/strategy/practice to close the learning gaps our students are currently facing.

Effective Implementation is the Lever for Success in Closing the Achievement Gap

Poorly implemented interventions and evidence-based programs, practices, principles, procedures, policies, and products will not produce expected outcomes. Even evidence-based innovations that are implemented effectively during early efforts tend to lose effectiveness in implementation illiterate organizations. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a world-leading research organization committed to translating research and evidence to practice, articulated it best in their most recent report on effective implementation. "Ultimately, it doesn't matter how great an educational idea or intervention is in principle; what matters is how it manifests itself in the day-to-day work of people in schools" (Sharples et al.). On average, without the support of implementation-literate organizations and implementation teams, it can take up to 17 years to achieve a 14% success rate in using evidence-based practices. The inverse is also true. Systems with implementation teams can achieve an average of 80% success in under three years (Fixsen et al.). An Implementation Team is a group of implementation literate professionals charged with monitoring and supporting implementation fidelity of newly adopted innovations.

There must be a deliberate and focused effort on implementation to achieve the results intended by evidence-based practices and programs. Michael Fullan, an international expert, researcher, and author on organizational change, states that educational change initiatives fail due to implementation neglect (Fullan). Without understanding and applying key implementation concepts, methods, strategies, practices, and research, we run the risk of perpetuating the 'add-on' culture that prevails in most schools. Ultimately, leading to unchanged behaviors and beliefs, unrealized outcomes, innovation abandonment, and the demoralizing perception that we are failing our students.

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded the achievement gaps already evident in race, equity, and economics. It's estimated that the pandemic added three to fourteen months of loss learning to the current achievement gap, making it even more challenging to close the disparities we see in education. It is more important now than ever to accelerate learning through evidence-based approaches (Emma Dorn et al.). It's even more critical to make sure we accelerate, implement, spread, and sustain EBPs with fidelity to close the learning gaps permanently. The only way to do that is to understand and capitalize on the promise of implementation science. We don't have 17 more years to remain implementation illiterate. To achieve the learning outcomes promised by evidence-based programs and practices and realize our vision to build an equitable and robust learning system, we must invest resources into implementation effectiveness and close the implementation gap that persists in most schools today.

For every dollar you spend on an innovation (the new program or practice), plan to spend two to four dollars on implementation and implementation supports. It takes time and resources to implement any innovation right and well. Treat implementation as a process to invest in that involves planning and stages of execution. Invest in the process and time to bring stakeholders together to determine the problem you want to solve. Do this by collecting and analyzing outcome, process, perception, and demographic data. Once you have a clear understanding of the problem and data to back it, then invest in the stakeholder groups' time to identify the most appropriate evidence-based program or practice designed to address the identified problem. By skipping these steps, you run the risk of misidentifying a solution and creating additional mistrust among your stakeholders, not to mention the loss of valuable time and resources. After determining the innovation's fit and feasibility, it's critical to identify the active ingredients (the features, practices, behaviors, and attitudes essential to get intended outcomes) associated with the innovation. Only then is it appropriate to determine readiness and develop a plan for effectively and efficiently supporting the implementation. Supports include but are not limited to professional learning, coaching, monitoring, and materials. Investing in the collaborative development of a comprehensive implementation plan and in the implementation teams' ability to support and monitor innovation integrity, you can close any and all implementation gaps.

By closing implementation gaps of evidence-based innovations, you invest in closing the achievement gaps and outcomes promised by the program or practice. Let Representative Scott's vision to close the achievement gap with the help of federal relief be our call to invest those funds into high-quality, effective implementation. Let's answer the call to action.

Below you will find six IMPACT Habits that can support your implementation success.

Foster Implementation Success: Build IMPACT Habits

Involve Implementers: Involve implementers (teachers) during each stage of implementation* to include their voices and perspectives into planning, support, and decision-making.

Mind Capacity to Implement: Identify evidence-based practices designed to fit the problem you want to solve and be mindful of your organizational capacity and readiness to implement them well and right.

Professional Learning and Support: Develop opportunities for implementers to learn the why, what, and how of the new innovation and provide ongoing & job-embedded support to increase implementation integrity and remove barriers associated with the active ingredients.

Account for Culture and Context: Make intelligent adaptations that best meet the needs of your culture, climate, and context, but only after the core active ingredients are implemented well and right.

Clearly Detail the Change: Clearly and concisely define the change behaviors and active ingredients associated with the innovation so that implementers understand the innovation's core requirements.

Take Time to Team: Build leadership capacity and problem solve implementation barriers through implementation teams.

To learn more about building your implementation literacy and build implementation plans that work. Please contact us at


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