A Principal for Failing Fast

In attempts to erase achievement gaps, transform instruction and invigorate learning communities, we school leaders craft improvement plans with targeted initiatives and specific objectives. But many are familiar with the military adage, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” (Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke) While we are not at war, schools face numerous challenges like limited time, money, and capacity; poverty-related issues; and – perhaps worst of all – satisfaction with the status quo. School improvement plans involve real students, real teachers, and real administrators.

The most effective and simultaneously most disruptive plans are actionable, not abstract. A potentially precarious outcome is that when we make our plans actionable, we also make them testable. As we put ideas into practice and monitor the results, we can see what’s working and what is not. Let’s face it, how often do plans play out exactly as envisioned? How often do the results fall short of our hopes? Facing failure with optimism requires honest data analysis and constructive professional conversations. It requires a willingness to pivot, tweak details or change directions when needed. Most of all, it requires a willingness to fail fast.

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries advocates that successful startups validate their learning through a build-measure-learn loop. There is value in proceeding through that loop as efficiently as possible. In school improvement, the loop might be thought of as plan-act-watch-learn. Likewise with regards to efficiency, if a component of an improvement initiative is not reaching the desired result, there is value in failing fast. Why waste time doing something that isn’t working, especially if a small tweak or slight pivot could make all the difference?

This is a lesson that I’ve learned as we implement our school’s reading comprehension initiative. We identified specific actions that should take place in the classroom, and the lessoncasts modeled the instructional strategies selected to meet the needs of our students. After putting the plan into action, we watched and learned. We quickly saw where we fell short, either in teacher implementation or student learning. There was a moment for swallowing pride, getting over feeling defeated. I asked the teachers, is it better to find out now or at the end of the school year? We came together, collaborated to find solutions, and made adjustments. Now we are making progress and able to see real growth among our students, but we had to be willing to fail fast. After all, our students don’t have time to waste.