School Leaders On Successfully Navigating Change Management

Humans are generally averse to change — it’s just how our brains are wired. We prefer comfort, stability, and longevity. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” my grandpa would say. That poses challenges for those of us trying to innovate in education to ensure that all students are equipped to live lives of fulfillment.

It is indeed a fact that most people have an innate preference for status quo. In fact, when given the option to make a lifestyle choice (diet, exercise, etc.) or live a shortened or more painful life due to disease or illness, only one in nine people choose to make a lifestyle change. That’s a dismal 11 percent of people who are willing to implement a change to avoid death. The vast majority of us — 89 percent — would choose death to escape change.

Our change-averse society makes innovation in education sound like an almost impossible feat. But we, and many others, are not giving up so easy, Here’s why you as educators and advocates shouldn’t either.

Change Management Can Smooth Transitions in Education

Change is why innovation in education is so difficult. The education system has looked like it does now for more than a century. It’s understandable why there can sometimes be uncertainty about what a transformed education system would look like. Parents want to know what their kids are learning what’s necessary for a post-school world. Students want to enjoy the day-today experience of learning. And teachers want to know the work they’re doing in the classroom is positively impacting the lives of their students.

At Summit Public Schools, we believe all students should have the opportunity to live the lives they want to lead. Acting on that belief, we partner with schools across the nation to implement the Summit Learning personalized approach to teaching and learning. Here’s what leaders from Summit Learning schools have to say about leading through change.

ISTE 2017 Summit Learning Sessions Amy Sandoz
Daniel Keith, Director of Instructional Design at Tulia Independent School District (Tulia, TX), asks the panel a question on parent communications.

School Leader Insights on Transforming Your School

At ISTE 2017, an EdTech conference held in San Antonio, Texas this year, the Summit Learning team hosted a session entitled “Navigating the Change Management Process: Your School’s Journey to Personalized Learning.” The session featured a panel of school leaders who have led their schools through implementation of Summit Learning. Panelists gave insights into specific change management strategies they’d recommend for other schools. Facilitated by Director of Summit Learning Amy Sandoz, the panel included:

  • Melanie Wightman, Director of Teaching and Learning, Fairview Park City Schools (Fairview Park, Ohio)
  • Tyler Sussman, Director of Partnerships, Summit Learning Program and former teacher and instructional coach at Summit Public Schools (Redwood City, CA)
  • John Lyons, Principal, Frankfort High School (Frankfort, Kentucky)

The panelists have all worked to implement Summit Learning in their own schools, with diverse student populations in Ohio, California, and Kentucky. The panelists agreed that these three themes make the change management process smoother as schools transition to personalized learning:


Here are some of the top tips from the panelists on how to communicate your vision, the research behind personalized learning, and how the school’s or district’s decision to transform education is fully focused on improving student outcomes.

Connecting Back to Your Vision

Big changes only work when they’re connected to a bigger mission. “With my teachers, I didn’t have to do a lot of selling,” Principal Lyons says. “After Summer Training, they were all on board and behind the vision. In fact, we felt it would be malpractice to not offer Summit Learning to our juniors and seniors. Originally, we had only planned to launch to freshman and sophomores, but we decided at training to do all grade levels.”

Parents, however, can be a different story and need to be engaged in the process as critical partners for student success. Because they can’t always be on-the-ground, sudden shifts can feel unsettling for them. After all, their children’s futures depend on the choices educators make every day. “When something looks different or new, communicate, communicate, communicate,” says Sussman. “After years of learning, we now have a series of steps we follow [for managing change]. First, we are constantly engaging with parents and having them participate in decision-making processes, with meetings before the school year and throughout.”

Sussman also says Summit Public Schools is sensitive to managing change with students. “We have older students sit with new students to help them think through what the learning environment’s going to look like,” he says.

On the topic of over-communicating the vision, Sussman says frequent newsletters keep parents and the community informed. “We send out daily newsletters for the first two weeks of the school year, then weekly, showing pictures of what’s going on in the classroom and highlighting interviews with students,” he says, launching into a list of other communication strategies. “We have morning principal chats for parents to come engage; we have tours; everything you could imagine to make parents feel completely included and a part of the environment.”

Wightman adds, “Once you get into this [process of implementation], you’ll realize how you really haven’t been working from a shared understanding of the urgency of change.” Getting her district aboard its freshly minted “learn differently, care deeply, and aspire to excellence” strategic plan, she says, took a lot of 1:1s with principals, especially, as their leadership within a school is crucial in transitions. Tipping a hat to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2002 book “The Tipping Point,” she advises, “You have to be the Salesman. You have to be the Connector. And you’ve got to be the Maven, the person who knows what’s going on.”

In short, as a leader at the school or district level, it’s your job to engage your community at all levels and help them understand how personalized learning is aligned to their shared vision for student outcomes.   

Connecting Back to Research

When there is doubt as to why change is necessary, point to the research base that supports your approach, Sussman suggests. “Make sure that folks understand this isn’t a shot in the dark. To be honest, we haven’t designed anything new at Summit. Instead, we took the best of education from the past 50 years — all of that research — and built it into a comprehensive program.”

“Working with Summit, you can be sure that you’re putting forth an instructional design that is gold-standard,” Wightman says, noting that a strong research base is crucial in making strategic shifts. “It has built into it the finest and most trustworthy research-proven elements of instructional practice.”

Summit Learning was developed over 15 years at Summit Public Schools’ 11 schools in California and Washington. We combined findings from the most rigorous learning science and what we’ve learned in our own classrooms to build and refine our approach. Today, we share our approach with schools across the nation through the free Summit Learning Program. We continue to improve the Summit Learning approach based on feedback from our community of educators as well as many research partnerships and ongoing R&D.

When fear of change stems from lack of understanding, teach the community about the science that backs the strategy your team has chosen.

Connecting Back to Student Outcomes

The reason for change in education goes back to one thing and one thing only: Students. Public education exists to ensure every student acquires the skills they need to succeed in college, career, and life.

“We are teaching students to be learners. We are teaching them to take responsibility for their education,” says Principal Lyons. “What we tell parents is, ‘The changes we are making are truly for your child, not our test scores.’ We are trying to help them be successful long after they leave us. The cognitive skills we are trying to impart in kids are not just applicable in Science and English. They are life skills that apply outside of the classroom.”

“It was amazing seeing, especially with previously disenfranchised students with historically low academic success, once they got going, the excitement they showed for learning,” says Principal Lyons. “These were students who previously had 50 to 60 detention referrals the previous year. We saw those drop to maybe three or four referrals, those three or four being for tardies.”

For Lyons, the proof is in the pudding. “In one year with Summit Learning, our attendance went up almost 2 percent. It was something that just happened — students wanted to be in school. It has engaged our students, and our teachers are able to have a bigger impact on our kids, beyond being that person who disseminates information in front of the classroom.”

Wightman says that at the end of the first year of implementation at Fairview Park City Schools, the students were the biggest enthusiasts for Summit Learning and personalized learning more generally: “There were no people prouder and more cognizant of what they had accomplished than those students,” she says. “There were choppy waters, yes. But it was absolutely the best cruise I’ve ever taken.”

A Framework for Change Management

Leaders interested in constructing a thorough change management plan should study the “Eight Steps to Transforming Your Organization” framework created by Harvard Business School professor and foremost change management expert John P. Kotter, says panel facilitator Amy Sandoz.

Kotter's 8 Steps for Leading Change
Kotter’s Eight Steps to Transforming Your Organization (Kotter International)

The eight steps, in short, are listed below, but can be studied in more depth via Harvard Business Review:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
  3. Creating a vision
  4. Communicating the vision
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
  8. Institutionalizing new approaches

Sandoz recommends schools consider what areas within the framework they excel at and which areas are relative weak spots. “Brainstorm ways your school can improve on those weak areas,” suggests Sandoz. Summit Public Schools, she says, uses Kotter’s framework to inform its own change management work. “It can help solidify a strategy for some of the blockers you may have already identified.”

What questions do you have about navigating change management when transitioning to a personalized learning environment? Join the conversation with us on Twitter and Facebook.

About the author

Erica Swallow
Erica Swallow is a storyteller at Summit Public Schools, dedicated to sharing informative and inspiring stories from around the Summit Learning community. Erica's thoughts have been published in Forbes, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. A first-generation college student, she believes education is the key to opportunity. Erica holds degrees from New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.